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What exactly is R.T. Rybak up to?

In his current role, the former Minneapolis mayor is head of Generation Next, a 2½-year-old effort that, until now, has been frustratingly hard to describe.

R.T. Rybak
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen

Talk long enough to anyone in policy circles in this town, and inevitably the conversation winds its way around to a single question: Just what is R.T. up to these days?

That’s R.T. Rybak, just in case you are not among the 400,000 Minneapolis residents who seem to be on a first-initials basis with the former mayor.

What indeed. Much in the way Aztecs, Manhattanites and most famously the Dutch extended fertile soils over roiled waters, Rybak has spent the last 18 months painstakingly crafting a safe harbor within the choppy seas of education policy.

In his current iteration, Rybak is head of Generation Next, a 2½-year-old effort that, until now, has been frustratingly hard to describe. But here goes: it’s a community-wide effort to encourage the literally dozens of education-sector players to pool their data and pull in one direction — an effort that once seemed both reach-for-the-stratosphere ambitious and impossibly vague. 

The shape of things to come

When Generation Next was announced in late 2012, it had the support of seemingly every civic, philanthropic and education-sector group out there. Which surprised no one, given that the stated goal — using data to identify and encourage best practices in education — was so right-minded.

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But no one held their breath. Particularly in education, phrases like “convening stakeholders” and “identifying best practices” frequently are preludes to business as usual.

But in recent months, the effort has acquired a discernable shape — one that ought to generate considerable excitement. Stakeholders who are not natural allies have tiptoed out onto the floating island and, astonished that they weren’t going to drown, began to work together.

“To be honest, I was starting to get a little nervous,” Rybak admits. In hindsight, it simply took a while for the shape of the interplay between the people and the data to start to show itself.

Modeled on STRIVE initiative

Near the outset, Generation Next’s staff bought six rolling white boards they planned to use to delineate their six workstations in their ground-floor space at the United Way’s downtown Minneapolis building. As data began to flow in, the surfaces acquired elaborate doodles. Over the months, the jottings turned into a dry-erase map of the local education community. Imagine an oversize Venn diagram in which the information bubbles can be rolled into different configurations.

Generation Next is modeled on Cincinnati’s STRIVE initiative, which is one of a limited number of large-scale interventions to deliver meaningful, sustainable change in public schools. In its first five years, the Ohio collaborative increased kindergarten readiness in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky by 9 percent, high school graduation by 11 percent and college enrollment by 10 percent.

The Twin Cities became the eighth site in what is now a 63-community network, and the local collaboration’s high-profile leaders include such notables as General Mills VP Kim Nelson and University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler.

The effort flew more or less under the radar, however, until Rybak’s hiring. His charisma and high profile lent the effort some badly needed visibility.

Rybak likes to use the analogy of a logjam. As more and more logs come down a river, they start to jam up. If you try to clear them all at once, the energy that delivered them downstream starts to work against itself and the knot gets tighter.

“You need someone who can come along and pick six key logs,” says Rybak. “Then things start flowing again and the energy works in the right way.”

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An example: The effort’s data committee — made up of a Who’s Who of local education researchers — concluded that they needed to collect and analyze data on social-emotional learning.

The group partially funded data positions in both the St. Paul and Minneapolis districts to collect the relevant information. From that came some striking information. Predictably, the St. Paul numbers show drop-offs in skills between grades 5 and 8 in students’ commitment to learning and social competence, and especially in positive identity, with scant rebounds as those students move into high school.

But the data also found that social-emotional learning does not drop for all racial and ethnic groups. Commitment to learning actually increases among Asian, Hmong, black and Somali students. And Somali students do not experience the same dip as others in positive identity and social competence.

“The element of race in here really made it compelling,” explains Rybak. “It’s not just an issue of an isolated community of color over here and white kids over there.

“This goes to how we value kids. If you want your kid in a classroom with kids who value learning, you want them in a class with Somalis.”

Generation Next’s data committee then identified ways in which increasing social-emotional learning can have a catalytic effect in other areas. “Math is about failure,” says Rybak, by way of example. “If you don’t have the persistence and grit to overcome failure, and if school doesn’t give you the space to fail and persist, you’re not going to be successful in math.”

Afterschool programs are pretty good at social-emotional learning, he continues, but not so good at measuring outcomes. Schools, meanwhile, are good at identifying gaps but not so good at helping kids to engage and persist in the crucial subjects of science, technology, math and engineering.

Typically, when education-sector players start talking about data and outcomes, winners and losers are imagined. And fearful that somebody else will have better numbers, many back away.

Illuminating what works

In Rybak’s vision, the end goal is not to winnow the field of players so much as to illuminate the most effective places groups can plug in — and to suggest to the philanthropic organizations that are underwriting many of the initiatives what types of work their dollars might best support.

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Social-emotional learning recently became Generation Next’s sixth identified priority — one that has the potential to influence the other five (which include: kindergarten readiness; 3rd grade reading benchmarks; 8th grade reading benchmarks; high school graduation; and post-secondary credential). Those are are big goals, but the initial work within them is discretely defined.

Within the goal of “kindergarten readiness” for Twin Cities kids, for example, Generation Next wants its collaborators to work toward ensuring that all 3-year-olds receive a health and development screening. Also in motion is a college-completion goal.

In addition, work is progressing on strategies to ensure math proficiency by eighth grade and a system, borrowed from the University of Chicago’s highly successful Urban Education Initiative, for tracking whether individual St. Paul and Minneapolis students enter high school poised to graduate.

In service of the one goal — that of getting all students reading on track by third grade — the group is sharing data about the most effective tutoring efforts.

It’s Rybak’s hope that in a year, Generation Next will be able to use the information generated by all of these activities to show that encouraging different organizations to adopt some uniform strategies is making a tangible difference. Nothing, after all, encourages buy-in like success.