As leaders of the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), we are often surprised but pleased by the number of people who fervently follow the ebbs and flows of teacher contract talks. We need more people paying attention to the critical issues pertaining to public education in our country. We commend the intelligent public discourse on these issues and we feel it is important that the commitment and enthusiasm people have for this work continue. Now is the time when the systems, the people and the passion are aligned. Knowledgeable individuals can only help us in our work to make the necessary changes to state and local policies that lead to practices that yield positive outcomes for the city’s youth.
While reading articles, blog posts and editorials, we sometimes wonder if people truly understand the complexities of our work. Education reform: what does that really mean? It is so much more than making adjustments to the teachers’ contract.
In 2007, MPS embarked on a transformational journey with our strategic plan as our roadmap. The plan clearly laid out many of the core strategies needed to raise every student’s achievement, close the racial and income achievement gaps and deliver on our vision to make every child ready for college and a career. Our plan was aggressive and we knew it would have broad implications for our community, from policymakers at the state to our own staff members to our community at large.
We are very proud of our efforts as a school district to push hard for increasing academic achievement for all our students. This year we approved a new comprehensive academic improvement plan and are working with urgency to close the achievement gap with proven strategies. We have an eight-year trend of improving graduation rates and we have increased post-secondary enrollment rates. Most significantly, for the first time in six years, MPS has made progress in narrowing the achievement gap between students of color and white students. There is no question that we need to get results at a faster pace, but we remain confident that the right plans are in place to achieve our goals.
The teachers’ contract is only one piece of a large, complex puzzle when it comes to reaching our strategic goals. Teacher negotiations get much of the attention, but it is also the reform work that MPS has committed to over the past several years that will drastically improve the academic outcomes of our students. Reforming schools will require transformational shifts across the school district.
Some might perceive that Minneapolis is lagging behind with aggressive contract negotiations, but we continue to work alongside our teachers’ union on many substantial reforms that will convert MPS into a model urban school district. With the support of the Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi Foundation, we are at least two years ahead of most other school districts in implementing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that recognizes exemplary teachers and provides specific professional development opportunities for teachers who may need additional support. Our system will be a strong one that we hope will be used as a model for the state and country.
We were pleased to announce that MPS and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) reached a tentative agreement on a new contract on March 22 that strengthens the commitment to providing the city’s youth with excellent educational opportunities. This collaboratively developed agreement will help accelerate positive academic outcomes for students across the school district.
Collaboration with the teachers’ union over the past several years has enabled our schools to retain instructional staff members who best fit program needs, place uniquely qualified staff in difficult-to-fill positions and create greater stability for programs that need extra support. Through negotiations, we agreed to eliminate seniority-based realignment and implement a process to place teachers based on mutual consent of the teacher and the school site. Through negotiations, we built in protection from layoffs in certain programs like Montessori, immersion, native language literacy and autism. Through negotiations, we increased stability by enabling teachers to make three-year commitments at schools receiving new program status. We will continue to be forward-thinking in negotiating future contracts that advance our institution’s work and support reforms that help yield the greatest outcomes for our students.
We have many examples of transformational work designed to close the achievement gap in non-traditional ways. We are implementing focused instruction to align what we teach with how we teach and what we assess in a continuous cycle. Our school district is championing a collaborative approach to working with high quality charter and autonomous schools with a deliberate focus on how practices can be replicated to continuously improve our system. We are working to use time in new, different and better ways, increasing time for learners and making sure that our teachers get the necessary time to plan for effective instruction and the adequate training to be successful.
For MPS, reform means transforming a large bureaucracy into a nimble, productive school district that effectively serves our youth. The tireless efforts of our staff make the difference for our students. We have collaborative working relationships with national foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation that are shaping the work across the country. We have been at the table to help lead the way on reform in our state and we are receiving local and national recognition that validates our efforts. In the last year alone, our team contributed expertise and support in securing early education funding from Race to the Top, as well as Promise Neighborhood funding for the Northside Achievement Zone and $3 million from The McKnight Foundation to improve early literacy. In May 2011, we received major investments of over $13 million from Target, Cargill, General Mills and Medtronic to help further MPS strategic plan priorities in areas across the pre-K-12 academic continuum. These investments represent the best of what makes Minnesota great – a strong partnership between the private and public sector on behalf of our children’s futures.
There is no silver bullet. While many in our community are looking for the perfect 100 percent solution, the reality is that the answer to reducing the learning gap is spread among many solutions. The little things we do and the incremental changes we implement make all the difference. This is about putting together many critical components of a plan; changing laws, policies, structures and strategies; and, most of all, having the right people in place — that’s when the magic happens.
The charge of educating our youth at high levels extends beyond our school buildings — it is a collective responsibility of our community. We welcome those who are serious about academic reform to continue to join us in advocacy. Families, faith communities, service organizations, businesses and policy makers: we all can support the achievement of our students. No matter who you are, you can make a difference.
Bernadeia H. Johnson, Ed.D. is superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools and Alberto Monserrate is chair of the Minneapolis
Board of Education.