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Carol Johnson’s three big lessons on school reform

The former superintendent of schools in St. Louis Park and Minneapolis returned to the Twin Cities and had some tough words for her audience.

On Thursday, a prodigal daughter came home, albeit temporarily. Carol Johnson, longtime Twin Cities educator and former superintendent of schools in St. Louis Park and Minneapolis, addressed a packed house at AchieveMpls’ annual Education Partners Luncheon.

The nonprofit AchieveMpls works to strengthen support for Minneapolis Public Schools within the community and with business leaders. The organization was just a year old when Johnson left in 2003 to become superintendent in Memphis.

Carol Johnson
Carol Johnson

Currently, Johnson is superintendent in Boston, which has undertaken a number of major, effective reforms in recent years. She now serves on the board of directors of the Council of Great City Schools and the Harvard University Urban Superintendents’ Advisory Board.

Her remarks, entitled “High Quality Public Schools for All: The Civil Rights Challenge of Our Time,” traced the history of efforts to achieve equity in U.S. schools, outlined barriers to closing the achievement gap and challenged the 600 educators and policymakers in attendance to set the bar much, much higher.

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But the emotional subtext — the affection with which Johnson and her friends and colleagues here still regard each other — was the real show-stopper.

Current MPS Superintendent and notorious softy Bernadeia Johnson had to stop to choke back tears during the introduction of her “mentor and dear friend.”

‘I am the American dream’
 Carol Johnson (referred to hereinafter simply as Johnson) had to stop, too, to regain her composure after describing childhood memories of not being allowed to use drinking fountains designated for whites only.

“I am a most unlikely person to stand before you today,” she said through tears. “I am the American dream.”

Moments later, it’s a sure bet AchieveMpls President and CEO Pam Costain, a former campaign aide to Paul Wellstone, lost it sitting below the dais listening to Johnson recall a vigil outside the senator’s office the night he died in a plane crash in northern Minnesota.

“I had such confidence in him, I thought voting for him was enough,” she said. “It was a dreary day and many in this crowd, including Pam, stood in the rain in pain and disbelief.”

Intimate tone notwithstanding, Johnson had some tough words for the audience. Noting that African Americans began asking for equity in education in the very late 1700s, she described the gulf between public education’s “great equalizer” promise and the reality for millions of disadvantaged children.

Stage thus set, MPS’ former top teacher described three lessons she’s learned during her tenure as a reformer. No. 1: “I used to think achieving an 80 percent graduation rate was pretty good.”

Noting that her own lauded urban district still only graduates 57 percent of its black male students and 61 percent of its male Latinos, Johnson talked about the high cost of the persistent dropout rate. Every high school graduate saves the nation $112,000 in anti-crime spending and $260,000 overall, for instance.

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Lesson No. 2: “I used to think all our students needed was one great teacher, and we just needed to hire the right principal.” It’s now clear that what matters is having teams of great teachers who work in concert, she said.

Calling teachers “the most important people in the world,” Johnson looked out over an audience containing lots of people involved in negotiating the MPS’ next teacher contract and called for change. (Many of those in attendance likely had no idea she has recently taken some lumps in Boston for her own district’s recent, difficult contract talks.)

“We can no longer ignore what’s happening with the competition,” Johnson insisted in reference to charter schools, which are newer to Boston and which sometimes use their staffing flexibility to great advantage.

“Teachers, unions, district offices — we have a choice,” she said, a remark that would have been blaspheme during Johnson’s time in MPS. “We can choose to ignore charters or we can choose to learn from them.”

Compensation needs to be on the table, as do mechanisms for dealing with ineffective teachers, she continued. Principals need to be able to select the best teacher for a given job — something that did not happen during Johnson’s time in MPS — and everyone needs effective teacher evaluation methods that use multiple measures of performance.

More time
Work days probably need to get longer for some because poor kids start out at a disadvantage and time is a major component in helping to eliminate it.

“Time is also justice,” she said. “The simple truth is this: We are not going to give our children enough of our time with business as usual. We know that what is enough for some of them is not enough for all of them.”

Lesson No. 3: “I used to think that schools alone could eliminate the disadvantages of poverty.”

Thirty-five percent of children currently live in poverty, Johnson said, the same percentage as when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. And each additional month of schooling a poor child receives can eliminate a tenth of their achievement gap.

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“The poor have less money than before, and fewer social supports,” she said. “The poor have become less visible and the common purpose lost.”

Until this reality is confronted, schools will struggle to reach their most fragile students: “We need a national political debate about policies that perpetuate extreme disparities in income.”

At that, Johnson, who started in MPS as a substitute teacher, stepped down to a standing ovation.