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Our Opinion: Minnesota 4th graders No. 1

Next time you see a pundit on TV bemoaning America’s failing education system, turn the channel.

The Minnesota public education system is doing just fine.

Want proof? Minnesota fourth-grade students outperformed every other state in math on the recently released 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress — sometimes called “the Nation’s Report Card.”

That’s right — those kids are No. 1.

 The state also saw the highest scores for both fourth- and eighth-grade students in math and reading since Minnesota first started being measured by the nation’s report card in the early 1990s.

According to Brenda Cassellius, who leads the state’s Education Department, Minnesota fourth-grade students posted the 10th best scores for reading in the nation, up from 22nd in 2011 when the NAEP was last released.

It’s also important to note that gaps between white students and African American and Hispanic students have closed by 10 test points. That’s a roughly 25 percent improvement since 2009.

Unfortunately, the achievement gap between Indian and non-native student graduation rates is alive and well in Minnesota.

Native students finish high school at half the rate of others, putting Minnesota dead last of the fifty states in their graduation rate.

While some districts in the area, including Detroit Lakes, have made great strides, the statewide problem is so great that “a call to action” has been issued by Dennis Olson, the new director of Indian education at the Minnesota Department of Education.

But as a whole, Minnesota students performed above the national average in every subject.

Minnesota’s eighth grade students are still above the national average, but didn’t show as much progress as the fourth-graders. Some of this can be attributed to years of borrowing from schools, deep cuts, and large class sizes, Cassellius says.

 The success Minnesota is seeing with its fourth grade students came from a strong focus and belief in investing early and ensuring all kids have a promising start.

Several state initiatives have helped, including its $45 million dollar Race to the Top grant, its “Read Well by Third Grade” law, and its partnership with The Minnesota Reading Corps.

 This year, state leaders laid the groundwork for future academic success by putting state dollars behind Pre-K, full-day kindergarten and special education.

The state’s longstanding I.O.U. to public schools, also known as the school payment shift, will also be paid off in full, if budget forecasts stay on track.

The secret of success in education, Cassellius says, “must begin in the schools by observing and sharing successful practices, engaging with educators and investing in efforts that are proven to be effective. We have to trust that our teachers and administrators want the best for their students and if given the right tools, they will help every single child excel.”

That’s exactly right.

A culture of collaboration has been at the center of educational work over the past three years, and it’s starting to pay off with more state funding and improved learning — as shown by top marks on the nation’s report card.