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.
Here is where the tangled media-PR-promotional campaign lines really get crossed. Hawkins 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 effective teaching bolstered public perception of the Shift plan.
–RESET Education 2013 Summary Report
Up next: MN Comeback, In Detail
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