MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Minneapolis education accountability to start at the top

Talk about pay for performance. Minneapolis’ top educator is about to sign a contract spelling out, in meticulous detail, exactly what progress her 32,000 pupils (and their grownup instructors) need to display if she is to keep her job.

When the Minneapolis School Board meets tonight, it is likely to approve a series of performance benchmarks for Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. So far as district brass know, the side agreement to the new super’s contract would be the first accountability clause in Minnesota history. 

“What gets measured gets done,” said Board Chair Tom Madden. “Bernadeia knows that and the board knows that.”

Johnson will be evaluated on the district’s academic progress, on the implementation of four district-wide projects and on her ability to strengthen Minneapolis Public Schools internal and external relationships. If she makes all of the goals, she’s in line for a $30,000 bonus.

(If that sounds like a lot, it’s far less than the cushy benefits packages, golden parachutes and other perks big city superintendents often enjoy. In another departure, Johnson will even be paying her own health-insurance premiums. Granted, that won’t sting too badly, given her $190,000 base salary.)

Half of Johnson’s potential bonus hinges on MPS showing academic gains and making progress closing the achievement gap. Better district relationships are worth another 10 percent. The remaining 40 percent will be paid depending on progress on implementing a system of focused instruction, creation of a long-range financial plan and budget process, institution of accountability systems throughout the district and the installation of information management systems that allow data-driven decision-making.

The first-of-its-kind contract has been under negotiation for a long time, but there was never any disagreement between board and super about its importance. Even before her appointment was made official last winter, Johnson told community groups she was in favor of such a mechanism.

Board member Chris Stewart, who, along with Madden, is not running for re-election this fall, campaigned on the idea four years ago. “I feel good that it’s finally happening,” he said, “even if it is in the year I’m leaving.”

With so much emphasis on teacher accountability in the current political climate, holding the top teacher every bit as accountable as her staff is only right, said Madden.

“The mistake we’ve made historically is we start with the teachers and go backwards,” he said. “This time, we’re starting with the top.”

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/14/2010 - 12:58 pm.

    First, full disclosure. I taught history for 30 years in a public high school in a suburban school district in another state. Successfully, by the way. I was “teacher of the year” at my high school, one of my students went on to be a Rhodes Scholar, and many of my students won scholarships, graduated from college and acquired post-graduate degrees. I served as a surrogate parent to many, many teenagers, and was widely regarded as a “tough” teacher. For 15 seasons I was also a head coach.

    With that out of the way, I have a not-entirely-rhetorical question: Why not start “accountability” at the bottom, that is, with the student, rather than at the top, with the superintendent?

    “Pay for performance” is generally a fatally-flawed model to begin with. Superintendents, like most CEOs, generally have no idea what’s going on in their organization on an hourly or daily basis. They rely on reports from underlings. Labeling a superintendent “top teacher” is ludicrous. Many have never taught, and most haven’t been in a classroom in decades, except as a visitor/observer. Bernadeia Johnson is no more responsible for the achievement (however it’s being defined locally)) or the lack thereof, of a given Minneapolis student than Governor Pawlenty is responsible for the achievement, or the lack thereof, of an individual state legislator. In both cases, the people involved may have completely different agendas.

    Much as their advocates would like us to believe otherwise, standardized test scores do not, of themselves, indicate either intellectual growth or educational achievement. They are sometimes useful measures, and even then, ought to be used and viewed with caveats that are usually missing from the often-heated debates over who’s doing what to whom in education. The most clear-eyed assessment of this that I’ve seen in recent years is Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

    If we’re going to continue to place what I regard as completely unjustified emphasis on standardized testing as a measure of educational growth, there ought to be direct and certain consequences for students who don’t measure up. What’s the incentive, exactly, for a Minneapolis student to do well on an achievement test in, say, 8th grade? Is there a reward? Is there a punishment of some sort for performing poorly? Is there a consequence – to the student – if the student blows the test off, and makes geometric patterns on her answer sheet because, really, this test-taking stuff is sooo boring?

    If there are no consequences, direct and certain, for students taking the test, why should students regard test-taking as something important, to be taken seriously? Some parents and kids, of course, will be sympathetic that Mrs. Jones lost her job because her 5th grade class performed miserably, while others, whose dislike of Mrs. Jones is visceral, will take delight in her departure. In either case, why is Mrs. Jones the one who suffers when her gaggle of thirty 11-year-olds see no reason to do their best on a test that means, literally, nothing to them?

    Meanwhile, Superintendent Johnson signs letters and goes to meetings and does public relations for the district. That’s basically what Superintendents do. In the current political climate, that last one is definitely important, and perhaps it’s worth a salary far in excess of what a Minneapolis teacher is likely to make – ever – but it’s not teaching, and holding Ms. Johnson accountable for the test scores of thousands of students would be labeled “silly” if the consequences to other adults in the district weren’t so potentially dire.

Leave a Reply