MN Comeback: Reheated Ed Reform Treats

March 3, 2016

As part of my ongoing series on McKinsey & Company’s influence on the Minneapolis Public Schools, I promised a closer look at the latest group that wants to have its way with the district, MN Comeback. Access Part 1 of my McKinsey series here, and go from there.

On Tuesday, March 1, MN Comeback held its quarterly meeting within the warm and naturally lit Heritage Park YMCA space, on the near-north rim of Minneapolis.

While a handful of Heritage Park residents whirred along on exercise machines across the hall, MN Comeback meeting attendees snacked on free doughnuts and cupfuls of coffee. Those attendees included some well-known names: R.T. Rybak, Minneapolis interim superintendent Michael Goar, former Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson–who introduced herself as an educational consultant, and early charter school legislator Ember Reichgott-Junge. 

Later, as I tried to capture my thoughts on the event, scenes from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s early comic series, Life is Hell, popped into my head. One of Groening’s most unforgettable comics featured repeat characters Akbar and Jeff as owners of an exclusive Airport Snack Bar. Their tagline? “Where the Elite Meet to Eat Reheated Meaty Treats.”

MN Comeback meetings could be seen as the place where the Elite Meet to Promote Reheated Education Reform Treats.

Let me explain.

MN Comeback is the latest attempt by the Minneapolis Foundation and other high-end funders to push a specific education reform agenda on the Minneapolis Public Schools. In 2006-2007, this involved working through the Itasca Project to put a McKinsey & Company-written, market-based reform plan in place for the Minneapolis schools.

That plan hasn’t amounted to much, although it did help usher in a Leaning Tower of Pisa-like stack of silver bullet initiatives and priorities, including an influx of non-education trained, transformational staffers. (Just read through the district’s “Human Capital” department’s recent hires for a few choice examples of this.)

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MN Comeback PPT slide

Then, 2013 brought the awkward RESET Education campaign, which looked like another meeting of the moneyed and powerful minds, brought together to transform the lowly Minneapolis Public Schools. 

RESET promoted a grab bag of educational quick fix solutions, all wrapped up in a neat marketing plan. Here are the five gap-destroying strategies RESET settled on:

  • Real-time Use of Data
  • Expectations not Excuses
  • Strong Leadership
  • Effective Teaching
  • Time on Task

Like a reheated airport snack bar hot dog, these strategies may look good from afar, but under close inspection, they are not very satisfying. The first and most obvious reason is, these are top down, catchy solutions cooked up in boardrooms and “expert” planning sessions–far from the sometimes distressing world of actual public school classrooms. (Another obvious reason? Childhood poverty–which is tied so tightly to race here–has deepened and nearly doubled in Minnesota in the past 20 years, just as funding for public education dropped, and money for families in need stagnated.)

And that is probably why RESET quietly retreated to the background, only to be reborn as MN Comeback. The solutions being promoted are the same; they just come under a different banner now. 

Alongside RESET, the Minneapolis Foundation hosted something called the Education Transformation Initiative (ETI). The ETI was awarded a $200,000 “education ecosystem” grant from the local Bush Foundation as recently as 2014, but a MN Comeback funder I talked with at the March 1 meeting said that the ETI had been transformed into MN Comeback. 

The language and promise of the ETI–of transformational, data driven, union-free policies for public schools–was supported by the same tight-knit group of non-educationy heavy hitters, including the Walton Foundation (Wal-Mart), the reform-happy Joyce Foundation, and the local Robins Kaplan Miller Ciresi Foundation.

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MN Comeback Team Roster

The ETI was staffed by former McKinsey & Company consultant Amy Hertel, through her position at the Minneapolis Foundation. In 2015, Hertel became Vice President of Network Impact for something called Education Cities, which is yet another reiteration of Gates/Walton/Broad Foundation money being used to prop up non-classroom careers for people who swear they only want all kids to be able to “access great public schools.” 

The ETI became MN Comeback, which is now part of Hertel’s group, Education Cities. MN Comeback is managed here by Al Fan, formerly of the short-lived group, Charter School Partners. At a fall, 2015 MN Comeback meeting, Fan admitted that he’s “only been at this” education reform stuff for 5 or 6 years, after a career in marketing, I believe, at General Mills.

This may explain the vagueness that is MN Comeback. The group–which apparently has raised $30+ million to support its campaign–says it wants to bring “30,000 rigorous and relevant” seats to Minneapolis by 2025. But Fan could not explain what “relevant” means, and, so far, “rigorous” only means the boosting of test scores. 

The MN Comeback funder I chatted with on March 1 was a nice person, whose professed good intentions I can’t argue with. But he did say that he knows little about education, and that one main thing he thought was holding the Minneapolis schools back was that parents just didn’t have enough info about all of their school choice options. “If the school across the street from you isn’t good, you should be able to go a mile away to a better option,” he explained.

Looks like we can add a naive belief in the transformational power of school choice to MN Comeback’s menu.

Up next: A closer look at MN Comeback’s partnership with the Minneapolis Public Schools.

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