Tag Archives: neoliberal education reform

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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