McKinsey & Co. in Minneapolis: Strategery Sinks In

January 27, 2016

Background: As the Minneapolis Public Schools moves through a difficult superintendent search, I am taking a look back at how we got to this moment. Here is part one: McKinsey & Co. Mind Meld.

In 2007, McKinsey & Co. consultants–through the local Itasca Project–wrote a strategic plan for the Minneapolis Public Schools, at the invitation of the district and the city’s school board. The plan received an enthusiastic introduction from Minneapolis’s then-superintendent, Bill Green, who stated the plan was “…grounded in the best practices of school districts around the country.” (Green was steering Minneapolis through another moment of crisis, after the short, painful tenure of Broad-trained superintendent Thandiwe Peebles.)

Green’s intro to the plan declared that these “best practices”–said to be the product of months of community input–represented “an unwavering commitment to bold ideals and bold ideas.”

Why did it sell so well in Minneapolis? For one thing, it was 2007, and the broader global education reform movement was not well understood. And, true to the “McKinsey Way,” it was marketed well. A Minneapolis parent, recalling the plan’s rollout, remembers this: “It was neat, orderly, and presented well, with nice bullet points.”

The nine-point plan was bold–and contained the roots of today’s increasingly problematic free-market, top down, numbers based approach to rapidly raising student “achievement” (which can only be defined through something easily measured: standardized test scores). It promised all Minneapolis kids would be college-ready in just five years, in a “Field of Dreams” sort of way. If you say it, it will happen.

Here are some highlights of the McKinsey/Minneapolis strategy:

One – Restart and/or bring in other high quality schools to replace the bottom 25 percent; unleash high-performing schools. 

  • Translation: competition and choice will fix what ails Minneapolis schools. Missing from this equation: as long as schools continue to be sorted and ranked according to standardized test scores, there will always be a “bottom 25 percent.” What then?
  • This pairs well with recommendation number eight: Commit to supporting a network of great schools for all Minneapolis kids. A 2007 article about the plan made this point: “The report recommends that MPS ‘adopt a new mindset’ towards competition (such as charter and private schools).”
  • The first casualties (which happened just months before board approval of the McKinsey plan): Five schools in historically underserved north Minneapolis, and one elementary school near the University of Minnesota.
  • The push to embrace competition as a key school improvement strategy is still defining local education policy. First, Minneapolis officials signed the “District-Charter Collaboration Compact,” which has sputtered along meekly. Today, we have the district’s Community Partnership Schools plan, which will require all schools to adhere to district-created test score guidelines, but will allow for more “autonomy” in governance. Looming in the background is MN Comeback–a well-funded group that would like to see 30,000 “rigorous and relevant seats” in Minneapolis by 2025.

Two – Raise expectations and academic rigor for all students, aligning pre-K-12 programs to college readiness goal.

  • Rigor and expectation-raising, in the wrong hands (people who are not trained in education and/or child development), has come to mean the pushing down of narrow, standardized academic work–even into preschool. We have seen this in Minneapolis, through the McKinsey-led implementation of “focused” instruction (FI). Here is a 2013 article I wrote about FI’s insertion into Minneapolis’s early childhood classrooms: “Playtime or focused instruction for three year-olds?”
  • Minneapolis reporter Steve Brandt described FI this way in 2014: “Focused instruction comes from a national movement to create common standards for what should be taught in each subject. That movement has been supported by some politicians, education advocacy groups and often by business interests.” (Conspiracy theory or flow chart? Check out this visual of how McKinsey & Co. and other for-profit companies connect to the standards and testing movement in the U.S.)
  • Focused Instruction is also part of a McKinsey-style move to exert greater control (management) over what teachers and students are doing, through the use of benchmark or interim tests, and the data collection that comes from that. 
  • In 2014, a Star Tribune article reported that focused instruction was not working (that is, it was not miraculously leading to a rise in test scores).

Five – Set clear expectations for all staff at all levels; reward successes and develop or remove low performers.

  • Successes should be rewarded in education, and “low performers” should be handled. But, again, who gets to define either the criteria or the consequences in these cases? And what do people–like McKinsey consultants–without experience or expertise in education know about what success looks like, in education? 
  • McKinsey & Co. consultants are notorious for using layoffs as a path to corporate profits (or district savings?). So, if McKinsey & Co. was sent in to guide the “strategic redirection” of the Minneapolis Public Schools, on behalf of the business-minded Itasca Project…then a recommendation to “remove low performers” was probably a given. Low performers–according to student test scores–are chaff, ripe for the sorting. 
  • McKinsey & Co. is a management consultant firm, not a labor consultant firm. Their trademark approach to reform is to cut costs, pursue efficiency and focus on all that can be “measured and managed.” Or, as a 2007 article about the McKinsey strategic plan noted: “Like schools and principals, underperforming teachers could be replaced.”

There are some benign aspects of the 2007 McKinsey plan, such as the reminder to “transform relationships and partner with families.” This is important, but everybody says this, all the time. What would real transformation look like, and would it be outlined in a McKinsey & Co. strategic plan? What if the community had been asked to write a plan for the Minneapolis schools instead?

But the community wasn’t asked to lead. Instead, McKinsey/Itasca placed one of their own–consultant Jill Stever-Zeitlin–at the helm of the Minneapolis Public Schools, to try to force, or ensure, a business-like “redirection” of the district.

This is how Stever-Zeitlin’s 2008 jump from McKinsey/Itasca to Minneapolis was explained to me by the district:

Prior to being hired as an employee, Ms. Stever-Zeitlin was an employee of Itasca, and was loaned by Itasca to MPS.  This began in 2008 and lasted through June 30, 2012.  There is no written contract with Itasca for this period.  This was an agreement between then Superintendent Bill Green and the Itasca organization.  Itasca paid Ms. Stever-Zeitlin’s salary during 2008 – 2010, and 58% of her salary from January 1 – June 30, 2011.  

The position she held was created for her, since it was this special arrangement made by Itasca to support the district.

I am stuck on what it means to “loan” a human being to someone or something else, but I will move on.

Stever-Zeitlin began working directly in the Minneapolis schools in 2008, but was not an official district employee until 2011. There was no contract. No public oversight. Just an ambitious attempt to be sure the McKinsey-esque redesign of Minneapolis would go forward as planned.

McKinsey and Co. did not pay Stever-Zeitlin’s salary, however. The local Robins, Kaplan, Miller,  and Ciresi (RKMC) Foundation for Children did, through a grant to the Itasca Project. 

The McKinsey plan, and Stever-Zeitlin’s undocumented administrative position, were just the beginning for the RKMC. Their philanthropic support swung the door to education reform wide open in Minneapolis.

Up next: The ties that bind Minneapolis to the market-based education reform movement.

Like my work? Consider supporting it through a much appreciated donation. And thanks to those of you who already have. Priceless!

[Exq_ppd_form]

2 thoughts on “McKinsey & Co. in Minneapolis: Strategery Sinks In

  1. Patty Wycoff

    Wonderful work Sarah. Please take a look at who signed the compact. http://www.crpe.org/sites/default/files/Minneapolis_Compact_Dec10_0.pdf
    Josh Reimnitz, and the organization he works for, are listed. Josh moved here about 5 months before signing this and the organization he works for has nothing to do with Minneapolis Public Schools. How was he invited to be a part of this? Teach For America? I would like to know more about how this happened.

    Reply
  2. Jane Burnett

    Interesting how their plan said it would be good to “transform relationships and partner with families” when its first draft never even addressed race. The relationships that most need transforming in MPS were and still are between white administrators/educators and the students and families of color we are meant to serve.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *