A capacity crowd — including virtually anyone involved in education policy hereabouts — gathered at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center on Thursday to celebrate the launch of possibly the most ambitious effort ever to close the academic achievement gap in Twin Cities schools. Top executives from the university, Minnesota’s corporate community, school districts and other major players took to the stage to introduce Generation Next, a community-wide effort to get everyone pulling for the “cradle-to-career” success of every child.
Your Humble Blogger was standing in the back taking notes when a member of the philanthropic community came over to introduce herself. “Hold our feet to the fire on this one,” she said as we shook hands goodbye.
It’s a sentiment that was expressed by a number of those in attendance, albeit quietly and privately, in the hope that the venture succeeds.
First, the reasons to cheer: Generation Next is modeled on the Strive framework, which is credited with driving systemic change in a number of communities, most notably Cincinnati. Starting formally in 2000 but building on previous efforts, a truly community-wide, multipronged effort there virtually eliminated the racial disparity in high-school graduation rates by 2006 and raised the overall graduation rate from 51 percent to 80 percent in 2009.
The list of interventions that are thought to have propelled the changes is as long as the roster of stakeholders. If there was a silver bullet, it was authentic collaboration by an extraordinary number of people and groups, including the Center for School Change’s Joe Nathan.
Contributing factors in Cincinnati included a shift to “student-based” school funding, where per-pupil dollars followed students instead of schools with the neediest kids getting the most, greater freedom for individual schools to design solutions and an emphasis on teachers working in teams. Early childhood education and higher ed were integral to the effort.
In 2006, when it appeared that the trickle-up approach was working, a formal group, Strive, was formed to take the approach to suburbs and nearby communities in northern Kentucky. It has since spread, on varying scales, to dozens of communities in 27 states.
Minnesota educators and policymakers — most notably the think tank Growth & Justice — have visited Cincinnati and raised awareness of the effort throughout the state where several smaller cities are working on similar initiatives.
Eighth large-scale effort
The Twin Cities are the eighth large-scale Cradle to Career Community. The effort’s leaders include the presidents of the U of M, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the private nonprofit college community, Target, 3M, General Mills, Cargill, the mayors and school districts of both central cities, the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bush Foundations and the United Way.
Yet another protégé of former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson, Michael Goar, was coaxed back to the Twin Cities from Boston, a Cradle to Career Community where she is superintendent and he was deputy superintendent.
The commonality in each of the eight communities is to set a small number of measureable goals, collect data from every sector of the community and report back out what’s having an impact and what’s not. The end goal is to direct energy and money toward the most effective of the 500 identified local efforts to close the gap. Many of the reforms touted in the other cities have run into resistance here.
Which might account for some of the bated breath at the back of the hall Thursday night. Stakeholders have stakes, ranging from continuing to enjoy the support of the generous, education-focused corporate and foundation communities to fears that in education, collaboration has an irritating tendency to fall victim to politics.
“We haven’t seen a lot of details,” said Daniel Sellers, the executive director of MinnCAN, a 2-year-old education advocacy group that is participating. “What are the strategies they are going to actually try to implement?”
Fair enough, said Chris Stewart, head of the African American Leadership Forum, whose education working group had a foundational role in the launch. “It is a very promising collective impact model that will do something that hasn’t been done in a very long time,” he said. “And that is to put everyone on the same page.
“People can have different opinions, but they can’t have different facts,” Stewart continued. “The focus is on being hyper-local about what is working and making that obvious to everyone in the network of people who are working for children.”
Wilder to help collect, synthesize data
The Wilder Foundation will help create the data collection and synthesis that will underlie this “landscape analysis.” Handily, both school districts in question and a number of other participants have been collecting information for years.
Indeed, if there is a good local analogy to what might be possible, it’s the Itasca Project, an employer-led group focused on civic issues and Generation Next participant. Over the last decade, it has spearheaded a largely successful effort to reframe the debate over public support for early-childhood education as a work-force issue.
The group’s first two efforts will be a community engagement campaign that will seek to raise the issue’s profile and to draw in parents and students, and the launch of the topically focused networks that will begin to look at the data.
As to the other quiet murmur in the room — that the project’s scope is too audacious — Goar seems undaunted. Fewer than 30 percent of some groups of Twin Cities students graduate from high school, he noted.
“What should be enough? Not shooting for the moon or the stars?” he asked. “I would argue this is the least we can do.”