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Carol Johnson’s three big lessons on school reform

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/11/2011 - 10:02 am.

    “It’s now clear that what matters is having teams of great teachers who work in concert, she said.”

    Yes, yes, yes, one thousand times yes. The paradigm of the single teacher ruling over their classroom kingdom has to stop. She gets it.

    The scary thing is that almost all current “reform” focuses on the individual teacher as if they are the only ones who have their kids. Current reform emphasizes individual competition instead of collaboration.

    As a side note, Saint Paul has always had interview and select, regardless of seniority. Our new superintendent has made it abundantly clear that you can certainly fire ineffective staff as well.

    No one cares if you fire ineffective teachers, go ahead. They are a small small problem compared to the real problem of retaining good teachers in urban schools. It is not cash rewards that will retain good teachers either. Every teacher we have to replace costs thousands in literal dollars and much more in lost wisdom and expertise.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/11/2011 - 10:18 am.

    Not much of interest here. Am all for team teaching, and while I don’t think schools can solve all the problems associated with poverty, that’s no excuse at all for not trying trying. I am no fan of excuses, but I am a big fan of explanations. We need to understand what works, and what doesn’t, and we need to learn that from what goes on in the classroom.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/11/2011 - 10:20 am.

    An emphasis on better teacher quality is a common feature of all reforms. Countries like Finland and South Korea make life easier for themselves by recruiting only elite graduates, and paying them accordingly. In schools reform, structural progress—new sorts of schools, reorganised old ones, new exams—can happen very fast. Better teachers take much longer to form. They should be made the priority.

  4. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 11/11/2011 - 01:34 pm.

    Although this is my second comment on a MinnPost article today, I can’t resist. Having attended both Johnson’s speech and the one covered by Eric Black, it is clear MinnPost is covering the intellectually and politically important events in our city and no other media entity seems to have time–or the interest–to do that. Democracy depends on not only a free press but one that concentrates on news, not just celebrity or sensationalism.

  5. Submitted by Ryan Winston on 11/11/2011 - 02:59 pm.

    I was shocked to see that 35% of children live in poverty. How is this not the talk of the town? Why aren’t news outlets blaring statistics like this? It’s totally unacceptable in a country like ours. I’m currently working towards my online Masters in Education at this site: http://www.cu-portland.edu/ and as a future teacher, I am absolutely disgusted with the way we are treating the poor in this country.

  6. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 11/11/2011 - 04:39 pm.

    Yes and No
    Yes, teams of teachers and school leaders matter a lot.
    Yes, it’s important to learn the most effective district and charter public schools, including providing district public schools with the same flexibility available to high quality charters.
    Yes, public schools can bring youth from low income families to the same achievement levels as middle and upper income youngsters. I’ve written about how it was done in Cincinnati.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 11/11/2011 - 07:29 pm.


    Yep. Takes a village.

  8. Submitted by Jeanne Harris on 11/12/2011 - 08:37 am.

    I regret that I was not in the audience to hear firsthand , Carol Johnson’s ‘tough’ words,because words on paper lose their rigor.

    It was interesting that Ms Johnson feels confident enough to tell MPS what they must do to improve/ eliminate gap in achievement while not quite achieving same in previous or current situation.

    And its so easy to receive a quick spanking ( tough words) and go on with business as usual / nothing changes, but all feel better.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/14/2011 - 06:56 pm.

    Compared to 57 percent, 80 percent IS “pretty good.” It’s just not good enough. We’ll never reach 100 percent, and as has been said far more eloquently by others, we shouldn’t make the “very good” a victim of the “ideal.” A 95 percent graduation rate would, in fact, be very good. Let’s aim for 100 percent, but not allow ourselves to be rhetorically beaten by the enemies of public education if the number is only 95.

    One great teacher, one great principal, is not enough. For some kids, of course, it IS enough, but that’s only for some kids. If you want to strive for that 100 percent graduation rate, you need, as Johnson suggested, teams of really skilled teachers who work in concert.

    Some of the best teaching I did in my whole career was in an American Studies class, where I was paired with an English teacher so that we could collectively teach American history and American literature as related and intertwined, rather than as separate “boxes” of knowledge that have nothing to do with each other. As it happened, I’ve been a minor-league writer since high school, and my English Department colleague was someone with a keen interest and wide background in American history. We bounced projects and ideas and classroom discussions off each other all year long, chiming in on the other one’s lesson when it seemed appropriate, drawing literary analogies in the history part, drawing historical analogies in the literary part, and doing our best to blur the lines between those academic subjects. We graded essay assignments jointly. It was intellectually challenging, energy-consuming, and some of the most fun I ever had in a classroom – and one year, we had a class of 58 students.

    As the teachers who read MinnPost know, an essay assignment to 58 students every couple weeks imposed a serious burden of time and energy when it came to grading, and my colleague and I took turns in making and grading the assignments, but among the things I remember fondly about the course was the distinctive feeling that we were all learning from each other – that it was a cooperative enterprise, and my job as a teacher was to do all I could to see to it that each of those 58 emerged at the end of the year feeling that s/he had learned much that was worthwhile, including study habits and the value of sustained effort. Their job as students was to accept the challenge that we gave them at the beginning of the year – to learn not just strings of facts, but to see how events and feelings intersect, whether in someone’s home, in the workplace, on the battlefield, in Congress, a corporate board room, or whatever. I regularly assigned original documents for study, from the Declaration of Independence to southern justifications for slavery to Abolitionist condemnations of it. They read Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, etc. And these were high school sophomores.

    Toss in the interesting dance of learning to teach cooperatively when neither of us had ever done it before, and had had no college preparation for that classroom model, and it made for a fascinating work experience.

    If we’d somehow been able to incorporate a science teacher, a math teacher and an art teacher, each with backgrounds in American literature and history, it might have come close to academic heaven, or as close as a normal human can get with a room full of hormone-crazed teenagers. As it was, we did bring in a science teacher a couple of times, on her prep period, to talk about how the Enlightenment scientific discoveries might have affected the nation’s founders’ attitudes. I know enough about physics to be able to explain how a mountain man’s black-powder muzzle-loader worked. We also rented and showed – this was decades ago, before the video revolution, so it was a significant expense – 16mm versions of older feature films that illustrated, we thought, important themes in American culture, or that complemented a literary work then under study.

    As for lesson #3, I can’t disagree. Schools alone cannot change the world enough to eliminate all the disadvantages of poverty. Schools do not, according to what I’ve read over the years, lead the society. Schools are a reflection of the existing society. I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Johnson’s conclusion about disparities in income, and the waning significance and influence of a common purpose and vision.

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