Superintendent Green’s re-assessment: ‘I no longer feel we can reach every child in the traditional way’

Four years ago, when Bill Green was hired to lead Minneapolis Public Schools, his ostensible job title was superintendent. But his mission really was to spread balm and restore faith.

An unpopular board had just ousted the second of two equally unpopular superintendents, succeeding only in sowing racial animosity as it did so. Families were fleeing the district, and the achievement gap was starting to look more like a canyon.

Green served on the school board from 1993 to 2001 and miraculously remained popular to the end. At first, it was very much a ceasefire in situ, but his return persuaded warring community factions to give the school district one more chance.

Affable, very, very smart and perpetually disorganized, Green charmed good leaders away from unlikely places and put them to work realizing the vision of a new board made up of energetic reformers. While his team balanced shrinking budgets, labor strife and the monumentally painful task of closing schools in the wake of plummeting enrollment, Green went out and spread balm.
On June 30, Green will return to teaching at Augsburg College, where he is an associate professor of history. MinnPost was surprised when he proposed an exit interview — he’s not a press-hound. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of that conversation.

MinnPost: Did serving on the school board prepare you to become superintendent?

Dr. Bill Green
Dr. Bill Green

Bill Green: I served in a different time. What this district is dealing with is so different than what we were dealing with in the ’90s. We had more kids in the system. The economy wasn’t as bad. We could afford to offer the unions better contracts. We could afford to hold a lot of our partners less accountable because our resources were less tight than they are now.

We’ve gone through a sea change. In the ’90s, it was becoming fashionable to attack public education. Right now, we’re at a time where people feel more inclined to protect it or defend it. Hold it accountable, be critical of it, but at least recognize the role of public education in our society.

In the ’90s we had a lot more invisible kids. Homeless [kids] — they were invisible. English language learners, immigrant kids, they were invisible in the ’90s. Kids of color back then seemed only to be African-American, whereas today we are a little bit more aware of how much our kids look like the world.

We as a district in the ’90s had less sensitivity toward communicating in a way that shares power with the community than we do now. I think we’ve learned how to deal with the fear of sharing that power in a way that we didn’t 10 years ago.

I encourage my folks to not have our plan wrapped up in a bow when they take it to the parent advisory committees, for example. But to say, ‘This is what we’re thinking,’ and to not view the absence of a bow as an indication that we’re not professionals.

If we open up and share our stuff while it’s in formation, folks aren’t going to think any less of us if we ask the right questions, logical questions, and we are open to the questions that they are asking.

The most complex and controversial thing we’ve done is restructuring the district, the Changing School Options [plan]. [Closing schools] had always been a difficult thing to carry through because it was often done behind closed doors. People couldn’t see the logical progression. They couldn’t have a chance to challenge the numbers and there was no track record. It was something that had just been placed on them.

One of the most important books I read over the past four years as superintendent was “Fiasco,” Tom Ricks’ book on Iraq. The theme is basically you can win the war and lose the peace. You don’t embark on something unless you already know you’ve got the capacity to work with the people impacted by that decision after the decision has been made.

We didn’t do that in the ’90s. We made a decision and then in a couple of years when things changed, we went on to something else.

MP: Do you have any concern about leaving in a year when so many of the senior members of the board are also going to leave?

Yes, I am worried about that. Any kind of major transition of leadership is always problematic for the institution, which is why we wanted to do a succession plan early on. The work [begun during Green’s tenure] was affirmed when the board selected [outgoing Chief Academic Officer] Bernadeia Johnson (PDF) as the next superintendent because she was key to a lot of that work.

I’m concerned about board members coming on who don’t really have the same kind of ownership that board members who were here when we laid the foundation had. The major challenge that confronts Bernadeia is to persuade the new board that this is the right direction.

MP: This board pushed you, pushed your staff. There were several things the administration put forward where they said, “No, not risky enough, not daring enough.” What did that feel like?

Depending on the issue, it was frustrating and in at least one instance, it was heartening. Much of the time, it wasn’t fun because I saw the work that the team did in coming up with its best thinking. Sometimes what was being desired didn’t really advance the work that needed to be done. Sometimes the thing on which board members are being bold was kind of superficial.

On the other hand, on such things like contract negotiations with the teachers, the board has been quite bold in pushing us to tie our proposals with reform — which is a dirty word now. What are we going to do for kids as opposed to how much are we going to pay people? Is it just economic or is it economics and academics. I think it’s to the board’s credit, that they have been probably more resolute than many.

MP: Is there any tightly held belief you have had to let go of because of your superintendency?

I have never been a fan of charter schools, and I now see that this is a very serious alternative that we have to pursue. The district has been legislatively enabled to sponsor its own charter schools. I think that’s important, and I’m willing to look at them.

This is really the bigger issue for me, and I’ve never said this before: I no longer feel that we can reach every child in the traditional way, the way that we’ve been pursuing it. Minneapolis Public Schools is a place where a lot of kids can do great things, to use a phrase. But the traditional system we have doesn’t really seem to accommodate the educational needs of all our kids in a school district where the majority are of poverty and of color and a growing number are coming from other countries and learning the language and just on the threshold of acculturation. It’s a system that has to be a little bit more imaginative.

We’ve got teachers in critical classrooms where the kids really, really need superb instruction … who don’t really believe that a child because of their color, because of their class, because of their accent, because of their parents, that they really can’t learn, that their school would be better if you gave us better kids. Those people don’t deserve a paycheck. But we’re stuck. We have a certain kind of arrangement here that’s part of the structural problem in reaching all kids. Every teacher’s got to believe that every child can learn.

I do worry about the mounting frustration that people have toward the teaching profession because I think they [don’t always] separate the classroom teacher from the union. There is a role that unions play, and we’re in a time where it’s hard to find that ground where we can meet each other because the wind is blowing in all sorts of directions. It’s hard to be heard, and it’s hard to get sure footing and so people who would otherwise be friends and colleagues — those relationships are straining.

MP: What’s the most surprising thing you learned on the job?

I was surprised at a city that doesn’t look like the kids who are in the system taxing themselves like they did for the referendum and believing in it.

I was surprised at how we still have race to grapple with in the age of Obama, [and] the extent of which that occurs even among liberals. That surprised me and not always pleasantly.

I used to sit on the [school board] dais and look at the superintendents and wonder, “How the hell do you sit through this meeting and look like you care?” Well, I get it. This is real important work, and there are people connected with the numbers.

These people have taught me that just about anything is possible. I’ve seen principals go into churches, go up and down the street and knock on doors and introduce themselves. And that’s in the ghettos and I’m proud of them for doing that. Proud of that teacher who takes her [students] to a basketball game, goes to the kids’ house to pick them up so Mom now has a relationship with the teacher in a way that she never did.

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/24/2010 - 11:30 am.

    The man’s a saint.

    The U’s looking for a president.

    Just a thought…

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/24/2010 - 12:33 pm.

    “I do worry about the mounting frustration that people have toward the teaching profession because I think they [don’t always] separate the classroom teacher from the union.”

    I don’t know how true that is, it certainly isn’t for me.

    But to the extent that it is true, it is the result of the teachers union’s public relations propaganda. If teachers, or more properly stated, the teaching profession becomes seen apart from the union, people will start to realize where all the acrimony and stumbling blocks are coming from.

    The day that the teaching profession is really set apart from the unions, the public system will have made a giant step towards recovery.

  3. Submitted by Michael Bischoff on 06/24/2010 - 12:34 pm.

    Great, thoughtful interview. Thank you. I hope that all the incoming school board members read it.

  4. Submitted by Nancy Hokkanen on 06/24/2010 - 01:06 pm.

    Schools like Hans Christian Andersen Elementary and Open in Minneapolis struggle mightily to educate a large population in need of special education and ESL, yet are unfairly measured by government assessment tools.

    If you’ve ever taken part in a Special Education parent meeting where all verbal communication must be translated into Somali and Spanish, you’ll swiftly understand some of these schools’ challenges.

    Given the skyrocketing rates of autism and attention deficit, charter schools seem best able to handle the specific learning needs and behavior issues of that subset of children. Parents frustrated with the poor educational fit are forced to choose homeschooling, but that shouldn’t be their only option for a free appropriate public education.

  5. Submitted by Beth Dhennin on 06/24/2010 - 01:52 pm.

    In response to Thomas Swift’s comments: Having been a public school teacher in Minnesota for 33 years, it distresses me to hear apparently knowledgeable and concerned people decrying the idea of teacher’s unions…
    Because I not only survived – but also prospered during those years directly as a result of union support and action, I count myself as a living example of their worth! Beginning with my first assignment in 1959, it was the existence of the union which first granted me not only time to prepare my lessons, but the ability to eat lunch on my own instead of while supervising students in the lunchroom. Too, because of union action, we young teachers were allowed to keep our jobs not only when we married, but when expecting the birth of a child.
    In later years, the union supported us elementary teachers – predominantly female – who asked for salaries more in line with that of the secondary -mostly male teachers of the district. And then, in my very last year of work – following the announcement that I was to be retiring in the fall after having achieved the “Rule of 90”, I was supported when I demanded that I be allowed to continue in my same post rather than be moved to a less appealing assignment in favor of a less senior – read “cheaper”, teacher due to union contract language.
    Yes, the existence of a union has been, and contiues to be critical to public school teachers!

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/24/2010 - 03:13 pm.

    “I not only survived – but also prospered during those years directly as a result of union support and action, I count myself as a living example of their worth!….Yes, the existence of a union has been, and contiues to be critical to public school teachers!”

    With all due respect, I have no doubt that the union has benefitted teachers; we’ve seen the bloated budgets to prove that.

    The problem is that by any measure you care to apply, the fall of student achievement is inversely proportionate to the rise of the teachers union.

    If the purpose of public school system is to ensure a steady supply of high paying union jobs, it has been a complete success. However, since I am confident that the vast majority of stakeholders believe the purpose was to provide our kids with a quality education I do not feel I am “talking out of school” to say the public system has become an abject failure.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/24/2010 - 07:02 pm.

    Tom, your argument seem ahistorical. The trade unions (as opposed to the industrial unions) may well have invented merit pay. At least they have a long history of tying the wages their members could expect to the member’s training and skill set.

    So, let me get this straight, teacher pay should be tied to someone else’s behavior? If crime goes up, are the police paid less? Are surgeons denied pay if the patient eventually dies because of complications? On each account, the answer is no. Yet, merit pay advocates, with a rather vague formula wish to determine teacher pay by analyzing the behavior of students.

    Merit pay is a dream without details, facts or any semblance of reality. Doctors, like those at the Mayo Clinic, are salaried and provide better, cheaper care to their patients. I have yet to see any detailed plan on how this will work.

    Professor Dan Willingham’s YouTube has a video on the subject.

    The number one indicator of student success is parental involvement. If the parent can’t convince their own child that an education is important, then how exactly is an teacher suppose to?

  8. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/25/2010 - 08:34 am.

    Swift’s Law: The problem is that by any measure you care to apply, the fall of student achievement is inversely proportionate to the rise of the teachers union.

    A testable hypothesis?

    Well there are some examples at the higher ed level. Rutgers has a unionized faculty, as does UMD. I don’t see that these institutions are significantly WORSE than their non-unionized competitors. In fact Rutgers just recruited away one of our star chemistry faculty at the U.

    With respect to your law Tom, perhaps it confuses correlation and causation?

  9. Submitted by Kent Pekel on 06/25/2010 - 08:59 am.

    Actually, student achievement hasn’t “fallen by any measure you care to apply” at either the state or national levels. By most measures, it’s flat, by some it has declined and by some it’s actually higher. The problem really isn’t that our educational performance is getting worse — it’s that the world’s and in a few cases the nation’s high performers are moving up fast while the U.S. generally and Minnesota in particular are stuck.

    In any event, the real reason I read this story and wanted to post this comment is to echo the praise for Bill Green. Many challenges remain in the Minneapolis Public Schools, but when you consider where the district was five years ago and where it is today, the reversal is stunning. Among Dr. Green’s many leadership strengths has been his ability — far too rare in educational leaders in our state on all sides these days, I’m afraid — to address each issue with an unbiased and open mind, devoid of personal ego and constantly, obsessively committed to kids.

  10. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/25/2010 - 10:26 am.

    I must defer to Kent’s expertise. He was heretofore employed by the Saint Paul Public School district, and he has a point.

    SPPS graduation failure rate has been maintained at a rock steady mid-40’s percentage for the past 10 years.

    Through three Superintendents, through “small learning communities”, “alternate intelligences”, and any number of other “cutting edge” programs, through times of generous budget increases and increases that merely keep up with inflation, the SPPS has managed to keep it’s level of failure flat.

    Are we to applaud that record, Mr. Pekel?

  11. Submitted by Greg Lang on 06/25/2010 - 11:13 am.

    Marcus Albert Foster, the first black superintendent of a major school district wrote a 1970 book on urban education that still highly relevant today. I scanned this rare book and put it online at

  12. Submitted by Dan McGuire on 06/25/2010 - 04:44 pm.

    Dr. Green has observed that “We’ve got teachers in critical classrooms where the kids really, really need superb instruction … who don’t really believe that a child because of their color, because of their class, because of their accent, because of their parents, that they really can’t learn, that their school would be better if you gave us better kids. Those people don’t deserve a paycheck. But we’re stuck.”

    How did Dr. Green make that determination and when did he make it? I’m a teacher, and if Dr. Green can identify teachers that believe as he says he knows they believe, then I’d encourage him to ask the MFT59 to assist those teachers in finding new careers. I don’t want to work with the teachers to whom he’s referring. I don’t know any teachers who do.

    And by the way, the MFT59 only has about five people on the payroll, two of them clerks. The union is the teachers; the teachers are the union. Separating them is a political ploy to dehumanize teachers.

    And when Dr. Green identifies those teachers who believe as he describes,he should also identify the administrators who hired those teachers and signed the tenure approval papers of those teachers, and the people who approved the transfers of those teachers, and the people who trained those teachers. If those teachers don’t deserve a paycheck, then neither do the people who’ve been supervising them. The MPS should never hire another teacher from the college that granted the degrees that enabled those teachers to get a license.

    Anything short of a systemic house cleaning is merely scapegoating and political grandstanding.

  13. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/25/2010 - 07:40 pm.

    SPSS another exception to Tom’s rule?

    “Are you proud of being rock steady, Mr. Pekel?” Tom asks, rhetorically.

  14. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/25/2010 - 07:42 pm.

    ps: It’s its, Tom.

  15. Submitted by William Pappas on 06/26/2010 - 11:55 am.

    Mr. Swift’s views on education are entirely a result, as are most conservative advocates of education reform, of his dislike of unions. The origin of Education Secretary Duncan and former board member Samuels personal advocacy of privatizing education while whipping up criticism of the teacher’s union is odd. The best place to reach teachers is where they receive their instruction and education, in college. Changes to their curriculum is normally how professions respond to changes in knowledge and techniques. Unfortunately this does not resonate among conservatives because it would be knowledge and fact based change and irrelevant of union participation which we all know has nothing to do with the success or failure or attitude of Minnesota teachers. Alternative licensure is predicated on the same philosophy of union busting. I’m really sorry that Mr. Samuels has decided to make unions the scape goat for education. It does the entire discussion of how to bridge the achievement gap a disservice.

  16. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/26/2010 - 01:57 pm.

    Since it seems that they are completely at a loss to discuss the issue at hand, or the facts I’ve put forth, I guess that we should all be happy that Bill Gleason & William Pappas are so well acquainted with my personal history and motivations.

    Otherwise, we’d probably be deprived of their commentary presence entirely.

  17. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/26/2010 - 02:27 pm.

    “The number one indicator of student success is parental involvement.

    I agree completely. And it is completely true that uninvolved parents bear the lion’s share of the blame for the failure of their own kids.

    However, the schools have largely abandoned the power sharing influence they traditionally had with parents in favor of usurping authority where it fits the current agenda.

    Leftist control of the public system has forced a re-focus of priority from academic achievement to socio-economic experimentation and indoctrination. Oh, and let us not forget that this comes at a cost that has risen more than 300%, cumulatively, in the past 25 years; as Beth Dhennin rightly pointed out, the teacher’s union has taken care of it’s own very nicely.

    Oh, I know you’ll reject that conclusion out of hand, and I’m not going to waste my time listing facts you’ll just as quickly reject, or worse, excuse; been there and done that for 10 years.

    The truth is, that after I pulled my own kids out of public school, I wasted those ten years trying to fight on behalf of the best interest of the kids, against an entrenched status quo consisting of unions, frazzled administrators and leftist special interest groups and leftist politicians that see the public school system as a stepping stone to higher office.

    They won, the kids stuck in that broken system lost.

    The only thing I have to show for my efforts are three college educated, very comfortably employed sons….come to think of it, that’s not all that bad a record, is it?

  18. Submitted by Kent Pekel on 06/28/2010 - 12:11 pm.

    Well, this isn’t about the ancient history of the time I was in the Saint Paul Public Schools from 2000-2005, but since the question was asked, here are the results from that time that I think stand up to scrutiny pretty well:

    1. The percentage of 3rd grade students who scored proficient or above on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments series 1 increased from 32% to 62% in reading and from 32% to 61% in mathematics. Admittedly, the academic bar on the MCA I’s was lower than it is on the MCA IIs, but those were our targets then and you can’t move the goalposts after the game and then recalculate the score.

    2. At the 8th grade level (where the MCAs only came in at the tail end of my time in Saint Paul), the percentage of students who passed the Basic Standards Test rose from 49% to 65% in reading and from 44% to 48% in math. 10th grade students who scored proficient or above on the Basic Standards Test in writing test rose from 63% to 80%.

    3. At the high school level, all student groups made significant but more modest progress. Unfortunately, most achievement gaps held steady. But four-year high school graduation rates increased from 57.4% to 65.9%.

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