Minneapolis school district poised to make dramatic shift in strategy


On a night when many Minnesotans were voting on referenda to fund their respective schools districts, directors on the Minneapolis Board of Education (School Board) were considering a set of recommendations that, if adopted, would constitute a major reform of how the city’s public schools work.

The nine-point plan is the fruit of a six-month strategic planning process with an objective that may seem obvious – to “ensure that every student in Minneapolis can get an excellent education” – but sets some lofty goals for the district: make every child “college ready.”

That goal, according to the draft plan, includes, by 2012, having 80 percent of students score “proficient or higher” in math and reading and at the “threshold” of college entrance exams, as well as reducing the race and achievement gap by 75 percent.

“I really like the goal of ‘every child college ready,’ and I think it’s an aspiration that is very tough to hear, because we are very far away from it,” said Director Lydia Lee of the goals set by the strategic plan. “But I think it is an important thing to hear, because if we as a community – teachers, principals, [administrative staff], board… really said that was our goal, we would transform this city.”

Jill Stever-Zeitlin, principal with McKinsey and Company, presented the fresh draft of recommendations to the School Board and about 50 others at the Nov. 6 special discussion at MPS administrative offices in Northeast Minneapolis. McKinsey and Company have donated their services for free to oversee the process, which involved a strategic advisory group composed of teachers, principals, parents, district staff, and representatives from business and civic organizations, as well as public meetings, focus groups and surveys sent to 40,000 families with children either in or formerly attending MPS schools.

The School Board took no official action on the recommendations, but each director weighed in on the merits and prospect of achieving the nine recommendations. What follows is a rundown of the nine points presented; watch for further coverage of the MPS strategic planning process – including reactions from the School Board, teachers, administrators and the public – online and in our December print edition. To view the full presentation and learn more about the process, visit the MPS website.

A series of public meetings on the topic has been set over the next few weeks. The meeting for “Area B,” which includes schools in The Bridge’s coverage area, will take place at Dowling School, 3900 West River Pkwy, on Nov. 15, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

The recommendations

One – Restart and/or bring in other high quality schools to replace the bottom 25 percent; unleash high-performing schools.

The district would create an “Office of New Schools” to launch sponsored charters, self-governed schools, and internal restart models to improve the performance of the bottom quarter of Minneapolis’ schools. Enhancements at “re-started” schools could include all-day Kindergarten, a pre-K program or partnership, a longer school day or year and/or more staffing. The plan calls for the restart or replacement of 15 schools in the next five years, using a phase-in process, rather than total conversion.

By contrast, the highest-performing schools would be given more autonomy to do “more of what works.” All schools would still be held accountable to meet achievement goals.

Two – Raise expectations and academic rigor for all students, aligning pre-K-12 programs to college readiness goal.

This includes the goal of having 50 percent of high-poverty students and 50 percent of students of color in 11th and 12th grade enrolled in one international baccalaureate (IB) or advanced placement (AP) class.

Three – develop a “principal corps” and give principals the power, training and support to lead great instructional teams.

The recommendation states that principals are second only to teachers in driving achievement. It imagines a district where principals are “instructional leaders, not building managers” that they should spend 80 percent of their time on instruction by 2009, rather than a majority on administration. To help in this goal, MPS could hire school administrator managers (SAM). Principals could be evaluated and removed if found to be underperforming. Principals could also have more autonomy in choosing their teams, but would be held accountable for results. The benchmark for success is high; the plan recommends that principals be considered “highly effective” by 90 percent of teachers and parents alike.

Four – Develop teachers as leaders and give them tools and supports to get excellent results.

The recommendation states that teachers are the most important aspect for student achievement. The plan recommends shifting training dollars from “professional development” to in-class coaching, and to create common planning time for teachers to collaborate and share best practices. It recommends better support for behavior and instructional strategies like English Language Learners (ELL) and Special Education, as well as the “selective” reduction of class size. (While McKinsey’s research found only minor connection between class size and performance, many – especially teachers – have called it the greatest obstacle to overcome, reported Stever-Zeitlin.)

Like schools and principals, underperforming teachers could be replaced.

Five – Set clear expectations for all staff at all levels; reward successes and develop or remove low performers.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” states the recommendation, and MPS cannot meet its goals with low performers. This recommendation calls for “simple, aligned scorecards at every level,” and for scorecards of schools and the district itself be published. McKinsey’s presentation showed an example scorecard from the New York City Department of Education that measured the school in areas of environment, student performance and student progress. Extra credit could be given for closing the school’s achievement gap, said which Stever-Zeitlin, and those factors contribute to one grade, clearly marked like on a report card.

Expectations for staff and teachers could be measured by peer review “360 feedback,” and the recommendation sets benchmarks and timelines for staff achievement:
by 2008, 09 percent of MPS know what is expected of them;
by 2009, 90 percent of teachers and principals agree that district administrative staff at headquarters “supports them effectively”;
by 2010, 90 percent of teachers agree that their principal is an effective leader;
and, also by 2010, 90 percent of principals say their teachers are effective or have potential.

Six – Transform relationships and partner with families.

The report states that family involvement is essential to the success of MPS schools and recommends that district staff be “culturally competent” in working with families of all backgrounds, that it increase family connectedness and the transparency of its operations to build trust and loyalty from parents through “good experiences when it matters most.” This means parents feel comfortable talking to teachers or them principal; feel welcome when they visit and are satisfied with their connection and communication with their child’s school.

Seven: Correct and stabilize the district’s financial situation.

A nearly $100 million shortfall projected over the next four years makes the “aggressive academic improvement goal” an even taller order. The plan recommends manage areas of high cost, such as health insurance and “reprioritizing spending.” It also recommends seeking reimbursement for unfunded mandates such as special education funding and subsidies of non-MPS student services like transportation.

The recommendation envisions a balanced budget with no forecasted deficit by 2008 and publicly available, clear financial reports by 2009.

Eight: Commit to supporting a network of great schools for all Minneapolis kids.

The report recommends that MPS “adopt a new mindset” towards competition (such as charter and private schools) and partner with those of “high quality” by sharing practices, services and facilities, where appropriate. This would “level the playing field,” states the report, and help families understand the choices they have.

Nine: Build widespread support for change.

This final recommendation looks at what the surrounding community can do to support Minneapolis schools, including businesses and foundations; city, county and state governments and higher education institutions. Initiatives could range from partnership to aggressive lobbying for improved funding or better higher education training of “urban school” teachers.

The presentation concluded with an acknowledgement that the plan is ambitious, but “doable.” “Real reform will require sustained commitment over multiple years,” states McKinsey in the report, which admits that “not everyone will be happy.”

“Principals and teachers alone can’t reform our schools, and neither can parents or district staff,” stated School Board Chair Pam Costain in a news release after the Nov. 6 meeting . “This report clearly communicates what we know to be true, that this is an all-hands-on-deck imperative, beginning with a board that is passionate about setting a new course for K-12 public education in Minneapolis .”

The three upcoming community meetings are as follows:

Area A – Location TBD
Dec. 3, from 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Area B – Dowling School
3900 W. River Parkway
Nov. 15, from 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Area C – Jefferson School
1200 W. 26th St .
Nov. 26, from 6-8 p.m.