What if the Fix Was in But They Picked the Wrong Dark Horse?
The conspiracy du jour last week involving the Minneapolis Public Schools was this: A search committee Friday night advanced two candidates, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius and some guy from Alaska. Ed Graff’s contract as superintendent in Anchorage was not renewed earlier this year because his board felt someone else was needed to drive aggressive academic growth.
To be sure, there were more candidates in the pool, and at least two were well-regarded and arguably qualified. A couple of days before the finalists were announced, three members of the Minneapolis School Board introduced a resolution to have three finalists put forward but were shot down.
Sounds like a setup, right? Surely Graff, as my colleague Chris Stewart immediately quipped on the internets, was the equivalent of the team that always goes up against the Harlem Globetrotters.
And there are various schools of Kremlinology that could explain why some folks, including factions of the DFL, would want to structure things so that Cassellius was the obvious candidate. The commissioner has mixed track records in Minneapolis and at the state and enough critics that her appointment fight could otherwise be as uphill as Merrick Garland’s.
And and—and this is important—the fractious and back-bitey tenor of the two failed attempts to name a superintendent over the last 18 months have resulted in so much community mistrust that precious few of the advocates who’ve tracked the process are left in the room.
Seriously—last week African American leader Bill English stood before the board and announced that he would no longer regularly monitor its meetings and would instead use his time to volunteer at Harrison, the Dickensian black box to which the district’s most challenged students are consigned.
Bill English has given up. That’s like looking up into the sky and realizing the Big Dipper has disappeared. Myself included, the hall monitors have all been wrung out.
And so it was that late Tuesday afternoon I was halfheartedly listening to the finalist interviews with the full board while I took care of some other things. And I was listening grudgingly, thinking, “Why am I doing this? I’m just going to end up angry.”
And then Ed Graff, who is from Minnesota originally, started talking. A couple of minutes in I found myself looking around, trying to discern whether winged swine had taken to Minneapolis’ skies. A couple of minutes after that I found myself cursing the fact that after the months of sturm und drang there were probably so few people watching. There appeared to be fewer than a dozen people in the audience, which included search coordinators.
Graff knocked it out of the park, in my opinion. You may or may not agree, but chances are you weren’t watching Tuesday night no matter how committed to MPS’ outcomes you are. Indeed, the most committed among you probably decided to take a personal wellness break and create some distance.
Here’s my plea, then: MPS has put up video and audio of the interviews. The board will hear community input Monday night and will vote to extend a contract Tuesday. Board members were respectful and constructive Tuesday discussing next steps.
If their body language and questions are any clue, they appear to be weighing two viable choices. Machiavelli lurks ever-present in the shadows, but if there was ever a moment to check back in, this is it. It sounds as if they honestly want to hear what people think.
Here’s what I think. Graff’s presence was calm and relaxed. His answers to board member questions were direct but not without nuance. He was speaking an octave lower than any voice heard in that room in recent years, with the result that people were listening.
“I really believe addressing equity is the framework for addressing the achievement gap,” he said, going on to explain that the work of addressing equity must happen on two levels: The shift in people’s behavior and the implementation of technical changes. It’s crucial, he opined, to focus on the first.
Which is everything, right? A man who knows that listening is the first step on the road to being heard might just be the right person for the job at such a fragile juncture.
If there is one thing that has persistently plagued MPS over the last decade, it’s the failure to create an institutional culture where everyone understands what equity means and truly embraces their role in creating it. The word equity gets thrown around like confetti, but the thousands of adults in the system insist on using it to support their pre-existing worldview.
Graff did not necessarily tell board members what they wanted to hear. For instance, he said he supports weighted student funding—the moral but politically dicey practice of ensuring more funds directly follow the challenged students they are intended to support—but knows from experience that there are real hazards to simply moving funding streams without carefully considering impacts.
This is 110 percent reasonable, yet cannot have been music to the ears of board members pro and con. Indeed, there has to be some discomfort at the thought that Graff is a veteran of the process.
He talked a lot about students, and he talked a lot about investing in teachers. “He understands the students in these schools are people’s kids,” another MPS mother following along from her couch texted me.
And it shows. Cut to minute 11 of this video for a taste.
His remark that disparities in the discipline of special education students and children of color is the civil rights issue of our time had a teen with a disability in my house cheering.
And it’s my bad that I initially sneered at the idea that Anchorage doesn’t have the kinds of challenges Minneapolis confronts. The district enrolls almost 50,000 students from a variety of ethnicities and races. Hmong is one of the top five languages spoken after English.
“Alaska, which educates about 130,000 children in preschool through 12th grade, faces achievement gaps that rival or exceed those of the most troubled urban school systems in the Lower 48,” the Alaska Dispatch News reported in September. “Only 57 percent of Alaska Native students graduated on time in 2013, for example, compared to 78 percent of white students. Only 7 percent of Alaska Native fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to 41 percent of white Alaskans.
“But as teachers and principals work to close those gaps, they face budget problems caused by a dramatic drop in the price of oil, on which the state’s coffers overwhelmingly depend. And they face perennially high teacher turnover, particularly in far-flung rural villages, that makes it difficult to build and sustain meaningful school improvements.”
Graff demurred on questions about the Anchorage board’s decision not to renew his contract, suggesting the queries should be directed at the board members in question. This could either mean he hopes to make it through the interview process without having to disclose a hot, steaming mess. Or it could mean he’s a grownup.
A little sleuthing on a database of Alaska news sites suggests understanding the answer probably requires an understanding of Anchorage’s context. There are scores of letters to the editor from people who were disappointed he was not renewed–plus dozens of say-it-isn’t-so comments on the news story about the decision. The disappointment also came up in a survey of voters who rejected a district levy request.
Hopefully the board members who are traveling to Alaska in search of answers will come back with information. In the interim, do Minneapolis Public Schools one last courtesy and listen to the interviews.