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Speaker Steve Perry provokes heated exchange on education reform

Educator Steve Perry’s words were clearly provocative: So much so that the debate continued where it is wont to do: On Facebook.

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Steve Perry

On Monday, Your Humble Blogger moderated a panel discussion that followed a talk by Hartford, Conn., principal, author and CNN commentator Steve Perry.

I’ll refrain from adding my .02 on Perry’s discussion — co-host Minnesota Public Radio has promised we can make it available to you digitally soon — but it’s safe to say from the discussion it spurred that it was provocative. So much so that the debate continued where it is wont to do: On Facebook

Perry’s appearance marked the first of three Minnesota Meetings hosted by the Minneapolis Foundation. The meetings are an effort to spread the word about a campaign the foundation and several community partners, including the Minneapolis Public Schools, has launched to draw attention to five tools shown to close the academic achievement gap. The panelists included Perry, MPS Associate Superintendent Michael Thomas, Harvest Prep founder Eric Mahmoud and Hiawatha Leadership Academies Executive Director Eli Kramer (who is the son of MinnPost CEO and Editor Joel Kramer).  

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Regarding the debate that followed: With the permission of the authors, we reprint for you first a letter from Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) President Lynn Nordgren demanding that Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson end the district’s partnership with the RESET campaign. It’s followed by one to MPS administrators and board members from Lynnell Mickelsen, who among other things is a founder of Put Kids First Minneapolis, a community organization advocating change in the MFT’s contract. Nordgren’s has some additions for clarity. Otherwise neither has been edited, but we offer one slight note of clarification: Mickelsen’s mentions of “fee-fees” refer to feelings.

Those two letters were followed by a letter Tuesday night from Superintendent Bernadeia H. Johnson to the district’s teachers. It is reprinted below as well.

Nordgren’s letter    

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Lynn Nordgren

This week the Minneapolis Public School district sponsored a meeting at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul along with key players of the anti-union, corporate education reform movement. The meeting was part of a broader campaign called RESET, which offers five strategies to reform education. The meeting’s keynote speaker was Dr. Steve Perry, a magnet school principal from Connecticut and noted anti-union activist, who spent the evening abrasively trashing teachers and our unions. He went as far as to say, “we need to call out the roaches” when referring to teachers unions. Dr. Perry went on to blame teachers for the “literal death” of children. This was a horrific accusation that was truly beyond the bounds of reality and acceptable dialogue.   

Unfortunately, our district is a RESET campaign partner that co-sponsored this event–as noted by their logo on the program. Our district’s involvement in both this event and the RESET campaign calls into question their willingness to collaborate with Minneapolis educators, students and families to produce education policy that puts the student at the center. It is time for MPS district leadership to declare if they stand with their employees and families or with the corporate reformers to find the best ways to educate all students.

Educators, more than anyone else, want to improve public education. We take our jobs seriously and go above and beyond the call of duty on a daily basis. We believe in students and want the very best for each and every one of them. But we know that the path to doing this is not through blaming and shaming the educators who have dedicated their lives to students. We are not “roaches” who are responsible for the “death of children.” Instead, we are professionals that have great ideas and knowledge on how to ensure all students are successful in school and in life. When educators speak up to say that students do not have beds to sleep in, food in their homes, lack the medicine they need, mental health support, employment for their families, sustainable housing or even something as simple as a pair of glasses, we are not making excuses or saying we cannot teach–we are standing up to advocate for our students. We are asking for help. Truth is, the biggest excuse of all is that we as a society have turned away from our neediest and most vulnerable children and left teachers to pick up the pieces.  

RESET’s agenda is now clear. They are going to shame and blame teachers and their union in the hope that this will create a magical transformation in education. This is the wrong agenda. It will do nothing to improve the quality of education for students. We demand Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson immediately end the partnership with the anti-teacher RESET campaign. There is no place in the collaborative partnership that the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) has attempted to foster with the district over the past several years if they are going to be involved with a campaign like RESET. 

It is also clear that the district has lost touch with the day-to-day realities educators face in spite of MFT’s continued efforts to help them understand what is taking place in schools. The MFT has called on the district to ensure: smaller class size, a focus on teaching not testing, before- and after-school wrap-around services for struggling students, hiring of a diversified workforce, building a strong family and community engagement partnership, time for teachers to adequately prepare high quality lessons for their students and providing a culturally relevant curriculum that addresses all areas of learning. These are just some of the things we believe will improve education and help close the gap and raise the bar. 

We call on Superintendent Johnson and all associate superintendents to spend a week teaching in a classroom. If they are ready to be a part of a campaign that blames every problem in the education system on teachers, they should be ready to be in classrooms showing us how to fix it. We will be happy to select the classrooms for them to demonstrate best practices. 

Finally, if unions were the problem in education, then why do the states without unions have all the same problems as those that do? Why are the non-union states doing less well than unionized states? Why do most charter schools do less well–and they do not have unions? Why do the countries around the world that have surpassed America in every indicator have stronger unions and more success? Unions are NOT to blame for the problems. If anything, we have many of the answers. It is time for the district leadership to decide if they want to truly collaborate with its educators and families or with the outside organizations who have not spent one minute of one day with Minneapolis students.  

Lynn Nordgren, President
MFT 59 

Mickelsen’s letter

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Lynnell Mickelsen

Dear Superintendent Johnson and School Board:  

RE: Lynn Nordgren’s letter demanding that the district disavow the Minneapolis Foundation’s RESET campaign based on Dr. Steve Perry’s talk at the Fitzgerald Theater last night. 

Oh puhleeze. I was there last night too. Dr. Perry drew a large, far-more-diverse-than-usual crowd of all ages. He gave it straight up. No chaser, with none of the usual vague Minnesota Nice platitudes. Perry talks like a normal human being and he’s funny too. So during his talk, there was lots of laughter and applause, I suspect in part, because many people were grateful Perry was saying in public what many, many people privately say in living rooms, kitchens, coffee shops, parking lots and church basements all over town. 

Look, we all know our schools aren’t working for a huge percentage of our students, most of whom are low-income African Americans and Latinos. Perry said the problem isn’t that we don’t know how to create better schools for these students. The problem is our leaders aren’t willing to create better schools for these kids…. because this would involve, among other things, a knock-down, drag-out fight with the unions. So we keep losing generations of children. The community knows this. They’re fed-up and want change. That’s the real issue and that’s why they were applauding Steve Perry last night. 

Yet in the letter [above], Lynn wants to switch the topic to (sigh, once again!)…… the hurt feelings of adults (most of whom are white and middle-class). Also, whether black people are using their nice, indoor voices as they talk about the academic genocide of their own children.

I mean, really? Really?!? I think it’s time to print up t-shirts for adults that say, “It’s not about our fee-fees.” This was the whole point of Dr. Perry’s talk. 

If the MFT really wants people to speak more nicely about them, they can start by changing their own behavior. The union can stop blocking common sense reforms and take responsibility for the actual stuff the union has control over. 

On Saturday, I attended the MFT’s Let’s Dream Together community forum on the north side to talk about how to make the schools work better for kids, especially kids of color. I appreciated the MFT’s attempt to reach out to the broader community. There were many teachers in the room, plus some parents, students and community members. At my table, we followed the guided questions and spent almost two hours talking about ending poverty, racism, segregation, homelessness, income and health-care disparities and the usual talk about how our schools should be more like Finland, etc. etc. I liked the people at my table and as a progressive DFLer, I was down with all of it, especially bringing Finnish socialism to America. Yes! Bring it on! Come soon Lord Jesus!

It was a nice, vague discussion–no harsh words, no hurt feelings. But I was struck that once again, we spent hours talking about things that teachers and the union had no direct control over and we avoided any area that the teachers and unions could control.  I think the MFT is full of good people who care about kids… but not to the point where they are willing to afflict their own comfort. And their discussions reflected this. They talked mostly about how other people needed to change stuff.. 

Lynn is doing the same thing again in the letter [above].

The MFT (and Education Minnesota) have attempted to silence any honest discussions about the union’s role in the achievement gap by rigidly controlling the public discourse. Education MN is to my beloved DFL tribe what the NRA is to the GOP–a powerful single-issue political lobby that blocks common sense reforms and tries to bully shame and blame opponents into silence. 

Dr. Steve Perry scares the hell out of Lynn because he doesn’t play by the usual rules of limited discourse the union has constructed for Minneapolis leaders and community members. His talk could give people more courage to openly challenge a system that is deeply failing their children.

If Lynn found him shocking, then she’s out of touch with the depth of anger in the community. Instead of trying to shut him down, she should listen and learn. 

If the district publicly distances itself from the RESET campaign, that would be a clear signal to the community that the district, once again, is more concerned with the feelings of (mostly white, middle-class) adults than improving the academic outcomes for (mostly brown, low-income) children. 

So please ignore the ritual and predictable pearl-clutching, the collapsing onto the fainting couches. Hang tough, stick with RESET and don’t back down.

And please, let’s order those adult-sized “It’s not about our fee-fees” T-shirts now. We’re going to need them.

Cheers and all the best,
Lynnell Mickelsen
co-founder, Put Kids First Minneapolis,
proud parent of three K-12 MPS grads

Superintendent Johnson’s letter to teachers

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Bernadeia Johnson

Dear Colleagues,

This evening you received a message about Minneapolis Public Schools’ participation in the RESET campaign. I am communicating with you directly to provide information and perspective on our partnership with RESET.

There’s at least one reason why both you and I work for the 34,000 students and their families in Minneapolis—we care about children, their academic success and their futures. We are all passionate about the students we serve, so we need to work from our joint passion, not our politics. There are changes that we need to make, but we need to make them together in order to make a difference in our students’ lives. If we fail, our students fail and it is their lives that are on the line. Every decision you and I make must have students, not adults, at the center.

As many of you have experienced firsthand, the school district collaborates with teachers to support the work that you do. We have paid close attention to this partnership, making sure that teachers have been at the table in shaping our teacher evaluation and support system through listening and feedback. I know that you, as much as I, want to create a system that supports and helps teachers—and that, more than anything, pays off for students. This continues to be one of my top priorities.

I know that we cannot do this work alone. MPS looks to our community members, organizations and partners to back our students and teachers. One of these partnerships, among many, is the Minneapolis Foundation’s RESET campaign. The campaign is sponsored by other Minnesota schools, organizations and businesses, all of which are focusing on helping close the achievement gap in Minnesota. The RESET strategies align with several of the research-based priorities of the school district.

RESET is an acronym for five proven strategies for creating pre-K-12 schools where every child succeeds. RESET stands for Real-time use of data, Expectations not excuses, Strong leadership, Effective teaching and Time on task. MPS stands behind these proven strategies as being necessary at every level of our organization in order to effect real, positive change in achievement for every student. I believe in these strategies.

Labeling supporters of RESET as anti-union or teacher-bashers is unfair and concerning. Many of our city’s strongest supporters of public education—in particular, MPS—have united with a sense of urgency to bring more attention to Minneapolis’ unacceptable achievement gap.

MPS was not responsible for inviting Dr. Steve Perry to Monday’s Minnesota Meeting, nor do we agree with everything he said. We acknowledge that some of Dr. Perry’s comments were controversial, divisive and more aggressive than many of us are accustomed to. While Dr. Perry’s views on unions are negative, during his speech he delivered many brutal and true facts about our academic struggles in an extremely direct and aggressive way. Unfortunately, some individuals and groups are dismissing his overall message of acting urgently to save a generation of young people because of the sharp rhetoric he used during his speech and the subsequent panel discussion.

Regardless of one’s feelings about Dr. Perry, it does not change the need for all of us to stay focused on our strategies to dramatically improve the educational outcomes of students, in particular for our American Indian, African American and Latino students. MPS will continue supporting our teachers and collaborating with teachers and the MFT for the future of our children. MPS teachers are critical to our success. We also will continue working with our partners who time and time again support our work in so many ways.

I know we have scores of dedicated teachers who are committed to their craft, committed to the children they serve and committed to the changes that we need to make a real difference. We urge you to stand up for your students and make your voices heard.


Bernadeia H. Johnson, Ed. D.
Superintendent of Schools