Tag Archives: Itasca Project

On Buckthorn, Neoliberalism and Other Invasive Things

May 1, 2017

Last week, as I was driving my South High School student to an event, she began naming all of the trees lining the street. There’s a River Birch, she called out, and my favorite, she said excitedly–the Scotch Pine. See how they bend, close together? 

River Birch in bloom

Another time, we went for a walk near Lake Harriet. It wasn’t long before she was naming the birds around us, based on their look and sound. She hasn’t learned any of this from me, although I have lived most of my life in Minnesota, surrounded by our trees, lakes and birds. Instead, she has a Minnesota Ecology class this semester, at South. It is taught by a teacher I’ve never met, but someone my daughter has taken to with eager enthusiasm. 

Recently, the class went on a field trip to a wildlife refuge along the Mississippi River. They spent the day clearing buckthorn and learning about other invasive plant species. It was grubby, thrilling work–rewarded with a free lunch buffet. My kid was over the moon with joy. It was the kind of dirty work she, and a lot of kids, I imagine, long for. It feels real, and it beats sitting in a windowless classroom on a spring day (or any day, to be honest).

Her experience at South has been far from perfect. We’ve navigated communication breakdowns with teachers, and tearful moments of panic over due dates, friendships and the prison-like look and feel of South. But we’ve reached the heights, too. She’s on the honor roll. She just got inducted into the National Honor Society with seventy-four of her tenth grade peers; the Society’s new president is a Somali-American student who promises to bring a new style of leadership to the service-oriented group.

She has friends from all over the city. She’s learning another language. She interacts with people from many walks of life. On a Saturday afternoon, she went to a Battle of the Bands, sponsored by South and held on the school’s bleak track field. This week, I’m helping her pick out frames for some of her own artwork, which made it into Intermedia Arts’ spring show. (Her Advanced Art teacher encouraged students to submit their work for review.)

Why am I writing all of this? Isn’t the Minneapolis Public Schools burning to the ground? The district has no money and stagnant test scores. The public is angry; district principals are even more upset. 

But on the ground, the district succeeds in many ways. I have spent a fair amount of time this year at north Minneapolis’s Lucy Laney Community School, observing, writing and getting to know the kids and their teachers (and food service workers, engineers, behavior support people and administrators). Mostly, I have been embraced by the kids, especially a handful of third graders who greet me with hugs and a warm “Ms. Lahm!” whenever I show up. 

Last Friday, I sat with a few of them as they relaxed and drew pictures. One boy wrote a love note to a beloved support staff member, Ms. Kim. Another girl drew a geometric pattern in black, telling me that her dad thinks she’s good at drawing. She gave me the picture to take home. 

A week or two ago, when I pulled up at Laney, there was a police car in the parking lot, its doors flung open. I had no idea what was going on, but it seemed to involve a minivan that was stopped at an angle just outside of the school’s front windows. Once I got inside, I learned the school was on alert. “There’s a Code Yellow going on,” one of my young friends told me, before asking, with a tap on my shoulder, if I was okay.

It turns out that someone had dropped their kid off at school in a stolen car. The police confronted the parents in the parking lot, guns drawn, in full view of a kindergarten classroom. The kids never learned the details of this, I’m sure, thanks to the watchful oversight of Laney staff. No one seemed particularly upset, either.  

It was just another day. Another day in a district perpetually on the verge of being undone by neoliberal interventions, declining public investment and school choice escape hatches. Our schools are more racially and economically segregated than ever, whether they are district schools or quasi-private charters. (Now, place your bets as to who that benefits, to steal a line from Hamilton.)

On April 18, the Minneapolis school board responded to public protest by reinstating the jobs or employment status of seven district staffers who feel they were dismissed unfairly–for a variety of reasons that center on race and toxic working conditions. I shared the stories of some of these employees in previous blog posts, and wrote about the meeting’s outcome, too.

I don’t regret that. But I have tried to listen further, to the stories of district principals–who held their own come-to-Jesus meeting with board members last week–as well as to the staff who’ve been victimized by a system that often seems to be its own worst enemy. There are reams of anecdotal evidence to support the conclusion that MPS has an HR problem. Not everywhere, but in enough sites that some closer scrutiny of management should be a high priority. Is it?

There are some great principals in MPS; my own kids have attended schools led by competent, friendly, fair-minded administrators. It’s also important to acknowledge that the job description for principals has changed a lot in recent years, to encompass scores of box-checking and classroom micromanaging. (Dig into the RESET Education plan, for some background info.) Good relationships are not built through spreadsheets and scripted teacher observation forms.

This is failure by design, of course. MPS once served over 50,000 students–with one superintendent and maybe two or three associate superintendents helping out. Today, we have seven or eight associate superintendents for 36,000 students. Which sites, under which associate superintendents, continue to crop up as problematic? Does anyone have data on that?

Which aspects of the district’s strategic plan, written pro bono by McKinsey & Co. consultants in 2007, continue to undermine strong principals, teachers, support staff and students? (McKinsey & Co. is a global capitalism consulting firm, with close ties to business, civic and philanthropic leaders in the Twin Cities via the Itasca Project.

Accepting McKinsey & Company’s free strategic plan was a trap. It promised big things, including a never-reached 80 percent, district-wide proficiency rate on standardized tests by 2012. And it continues to dominate MPS’s plans and budgetary priorities, such as the recent attempt to balance the district’s budget on the backs of building engineers.  

Meanwhile, Minnesota legislators sit on a billion dollar budget surplusIf we want real change, maybe we have to start asking the right questions.

Neoliberalism is embraced by parties across the political spectrum, from right to left, in that the interests of wealthy investors and large corporations define social and economic policy. The free market, private enterprise, consumer choice, entrepreneurial initiative, deleterious effects of government regulation, and so on, are the tenets of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism and Education Reform, 2007

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McKinsey & Friends in Minneapolis: Strong Arm Tactics

February 22, 2016

Fifth in a series: While the Minneapolis school board wrestles with an extended, dramatic superintendent search, I am exploring how the Minneapolis schools fell under the influence of today’s pervasive global education reform movement. Click on these links to get to Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

“Never in my whole life before did I know how much more difficult it is to make business decisions myself than merely advising others what to do….”

–McKinsey & Company founder James O. McKinsey, as quoted in Duff McDonald’s 2013 book, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey & Its Secret Influence on American Business

If 2007 was the high point of McKinsey & Company’s involvement in the Minneapolis Public Schools–thanks to the hopeful buzz created by the firm’s pro bono plan for the district–then 2013 could easily be seen as the low point. That year, the buzz wore off, as a companion market-based reform PR strategy, called “Let’s RESET Education,” hit the local airwaves, and floundered.

In 2013, the “RESET” campaign, which was brought to us by the Minneapolis Foundation, put on three beautifully promoted public events. The events were dripping with legitimacy, since it seemed that everybody who was anybody was on board with the RESET mission to promote “proven strategies” for closing the “achievement gap” (such as the venture capital-friendly strategy of constantly monitoring student “progress” through technology).  The RESET events were even co-hosted by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), and held at MPR’s storied Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. 

But the events themselves were embarrassing, and are rumored to have caused a lot of blowback for MPR, which is supposed to, you know, represent the pinnacle of journalistic integrity. In hindsight, the naivete, or collusion, is stunning.

The kick-off RESET/MPR event featured an awkward interaction with Connecticut charter school operator, Steven Perry. Perry, who has since fallen from grace due, in part, to accusations of bullying and abuse at his once-miraculous charter schools, brought his bombastic style to the RESET campaign by referring to teachers unions as roaches that needed to be snuffed out. Perry’s jaw-dropping performance was followed by two other events, featuring musician and reform advocate, John Legend, and Mayme Hostetter, of the very odd RELAY Graduate School of Education.

Hmm. The RESET campaign had been sold as a “reasonable” dive into much-needed reforms by Beth Hawkins, who was then working as an education blogger for local online media outlet MinnPost. 

From a MinnPost piece, announcing Matt Kramer’s new job

Here is where the tangled media-PR-promotional campaign lines really get crossedHawkins was the moderator of the Perry RESET event. She also promoted it on her blog, Learning Curve. Another person on the RESET panel that night was local charter school operator, Eli Kramer. MinnPost was started by Eli’s father, Joel Kramer, who is also father to Matt Kramer, former McKinsey consultant and co-CEO of Teach for America.

Matt Kramer did pro bono work for Teach for America while a McKinsey consultant in New York City, and hopped from Harvard to McKinsey to TFA without ever having to work as a classroom teacher (he is also still listed as a board member of TFA’s less celebrated side group, Leadership for Educational Equity). This head-spinning situation prompted Hawkins to have to explain herself in most blog posts, through a “Kramer Disclaimer“:

Full, obligatory Kramer Disclaimer: Hiawatha Academies’ executive director is Eli Kramer, son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. The MinnPost Kramers are not involved in assigning or editing stories that involve their family members who are active in education issues.

MinnPost is a non-profit news source, and, as such, is dependent on what some would call the “non-profit industrial complex.” One of MinnPost’s funders is, and was, the Minneapolis Foundation, whose RESET campaign MinnPost was promoting through Hawkins’ Learning Curve blog. 

Things feel a little less snug today, since Hawkins has dropped the neutrality charade for good, and is now a “writer-in-residence” at Education Post, a well-funded PR platform for the reform strategies most favored by the 1%. MinnPost, too, is now run by Andrew Wallmeyer, who was, interestingly, a “Summer Fellow” in the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2011, in between earning his MBA and becoming a Minneapolis-based McKinsey consultant.

MinnPost was founded in 2007, just as McKinsey was helping strategically redesign the Minneapolis Public Schools. In 2014, MinnPost received a two-year, $200,000 Bush Foundation “education ecosystem” grant, due to its position as a “’go-to’” source of education news for elected officials, education advocates and school leaders.” -A few already flush, already PR-saturated education reform groups like MinnCAN and Educators for Excellence (E4E) also received “ecosystem” grants in 2014. (MinnCAN and Eli Kramer’s Hiawatha Academies charter school network were also partners in the RESET campaign, as was Teach for America.)

Here is the Bush Foundation’s explanation of what the ecosystem grants were supposed to do:

We are interested in creating the most favorable ecosystem possible for organizations working to reduce educational disparities and improve outcomes for all students in the region. We believe a supportive ecosystem requires access to critical data, a favorable policy environment and the sharing of best practices. –

It works out great, then, to have your own PR machine, disguised as an objective news source, in your back pocket, helping create that “favorable policy environment.” And the policies are always from the top, and never driven from the bottom up.

RESET might just have been too much, too soon. Too much PR with too little substance, making it easier for those paying attention to catch on to what has seemed to be more of an assault on the Minneapolis Public Schools than a desire to save it. The RESET website is still up, but the campaign appears to have morphed into MN Comeback, another moneyed group aiming to reshape the Minneapolis schools from a 10,000 foot point of view.

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson released her SHIFT plan for the district, which includes many of the RESET strategies. Campaign messages about the importance of more time in the classroom, empowered school leaders, and e€ffective teaching bolstered public perception of the Shift plan.

–RESET Education 2013 Summary Report

Up next: MN Comeback, In Detail

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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McKinsey & Friends in Minneapolis: Starvation and Strategy

February 17, 2016

Fourth in a series: While the Minneapolis school board wrestles with an extended, dramatic superintendent search, I am exploring how the Minneapolis schools fell under the influence of today’s pervasive global education reform movement. Click on these links to get to Parts 1, 2, and 3.

“The people who need to know what Itasca is doing are the participants. That’s it.”

–Jennifer Ford Reedy, former McKinsey consultant and Itasca Project advisor, quoted in a recent New York Times article

In 2007, McKinsey & Co. business consultants, in conjunction with the Itasca Project, wrote a new strategic plan for the Minneapolis Public Schools (which was rebranded  as “Acceleration 2020” in 2014). Hardly anyone, it seems, paused to wonder if opening the door to McKinsey/Itasca was a good idea. The plan itself seemed “bold,” according to many news reports from 2007, and loaded with change-making potential.

One 2007 Minneapolis school board member, however, Peggy Flanagan, warned that, unless the state of Minnesota started fully funding K-12 education, the plan’s “ambitious but doable” goals would fall flat. The full funding never came. Instead, state funding for public education in Minnesota dropped precipitously in the 2000’s, just as added pressure on the system was exploding (due to many things, such as a stunning state increase in child poverty). The global education reform movement (GERM) was also fully hitting the United States, after being given a profit-grabbing boost by the 2001 No Child Left Behind law

Recent New York Times photo of the Itasca Project at work

Let’s go back to the Itasca Project for a minute. Itasca is a Twin Cities-based group of high-powered business, philanthropic and public leaders who convene regularly to focus on how to maintain Minnesota’s “economic competitiveness and quality of life.” Their mission is noble, and much has been made of their “Minnesota exceptionalism,” while little–if anything–has been made of the fact that Itasca is staffed by McKinsey & Company consultants, who might just bring a certain data-driven point of view to bear on the problems Itasca likes to wrestle with. 

Research in fact shows that, while McKinsey/Itasca was generously offering to “strategically redirect” the Minneapolis Public Schools, many Itasca member organizations were actively lobbying against providing adequate state funds to public education in Minnesota. Wells Fargo and U.S. Banks are two prime examples of this. Progressive group TakeAction MN, along with the local Service Employees International Union, published a 2013 report called “Students v. Subsidies,” which included this declaration:

As Minnesota has faced budget deficits in recent years, policymakers have chosen solutions that impact K-12 students. That’s thanks in large part to corporations and their executives who have spent millions lobbying against tax increases…The consequences for public education have been severe. Instead of requiring the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share, we have disinvested in our kids’ education. 

The report goes on to specifically address the anti-tax, anti-public school lobbying done in Minnesota by such Itasca affiliated groups as the MN Business Partnership and the Chamber of Commerce:

…corporate executives such as U.S. Bank CEO Richard Davis fail to acknowledge their role in the Chamber and the Partnership’s anti-tax lobbying as they call for improvements in education, trumpeting their involvement in civic groups such as the Itasca Project: “One of the failings that the [Itasca Project] report identifies—and an issue that the Partnership has focused on over the past several years—is the fact that 40 percent of the students entering college are unprepared for their coursework … Improving Minnesota’s K-12 system is not only important in its own right, but will have long-term benefits to our state’s higher ed system as well. We need both systems to function effectively and efficiently if Minnesota is going to successfully compete for jobs in the future.” —Richard Davis, U.S. Bank CEO and Chair of the Minnesota Business Partnership10

So, in and around 2007, was McKinsey/Itasca “doing well by doing good,” as their McKinsey-crafted promo materials claim, or was this group actively working to create a crisis situation for the Minneapolis Public Schools, and public education in Minnesota overall? Or, as an experienced MPS teacher and administrator once said to me,

What do you think happens to something when you try to starve it? 

You make it vulnerable, weak. You expose it to the elements, which includes the mounting, often McKinsey-led national efforts to privatize public education, de-unionize the nation’s teaching force (because unions stand in the way of the market-based reform movement) and exploit the racial and economic disparities that impact who gets access to what kind of education. (Read Mike Rose for a historical take on this, and Gloria Ladson-Billings for a current perspective.)

So, why didn’t anybody say anything? 

Many people were probably too busy just trying to survive. For a data-supported look at this, check out Mary Turck’s excellent recent piece on Minnesota’s “assistance gap” for poor families. Turck’s research shows that welfare and food stamp benefits for these families have not increased since 1986. And, if you’ve seen The Big Short, or read this report from the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, you know that the whole post-2008 economic recovery thing has yet to really trickle down.

And some people have clearly fallen for the carefully coordinated PR campaign that has accompanied McKinsey/Itasca’s ongoing attempts to remake the Minneapolis Public Schools.

More on that next, I promise.

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McKinsey & Co. in Minneapolis: Trojan Horses, Tobacco Money & Big Banks

February 5, 2016

Third in a series: As the Minneapolis school board embarks on a refreshed superintendent search, I am taking a look at how the Minneapolis schools fell under the distracting and destablizing influence of the market-based education reform movement, also known as GERM. Access part one (McKinsey & Co. Mind Meld) here, and part two (McKinsey & Co. in Minneapolis) here.

Part Three

Sick days and snowy days (so beautiful) have slowed my McKinsey series down, but I’m back. Here is a brief recap of where I left things off last week: 

Trojan horse

In 2007, in Minneapolis, McKinsey & Co. consultants–acting in tandem with the local Itasca Project–wrote up a new, nine-point plan for the city’s school district, promising that, though ambitious, their plan was “doable,” and would make every Minneapolis student “college ready” by 2012. The Itasca Project thenloanedMcKinsey consultant Jill Stever-Zeitlin to the Minneapolis Public Schools, who came on in the newly created position of “Chief of Accountability and Strategic Partnerships.” (See more on McKinsey/Itasca “loaning” here.)

Why was a private, for-profit management consulting company providing strategic direction–and privately funded staff–for a public school district? This may be the point at which good intentions (let’s help all kids get to college) crossed paths with a growing national and global market-based education reform movement. This movement aims to get government out of education by replacing public school systems–deemed to be failing and in crisis–with “portfolio” districts, built around “choice” and competition.

This movement also aims to put public education dollars into private, deregulated hands, and, it assumes that people like McKinsey consultants, who are trained in data and performance management, have the answers. (The ultimate goal? To make sure the world’s education institutions serve the needs of global corporations. Watch this McKinsey video for a lesson in this, especially the part where students are described as the “winners” because their “curriculum is being molded by…industry itself.”)

And, McKinsey did its evaluation of the Minneapolis schools for free. In fact, in the 2000’s, McKinsey & Co. consultants got used to doing work, at no cost, for (or to?) the citizens of Minneapolis.  When former mayor RT Rybak took office in 2002, he brought McKinsey in with him.  A 2004 City Pages article put it this way:

During his first months in office, Rybak embraced a report by McKinsey & Company, the consulting group that wrote the business blueprint for Enron. The five-part report mostly focuses on streamlining the city’s planning and development departments, but it also pays particular attention to how the city is viewed through a business/consumerist lens. Corporate jargon like “strong customer service skills,” “responsibility and accountability,” and “strategic goals” are littered throughout.

Perhaps because it was done pro bono, the report seems to have caused few ripples, except for concerns attributed to then-City Council member Natalie Johnson Lee, who worried that the “report does not directly address communities of color, and fails to tackle poverty head-on.” (It is also not clear what, if any, long-term benefits the McKinsey rejiggering accomplished.)

One can also get a peek behind the McKinsey curtain from 2004, when Rybak and his communications director, Gail Plewacki (who is now the communications director for the Minneapolis schools), tried to require the city’s police officers to go through the mayor’s office before speaking to the press. City Pages reporter G. R. Anderson, Jr., described the situation this way: 

Rybak’s press secretary Laura Sether (told) me the policy was simply about the “coordinating of communications.” It wasn’t hard to see the McKinsey effect–a pretense to transparency that was really about information management.

Pro bono work such as this is part of McKinsey’s charitable arm, as it is for many large corporations. But it is also a tried-and-true business strategy: “Philanthropic initiatives … can pave the way for future market-based innovations,” wrote McKinsey executive Doug Conant in a 2013 report. “It’s a great way to learn about communities and their needs, and test new business strategies.”

In Minneapolis, in 2007, McKinsey/Itasca’s pro bono strategic plan for the city’s schools definitely paved the way for “market-based innovations,” in the form of a coordinated, business-led mission to shake up and remake the public school system.

And much of this mission was funded, inadvertently, by Big Tobacco

For years, Jill Stever-Zeitlin’s salary in MPS was paid for by the Itasca Project through a grant from the local Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi Foundation for Children (the RKMC Foundation).  The RKMC Foundation was started, according to RKMC’s website, in 1998, with a “$30 million commitment from the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP law firm. The gift was a result of fees earned from the $6.6 billion settlement in the Minnesota tobacco lawsuit.”

This windfall allowed RKMC to support some beloved local organizations, such as the Children’s Theater, with an initial aim to “support PreK-12 education, public health, and social justice.” But, RKMC’s website tells us, in 2007 the foundation shifted. Just as McKinsey consultants were plunging in to the strategic redesign of the Minneapolis schools, “…the Foundation chose to focus its assets to achieve greater impact on improving children’s lives.”

Here’s what those assets have supported in Minnesota:

  • The Minneapolis Foundation: Through corporate philanthropy and support from the RKMC fund, the Minneapolis Foundation has provided financial support and thought leadership for the pro-business education reform movement in Minnesota. (The Minneapolis Foundation, in turn, provides financial support for the Itasca Project, which received flak in 2010 for wanting to pay its first “CEO” close to $400,000.)
  • The Minneapolis Foundation’s outgoing president, Sandra Vargas, is board chair of the national, hedge fund-heavy education reform network, 50CAN, which the Minneapolis Foundation also helps fund. Vargas became president of the Minneapolis Foundation in 2007, suggesting this was indeed a pivotal year for the local reform movement,
  • Teach for America (TFA). This education reform powerhouse was brought to the Twin Cities with help from the RKMC Foundation, giving TFA a foothold for expansion in Minnesota. While TFA recruits do not have a large classroom presence in Minneapolis, TFA alums have been put into high-profile, highly paid administrative jobs within the district–often after just two years of teaching experience, leading to an emphasis on management systems, data collection and standardization (hallmarks of the McKinsey approach to public education). One example: Minneapolis’s “Office of New Schools,” run by TFA alum Betsy Ohrn, and built to promote the portfolio-like splintering of the Minneapolis schools.
  • TFA also has a “deep bench,” far beyond the classroom, nationally and locally. Beginning in 2012, with TFA alum Josh Reimnitz’s  Minneapolis school board campaign, outside education reform money has poured into local elections. 
  • Educators for Excellence (E4E) is a TFA offshoot, also brought to the Twin Cities by RKMC funds. E4E is positively framed as a place for “teacher’s voices,” but also requires teachers to sign a pledge in order to join. The pledge includes an agreement to be evaluated according to student test scores, which sounds like a great “accountability” tactic, but is deeply flawed and, some would say, profoundly unethical (see this report connecting high stakes testing to the school to prison pipeline). E4E also helps promote corporate structures for public education, such as pay for performance–a controversial practice abandoned, ironically, by Microsoft (E4E is partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). E4E has a New York PR firm, SDK Knickerbocker, on retainer to help sell its “teacher-led” message.
  • MinnCAN. The RKMC Foundation provided seed money for MinnCAN, a franchise of the national 50CAN education reform network, to grow here. MinnCAN is run by former TFA-Twin Cities Executive Director Dan Sellers, who also managed, or mismanaged, some might say, the 2014 influx of outside dough into the Minneapolis school board race. (Want to get a handle on MinnCAN’s priorities/lobbying efforts? Follow the money.)
  • MinnCAN has shared office space in Minneapolis with the local pro-charter school expansion group, Charter School Partners. The RKMC Foundation has provided financial support for Charter School Partners, which has since morphed into MN Comebackan incredibly well-funded group with designs on a complete takeover of the Minneapolis Public Schools, through the expansion of “high performing” charter and district schools.
  • MN Comeback has also received money from the RKMC Foundation and the Minneapolis Foundation. Additionally, MN Comeback is part of a national education reform support and expansion group called Education Cities (again, follow the money). Amy Hertel is a former McKinsey consultant and Minneapolis Foundation education policy director. She now works for Education Cities, as the Vice President for “Network Impact.”

Think of this as a coordinated, McKinsey/Itasca-RKMC-Minneapolis Foundation-national education reform network marketing campaign, with two dominant talking points: 

  1. The Problem: The Minneapolis Public Schools, like “urban” public education everywhere, is failing. It is expensive, bloated and messy, and it is failing students of color, thanks to entrenched “adult” interests, such as teachers unions.
  2. The Solution: Competition, data, school choice, the expansion of charter schools, the use of “transformational,” non-unionized teachers, mayoral appointed school boards, metrics, performance management, greater “autonomy” in exchange for greater “accountability,” and the systematic redirection of resources from the public into private hands, through “scholarships” (vouchers), for example.

The very real, very consciously-created and unaddressed racial and economic “gaps” that exist in Minnesota and throughout the United States are always used as the (public) justification for this work. 

But here is how a Minneapolis Public Schools employee–who has asked not to be named–remembers McKinsey’s work in the district:

They held focus groups for MPS staff around 2007 — you participated and got a $10 gift card to McDonald’s or something. At the small group I was part of (about 3 or 4 white staff), they asked us what we thought were the main issues facing MPS. I said I thought racism in the form of segregated schools and predominantly white teaching staff. Jill (forget her last name — was running the focus group [and don’t forget McKinsey was doing this for free for MPS]) said, “What do you mean?” I elaborated about white schools, schools of color, low-income schools, privileged schools in SW Mpls; how we had a huge majority of white licensed staff and an ever-growing percentage of students of color, but MPS was not providing any professional development to increase educators’ understanding of our own racism and how it impacts how we view our students & their families.

After that, McKinsey published a big report about their “findings” and it didn’t say a thing about race. They had to publish an addendum to make up for their racist blind spot. 

Retired Wells Fargo CEO Jim Campbell was chair of the Itasca Project from 2003-2008. In a McKinsey & Co. video about the Itasca Project, called “Doing Well by Doing Good,” Campbell describes Itasca this way:

“Our whole focus is on picking issues and working on them and producing results.”

Notably, while Itasca, through McKinsey, was leading a “strategic redirection”–minus democratic input or oversight–of the Minneapolis schools, this happened, thanks to the north Minneapolis group known as NOC (Neighborhoods Organizing for Change):

In October 2011, prompted by outrage over damage to education funding caused by the foreclosure crisis and the lobbying influence the banks are exerting over our democracy and public revenues, NOC presented the school board with a report demonstrating the $28 million negative impact of Wells Fargo’s foreclosure practices on the district’s budget. Community members rallied and testified at the board asking them to move their $25 million monthly payroll account.  NOC followed up in December by presenting the school board with more than 12,000 petition signatures demanding they move their money.

NOC’s organizing pressure was followed, in 2012, by a SEIU (Service Employees International Union) report, titled I.O.U.: How Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank Have Shortchanged Minnesota Schools.” The report’s purpose? To square “some of the blame for a $2.4 billion school shift and other shortfalls in school funding on the practices of the state’s largest banks and their executives.” 

This begs the question: Who is failing whom? And who is controlling the narrative?

More to come! McKinsey, the media, and the education ecosystem

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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.

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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.

Background:

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.

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

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