St. Paul’s education cooperation model offers a big contrast to Minnesota’s usual confrontations

The relationship between Mary Cathryn Ricker and Valeria Silva stands in sharp contrast to the common education confrontations that have dogged public education in Minnesota in recent years.

Ricker, head of the St. Paul teachers union, and Silva, the St. Paul school district’s superintendent, meet often and banter easily.

“Mary Cathryn asked me to attend a workshop (sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers),” recalled Silva.

“It was on a weekend,” Ricker said.

“I told her I’d go, but if I’m going on a weekend, it proves I must love you,” Silva said.

The two women laughed.

Valeria Silva
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Valeria Silva

Silva said she believes she was the only superintendent at the workshop, but quickly added that it was worthwhile.

“What I got out of it was the teachers’ perspective of pay for performance,” she said. “From the teachers’ standpoint, it’s really how do we measure a teacher’s performance. If we all have the right training, then, we could agree on a system.”

Listening to the two talk is a night-and-day contrast to the ego-laced bouts waged between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Education Minnesota leader Tom Dooher. Those two excelled at name-calling, door-slamming and political points-scoring with their respective constituencies. Unfortunately, they weren’t so good at sitting down in the same room and trying to understand each other and, in the end, Minnesota was not a player in Race to the Top money or any sort of meaningful K-12 education improvements in the state.

Lost possibilities bemoaned
Both Silva and Ricker bemoan the possibilities that were lost. For example, both had hoped that some Race to the Top funding would have been available to help Minnesota school districts purchase a data system that would have made information on student performance available at a fingertip. As it is, Silva said teachers “waste so much time using a system that is just patched together.”

Students transfer from district to district, but it’s difficult to know, in any sort of detail, the relative academic strengths and weaknesses of those students.

“It’s like running a hospital without patient records,” said Silva.

There had been many other innovations the administrator and the union head had hoped to be able to finance with Race money as well. Now, they’ve been working together to apply for other grants that would help fund innovation at a time when the district is facing multimillion-dollar deficits and more cuts.

The big application is for $33 million in Investing in Innovation grants from the federal government. The money would be used for investing in a teacher-led professional development program and a teacher-supported teacher evaluation system.

Mary Ricker
Mary Ricker

Ricker, a sports-lover herself, finds what she describes as a “jock mentality” in federal programs under President Obama and his basketball-playing buddy, Arne Duncan, the Department of Education secretary.

“Everything is a competition,” Ricker said. “Everything is about winners and losers.”

Winning defined the relationship between Pawlenty and Dooher. Pawlenty pushed his agenda by bashing teachers at every opportunity. The union, he claimed, was “an anchor,” pulling down every push for reform. Boards of education that offered even minimal raises to teachers were attacked by the governor. Dooher countered by resisting virtually all efforts at reforms.

Not surprisingly, there were no “winners.”

Picking up the pieces
People such as Silva and Ricker are left trying to pick up the pieces.

An alliance between the union and the superintendent’s office is no easy thing to maintain. Silva admits that even some members of her high-ranking staff are leery of how quick the superintendent is to pick up the phone and call Ricker. And Ricker suspects that at least some teachers are uncomfortable with a union leader who spends considerable time at district headquarters.

Yet, they push on in an effort to accomplish things together. For example, when the district was forced to lay off teachers as part of the approach to closing the district’s deficit, Silva incorporated ideas brought to her by Ricker and the union that would make the cuts more equitable.

“A culture change,” says Ricker, who has been the union head for five years and has worked with five different superintendents.

“I’m not bending to please Mary Cathryn,” Silva said. (The two always call each other by their first names.) “But I’m not ignoring her needs, either. I’m trying to establish a relationship with all of the unions.”

“It’s a huge difference,” said Ricker of the relationship she has with Silva as opposed to her many predecessors. “We sit down and try to iron out our problems.”

Silva, laughing, said, “We brought new irons into our relationship. Sometimes, we need a great big steam iron. We use that when we need to vent some steam.”

Selling St. Paul accomplishments
The big efforts will be to sell the idea in St. Paul that, even in the midst of cuts — including such controversial decisions as the closing of Arlington High School — the district is moving forward with efforts to deliver high-quality education. While Pawlenty — and some media — have focused on handfuls of “problem teachers,” Ricker and Silva together are out selling the idea that the district is full of teacher “superstars.”

Silva is distressed by the public attitudes toward teachers — and the teaching profession. It’s hard enough, she said, to attract people into the profession, given the relatively meager starting paying, compared with other professions. But after years of bashing, fewer and fewer people even believe the profession deserves respect.

“Any other culture,” Silva said, “a teacher is greatly valued. That’s been lost here.”

Silva and Ricker together will work to get all district employees to speak to the positives of the district.

“I don’t care where it is,” said Silva. “If you’re standing in line to get a cup of coffee, people [district employees] need to understand if they’re complaining about something, others are going to pick up on that.”

They talk, they fret, they argue, they laugh.

“We’re not working together because we’re naïve or conflict-averse,” said Ricker. “I really believe we have a great deal of respect for each other, and we have the same deep, deep commitment to students and St. Paul.”

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/21/2010 - 08:22 am.

    I taught for 30 years in a public high school in another state, under both male and female department heads, evaluated by both male and female administrators (administrative evaluation of teachers is lunacy, but that’s another issue), and with, over the years, both male and female superintendents. Silva and Ricker are in line with my own observations, so I’ll lay it out in what may be perceived as sexist terms, and let others argue about what it all means.

    My experience in education was that capable women in leadership positions were – with a few glaring exceptions – much like Doug Grow has suggested. That is, as a group, they were more interested in getting things done than in scoring points with their respective constituencies, much less ego-driven than their male counterparts, and more interested in children than the specifics of metrics. In short, I thought they were more effective overall. That advantage didn’t necessarily show itself equally in the classroom, where effectiveness, however it’s being measured, varied as widely among women as it did among my male colleagues, but in an administrative role, at a school where I spent 25 years, I thought most of the women I worked with in that context were better than most of the men.

    This superiority wasn’t across the board. I recall one female assistant principal who was both capable enough, and thoughtful enough, to run the district, while another female assistant principal – at the same school, at the same time – was so consumed by her own ego and personal agenda that she probably shouldn’t have been employed in education at all. The latter, however, was the exception, and the former much more the rule.

    Maybe that shouldn’t come as a great surprise in a field (K-12 education) that has historically been dominated by women EXCEPT in those administrative positions. I’ve not done any research on this, so perhaps my impression is based on too small a sample, too close to home, but it did seem to me at the time that the proverbial “glass ceiling” was cracked open earlier and more broadly in education than in other, more industrially-centered fields of endeavor.

    Be that as it may, Silva and Ricker, at least in Doug’s description of them, and Dooher and Pawlenty as well, are very much in line with my own experience and observations.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/21/2010 - 09:20 am.

    Of course this works where the top school administrator actually has an interest in improving the educational quality, efficiency, and well-being of the students attending the schools for whom he/she is responsible. Such an attitude makes the Superintendent the natural ally of the teachers (except in the very rare cases where the teachers, themselves are led by a King Timmy, and Tom Emmer-like, “win at all costs, beat the other side down, personality).

    Neither King Timmy, nor princeling Tommy has any concern for the quality and efficiency of Minnesota’s schools, nor do they have even the slightest concern for the well being of their students (your sons, and daughters, your nieces and nephews, your grandchildren, my friends).

    Rather, their concern is to tear down the public education system at every level in order to produce a more cheaply-employable, more servile work force who can be educated at the absolute bare minimum expense to the people who have all the money in the state: those same people who hope for more easily-exploited future generations of (easily-disposable) workers.

  3. Submitted by Lynn Nordgren on 06/21/2010 - 11:23 am.

    Thank you to Doug Grow and MN Post for sharing this positive story.
    It is great to see Superintendent Silva and President Ricker starting off on the right foot together. It really is all about relationships in the long run. And, when those relationships have a common purpose – in this case, a deep commitment to all students – not much can get in the way of making sustainable and necessary progress. I commend them for their efforts and new beginnings.

    In Minneapolis, the union spent many years working collaboratively with the district to develop progressive and professional teaching practices. And, while we are currently in the middle of contentious negotiations between Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), we are still developing a strong relationship between the new MPS superintendent and the MFT union president. Superintendent Johnson and I speak frequently, have already worked together closely on issues and concerns, and seek to have a solid, productive partnership in the future. We plan to engage in several extended conversations about our work together once Ms. Johnson takes office so that we, too, can get off on the right foot with one purpose in mind – the success of all students. Fortunately, we have known each other for some time and get along well – something that will come in handy in the days ahead as we face the many changes and challenges coming to education overall. I thought it important to share this since all too often only the negative gets reported in the media.

    Just one correction – Superintendent Johnson was present at the recent American Federation of Teachers conference along with a team of 4 administrators from MPS. The MPS team was invited by me to attend the conference along with our MFT team of 5 teachers. We worked side by side for 2 1/2 days listening, learning and thinking through the work ahead of us. On reflection, it was a productive conference for both teams that operated as one team all throughout the conference. Our future efforts together will be more effective as a result.

    Finally, stronger relationships are being developed across the river between the superintendents and between union leadership – the presidents and union executive boards. We have much to share and much to learn from one another so that we can ensure all students will be successful in school and in life. The MFT looks forward to these fruitful partnerships. The Silva and Ricker partnership will be a good model for all of us to follow.

    Lynn Nordgren, President
    Minneapolis Federation of Teachers
    lnordgren@mft59.org

  4. Submitted by Beth Dhennin on 06/21/2010 - 11:46 am.

    This level of discussion gives me, a teacher retired after 33 challenging years in Minnesota’s public schools, great comfort! Not only is the style of discourse exemplified by Silva and Rickert encouraging, but also the level – and tone of the prior two comments is so affirming…Oh, that we might only see such respectful dialogue be expanded, and to become part of the general reporting by OTHER media outlets…I, too, might add how fortunate I feel having a daughter currently teaching in the St. Paul school system. Thank you!

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 06/21/2010 - 12:09 pm.

    From Arne Duncan’s results in Chicago (not so good), it could happen that Race to the Top will be only somewhat better for students and teachers than was No Child Left Behind.

    And, like No Child, it could be that federal funding may be below what it costs to operate the program.

    Too bad the Feds don’t stop trying to impose whatever ideology is in vogue and just ask the states (which should ask the districts and teachers) what they would do with federal grants if they were given them.

  6. Submitted by Richard Greene on 06/21/2010 - 12:29 pm.

    What a refreshing change! As a retired St Paul teacher (42 years) I think this is great news for the kids in St Paul. My thanks to these two gifted women.

  7. Submitted by Gerald Greupner on 06/21/2010 - 04:23 pm.

    I see the difference as these two educators care about public education. Both are seen in the schools with staff and children.
    The Governor appears to have an attitude that he could care less about public education.

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