Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #194. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print, September 3, 2023

Student success. Everybody wants it. But … what is it, what fosters it, how do you measure it?

Alas, giving tests and reporting scores. This has the allure of concreteness. Scores on tests are “facts” that exert a gravitational pull on public attention. And they distract from what really matters.

On Aug. 15 I learned a lot from someone who is as well-equipped as anyone alive to talk about what really matters.

Dr. Michael Rodriguez, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, heads a research group that is exploring the role of the social and cultural contexts of learning and positive youth development. He currently chairs the Technical Advisory Group of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and is a member of the Design and Analysis Committee of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Worth paying attention to.

His topic: “Sharing Insights, Informing Practice: Understanding Minnesota Student Survey Results.” The event, hosted by St. Cloud State University, was sponsored by United Way of Central Minnesota Partner for Student Success, which has worked with Dr. Rodriguez since 2016. UWCM-PFSS is credited by him with helping the St. Cloud Area, Sauk Rapids-Rice, and Sartell-St. Stephen School Districts be among state leaders in showing what school-wide and community-wide collective impact looks like.

The Minnesota Student Survey (MSS), one of the longest-running youth surveys in the nation (it began in 1989), is administered every three years to students in grades five, eight, nine and 11. It is a collaboration between local schools and four state agencies: the Minnesota Departments of Education, Health, Human Services, and Public Safety.

Right there is a key to the survey’s significance: education is not in a stand-alone silo. Health, human services and public safety affect learning, and especially readiness to learn.

The survey, voluntary and anonymous (but widely used; 70 percent of districts participated in 2022), asks students about their activities, opinions, behaviors, and experiences. There are questions on school climate, bullying, out-of-school activities, healthy eating, emotional health, substance use, and connections with school and family.

Students’ responses to the survey give evidence of their social and emotional assets and challenges. This is, of course, a red flag to detractors of public education, who consider anything other than strict academics to be a plot to brainwash children. But Dr. Rodriguez has evidence — real facts — to demonstrate that well-developed social and emotional skills equip students for learning.

That’s his key message, grounded in research by the Search Institute and others and by his team’s thorough analysis of the data: what does the survey tell us about what actually works?

There are assumptions, as in any research. What you find is determined, in part, by what you suppose about your subject. Dr. Rodriguez believes that youth have an inherent capacity for positive development that is enabled and enhanced through multiple meaningful relationships, contexts, and environments. Community is the critical delivery system, and youth are major actors in their own development. Inherent capacity and major actors — a test of a community’s commitment to education is how it helps, through relationships, those actors maximize that inherent capacity.

Dr. Rodriguez outlined developmental skills:

  • commitment to learning— including “being a student is an important part of who I am”;
  • positive identity and outlook— including “I feel good about myself, and deal well with disappointment and life’s challenges”;
  • social competence— including “I plan ahead and make good choices, accept differences in others, and recognize others’ needs and feelings.”

He then outlined developmental supports that undergird those skills:

  • empowerment— including “I have a sense of safety at home, at school, and in the neighborhood, and feel valued and appreciated”;
  • family/community support— including “I feel cared for by parents, other adult relatives, friends, and other adults in the community”;
  • teacher/school support— including “school rules are fair, and teachers care about students, and teachers are interested in me as a person.”

Here is what he finds in the data — with scientific caution he notes that it’s correlation, not provable cause-and-effect, but I agree with him that the correlation is mighty persuasive: Students equipped in developmental skills and supports report higher school grades, are more likely to have aspirations to go to college, and have higher participation in afterschool activities. Further, they are bullied less, engage in less bullying, are less likely to skip school or engage in substance abuse, and experience less mental distress. And the more skills and supports, the more positive the results.

UWCM-PFSS aligns the best that many sectors of our community can offer to increase opportunities for all youth —in and out of the classroom — to meet the challenges of young adulthood. To adapt the code of the Mandalorians in the Star Wars franchise, the Minnesota Student Survey confirms that “This is the Way.”