Superintendent search? Nah. McKinsey & Co. Mind Meld

January 25, 2016

Minneapolis, we need to talk about McKinsey & Co., the Itasca Project and their influence on the Minneapolis Public Schools. Consider this post part one of our conversation.

As the city’s school board sweats through an agonizing superintendent search, it may be useful to step back and think about how we got to this seemingly chaotic place. The nine-member board has struggled to effectively move forward, and they have been scolded mightily for it, often by people in high places (see RT Rybak’s comments in this recent Star Tribune article).

Here’s an alternative point of view. While it seems the board could use some more decisive leadership, I also think this democratically elected body is doing just what it is supposed to be doing. It is standing between the citizens of Minneapolis and some of the most powerful political forces in this city and state, who keep trying to remake the Minneapolis Public Schools into a competition-saturated, neoliberal playground. 

Enter McKinsey & Co., and the Itasca Project.


McKinsey & Co. is a global (capitalism) consulting firm that sells spreadsheets and market-driven advice to both the private and the public sector, often through a shroud-covered alliance of the two. McKinsey is a great place to work if you are a bright, young Ivy League grad who knows his or her way around a data dive and a six-figure salary. 

And McKinsey–otherwise known as “The Firm”–is a big player in today’s free market-based global education reform movement, or “GERM.” Why does McKinsey dabble in education? Here’s a clue, from the front page of the “Education” section of its website:

As education transforms, the traditional and highly limited openings for private companies are growing wider. Investors should take note.

Image result for michael barber pearson

Michael Barber

Transformation in education could mean anything. For McKinsey, it means the opportunity to open the K-12 public education “market”–estimated to be worth $700 billion–to outside interests and private investors. It also means putting pressure on public school systems to adhere to a standardized test-driven bottom line. After all, McKinsey assumes that “test scores are the best available measure of educational achievement.” 

That is the mind–and skill–set McKinsey brings to their global education efforts, and their reach is deep. Curriculum and standardized testing giant Pearson, for example, has former McKinseyite Michael Barber on staff as its chief education advisor. And, according to British newspaper The Guardian, Barber and McKinsey share an unofficial motto:

“Everything can be measured, and what is measured can be managed.”

That includes students and teachers, of course. Measuring, managing, standardizing, systemizing, controlling, observing, checking, evaluating–all of these very McKinsey-like activities are being applied with full force to our public education classrooms. The whiter and more affluent the classroom, the lesser the effect of this top down, crisis-driven approach to teaching and learning (essential read: “An Open Letter to Teachers and Staff at No Excuses Charter Schools”).

McKinsey has had an office in the Twin Cities since 1988, and has been wielding a quiet but “highly touted” influence on our civic affairs ever since. But I’ll skip to its role in education.

McKinsey works hand in hand with the Minneapolis-based Itasca Project. Itasca operates as a slice of Minnesota exceptionalism, where local civic, business and government leaders come together to break bread and grapple with vexing infrastructure issues. The Itasca Project is full of successful people doing good things, or trying to (and we are inclined to believe that they are, of course).

Don’t take my word for it. The New York Times profiled Itasca in December of 2015, in a revealing yet flattering article titled, “In the Twin Cities, Local Leaders Wield Influence Behind the Scenes.” (Behind the scenes influencing is much more dignified than disrupting a school board meeting, no?)

Here is what Itasca does, according to New York Times reporter Nelson D. Schwartz:

Every Friday morning, 14 men and women who oversee some of the biggest companies, philanthropies and other institutions in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding area gather here over breakfast to quietly shape the region’s economic agenda.

They form the so-called Working Team of the Itasca Project, a private civic initiative by 60 or so local leaders to further growth and development in the Twin Cities. Even more challenging, they also take on thorny issues that executives elsewhere tend to avoid, like economic disparities and racial discrimination.

And Itasca is run by McKinsey & Co. No, really. It is. McKinsey provides staffers who organize and manage the Itasca Project by crunching numbers, whipping up spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, and providing overall guidance and direction (or, as a McKinsey employee told me in 2014, “They let Itasca stand up and lead the work, but it is McKinsey who carries it out”). 

The McKinsey office in Minneapolis is the Itasca Project’s office–literally. They share the same address, according to Itasca’s website:

Itasca Project
c/o McKinsey & Company
3800 IDS Center
Minneapolis, MN 55402

In 2007, at the invitation of the Minneapolis Public Schools and its school board, McKinsey consultants wrote up–for free–a new strategic plan for the district. “Our vision–to make every child college ready by 2012– is ambitious,” read the plan. “The strategies and action steps outlined in this plan make it doable.” The plan was enthusiastically adopted by the city, and by a prominent batch of progressive leaders, such as Rybak and then-school board member Pam Costain.

The Itasca Project, through local philanthropists, then paid for McKinsey employee Jill Stever-Zeitlin to have a high level position in the Minneapolis Public Schools, thereby blurring the lines between public and private interests, and accountability. 

And what was Itasca’s aim? The “strategic redirection of the Minneapolis Public Schools.”

Up next: what that “strategic redirection” has meant for the district.

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4 thoughts on “Superintendent search? Nah. McKinsey & Co. Mind Meld

  1. Doug Mann

    McKinsey and Company share the vision and strategic aims of the Broad Foundation as they relate to public education, which includes promotion of charter schools, eliminating teacher job protections, teacher pay for performance, etc. The Minneapolis School District’s 2006-2007 strategic plan involved a great deal of input from just about everyone who wanted to provide it, but McKinsey and Co, guided the process toward the type of plan it wanted, and away from solutions that did not complement its neo-liberal school reform agenda. There was no plan to improve teacher retention and reduce the exposure of children to newly hired and inexperienced teachers, even though the 2002 district improvement plan identified increased teacher retention as its strategic goal, and with it, reduced teacher turnover rates, and reduced racial disparities in exposure of students to new and inexperienced teachers.

  2. Jack Covey


    Did you ever notice how incestuous, or at least interwoven the whole corporate education reform movement is?

    For example, check out the connections between “McKinsey & Co.” and “Teach for America,” and the corporate charter school world, and Wall Street in general.

    First, there’s McKinsey’s “Financial Services Director”, Kurt Strovink:
    “Kurt has helped lead a number of change efforts in education over the past 10 years, including working with multiple chancellors in the New York City Department of Education, Harvard University, TEACH FOR AMERICA, and other educational groups. He is a member of the Board of Trustees at Carnegie Hall and is a MEMBER OF THE NATIONAL BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF TEACH FOR AMERICA.”
    Next, there’s the recently departed CEO of Teacher for America Matt Kramer (co-CEO to be precise). Here’s his bio from his new workplace “Bloomberg Business”:

    (NOTE: prior to serving as TFA’s CEO, Kramer had exactly ZERO experience or background in education an any capacity — teacher, administrator, etc..
    He wasn’t even a TFA teacher.),%20Inc.

    (CAPS mine, JACK)
    “Mr. Matthew G. Kramer has been Chief Revenue Officer of Seegrid Corporation since May 2011. Mr. Kramer serves as President and CHIEF PROGRAM OFFICER OF TEACH FOR AMERICA, INC.”

    “MR. KRAMER JOINED TEACHER FOR AMERICA AFTER HE WORKED AT McKINSEY AND COMPANY , a management consulting firm, where he was a partner and leader in the North American Financial Institutions practice.

    “In addition to his work with insurers and asset managers, Mr. Kramer has also served nonprofit institutions focused on K-12 education. He served as the General Manager and Vice President of Agricultural Trait Development for Exelixis Plant Sciences, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Exelixis Inc., since December 2000. He served as Vice President, Product Development at Exelixis Plant Sciences Inc. (Formerly Agritope Inc.) since 1994. From 1987 to 1994, Mr. Kramer was the Director of Production and Product Development at Calgene, Inc., an agricultural biotechnology company, where he was part of the team that brought the first genetically engineered whole food to market. Mr. Kramer is the author of numerous publications, book chapters and invited reviews in the field of applying the tools and techniques of biotechnology to fruit and vegetable species. Mr. Kramer served as a Director of Exelixis Plant Sciences, Inc. Mr. Kramer received a B.A. in Economics from Harvard College. Mr. Kramer holds an M.S. in Plant Breeding and Genetics from Montana State University.”

    Next, here’s the wikipedia page for “Teach for All”, TFA’s new global company, which is out to expand TFA to every country on earth:

    “An initial founding partner (of “Teach for All”) was McKinsey & Company who helped establish the pilot organization in Chile.[8] In 2009, the Skoll Foundation gave Teach For All the Award for Social Entrepreneurship and a three year guarantee for an annual donation of $765,000.[9] The award is given to organizations that have already demonstrated significant impact.”

    Here’s more. The Executive Director of the “Yes Prep” charter school chain, one of the chains seeking to expand in Minneapolis, is one Ann Ziker
    “After earning her doctorate in 2008, Ann joined McKinsey & Company as a consultant. At McKinsey, Ann served private and social sector clients on a variety of strategic and organizational issues. While at McKinsey, Ann developed a passion for applying the best problem-solving skills from the private sector to our most significant social challenges. In 2010, Ann returned to the education sector to serve as the founding Managing Director for Education Pioneers – Houston, where she led the successful launch of the Houston region. In 2012, Ann joined YES Prep as Vice President for Advancement. In this role, Ann led YES’s effort to build a robust network of community champions and investors. Ann presently serves as the organization’s Executive Director. ”
    Next, you have , the President and CEO of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation (nice how Wall Street co-opts the most progressive historical figure, and his signature speech)

    “Prior, she served as Teach For America’s New York City Executive Director, where she led a major expansion, growing the local corps from 250 to 1,000 teachers. Previously, she worked as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company.”

    Now, look at one of the “Senior Mentors” at the school privatization “Aspen Institute:

    “James Manyika
    Senior Partner, Director
    McKinsey & Co., McKinsey Global Institute”
    And on that same “Aspen Institute” page:
    “Mehrdad Baghai … He served as chairman of the Commercial Executive Committee. He was previously a partner in the Sydney and Toronto offices of McKinsey and Company and co-leader of the firm’s worldwide Growth Practice.”
    *Sherman Baldwin … He has also served as Vice President, managing member and equity partner at J.F. Lehman & Company and as an Engagement Manager at McKinsey & Company.”
    “David (Dave) McCormick … earlier in his career he was a consultant at McKinsey & Company.”

    I suspect I could go on for a while… this was just a 20-minute Google search

  3. Phoebe

    Nice connections made there, Jack! Besides the existing Kramer/Mckinsey/TFA connections to MinnPost, peddler of corporate education reform propaganda, the new publisher is a McKinseyite, so we can expect more of the same from them:
    “I’m proud to announce that MinnPost has named its first publisher, Andrew Wallmeyer, a journalist who got an MBA and now is a senior associate at the strategic consulting firm McKinsey & Co. ”

    Another TFA/McKinsey connection at MPS: It was said that part of TFA alum and McKinsey employee, Mike Lynch ‘s salary when he was running the MPS Teaching and Learning department in Minneapolis Public Schools was paid by McKinsey, where he was also employed. His LinkedIn show concurrent employment at MPS and McKinsey. The former Curriculum and Instruction department was dismantled and the new Teaching and Learning dept, specializing in focused (scripted) instruction replaced it, all lead by Lynch. It seems that the influence of McKinsey and TFA trump democratic public schools. Thanks for already writing about Lynch and what he did to MPS here, Sarah: “Mike Lynch is the current director of Teaching and Learning for the Minneapolis Public Schools, and is responsible for overseeing the implementation of Focused Instruction across the district. Lynch comes to his MPS position, which he has held for the past eighteen months, from three years of teaching, through Teach for America and a Fulbright scholarship, and a career as a project manager for the global consulting firm, McKinsey & Company. It is this experience, Lynch believes, that positions him well to lead the implementation of Focused Instruction in Minneapolis, as he sees his role as that of “managing project timelines on budget,” more so than that of an instructional leader or expert in curriculum development. For Jacobson, Lynch’s lack of experience in education is problematic when it comes to what teachers are being asked to do with Focused Instruction.”
    Lynch removed TFA from his resume on LinkedIn but kept in his work with Achieve Minneapolis, led of course by neoliberal, Pam Costain a friend of McKinsey’s policies, here’s a touch of her hunger for union busting along with the help of a strategic plan hatched by McKinsey :

  4. Tom Kanthak

    Please PLEASE take the time to watch “Schooling the World”. It will put the Corporate Oligarchy and its influence on education in a global perspective. And what’s with “neoliberal” as a dirty word? Can you find something better to use as a slur for misguided, uninformed psychopaths?


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