In May, a well-regarded consultant stood before the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education and pronounced an unpalatable truth: The district won’t improve its deplorable outcomes with special-ed students until it conquers the fundamental and basic task of teaching all of its kids to read.
The observation was damning. By definition, students — disabled or not — who can’t read can’t take in instruction in math, social studies, science or any other subject.
More upsetting, it’s not the first time this particularly egregious failure has been noted. Indeed, in 2007 a phalanx of well-regarded consultants outlined the same diagnosis and prescription for a differently configured board.
Both called for the same relatively easy fix, which has not been implemented in a systemic way: Because teaching reading is a specialized craft, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) should hire literacy coaches to support all of its elementary teachers and set a minimum threshold for the amount of reading instruction schools should provide.
Update coming on a new plan
At its Aug. 12 meeting, the board will hear an update on staff progress creating a new strategic plan. Rather than a “start-over” plan, the effort is being billed as “a recalibration and recommitment to many major priorities that are mid-stream.”
Déjà vu all over again? Maybe. Large school districts — and Minneapolis is no exception — are notorious for their “this too shall pass” cultures. Time and again, the closed classroom door has thwarted even the most determined change agent.
And yet the MPS students who were kindergarteners when the plan was announced will enter seventh grade in less than two weeks. Statistically speaking, those who are lagging years behind in reading stand a ghost of a chance of graduating high school.
Numbers are not yet available for the 2013-2014 school year. According to the scorecard developed to track progress toward the goals in the plan, at the end of the 2012-2013 school year 41 percent of MPS students passed math and reading tests and 44 percent were on track for college. [Note: This scorecard does not work in Chrome.]
Though apples to apples comparisons are tough because state standards have changed in recent years, it’s safe to say that in 2007 fewer than half of MPS students passed reading and math tests.
Scant progress on closing achievement gap
In recent months board members have made no secret of their collective frustration with the pace of implementation of any number of bold, promising strategies. The barriers vary depending on the initiative, but the bottom line remains that over the last decade the district has made scant progress on closing a yawning achievement gap.
The current five-year plan, adopted seven years ago and extended for two more in 2012, was hailed as a watershed moment in which the community, civic leaders and elected officials acknowledged harsh realities and vowed to change them. A review of the plan’s implementation is both instructional and depressing. See my annotated checklist here.
At the time of the first plan’s drafting, MPS was trying to put an end to a series of crises. There had been three superintendents over the prior four years, one ushered out in an expensive cloud of scandal.
Fully half of African-American families on the city’s north side had left, enrolling their children in charter or suburban schools. The exodus threatened to compound a $100 million shortfall. Good will was is even shorter supply.
Itasca Project brought in McKinsey consultants
Against that backdrop, in May 2007 a group of business leaders made the district a proposition. As Minnesota’s major employers, members of the Itasca Project were concerned with MPS’ failure to educate more than half its students well enough to pass state proficiency tests.
They asked the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to assess the state of affairs and recommend fixes based on strategies working in other urban districts. The pro bono services were worth an eye-popping $1 million.
MPS’ 2007 Strategic Plan: How much did they accomplish?
The 2007 strategic plan set forth a sweeping vision: Make every child college ready by 2012. Now, with a new version of the plan in the works, it’s time to revisit its highlights.
And the resulting report was bold indeed, calling for a series of measures that numerous urban districts have engaged in with some notable success. Most notable were a combination of efforts driving impressive change in Boston.
From 1998 to 2007, the number of students passing reading test in Boston schools more than doubled from 43 to 87 percent; math passage rates rose from 25 percent to 82 percent. Those numbers were achieved using a three-pronged strategy including a relentless focus on teaching quality, the use of data to reach individual kids, and giving the lowest-performing schools more autonomy in exchange for accountability.
McKinsey found that a number of districts had shown promising results giving up tinkering with their lowest performing schools. MPS, the report suggested, should target its bottom 25 percent for wholesale restarts or conversion into charter schools — perhaps district-sponsored — with a mandate to perform in the top half within three years.
The district should create an Office of New Schools and over five years use it to restart or replace 15 traditional schools and all of the “contract alternatives,” the programs catering to students who weren’t making it at regular schools.
Other areas addressed included the need for a deeper pool of talented principals, staffing rules allowing those principals to hire the best teachers they can find and protecting new talent from layoffs, a system for ensuring that students are taught materials that actually address the content they are expected to master, and a relentless focus on racial equity.
Goals set for 2012
Using numbers based on the gains seen in Boston and elsewhere, the report set a goal for the district: By 2012, 80 percent of MPS students would be able to pass state math and reading exams and perform well on college entrance exams; race and income achievement gaps would narrow by 75 percent.
The many, many recommended initiatives — perhaps too many for all to be implemented with fidelity, proponents now say — were ways to get to those concrete, tangible goals.
What happened at the December 2007 meeting where the plan was adopted could serve as an allegory for much of what followed. The board was dominated by new members elected on promises that they would make tough calls, and the meeting packed with community and civic leaders promising political support.
Board members had been treated to a preview [PPT] and copies of the lengthy McKinsey report were circulating among district insiders. Education-sector leaders were already preparing proposals for new schools, for example.
After a long and favorable public comment session, district staff presented a four-page synopsis committing MPS to a far less specific agenda. Several of those present — including two board members — voiced disappointment that district staff appeared to have watered down the proposal.
Detailed roadmap in 2008, and then churn
In the ensuing months the board pushed and staff pushed back. Within a few months a detailed roadmap [PPT] had been developed. Over the next two years, board members received regular updates on the efforts. At some point, it fell off the top of the agenda, though.
In terms of human capital, the seven years since the adoption of McKinsey’s recommendations have been a roller-coaster, to put it mildly. In 2010, three of the board members who had pushed hardest for change — Pam Costain, Tom Madden and Chris Stewart — stepped down, citing their inability to both perform well and keep paying jobs.
The district’s chief academic officer when the plan was adopted, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson faced resistance on many fronts. A consultant hired to assess the district’s internal operations in 2011 warned that MPS administrators, operating in a series of “silos,” did not uniformly support Johnson’s agenda.
And there has been churn among those leaders who did — particularly those who have taken on the business of working with the lowest-performing programs.
At the start McKinsey and the Itasca Project agreed to pay the salary of one of the people who drew up the recommendations to work for MPS on implementation. She left last fall for family reasons, shortly after the district’s chief academic officer.
The Office of New Schools has had three chiefs; the most recent departure was last month. The one on whose watch much of its work was done, Sara Paul, was promoted to be the associate superintendent last summer; she succeeded a district turnaround czar who had been tapped to lead Brooklyn Center schools. Paul was wooed away last month by White Bear Lake.
A marquee effort to grow a pool of principal talent faltered several times before taking wings last year, in part thanks to a $3 million grant from Cargill, General Mills and Medtronic. Meanwhile a string of good principals — more than twice as many as the district “grew” — were promoted to higher leadership.
Finally, many of the changes required reforming the district’s contract with its teachers. Negotiators know the ability to change the contract is notoriously dependent on the public perception of how staunchly the board will back the effort.
Contract set to enable change
With this kind of resolute support, over the winter and some two years after the five-year McKinsey plan was extended, MPS and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) agreed to a contract that would enable many of the changes.
The MFT was a key player in the one element of the strategic plan that is being hailed as a success that will only deliver more over time: a two-year-old evaluation system the district and union designed collaboratively has gained significant acceptance.
(It doubtless helped that state and federal education officials were demanding the implementation of evaluations for teachers and principals everywhere.)
Leaders were careful to ease a teacher corps containing more than its share of cynics into the system; many now want more feedback faster. And MFT members over the winter voted to tie to a promising mechanism for paying for and delivering state-of-the-art continuing education.
Less acceptance for Focused Instruction
Wheeled out four years ago, Superintendent Johnson’s plan for making teaching and the use of data at the classroom level more systemic has met with far less acceptance. Many teachers perceive Focused Instruction to be one more set of burdensome standardized tests.
Virtually all of the schools to achieve top results with impoverished student bodies here and throughout the country over the last decade use some kind of formative assessments to tailor instruction to individual students. In Minneapolis, as in many urban districts, pockets of teachers have begun organizing against testing in general.
The idea of Focused Instruction was to essentially reverse-engineer what students need to know in order not just to graduate from high school but to enter college without a need for remedial coursework. It’s like designing a brick wall from the top down: Is every new brick supported by the ones under it, all the way down to kindergarteners’ ability to identify the letter sounds in words?
If this sounds rudimentary, there has been no fixed notion in MPS of what teachers should teach, how much of it schools should require, and how they should determine which pieces of knowledge individual children lack.
Last winter, the board’s Teaching and Learning Committee worked out a list of recommendations for the minimum academic programming schools should be expected to provide district-wide.
The same consultant’s report that for the second time recommended fielding a phalanx of literacy coaches also noted that intensive blocks of reading instruction of 90-120 minutes may be needed to bring lagging readers up to grade level.
Initiatives for racial equity
Key initiatives aimed at increasing racial equity have also failed to gain traction. Under the 2007 plan, MPS committed to creating a framework for eliminating institutional racism — then a phrase rarely heard at the board level.
That was followed by the African American Covenant, an effort to give the community a formal role in ensuring that curriculum, textbooks and other elements of school reflected black students’ histories and experiences. The unique initiative received national press, but met with systemic resistance and ended up imploding after a couple of years. Since then school board subcommittees have struggled with how best to keep the conversation going.
Also only in its infancy seven years later: A financial restructuring that would ensure that the compensatory state and federal aid that is supposed to offset the cost of educating children with challenges such as poverty, disabilities or a home language other than English actually flows to the school where they are educated instead of subsidizing wealthier ones.
Some 10 months after the board adopted a policy requiring an equity impact assessment be performed on any new policy or programm, staff are still being caught unprepared to answer questions at board meetings.
Board frustrations voiced
At last November’s board meeting, Carla Bates read a synopsis of a performance evaluation board members had just delivered to Johnson in private.
“The primary message the board shared with the superintendent in her evaluation is this: We are frustrated with the incremental rate of academic growth in our schools and the inconsistent levels of academic achievement throughout Minneapolis Public Schools,” the statement read. “Of course the board celebrates those pockets of growth recently announced and lauds the achievement of each student and each staff member who contributed to those successes.”
Board members were pleased with progress on teacher evaluations, financial planning, operations and nutrition services. Specific areas of concern included school turnaround efforts, equity and leadership capacity.
“It is clear that Superintendent Johnson is a determined and popular leader,” the statement concluded. “As she continues to increase expectations of her staff and implement accountability measures throughout the organization.”
Board members have displayed a remarkable level of unity in recent months and have pushed hard for the superintendent’s staff to get in line with the vision. A majority of the nine seats are up for election this fall, meaning there will be three to five new members in January.
The primary that will winnow the field of board hopefuls slightly will take place Aug. 12. By statute, the school board meeting scheduled for that day thus must end early.
The new strategic plan is scheduled to top the meeting’s agenda. Public comments start at 3:30 p.m. and the meeting begins at 4.