January 25, 2016
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.
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”).
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.
Like my work? Consider supporting it through a much appreciated donation. And thanks to those of you who already have. Priceless!