Tag Archives: neoliberal education reform

Minnesota Comeback Cites “Laggards,” “Fringe Bloggers” as Problematic

May 10, 2017

In an email blast sent to supporters recently, the local education reform advocacy group, Minnesota Comeback, warned that “laggards” and “fringe bloggers”–myself included–are “spew(ing) false descriptions” of their work. 

Brand management experts warn: Don’t be a laggard!

With a subject line that read, “You’re an innovator. Diane Ravitch and fringe bloggers won’t get that,” the email sought to control Minnesota Comeback’s message of being the source of new thinking (and funding) on education. The pep talk continued later in the email, with a direct message to Minnesota Comeback investors, er…innovators:

On the innovation adoption curve, you’re an innovator. You’re a pioneer determined to do what it takes to make sure all kids have access to a rigorous and relevant education. On the opposite end of the spectrum: Laggards.

Laggards! The email then details the group’s current displeasure with Diane Ravitch, who maintains a widely read blog about public education and the political climate surrounding it. Ravitch apparently attracted Minnesota Comeback’s ire by reposting work from local writer and photographer, Rob Levine, who has recently launched a website critiquing education philanthropy in the Twin Cities. 

“It’s inevitable,” the email reads, “as our momentum builds…the higher our visibility in the public eye becomes.” It then goes on to cite the “praise” Minnesota Comeback’s work has earned. The citation–there is just one–is a link to an opinion piece about Minnesota Comeback’s good work, written by one of its own affiliates, Antonio Cardonia. This might actually be PR rather than objective praise, but I digress. 

Success, it seems, has led to unwarranted attacks from bloggers–like me, Ravitch and Levine–who avoid data and instead run on speculation and a laggard-like lack of dedication to rigor. “A growing trend of bloggers like Sarah Lahm, Rob Levine and Diane Ravitch spew false depictions of our work,” Fan advises the group’s email recipients, before complaining that, “what’s most troubling is the lack of accountability.” 

The email encourages supporters to go to Ravitch’s website and contribute positive comments about the group, so that Ravitch might be persuaded to interview Minnesota Comeback and offer a “fair” depiction of their work.

In the interest of fairness, I think it is important to consider a few things. First, Minnesota Comeback is part of a national organization, Education Cities, that is funded by a heavy hitting collection of billionaires, including the Gates, Dell, and Walton foundations. (For a review of the pitfalls of this kind of support, read Joanne Barkan’s 2011 piece, “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools.“)

Education Cities is also funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Arnold is a former Enron executive who walked away–wealthy and unscathed–from that company’s collapse. He went on, while still in his thirties, to lead a campaign against pensions for public employees. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi included Arnold in a 2013 article about Wall Street-led campaigns to destroy public pension funds:

As Enron was imploding, Arnold played a footnote role, helping himself to an $8 million bonus while the company’s pension fund was vaporizing. He and other executives were later rebuked by a bankruptcy judge for looting their own company along with other executives. Public pension funds nationwide, reportedly, lost more than $1.5 billion thanks to their investments in Enron.

–Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone Magazine, “Looting the Pension Funds”, 2013

After leaving Enron, Arnold became a billionaire through natural gas trading. This led to the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, which was, according to Taibbi’s article, “among other things, dedicated to reforming the pension system.” Pensions had been subjected to raids for years by politicians looking to fill other budget gaps, and were being painted, by Arnold and others, as an “unfunded liability” immersed in crisis (and thus desperately in need of reform).

Sound familiar? Arnold has a history of supporting campaigns that gut public entities amid a climate of “crisis.” The claim is always that there is no money. (He’s also helped rescue Head Start and provided money for “science reform.”) This might explain why the Arnold Foundation, along with the Waltons and Gates, and other titans of runaway capitalism, is supporting Education Cities, which in turns provides–if nothing else–the policy framework for Minnesota Comeback. (Local philanthropic foundations and individuals, in addition to the Walton Foundation, provide financial support for Minnesota Comeback.)

The Walton Foundation’s K-12 priorities–backed by over one billion dollars–can be found here, and analyzed here. (Analyzing the Walmart heir’s actions does not necessarily equal the “spewing of false descriptions” of their work.)

Here’s the thing. Minnesota Comeback is less of a new organization, rife with an unquestionable devotion to public education, and more of a sophisticated repackaging of familiar, market-based education reform priorities. After all, director Al Fan left a career in brand management at General Mills to focus on “social philanthropy, with a special interest in working with high-performing charter schools in Minnesota,” according to an online profile.  He may have left General Mills, but undoubtedly not without his brand management skills.

Fan first landed at Charter School Partners, a Walton Foundation-funded group with office space at 2800 University Ave SE #202 in Minneapolis (keep this address in mind). As recently as 2014, Fan was still leading Charter School Partners, whose stated goal, at one point, was quite audacious:

Charter School Partners strategic focus for New Schools for the Twin Cities is to help create 20 new high-performing, high-achieving charter schools in the next five years serving Twin Cities-area families who previously have not had access to excellent schools. This aggressive timetable reflects CSP’s sense of urgency that all children deserve a world-class education no matter their zip code or income levels.

–archived Charter School Partners website

This “aggressive urgency” might have come across as unbridled hubris–especially since it appears to have been accompanied by a lack of success. (For evidence of this, watch this Charter School Partners promo video, posted to YouTube in 2015, which showcases the talking points and plans for this group.) Charter School Partners dove, rather than waded, into tricky political waters by embracing naive charter school expansion plans, while also proudly announcing partnerships with Teach for America and financial support from the Walton Foundation (who profess to care about communities of color but won’t provide living wage jobs?). 

I’ll get you those high-performing charters!

Just a few years ago, under the Charter School Partners banner, Fan was clearly devoted to “aggressive” charter school growth plans (someone really needs to do a study of the he-man language around ed reform). A 2012 policy document from Fan’s organization displays the thinking behind the brand management. 

Here are a few examples from the document, called “Charters 2.0”:

  • Improve the “teacher talent pipeline” for charters that serve “high populations of poverty.” (This is a frequent reformer goal, intended–many analysts think–to benefit organizations like Teach for America.)
  • But…in the case of “blended learning” (a key area of interest for venture edu-philanthropists), Fan’s proposal advocated for teacher-less classrooms. Instead, teachers could “supervise delivery of instruction to online learning students” without being “physically present.”
  • And…maybe teachers aren’t that essential after all. The “blended learning revolution” could allow for “non-licensed staff supervising students working computer curriculum, without necessarily the direct supervision of the licensed teacher of record”–at charter schools.
  • It also sought to “incentivize” charter schools that outperform traditional public schools on standardized test proficiency rates. On the surface, this could seem like a great way to foster competition and a greater focus on student (testing) achievement. But, in the context of today’s education reform climate, it’s not really that simple.

These are the reform policies favored by the one-percent. They are also part of an ongoing, bipartisan embrace of a top-down “disruption” of public education. It doesn’t mean that every idea or person associated with these plans should be immediately dismissed. It just means that this is the framework–elite, philanthropist-funded, pro-privatization (sector agnostic!)–that comes along with these policy preferences.

Fan was promoting these policies as recently as 2014, before Charter School Partners morphed into Minnesota Comeback. And why did it morph? Maybe because charter schools became problematic, necessitating a rebranding. In 2015, for example, the Star Tribune published an article showing that, in Minnesota, charter school students were not doing as well as their public school peers. (They have become quite segregated, too, along with traditional public schools–a byproduct of this country’s move towards school choice rather than desegregation.)

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Public awareness of market-based education reform and its connection to plutocracy, hostile takeovers of entire districts and lack of actual choice and voice for parents has grown. Enter Minnesota Comeback and its more “nuanced,” less bombastic approach to education reform. Same players, same funders–with a new name and a new game plan. (But still a lot to learn.

We can tell a lot, in fact, by reviewing the addresses of Minnesota Comeback and its affiliates:

  • Charter School Partners was housed at 2800 University Ave SE #202, Minneapolis. 
  • Minnesota Comeback is now housed at 2800 University Avenue, SE #202 Minneapolis. (Former Minneapolis school board member, Josh Reimnitz, was also a part of Minnesota Comeback’s launch, apparently.)
  • Morgan Brown, former Director of School Improvement for Charter School Partners, is now associate director of Great MN Schools, “ a venture philanthropy fund that aligns and maximizes investments in growing high-performing and high-potential schools in Minneapolis.” This org is also housed at 2800 University Ave, SE, #202.
  • Great MN Schools was “incubated” by MN Comeback, and appears to be oddly embedded within the Minneapolis Public Schools, where it is “considering a request for proposals from three Community Partnership Schools in the Minneapolis district.” (Beware public-private partnerships!) A Minneapolis school, Bancroft Elementary, even appears on the Great MN Schools website, as one of “their” portfolio schools–along with a handful of charters. 

There’s more.

That’s one tightly knit cabal of transformative innovators, with incredible access to more money than, perhaps, the Minneapolis Public Schools, with no obligation to hold open meetings, comply with public information requests or otherwise bow to the kind of accountability and transparency so often demanded of our put-upon public schools.

I have no doubt that many of the philanthropists and foundations that give their names and their money to Minnesota Comeback believe in the group’s stated mission, to “collaborate with diverse stakeholders in our K-12 ecosystem” in order to wipe out “education gaps.” The ultimate goal, according to Minnesota Comeback’s official communications, is to “ensure all K-12 students have access to a rigorous, relevant education.” 

We do need innovation, collaboration and support from wealthy investors (especially those who understand that education alone cannot fix poverty or wipe out institutional racism). We also need a free and fair press, fully equipped to check the claims–however well-intended–of those with the most power, wealth and influence.

Raising the minimum wage, or providing a guaranteed income, which the last time we talked seriously about that was in the late 1960’s, increasing workers’ bargaining power, making tax policies more progressive—things like that are going to be much more effective at addressing inequality and economic security than education policies. That argument is often taken to mean, *schools can’t do anything unless we address poverty first.* But that’s not what we were trying to say.

–Harvey Kantor. Education Can’t Fix Poverty. So Why Keep Insisting That?” Have You Heard Blog (fringe!)

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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.

Consider making a new year donation to Bright Light Small City to keep this work going for 2017. My work is entirely funded by my kind and generous readers! 

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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.”

 

Building Bridges at Lucy Laney School

December 7, 2016

On a recent weekday morning,  the air inside the third grade science classroom at Lucy Laney School was electric. We’re building bridges today! Twenty-two pairs of eyes watched with intrigue as their teacher, Mr. Teigland, demonstrated the day’s goal: construct a bridge out of plastic connecting pieces and then pile textbooks on top of it to see how strong it is.

With a mixture of delight, devotion and distraction, the kids clustered together at small tables in groups of two, three and four. They waited–some more calmly than others–for Mr. Teigland to plop a box of red, blue, yellow and white bridge-building pieces in front of them. Then, the design work began.

Some savvy students found the sample bridge Mr. Teigland had put together, and set about building their own version of it. Others dug in to the plastic pieces without a plan, stitching together impossibly long or lopsided constructions sure to collapse with the slightest nudge from an unwitting classmate.

Soon, the bridges were being positioned across a gap between two tables, to see if they were strong enough to pass the strength test. Could the bridges hold at least three textbooks?

Not many could, at least initially. Trial and error–an essential life skill–was put to use, with endless reconfiguring of height, length and weight distribution. Some kids rose to the challenge with dedication; others collapsed more readily, like the bendy bridges they were building.

Success came from teamwork and tenacity–skills that not every third grader in Mr. Teigland’s morning class is in possession of (yet). Maturity varies as much as their height, weight and dispositions. Some kids couldn’t resist chatting, bragging and poking their neighbor’s emerging creations, while others quietly dug into the day’s work, understanding what was being asked of them and how to make it happen (within the forty-five minutes or so allotted to the project). Some people are fond of calling young children scholars, but, in my view, that’s too stuffy a term. They are messy creators, eager explorers, and babbling brooks flowing off course, into fields not yet conquered.

These kids need room to move, real work to do, and the patient guidance of adults and peers. That last one can be hard to stick to. When everyone is present, there are twenty-five kids in Mr. Teigland’s room, which he manages with his right-hand man, an associate educator named Mr. Johnson. Two adults, twenty-five kids. This ratio would be a dream scenario for many teachers I know, but it is still an unfortunate overload, for adults and kids alike. (The challenge involved in coaxing, corralling, convincing and creatively inspiring a group of young children to move in one direction is awe-inspiring.) 

Twins! Teigland and Johnson

There is no bridge connecting these kids to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education. If DeVos’ nomination wins approval–and no one should assume that it won’t–then the market-based education reform movement will be unmasked and unleashed. Kids who attend high poverty, “failing” schools like Lucy Laney will suffer the most, as they have in Detroit. There, armed with millions of dollars, DeVos has applied guerilla-like pressure to the city’s school system, hammering it into a million shattered pieces.

Here is a recent overview from the Detroit Free Press:

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

DeVos promises a frightening plunge towards a moneyed, fundamentalist takeover of our public schools, but will it be worse than the kinder, gentler face of the market-based reform movement that so many Democrats and self-proclaimed progressives have clung to for years? For evidence, take a look at Democrat Cory Booker, a highly touted senator from New Jersey. Booker, who was on Hillary Clinton’s VP shortlist, sat on the board of DeVos’ Alliance for School Choice and frequently, enthusiastically appeared at the DeVos-run (and Walton/WalMart funded) American Federation for Children policy events.

In other words…

This is true in Minneapolis, too, where politicians and civic figures with long-standing progressive reputations have lined up behind ed reform, shilling for such “transformational” things as charter schools, choice and Teach for America

Meanwhile, in a brightly lit classroom, on a gray Minneapolis morning, there are bridges to be built.

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; your support is much appreciated.

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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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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.

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