‘Tough truths’ and a ‘cultural change’ for public schools


School Board considers major shift in strategy ahead of Dec. 11 vote

On Nov. 6 — 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 it sets a lofty goal 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.

During a mid-November conversation with Bridge staff, reporters and editorial board members, Superintendent Bill Green characterized the need for reform as a “cultural change” for schools and the district as a whole — an idea that several School Board members shared at the Nov. 6 meeting, at which the strategic planning draft and recommendations were first presented.

The presentation was led by Jill Stever-Zeitlin of McKinsey and Co., the consultant for the strategic planning process that has donated its services to Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) since June. The nine recommendations include:

• “restarting” the lowest-performing schools (approximately 10–15 schools);

• raising academic rigor and expectations for students in all schools;

• developing the principal and teacher corps and giving them the tools and support to ensure their success;

• setting clear expectations for all staff;

• removing underperforming teachers and principals;

• transforming relationships with families; and

• stabilizing the district’s financial situation.

The recommendations come with what the presentation labeled “tough truths,” including the fact that less than half of MPS students are meeting Minnesota state standards in reading and math, many MPS students who go on to college need remedial instruction, enrollment is down dramatically and that the district is facing a $100 million deficit.

McKinsey representatives explained at the meeting that reaching those goals would require major changes in the way the school district and individual schools operate. The School Board is expected to vote at its Dec. 11 meeting on elements of the plan.

In the meantime, in mid-November, MPS began presenting the draft strategic plan and recommendations to community members and school staff. A Nov. 15 meeting of “Area B” schools (which includes most of those in The Bridge’s coverage area) drew dozens of parents, teachers, district staff and community members to hear a similar presentation by McKinsey representatives and School Board members Pam Costain and Tom Madden.

The final hour of the meeting was devoted to answering the many questions posed by audience members, including the following:

How can the district move forward if it doesn’t know what money will be available to implement the recommendations?

Costain said that, although the district doesn’t know what money will be available from the state or other sources, it must move ahead anyway and begin to build a consensus and a plan for what needs to be done to fix the Minneapolis schools. She emphasized that School Board members have been meeting with leaders from the city, the county and the state, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and that there is strong support for the strategic plan recommendations.

(In his conversation at The Bridge offices, Green identified to two major MPS funding burdens that must be addressed at the state level before the district can overcome its $100 million projected shortfall — a $31 million, unfunded special education mandate; and the requirement that the district provide transportation services to Minneapolis children attending nonpublic schools.)

What would it mean to restart or replace under-performing schools?

According to Madden, it could mean having such schools partner with high-quality charter schools or become teacher- or parent-organized schools. Costain added that teachers could make a bid to take over an underperforming school.

What will be the response of the teachers’ unions to the recommendations to “restart” the bottom 25 percent of schools, to give principals the power to form their own teaching teams and to get rid of underperforming teachers?

Costain said the recommendations clearly pointed to the need for changes in the MPS teachers’ contract, which she called a “very controversial issue.”

What will these recommendations mean for the role of seniority in placing and retaining Minneapolis teachers?

Costain said that under the current contract, “teachers are in charge of where they are placed . . . [W]e think that is no longer the way to run the district.” She said the recommendations show that individual schools need to be able to create teacher teams that are based on the specific needs of the students in the school, and that seniority can no longer be the sole determinant of which teachers teach in each school.

How can schools be improved that have a large population of students living in poverty?

Madden acknowledged the challenges those schools faced, but he pointed to examples of public schools in other cities, such as Boston and Chicago, and charter schools, such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, that have been successful in raising the achievement of poor students and students of color. “There are schools that are making it work and, in general, we aren’t,” he said.

What is the relationship between the strategic plan and the current high school reform plan?

According to Costain, the high school reform plan has the same underlying spirit and goals but is fundamentally a different initiative. Madden said the goal of the high school reform plan is to take the strengths of the popular programs at South, Southwest and Henry high schools and expand them to all seven of the Minneapolis high schools.

The presentation — available online at www.mpls.k12.mn.us —concludes 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.”

Though there was some disagreement on the merit and scale of the recommendations, School Board directors seemed to agree that a major shift is needed to improve schools.

“I really like the goal of ‘every child college ready,’” said School Board Director Lydia Lee at the Nov. 6 meeting. “I think it’s an aspiration that is very tough to hear because we are very far away from it. 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.”

See our Other recent online schools coverage:

Strategic planning

High school reform