Superintendents top priority: academics

Bernadeia Johnson talks about her approach to the district’s top job

Speaking one week before school bells rang in the start of another year, new Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson was clear on her top priority for the next nine months: academics.

That may not be a surprising stance for a schools superintendent, especially one who previously served as the district’s chief academic officer. But Johnson also oversees business functions of an organization with a $680 million budget and 5,600 employees; one facing a projected $19 million shortfall in 2010–2011 and a teachers contract in arbitration; and a district whose reorganization last year shuttered schools and limited bus transportation for students.

“All the other departments and all the other work are absolutely necessary, but it’s not the core of the work,” she said during a conversation in her office Aug. 23. “The core is what happens in the classroom.”

The Southwest Journal just out that morning included an editorial in which Johnson wrote her chief priority was “a more tightly aligned system of curriculum, instruction and assessment.” She emphasized the need for predictability and consistency in classroom instruction, and that’s where the conversation began.

SWJ: Was that lacking from the curriculum? What do you plan to do to improve the predictability and consistency of the curriculum, specifically?

Johnson: Were they lacking? Yeah.

I think that, as a system, we haven’t had as focused an alignment between or among those three: what we teach, how we teach and how we assess. And I think that it was really revealing when we did the curriculum audit. …

The Phi Delta Kappa [International Curriculum Management Audit Center] that conducted that audit talked about systems that are getting better results for students across the country, and basically they said those systems align their instruction and they’re more focused. …

[In Minneapolis] if you’re in one school what may be taught may be different from what was in another school. Because, quite frankly, depending on the students you have, they may not come with some of the prerequisites, and sometimes I think we get a little stuck in trying to do remediation versus exposing students to the curriculum. …

It sounds like we had the same materials, the same expectations, and so was it the follow-through (lacking), then?

I think it’s the follow-through, the accountability and the support for helping teachers understand how to intervene when students haven’t had the prerequisites or put in place the interventions to support their work.

How do we help those students in particular? What are you doing for those teachers in those classrooms?

One of the things we’re doing is we’re creating curriculum guides, and these curriculum guides have information about the content: what should be taught and the standard and the actual benchmarks. Then, there’s the how you teach and there’s some intervention strategies. …

It really is about what we believe students should have access to, and I believe that that shouldn’t be different across the system. The curriculum audit went so far as to say that students’ unequal access to the same curriculum has contributed to the achievement gap. …

Reflecting on your top priority, it seems that grows out of your experience as the district’s chief academic officer.

I think my experience being a teacher, a principal, a deputy [superintendent] here in Minneapolis and a chief academic officer here has helped me to see things, especially around academics — which, quite frankly, support the district’s work. …

[Under the leadership structure of former Superintendent Bill Green] the associate superintendents reported to the chief academic officer and the chief academic officer reported to Dr. Green. The finance and human resource folks reported to Dr. Green.

In my structure, the associate superintendents and the chief academic officer report directly to me. …

Finances are important, human resources are important. Those are under [Chief of Policy and Operations] Steve Liss, currently.

I did that because, quite frankly, I needed to make sure this academic team gets off to a right start, and so they’re reporting to me. You don’t see that always in organizational charts.

So, just to be clear on this change, it sounds like compared to Dr. Green … you’re taking a closer or a more-involved role on the academic side and you’re saying Steve Liss is going to be monitoring the operational (side).

And I’ll still be connecting with the chiefs of human resources and finance.

I will be meeting with the academic team weekly in my new role as superintendent and monitoring academics across the system. We all visited schools [during the previous administration] — Dr. Green did and I did, as well — but I’ve committed three hours a week to visiting schools, and I’m calling that “Homeroom with Superintendent Johnson.” …

And I’m going to also attend staff meetings and actually talk to teachers and principals directly for an hour during the staff meeting, and just kind of share my vision with them. … That will be just my way of connecting with teachers and principals on a more intentional basis, but more systemically around the work that we are doing.

And then I will blog. Well, they’ve talked me into blogging afterwards. I was going to try and blog after each visit.

You’ve set out a lot of work for yourself.

But let me just say something: It is the right work.

So, I’ve set out a lot of work for myself. It’s the right work, it’s the right focus.

And there are some things I’m not going to do. I’m going to be clear about that, so I’m actually looking at my calendar and how I spend my time.

The results that we’re getting are not acceptable, and it will require me to be hands-on, it will require me to understand what’s happening at schools and that work will replace other work.