Monthly Archives: December 2015

Education 2015: The Force Awakens

December 30, 2015

Like many people, I went to the new Star Wars movie recently, thanks to the generosity of a visiting family member. Unlike many people, however, I went with my whole family, including my 6-year-old.

The 6-year-old was not into it, at all. “This is boring,” she called out loudly at one point, followed by repeated loud whispering: “When will this be over?”

So, I didn’t make it through the whole movie. She and I headed out, crawling one last time over the unforgiving legs of the devoted Star Wars fans in our row. My mumbled “sorry” to those who have been waiting since 1977 to see this film was cold comfort, I’m sure.

But I did see enough of the film to understand that the force–of resistance, of good–has been awakened. In case there is anyone who has yet to see the film, I won’t go much further. Anyway, this is all just an excuse for me to mention my favorite player in the whole Star Wars deal: Joseph Campbell.

Campbell was a brilliant guy who liked to focus on how connected we all are, through stories, archetypes, and the hero’s journey, which can belong to anyone. (George Lucas used Campbell’s great book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to give shape to the original Star Wars story.)

Back to education in 2015. Here are a few of the signs of life–or, the force, if you will–that struck me most this year: 

  • The people, united, pushed Reading Horizons out of the Minneapolis Public Schools. A couple of brave Minneapolis teachers, willing to speak up against what they knew was wrong (canned phonics materials bolstered by hideously offensive classroom readers), galvanized a forceful public movement. 
  • The petition to restart Minneapolis’s superintendent search. This petition–started by community folks–gathered over 1,000 signatures rapidly. The search has not been restarted (yet?), but it seems the petition–done the weekend before the school board voted on a superintendent candidate–may have helped block controversial interim superintendent Michael Goar from getting the permanent job.
  • A quiet December 4 press release announced that Minneapolis’s Green Central Elementary School has received a full-service community school grant from the state. This means the school can do an extended survey of its community to find out what services people need and want in order to make Green Central a strong, successful community asset (and not a dismal test prep factory). Full-service schools are centered on “wrap-around services” that seek to serve the whole child. Here’s an example, from Brooklyn Center, MN.
  • Minneapolis’s North High School Polars football team made it to state. This is the school administrators tried to shut down in 2010, in a “Disinvestment 101” exercise. North isn’t out of the woods yet,  and won’t be, as long as market-based reforms (who benefits most from competition? autonomy? standardized tests?) continue to dominate public education policy. Reminder: As I discovered in 2015, North’s success isn’t all about sports.
  • On a personal level, I have to give huge 2015 props to Minneapolis South High School teachers. When my oldest kid, a junior at South, turned to me recently and said, “Mom, what reparations do you think the Dakota should get?,” I knew she was in the right place. Her English class has been working on a unit about the Dakota in Minnesota, which is nothing like the British Lit I yawned my way through as a high school student (never fear: I came to appreciate it later, sort of). And then there are those hot like wasabi math teachers at South, adeptly tackling the “when will we ever use this?!” question….

I could go on, but I won’t, fearing you may be tempted to shout, “This is boring!” 

Quickly, here is a list of some of my favorite non-Minneapolis education stories from 2015:

  • Chicago’s Dyett High hunger strikers. Hard to call this a favorite, since people were literally starving themselves for local control of their school, which remains unresolved, but I have deep love for Jitu Brown and his crew.
  • Dale Rusakoff’s book, The Prize. If you want an excellent look at the forces–good and bad–
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    NY Times reporter Hannah-Jones

    that shape education politics and reform today, read Rusakoff’s account of MarkZuckerberg’s money drop on the Newark Public Schools. Painfully real.

  • Ira Glass’s “This American Story” portrait of reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’s work covering education and that forgotten but successful gap-closing strategy: Integration. Really, listen to this!

Joseph Campbell was right: the hero does have a thousand faces. Can’t wait to see what that looks like in 2016.

Thank you so much to those of you who have donated so generously to this blog in 2015. I am very grateful for your support, and appreciate every little bit that comes my way!

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Search Firm Blues: Minneapolis superintendent quest in limbo

December 28, 2015

When Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson announced last year that she was resigning from her position (for ever-popular “family” reasons), the district’s school board tried to do the right thing.

Instead of simply handing the job over to interim superintendent Michael Goar, they hired a search firm. They did so because Minneapolis Public Schools’s HR department said they’d have a tough time handling the search themselves, as it would coincide with the annual spring hiring season for teaching staff.

That seemed reasonable. Hiring district teachers should be a priority, since they are the ones who will be held most accountable for getting all Minneapolis kids “college and career ready.”

And, outsourcing the hiring of administrators is just what people do nowadays. Look at the University of Minnesota. In 2012, the U spent over $125,000 (not that anyone is counting) on the Parker Executive Search firm, which brought recently departed athletic director Norwood Teague to Minnesota.

Once here, Teague promptly engaged in the kind of sexual harassment shenanigans that the Parker search firm seemingly could have warned the U about, according to an August, 2015 Twin Cities Business Journal article:

At the time Teague was hired, he was facing a gender-discrimination complaint from the women’s basketball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University. Minnesota spokesman Evan Lapiska said the university was not aware of the complaint.

HYA rep Ted Blaesing led MPS’s search

We are now in a similar position with the Minneapolis superintendent search. The Minneapolis school board hired the nationally known search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates (HYA) to scour the country’s superintendent talent pipeline for a worthy, wart-free candidate, and it paid them at least $85, 000 to do it. 

And what has this yielded so far? A superintendent candidate–Dr. Sergio Paez–who seems not to have been as thoroughly vetted as HYA promised he was. Paez somehow rose above interim superintendent Goar–whose heavy hitter supporters lobbied hard on his behalf–to become the board’s choice, only to be quickly tainted by a lingering investigation from his previous employer, the Holyoke, MA school district.

Let’s be clear: Paez may have done nothing wrong while superintendent, briefly, of the Holyoke schools. The abuse allegations under investigation in Holyoke have not been directly connected to Paez, who has continued to defend his record in Massachusetts. 

But still. Paez apparently never told board members about the alleged abuse that happened at a Holyoke school while he was there. And HYA never told anyone either. Leaving the reported abuse of special ed students as a last-minute “surprise” for board members to discover seems negligent at best, and deeply incompetent no matter what.

So, now what? Will HYA be compelled to refund any of the $85, 000 in public funds they have received for their seemingly shoddy search?

Like Parker, the search firm that brought Teague to the U of M, HYA has its own questionable track record. Will they be held accountable, like so many public school teachers, for their perceived failures? At least, when we hear again and again that public schools are broke, and universities must raise their tuition fees to survive, we know where some of that money is going.

What is next for Minneapolis? It is possible, but perhaps unlikely, that Paez will be strong enough, as a candidate, to rise above the murky waters he now finds himself in. Will it be back to the drawing board for the superintendent search, or will a strong internal candidate rise to the surface, now that Goar is out of the way?

Whatevs. HYA is on to their next gig, finding a new superintendent for the LA public schools. Cha-ching!

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Minneapolis school: We Support and Love Our Muslim Families

December 18, 2015

Here is a good story about the Minneapolis Public Schools, just in time for winter break. 

Last night, Minneapolis K-8 school, Barton Open, issued a statement in support of the many Muslim families who send their kids to the school. And it’s a beautiful thing. Here is the gist of it:

In light of the recent demonstrations of intolerance directed at Muslim people, we want to reinforce what our school stands for. We support and love our Muslim families. Because all of our children are learning together, they are better prepared for the world and will be leaders. 

Yes, exactly.

My oldest child started at Barton in 2004, as a kindergartner. Now, my youngest (of four) is a first grader at the school, and I have never loved it more than I do now. The school has shifted, in the eleven years we’ve been a part of it, from a mostly white island of progressive privilege to something much more dynamic and diverse.

We have an increasing number of Somali students at Barton, as well as an increase of kids in poverty, and It has been a good challenge for the school.

There is still a lot of privilege floating through the halls of Barton, but it’s the kind of privilege that every school should be centered around. The school feels safe and welcoming. The hallways are orderly but bursting with life. Down one hall, you might find an absorbing spread of student autobiographies, complete with hand-drawn self portraits and a list of likes–Hot Cheetos, soccer, time with family–that rings familiar.

Even though the kids are not all the same. 

But that is how it’s supposed to be. Barton, which turns 100 years old this year, has been flourishing as an Open school for over twenty years. As the population of Minneapolis has rapidly changed, the school is now doing its part to adapt to a growing population of non-white, non-native English speakers, while holding true to its magnet school, progressive education focus. The statement in support of Muslim families reflects this:

We are a school community committed to progressive education. We value each child and strive to creatively and courageously meet our students’ needs and create lifelong learners. Barton students have many different life experiences, traditions, stories and languages. Our strength is our diverse student body and our goal is to create a learning community that is welcoming, respectful, equitable and culturally responsive. This is the environment in which all our children learn best.

The statement was written by Barton parents and staff members, with input from school board member Siad Ali, who is also a Barton parent. Here is Barton principal Jonas Beugen’s take on why the statement was necessary:

There were a number of different things bubbling up that led to this statement. One thing was a conversation on the Barton Facebook page, where a parent, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, had asked what Barton could do about the recent outpouring of anti-Muslim sentiment.

A parent on the Barton leadership council emailed me, prompting me to think more about what Barton could do to assure Muslim families that we are with them, and that we don’t agree with the rhetoric out there. We wanted to show them that we love them.

That was really the purpose. Some kids are saying they are scared, and we want to make them feel safe at school. 

There are no known examples of bigotry or anything at Barton. This is really more about the national dialogue, and knowing that some of our families are not feeling safe. We wanted to show that we are willing to stand up and make our values clear.

We are one community.

Kind of reminds me of a song, “Wavin’ Flag,” that has become a staple at Barton concerts and all-school meetings. It was written by a Somali native, K’naan.

 

Minneapolis school board may be forced to rethink Sergio Paez

December 10, 2015

Hold that contract, Minneapolis school board members.

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Dr. Sergio Paez

Just two days after the board chose Sergio Paez to be Minneapolis’ new superintendent, a troubling news report surfaced from Paez’s previous employer, the Holyoke, Massachusetts public schools.

Paez was superintendent of the Holyoke schools from 2013 until this past summer, when the state took over the district, citing chronic academic underperformance.

But that’s not what is raising alarms now.

A December 9 article from the Boston Globe bears this headline: “Holyoke school abused disabled children, report says.” Reporter Bryan MacQuarrie then describes in detail some shocking allegations against staff at Holyoke’s Peck School, which serves–or is supposed to serve–“emotionally disabled” children in grades four through eight.

Here is some of what Massachusett’s Disability Law Center found at Peck, during an investigation:

The Disability Law Center’s review, which began in May, looked back for about a year before that time and conducted more than 45 interviews with students, parents, former staff members, and others.

One 67-pound student was restrained 50 times, including about a dozen times when the pupil was held prone on the floor, according to Eichner and the report. The child complained to a parent of being unable to breathe, and that some of the restraints had been painful, the center said.

“Prone restraints can lead to serious injuries or even death,” Eichner said. Some restraints lasted for longer than 20 minutes, the investigation found.

Children were thrown to the floor for not moving, pulled out of chairs for refusing to get up, tackled to the ground, and restrained for refusing to change into a uniform, investigators were told.

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HYA rep Ted Blaesing

Judging by this report and the news article, the abuses at Peck were under full investigation during Paez’s time at Holyoke (which has just 11 schools, overall). Yet HYA, the search firm hired by the Minneapolis school board to garner “high quality” candidates, assured the board–publicly, repeatedly–that all of the finalists for the superintendent position had been subjected to a rigorous examination of their work histories and their references. 

How could this story from Holyoke have escaped HYA’s “rigorous” spotlight? This puts the Minneapolis school board in the tough position of having to reexamine the candidate they thought would be the best person to lead Minneapolis forward.

Reporter MacQuarrie was aware that Paez had just been awarded the superintendent’s position in Minneapolis:

The allegations surfaced during the tenure of former Holyoke superintendent Sergio Paez, who lost his job after Massachusetts education officials voted in April to place the district under state control.

On Monday, the Minneapolis school board voted to appoint Paez as that city’s next school superintendent. Members of the board did not respond to requests from the Globe to comment on whether the allegations would affect his hiring.

Perhaps that petition circling through Minneapolis last weekend, demanding that the school board restart its superintendent search, will now carry more weight. It had 950 names as of Monday night, when the school board voted Paez in.

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Goar is out, Paez is in: Education politics shift in Minneapolis

December 8, 2015

Welcome, Dr. Sergio Paez, to the Minneapolis Public Schools.

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Dr. Paez

Many people were shocked to learn that Paez was chosen to become Minneapolis’ next superintendent, over interim candidate and hometown favorite (for some), Michael Goar. 

The decision was announced at an exhaustingly drawn out special school board meeting on December 7, where a long list of desired superintendent characteristics was sweated over in great detail by the board, with almost no indication–until the very end–that Paez would get the job.

The board room was mostly quiet throughout the nearly three hour meeting, despite sign-wielding protestors, who were demanding the board restart the search. These protestors were–randomly–clustered in seats right in front of the silently observing, stalwart Students for Education Reform (SFER) crew that has been present at many recent MPS meetings.

It was an interesting and telling mix, as well as a preview of the various factions Paez will encounter here in Minneapolis.

SFER is a national education reform organization, started in 2009, supposedly by a couple of nice college kids out of Princeton University. Fact check, please! SFER is simply another super spongy Astroturf group seeking to cash in on, and remake, public schools by declaring them failures, and then heavily promoting market-based “fixes,” such as more school choice, more “innovation,” less tenure, etc. 

CT SFER kids rallying for charter schools. Edushyster photo.

SFER has outposts at colleges around the country, kind of like the Sierra Club or Amnesty International, where they’ve been able to attract (and financially reward) young, idealistic students who will, perhaps unwittingly, carry water for the very adult interests that are pulling SFER’s strings. 

I am sure the young people who get hired by SFER to put tape over their mouths during union-district negotiating sessions, or to shill for certain candidates during school board elections, or to march in favor of judging teachers by their students’ test scores, are probably sucked in by a desire to do something about the real educational inequities and institutionalized racism that exists in our schools, and, of course, our society at large. 

Their activism and youthful desire to change the world provides a nice cover for SFER’s behind the scenes machinations, which revolve around a top-down campaign funded exclusively by very wealthy adults who know how to put their best foot forward, in order to conduct business as usual (with some help, of course; SFER, the national org, has a fancy New York PR firm on a retainer).

Conneticut blogger Jonathon Pelto has written two recent investigative pieces on SFER. Here’s Pelto’s take on what this group is all about:

Dedicated to promoting the privatization of public education, more taxpayer funds for privately owned, but publicly funded charter schools, the Common Core, the Common Core testing scheme and a host of anti-teacher initiatives, Students for Education Reform, Inc. (SFER) was created in late 2009,  according to their narrative, by a couple of undergraduate students at Princeton University.

Claiming to have over 100 chapters across the country, the ‘student run’ advocacy group has, as of late last summer, collected more than $7.3 million since its inception to fund their ‘education reform’ activities.

Oh! That explains how they can pay students to camp out at excrutiatingly long school board meetings. 

SFER was a presence during the 2014 Minneapolis school board race, and they will be present again, in 2016, along with their compatriots from MinnCAN, Educators for Excellence, Teach for America, and other well-heeled, decidedly non-populist reform groups.

But who else will be present? The group of local activists seated in front of the SFER crew at Monday’s school board meeting hopefully will be. Restart the Search

This group was small, and consisted of parents, teachers, and school support staff–and at least one student, who looked far too young to be part of SFER. Despite its small size, the group came wielding a petition that circulated through Minneapolis over the weekend, declaring all three finalists for Minneapolis’ superintendent inadequate, and too, well, too SFER or MinnCAN-like. Too corporate. Too big business. Too wedded to the money and priorities of outside entities with a scripted agenda.

Without any hedge fund cash, or any design help from an out of town PR firm, this local petition gathered 918 signatures in just a few days, asking the school board to restart its superintendent search.

Now, I see, it is up to 950 names.

The petition didn’t work, in one sense, because the school board did not vote to restart the search process.

But that goal was a long shot, at this stage in the game. The school board members themselves are clearly exhausted, and stretched thin by the months-long search. They are only human, after all, and paid virtually nothing to wade through the politics, policies, and shifting priorities that are part of the job.

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Michael Goar

And to start over would look fractious, and perhaps further feed the failure and dysfunction narrative that spins so constantly over our public schools. (Remember Netflix CEO and billionaire Reed Hastings’ call to end democratically elected school boards? He is not alone in wishing for this.)

But it did work, in another, perhaps more important sense: Michael Goar was not chosen to become superintendent (the petition is full of quite pointed commentary on Goar’s tenure in MPS). Just three of the nine board members–Siad Ali, Carla Bates, and Josh Reimnitz–voted for Goar; all of the other board members wanted Paez. And this is significant, as Goar’s year-long trial run as interim superintendent was controversial, and disruptive, in the eyes of many.

Paez is undoubtedly only as human as Goar is, and will probably not offer any immediate, magical fixes for what ails the Minneapolis schools. And what ails it most, according to last night’s board meeting, is a loss of trust in MPS’s leadership, and a need for some relationship repair.

“We need someone who can bring our community together,” and “rebuild trust,” Tracine Asberry told MPR News last night. She did not seem to be alone in that sentiment.

And, not insignificantly, Paez was favored by at least two board members–Rebecca Gagnon and Nelson Inz–because they were impressed with his knowledge of teaching and learning, and what they saw as Paez’s commitment to educating the “whole child,” and not just the portion of the child who may or may not perform well on test day. (Board members also touted his success with ELL students).

We don’t know yet what Paez will do when he takes over as superintendent. Will he make shocking missteps (data walls, anyone?), or will he build bridges? While Paez was superintendent in Holyoke, MA, the district was taken over by the state. Could that happen here? Some people in Minnesota would love to see MPS go down, and be replaced by a New Orleans-style network of “high performing seats,” rather than schools. We should all be aware of this.

And will he know–or learn–how to put a racial and social justice framework first, without bowing to the hidden demands of groups like SFER?

Proceed with caution, Dr. Paez. 

While Students for Education Reform (SFER) will pontificate that they are “all about the children,” their political activities in Minneapolis, Denver and elsewhere tells a very different story.

–Jonathon Pelto

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Julie Landsman: “We Can Create Radical Change”

December 6, 2015

Julie Landsman

Guest post! Minneapolis writer and teacher Julie Landsman has found reason–two reasons, to be exact–to feel hopeful about the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Over the past five years I have written blogs and editorials critical of Minneapolis Public Schools. I have worried that we are operating in a state of testing mania. Even more concerning is that Minneapolis has built a regimented instructional strategy around these tests. As a consequence, we have alienated many of our students. These concerns remain, along with my despair about how our kids are doing without art or music or poetry or theater in many schools. Observing my six –year- old grandson I have often wondered about the lack of recess time and the insistence on the unnatural stillness required of young children for much of the day in our schools. The job of a young girl or boy is to move, to learn about the world through motion, play and activity. We sacrifice their natural physical impulse in order to spend more time to prepare for meaningless tests.

However, in contrast to these continuing frustrations, is the great hope and relief I feel about progress made by two separate things. First: the Office of Equity and Diversity has implemented, in all our high schools, a course in African-American History. This course counts as Social Studies credit. Licensed teachers who received summer coursework and optional, ongoing professional development training throughout the year teach these classes.  African-American and African Studies professor Dr. Keith Mayes, of the University of Minnesota, has been instrumental in helping the Minneapolis schools develop the course. This is a start, and an important one. Curriculum is dear to my heart. I believe that what we teach, combined with high expectations and a caring relationship, can reach our students and support our teachers.

There is also a plan to include a Native American History course as well as Latin American and Asian American courses over the coming years. Schools in districts in California and Arizona are working to provide this kind of history for many of their students. It has taken too long for this to happen in our schools here in Minneapolis, but we can celebrate when change happens, no matter how late.

Who had input to what would be taught, or even in the planning of African-American studies? Not sure. From what I gather from teachers, not enough teacher input went into this, but some did.  There has also been discussion about whether this should be counted as a US History credit. It will not. Some teachers have expressed concern that it furthers institutional racism to “other” African American History in this way; that somehow it is not the “real” history but is one you can choose to know or not know. I agree. The ideal required United States history course would be utterly revamped if I had my way, so that a large amount of time would be given to all perspectives. It could even be taught over a two-year period. Then we might not need African-American history as a separate entity.

But we do not live in ideal times. This new course is a clear step toward including the unique story of African-Americans in our curriculum. Students, both black and white, tell me that they want these classes. They know they live in a multicultural and diverse environment; they know the history of people of color is often given short shrift in their classes. Perhaps students will someday be required to take courses in Ethnic studies. 

Second: The other development out of Michael Walker’s Office of Black Male Student Achievement is the elective classes he has worked to set up in four high schools and four middle schools called Building Lives, Acquiring Cultural Knowledge (B.L.A.C.K.). Teachers, community members, parents and most importantly students  were at the table to help create the course. It is not a course to “fix” Black males but rather it is a course to empower students right now with what they need in order to be heard, to succeed and to navigate the educational and urban world in which they live. Students will learn about culture, arts and literature of African-Americans over time.

Because Black males will be teaching these classes, students will see before them on a daily basis, models for achievement. Tutoring will be part of the week’s schedule, as will be strategies for studying and writing. Each week there will also be an ”open mic” day when classmates will be able to bring up issues they want to talk about and reason through with the help of a caring adult. And it is this adult who is the key to the classes’ success: he is a teacher who is concerned for the welfare of each and every young man in his charge and who has built a relationship with students grounded in trust and persistence.

Michael Walker believes that it is this relationship, as much as the curriculum that will create the environment for members of the class to excel. Such a connection can be the bridge we need to truly welcome Black male students into our schools. Black students have been marginalized, not only by institutional racism but by our unconscious biases as well. Black males bring a wealth of assets, yet we have not provided an inclusive space for their brilliance and creativity to flourish.

Because there are so few black male teacher in the district, Community Experts will be in charge of these courses along with guidance from the University of Minnesota.  These Community Experts are observed and are provided with a teacher mentor. They are teachers in the system and are held to the same responsibilities as a trained teacher. I hope the Davis Center is giving him the budget that allows them to succeed.

As someone who has conversations with students about race and inclusion, I know there is a hunger for just such a class, not only here but all over the country. Already this fall the Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge classes are in demand. White students also want to have conversations around the topic of race and culture. Perhaps one day a month these classes could include white students in a frank and open discussion of issues in our community. Right now, I believe the emphasis has to be on reaching Black males. As we have seen in the recent shooting of Jamal Clark, supporting Black youth is imperative. At the same time, we can hope that teachers in all their classes will have the important and uncomfortable conversations with their students around race, as well as celebrations of culture. All students need to have time to participate in truthful, factual explorations of the history of racism and its connection to our present moment in time.

The tough thing will be to acknowledge how long true progress takes.  I am always amazed to hear teachers in schools where I consult say, “We can’t change our (History, Literature, Science) course to explore Black perspectives, issues or literature: our content is already determined for us by AP or IB restrictions.” Many teachers are challenging such restrictions; many are questioning the very definition of who gets to be designated “gifted” and how we determine who gets a chance to enter programs defined as such. We have work to do. It is starting. With its caring teachers, its hard-working staff, and these new courses, Minneapolis is beginning to explore ways to turn an old corner and demolish a fortress of institutional racism.

The fear I have, is that the pressure to produce the “data” will happen too soon, so that the demand will come before these courses have had a chance to test the waters, regroup, reorganize and go back and try again. Education in the US does not allow for the time it takes to create lasting change. Perhaps Minneapolis will allow these new courses to flourish without insisting on instant success.  There is no quick fix or sudden cure for the depth of racial biases in our educational system. From the preschool child’s experience to that of the high school senior we can create radical change.

I just hope that these steps taken by the Office or Equity and by the Office of Black Male Student Achievement along with their staff and teachers will be the beginning of real transformation for Minneapolis Schools.

Julie Landsman (www.jlandsman.com)
Julie is the author of three books on education: Basic Needs: A Year with Street Kids in a City School (Milkweed Editions, 1993) A White Teacher Talks About Race (Rowman and Littlefield 2001) and Growing Up White; a Veteran Teacher Reflects on Racism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008). She is also the editor of many collections of essays stories and poems, the most recent being Voices for Diversity and Social Justice, A Literary Education Reader, with Paul Gorski and Rosanna Salcedo, (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) She is a retired teacher from the Minneapolis public schools, and consults and teaches seminars on education, writing, race and culture.

Noah Branch for Superintendent

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Whiz kid Noah Branch

December 3, 2015

Kids say the darndest things. Take Noah Branch, for example. Branch is the first student to have a spot on the Minneapolis school board, and some of the adults who let that happen might be regretting it.

Today, during the final throes of the interview process for the three Minneapolis superintendent finalists, Branch dropped this question on interim superintendent Michael Goar:

You have squandered the past year. Why should we chose you and not someone who has educational background who can fix things?

Wow. This question seemed to make Goar visibly upset, and led him to declare that, if he is allowed to become the permanent superintendent, he will need to hire a CEO to help him get the job done. I am sure the job is tough, but a CEO sounds expensive, and very business-like. Didn’t they used to call this job “Assistant Superintendent”?

Branch’s question also launched Goar into a defense of a presumed weakness: He has no teaching experience. 

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John Deasy in the board room. Or is that the Broad room?

There are lots of other urban superintendents who haven’t had teaching experience, Goar stated. He then used New York, Los Angeles, and Memphis as examples (he also referenced them during a community meet and greet on December 2).

If those are his trailblazers, then we’re in trouble. Los Angeles is currently looking for a new superintendent, after John Deasy–the one with no teaching experience–resigned under a cloud of iPad-fueled scandal. LA is also having to fight off a virtual takeover by billionaire Eli Broad, and his plan to put “half of LAUSD students in charter schools in eight years.” (Don’t worry–Deasy enjoyed a soft landing after being forced out of LA. He now works for the “Broad Center for School Management Systems,” funded by Broad himself.)

Memphis does have a superintendent, Dorsey E. Hopson, with no teaching experience. Instead, Hopson is a lawyer who helped guide Memphis through its conversion from an independent district to a member of the “Achievement School District.” See this article: “When Outsiders Take Over Schools.”

And then there is Joel Klein, the former New York superintendent that Goar mentioned by name as also having no background in teaching. In a review of Klein’s 2014 book about his educational prowess, education professor Aaron Pallas offers this insight:

What…are the lessons that Klein offers to the rest of the country? If U.S. schools in general are failing, as he asserts, what are some possible action steps? Recounting the endless reorganizations in New York City, the expansion of charter schools, and the positioning of school principals as mini-CEOs provides little guidance for the typical school district or school leader.

Branch has also asked another pointed, “Emperor’s New Clothes” question during these weeks of superintendent candidate interviews: “How do you know the Acceleration 2020 plan will work?” Acceleration 2020 is the oft-cited, “get our numbers up” strategic plan for the Minneapolis schools.

Maybe Branch would consider becoming Minneapolis’ next superintendent.

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