Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

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

MPS discussion about backing off of lofty benchmarks was wrenching, ironic

Did news reports on last week’s Minneapolis School Board meeting bury the lead? I daresay they — or perhaps more accurate, we — did.
Before MPS’ Sept.

Did news reports on last week’s Minneapolis School Board meeting bury the lead? I daresay they — or perhaps more accurate, we — did.

Before MPS’ Sept. 14 meeting I reported that board members were expected to approve a merit-pay provision holding new Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson accountable on a host of tangible measures. The next day, the Star Tribune and other news media also emphasized that aspect of the meeting.

The pay-for-performance agreement did in fact merit that much ink (MinnPost even revisited the topic in more detail yesterday), but something arguably more newsworthy happened after the yea votes on Johnson’s potential bonus: The new super and two of her cabinet members told board members they planned to lower MPS’ goals for student achievement.

I watched the meeting online yesterday, and I’ll boil down the relevant discussion here and post the PowerPoint that accompanied the presentation for your consideration. Board members’ reactions were strong and not at all in agreement.

Article continues after advertisement

Me? I think it’s a pretty ironic note on which to kick off Johnson’s inaugural year of accountability, and a tragic opening to the last few weeks of the terms of several of the current board members.

Want to see for yourself? The action starts 54 minutes into the Sept. 14 meeting

Johnson and Jill Stever-Zeitlin, executive director of strategic planning, began the presentation with a recap of big moves MPS has made in the last four years to bridge the achievement gap. Fifteen schools were closed, attendance lines were redrawn and, under the North Side Initiative, the district shifted resources and made bold promises to woo back the African-American families who were leaving the district in droves.

The changes have sparked positive change, but not much in the way of achievement gains, the two conceded.

“We are 21 points behind the state in reading proficiency, despite three years of incremental progress,” Stever-Zeitlin said. “At this rate it would take us 60 years to catch up to the state rate. How old will you be in 60 years?”

Cue nervous laughter from the audience.

“That’s like making minimum payments on your credit card,” Johnson chimed in.

Their prescription: “Stretch goals” that are half as high as the unprecedented benchmarks set out four years ago that would still require the tripling of proficiency gains but be more realistic. No one, they argued, has ever made the kinds of strides MPS committed to then, but Long Beach, Boston and a few other urban districts have made gains half as big.

How big? To put that in perspective, right now MPS’ students of color lag 36 points behind their white peers in math. That chasm yawns impossibly wide, but with a quadrupling of the rate of gain, it could be cut in half by 2015.

Article continues after advertisement

The idea isn’t to give up on kids so much as to make the goal more enforceable, Johnson explained. “This is a no-excuse goal,” she said. “This is attainable. Other districts have done it.”

There were more numbers, of course, and the discussion of individual MPS schools that are already making accelerated slides.

The real drama was in board members’ reactions. Relative newcomer Carla Bates called the new benchmarks the sign of a maturing administration. “I was sitting in the audience when those goals were set,” she said. Former board member “Sharon Henry-Blythe gave one of the three best minutes ever heard about her excitement.”

I was sitting in the audience, too, and my recollection is that Henry-Blythe’s oration was an impassioned response to fellow member Chris Stewart’s irritation not over lofty goals but over the administration’s fuzzy take on a series of very specific recommendations for strategic reform put forth by consultants from McKinsey & Co. My story about that meeting can be found here.

Stewart’s 2007 explosion, per that piece: “I love the fact that everyone came down here today to tell us how bold we are. But we’re a little off the mark.” The principles the board was being asked to ratify were so broad, he argued, that “no sentient being can disagree with any of this. I mean, ‘Duh.’ These are so general, and so foggy, we can do just about anything next year.”

My memory is that, basically, Henry-Blythe called Stewart a wet blanket.

Stewart’s 2010 explosion: “We are still telling some parents, ‘Your kid might not make it.’ … We are choosing not to go all the way that we could go.

“I was in this spot four years ago,” he continued. “We made great promises [but] I am about to go off the board with flat-line achievement.”

Other comments followed, but the showstopper came from Peggy Flanagan, who was also present for the vote in question, having served on the board from 2004-2009, and who is back serving out the remainder of Pam Costain’s term. (Costain resigned to take the helm at Achieve Minneapolis.) The emotional impact of declaring the first set of goals hit Flanagan full force, on the dais with cameras rolling.

Article continues after advertisement

During her first stint on the board, Flanagan was beyond reserved. Now she was filled with the righteous indignation of someone who made a promise to a generation of disadvantaged children, only to watch it go unfulfilled. Johnson cried her way through an emotional, remorseful reply, and the board chair gaveled that portion of the meeting to a close.

Flanagan and Stewart are leaving the board at the end of the year, but Stewart, at least, vowed to continue to needle the elected officials and administrators about the children whose very futures are in play.

“We made great promises,” he told the leadership, gesturing out into the audience. “Next year, when I come back to talk to you from that podium, I’m going to tell you again.”