Tag Archives: Minneapolis Foundation

Taking Reformers Out of Context: 2016 Highlights

January 1, 2017

It’s New Year’s Day, and for now, my house is quiet. Before me sits tons of work to be done–an unlit Christmas tree ready to be turned into a winter bird feeder, stacks of shared skates in need of sorting, and, of course, the pile of dishes that so quickly crowd my tiny kitchen counter.

I want to write instead. 

Leo

On December 19, my 103-year old grandfather, Leo, died. He was a writer, up until the last months of his life. We were not close while I was growing up, but he did tell me once that, to be a writer, one has to “apply seat of pants to chair, and write.” Thinking about writing, talking about writing, imagining the perfect, clutter-free life that would lead to volumes of unforgettable work–none of this counts as much as just sitting down and writing.

In  2017, I hope to do more of that. I am working on a book, which has taken me somewhat out of the social media eye and required me to work the old-fashioned way: slowly, with lots of handwritten notes. Before I move further down that path, I want to reflect on some 2016 blog highlights.

In 2016, this little blog started the year on fire by tracking Minneapolis’s superintendent search. On January 4, I published a piece on then-candidate Sergio Paez, who was fighting to save his job, and his name:

Paez says he is coming to Minneapolis to “be able to talk to people about anything they have in mind and to learn more about MN in the process.” His email makes no mention of the fact that, although the Minneapolis school board chose him as the district’s next superintendent in December of 2015, he is now in the unexpected position of having to fight for the job.

This led to a rush of early 2016 pieces about Michael Goar (once the favored candidate for school superintendent), the District Management Council (high-priced reform consultants from Boston) and a series of posts on how Minneapolis become a breeding ground for neoliberal education reform.

This is how it started, on January 25, 2016:

Minneapolis, we need to talk about McKinsey & Co., the Itasca Project and their influence on the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Four more posts detailing global business consultant McKinsey & Company’s involvement in Minneapolis followed, paving the way for a look at Minnesota Comeback–the latest philanthropic effort to redesign the Minneapolis schools.

This writing hasn’t made me popular among the reformer crowd. At a late 2016 reform-funded school board campaign event, a main funder of Minnesota Comeback grew huffy in my presence. I was standing near him as a friend asked questions about the group’s plans for the Minneapolis Public Schools. “Ladies,” he said shortly, “this isn’t an interview.” (He is the same funder who, at a previous Minnesota Comeback event, cheerfully reduced a friend and I to mom status.)

He realized we weren’t there to thank Minnesota Comeback for the lush buffet they had put on for the candidate forum. “Some people take things out of context,” he said, tapping me on the shoulder before walking off. 

Do I? I can see why Minnesota Comeback members might think this way, as they typically enjoy very flattering press coverage that is conspicuously devoid of context.

Consider this MinnPost piece from December, 2016: “How one education nonprofit is seeking to create a groundswell of parent engagement.” In the piece, MinnPost education reporter Erin Hinrichs creates a glowing picture of Minnesota Comeback’s efforts, and their self-financed ability to spin out grants to organizations and schools they like.

Grant distribution is a questionable way to create a better school system, but that doesn’t come up in Hinrichs’ piece. Instead, Minnesota Comeback is treated to an unblinking look at its recent work, which includes:

  • Hiring a community engagement director who is publicly very pro-charter school
  • Dousing an already well-funded entity, Students for Education Reform, with cash (the nationally run group started, in 2011, with $30,000. One year later, they reported almost $2 million in revenue. If you want to know who they are and what they stand for, research SFER’s board members).
  • Closing the “information gap” by hosting “conversations” with parents through New Publica, a media group run by former Minneapolis school board member, Alberto Monserrate. New Publica lists MinnPost as one of their clients, along with a handful of other education reform outlets, as well as non-education, business entities. If MinnPost has paid New Publica for PR work, and MinnPost then writes a positive take on New Publica’s other work, does this count as journalism?

A friend of mine recently told me that pro-privatization groups will always tell you what they are doing,  if you know what to look for. That is true with Minnesota Comeback as well (look! they hired a new talent director with a background in “recovery” school districts), but it should be the job of reporters to connect the dots for citizens, and pierce through the group’s own PR platitudes.

That’s what this blog is intended to do, but the workload is heavy. There appears to be no mainstream or even alternative press (besides this little site) in Minnesota doing investigative work into education reform groups and their cozy ties to Minnesota’s wealthiest citizens.

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In loving memory of Leo Sonderegger, 1913-2106. Peace activist, ACLU defender, conscientious objector to war and 2013 Elders Wisdom, Children’s Song honoree.

“The world changes so fast/write it down.”

 

Michael Goar Says Goodbye to the Minneapolis Schools

May 4, 2016

Michael Goar, interim superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, will leave the district in June. In an email sent to district staff this morning, Goar announced that he will become the next president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities, and expects to begin his new position early next month. 

Michael Goar

Goar has worked for school districts in Minneapolis, Memphis and Boston for the majority of his career. Now, according to his email, working for Big Brothers Big Sisters will represent a slight shift in focus:

Big Brothers Big Sisters helps children realize their potential. I am going from an organization that builds brighter futures through education to one that does the same through mentorship. I have a deep appreciation for the role of mentoring in putting children on the right path. We all realize schools can’t do it alone.

Goar’s recent history in Minneapolis has been tumultuous, in the eyes of many observers. It was once expected that he would land in the superintendent seat, permanently, in the wake of Bernadeia Johnson’s 2014 resignation, but missteps along the way prevented this from happening. Most notably, Goar’s handling of the 2015 uproar over the Reading Horizons curriculum seemed to curtail his rise to the top.

But it appears he has landed on his feet, in a job that sounds like it will provide a comfortable distance from the often bureaucracy-plagued world of the Minneapolis Public Schools. As he prepares to exit the district, the school board will continue on with its drawn out search for a new superintendent. Lessons learned from Goar’s time in MPS will undoubtedly shape who the board choses to carry the district forward.

I want to thank each and every one of you who makes MPS what it is—a school district that puts students first, that will never stop trying to be better and do more for kids.  

–Michael Goar, May 4, 2016

With R.T. Rybak situated as the new president of the Minneapolis Foundation, and Goar’s next position now known, two key education hot spots remain open: CEO of Achieve Mpls, the “nonprofit partner” of the Minneapolis schools, and Generation Next, the data-centric organization that both Goar and Rybak have led.

Stay tuned!

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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Star Power: R.T. Rybak to Lead Minneapolis Foundation

May 2, 2016

The stars sure seem to be aligning for former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak’s lately. Recently, he got an actual star on the hallowed outside wall of First Avenue (perhaps because of the “Prince Permit” he helped secure for the club, while mayor, or because of his super-cool-guy mayor stage dives). 

Now, he has vaulted to the top of the local philanthropist world. Many have suspected that Rybak would be first in line to take over at the Minneapolis Foundation when current president, Sandra Vargas, retires this summer, and today, these rumors were confirmed. 

Mpls Fdn RybakAround noon, a smiling photo of Rybak graced email inboxes across the Twin Cities, as the formal announcement came through:

“After a long and robust national search, the Board of Trustees of the Minneapolis Foundation has selected R. T. Rybak to become the seventh CEO/President in the Foundation’s history.”

A long and robust search? That seems odd, since most people assumed Rybak would be the one to fill Vargas’s reform-built shoes at the Foundation. Vargas has been busy while head of the Minneapolis Foundation, by serving as the board chair of the national 50CAN ed reform group (parent to local offshoot, MinnCAN).

Under her leadership, the Foundation has directed incredible resources towards bringing the market-based education reform movement home to roost in MInneapolis. Here are some examples of that:

  • Teach for America
  • 2013’s RESET campaign, which was a festival of sorts for half-baked, top down reform plans
  • MN Comeback, the latest iteration of sure-fire solutions for the ever-failing Minneapolis Public Schools

Will Rybak follow Vargas down the yellow brick road of ed reform? The Minneapolis Foundation seems to think so. Today’s announcement assured email recipients that Rybak has been “very supportive” of the foundation’s work in education, among other initiatives. This support will allow Rybak to “hit the ground running” when he takes over on July 1, according to the email’s author, John Sullivan.

Rybak’s own past suggests that he will have no problem following Vargas’s lead. Aside from his reputation as a stage diving, bike riding groovy mayor, he has embraced not only Teach for America, but also the rap about how certain charter schools “outperform” district schools. These two concepts–the “transformational” powers of Teach for America and charter schools that “beat” out regular old public schools–are ripped right out of the neoliberal playbook on how to “fix” our schools. 

Rybak will have to leave behind his position at Generation Next, which creates an opening for some other bright star. Departing interim superintendent Michael Goar’s name has been mentioned, but he is more likely to end up taking over for Pam Costain at Achieve Mpls, the school district’s official “nonprofit partner” (as opposed to the unofficial ones, such as MN Comeback and the Minneapolis Foundation).

Musical chairs! What will all of this mean for the Minneapolis schools, in an era where Minnesota legislators seem to be doing the absolute minimum to support public education in this state? 

I’m not sure. But while we wait and see, here are two good reads:

  • Joanne Barkan’s recent article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Charitable Plutocracy,” is about education reform and the growing power of private foundations. Barkan’s article includes this gem: “…anyone hoping for a grant—which increasingly includes for-profit as well as nonprofit media—treats donors like unassailable royalty. The emperor is always fully clothed.”
  • The recent news that the sugar daddy of the privatization/charter school movement, the Walton Foundation, is taking its money and running from several U.S. cities, including Minneapolis. This might hamper MN Comeback’s plans for Minneapolis, or it might make them more dependent on the kindliness of local groups like the Minneapolis Foundation.

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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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.)

Suzy Redo 2

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.

Suzy Redo 1

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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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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