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Working in the achievement gap

A new endowed chair in CEHD will lead the U’s efforts

Michael Rodriguez
Michael Rodriguez

Minnesota, long known of its high quality educational system from kindergarten through college, now has one of the nation’s widest achievement gaps—the term used to describe the difference in academic performance between groups by ethnicity. It’s a problem that spells trouble for the state’s future, from the employment, health, and wellbeing of individuals to projected workforce retention, tax base, quality of life, reputation, and the resilience of almost every facet of society.

The question is not whether anything is being done about the achievement gap. A lot is being done—so much, and in so many places, by so many organizations, that the first question is how to identify efforts and how to tell what is working.

At President Eric Kaler’s inauguration in 2011, he pledged that the University would tackle the state’s distressing achievement gap. After a series of listening sessions on campus and consultations in the community, the president designated the College of Education and Human Development to lead the University’s efforts to close the gap.

Enter Michael Rodriguez, an associate professor of educational psychology who specializes in measurement. His area of expertise, psychometrics, is a small field, while the demand for it—especially in education—is huge.

Work in progress

New Campbell Chair Michael Rodriguez is leading an audit of activities already in progress aimed at closing the achievement gap, beginning with CEHD and then branching out across the campus and beyond.

Work on five key topics, for example, will be highlighted in a series of policy breakfasts beginning this spring: school leadership, reading and literacy, math and science education, preparing the next generation of teachers, and early childhood education.

In February, the Institute of Child Development hosted a symposium on research related specifically to closing the achievement gap. Topics ranged from toxic stress to language acquisition in infants.

CEHD is the home of the Institute on Community Integration, a collegewide center and established national resource for bringing disabilities-related research into practice. One of the most well-known tools is Check & Connect, a dropout-reduction practice developed for students with disabilities that is now being adopted to serve all students.

This year, CEHD became the new home of the University’s Ramp-up to Readiness program that works with schools to prepare students for college, and President Kaler is co-chairing the Generation Next partnership.

Parents and families have a primary place in closing the achievement gap. Faculty and staff in family social science, social work, the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED), and other departments and centers are engaged in a range of efforts with community partners, such as the Family Academy with the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis and Project ADAPT in communities around Minnesota.

Many more examples can be found in CEHD Research and Outreach.

In January, Rodriguez was appointed to a new position devoted to addressing the achievement gap—the Campbell Leadership Chair in Education and Human Development. In his new role, Rodriguez will support ongoing work to reduce the gap, expand U-wide collaboration, and advise President Kaler on the best ways to improve educational access and success.

“People use ‘achievement gap’ as an umbrella term,” says Rodriguez, “recognizing that there are many gaps—resources, access, professional development, teaching, ethnic, gender, language.” There is even a gap in the belief that things can change.

Rodriguez is not deterred by vast quantities of complex data. All those numbers give him energy.

“We lack good information about what kids can and can’t do,” says Rodriguez. “Unless you have good information to make useful decisions, more money isn’t going to necessarily help.”

Rodriguez has worked in classrooms with teachers to improve assessment practices, with states to make tests more accessible, and with nations like Guatemala to develop their educational measurement systems. He has become a familiar face in Minnesota’s largest school district offices as well as rural districts with large immigrant populations, such as Long Prairie. In the process, he has come face to face with some shocking statistics.

MN students proficiency test results
Averaged across grades test with state accountability tests given in grades 3-8, 11 (reading), and 12 (math). Source: Minnesota Department of Education

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area presents a unique environment in which to make significant progress. Many of the school districts where the gap is largest are located within a 20-mile radius of the Twin Cities campus. CEHD now has working partnerships in place in many of them through such initiatives as the Teacher Education Redesign Initiative (TERI) and the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI).

While Rodriguez’s ongoing work has already placed him in the midst of gap-related efforts, so does the work of many others on the college faculty. When prompted to consider the chair, Rodriguez thought long and hard. In the end, he became convinced his background was a good match for tackling the problem at this point in time.

“We need to understand the scope, breadth, and depth of what we do,” he says. “I want to do this in a way that makes it manageable.”

To succeed, Rodriguez will have to apply all the knowledge, skills, and resources he can muster. His first role is networking. Beginning with CEHD and then branching out across the campus and beyond, he will lead an audit of activities aimed at closing the achievement gap (see sidebar, right, for just a few of them). Providing coordination will become more important as the work develops.

Building a culture of evidence

Rodriguez is known for his energy, enthusiasm, creative ideas, and his proven ability to network and form partnerships. In his new role, he will draw upon all of that and a lifetime of Minnesota experience. He’s a fifth-generation Minnesotan raised in St. Paul, with family ties in Osakis. After graduating from high school in Woodbury, he majored in psychology at the University of Minnesota-Morris, then prepared to teach elementary school. Instead, he finished a master’s in public policy with the late John Brandl, legislator and civic leader, as his adviser, and went to work for the Wilder Foundation.

By the time Rodriguez decided to pursue a doctorate, he knew that the University’s top-ranked Department of Educational Psychology was where he wanted to work one day. He left the state to draw from the perspectives and strengths of another leading program at Michigan State University before returning to win his dream job in Minnesota. Today he is one of only two educational measurement faculty in Minnesota, teaching in the only doctoral program in the world that includes statistics education.

“John Brandl said, ‘What we know doesn’t always inform what we do, and we have to fix that,’” Rodriguez says. “Every course I teach has that component—improved measurement for improved decision making. What I hope to do in the Campbell Chair is to keep building a culture of evidence.”

Read more about Michael Rodriguez and the Campbell Chair.

Learn more about the achievement gap in Minnesota and statewide efforts to address it through the Minnesota Achievement Gap Committee.

Story by Gayla Marty | Photo by Greg Helgeson | Spring 2013

This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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