Ed Graff and the Unbearable Lightness of Being

Remember back three years to the night Ed Graff appeared on the scene? Minneapolis Public Schools was enduring an expensive and painful superintendent search in which feuding board members went to the mat over a mediocre field of candidates, ultimately selecting one no one realized was embroiled in a scandal.

Appearing at the 11th hour with his quick smile and low voice, Graff seemed too good to be true. Two board members traveled to Anchorage, where the school board had declined to renew his contract, to do their due diligence. They came up with the same thing the reporters did: Graff was liked and respected, but the board had “very aggressive goals” for closing the achievement gap that would require different leadership.

We get that now, don’t we?

In introducing a PowerPoint about a reboot of the Comprehensive District Design at the most recent board meeting, Graff acknowledged the community outcry that last spring sent him back to the drawing board.

“One thing we heard over and over when we first released our comprehensive design is that we didn’t provide a clear rationale for such changes that were proposed,” he said. “People told us, essentially, we weren’t offering a compelling ‘why.’

“While we made an assumption that everyone had a good understanding of the disparities in our district — disparities that have withstood varied attempts over the years to be reduced or eliminated — that simply wasn’t the case.”

I know he was at the forums where the community expressed its displeasure, but I’m not sure where he got the idea that there is a lack of public understanding that MPS has long fostered deep inequities. At the meetings I tracked, parents had understandable concerns (that went unanswered) about what their new square on the map would look like and why.

But many demanded to know why the plan, which was indeed vague and poorly circulated, seemed likely to increase segregation in district schools. They were begging for the system to be disrupted.

And so what utter disappointment is it that Tuesday’s fresh round of PowerPoints — which articulate not a plan but a pushed-back timeline for creating a plan — contained not a single bold, energizing idea. There’s no vision of what the MPS of tomorrow could look like, no talk of capitalizing on the passion on display at last spring’s meetings for the most popular school models, no cutting-edge programming groups of teachers could own.

What there is is a whole lot of fine print about acronym-littered federal mandates coming down the pike that MPS is going to have to respond to, ranging from figuring out how to comply with laws saying teaching talent must be more equitably distributed between poor schools and wealthy ones to — and someone actually had to find a way to keep themselves awake while typing this onto a slide —  the impact of the impending “Inadmissability on Public Charge Grounds.”

It’s not a vision designed to get people excited. It’s a bureaucratic to-do list. (And I daresay one that’s intended to telegraph a few things to the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, with whom district brass have been in negotiations over the 2019-2021 contract.)

And — sorta side note — I’m sorry to say this, but many of the proposals to change contracts and policies to drive equity are proposals former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson fought for, in some cases got and then, as molehills piled up to become mountains, became the hill she died on. I know nobody wants to hear it, but we replaced a woman leader of color with a white man, who is making more tentative attempts to do similar work.

Related: Who attempts a redesign without soliciting the opinions of the leaders who survived the last one — particularly people like Pam Costain, who have been very public about what they tried to do, which elements work and what they harbor remorse about? Someone who is not in the habit of listening first, I’d say.

My fear is there is no plan. Graff has been on the job more than three years. Ask about his accomplishments and you will hear he purchased a literacy curriculum that seems unlikely to jibe with what we understand the science of reading to be. And he has succeeded in mostly not talking about academic achievement gaps.

Apropos, did you notice there was no news release, no public vow to do better in the wake of last week’s release of the 2019 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments? There was one slide — the “why” in the new PowerPoint — but if you blinked…

Lots of urban superintendents take six months or a year to learn a district and then unveil a strategic plan. The most successful of them get an early win or two —open a high-tech high school that’s successful out of the gate or locate an elementary program in a museum or a theater. Everybody wants the good juice. The buzz generates political capital to spend on the harder stuff to follow.

What’s that? Yes, I am aware Graff has worked for some exceptionally problematic boards. And he gets full points for truth-squad-ing last year’s budgetary debacle, wherein liberal white Minneapolis’ favorite DFLers pretended that the dictionary entry for “racial equity” says, “Consider yourself at liberty to take dollars from poor children and divert them to a school you’ve just spent 10 years deliberately making whiter and wealthier.”

But you might also remember that a year ago when the Comprehensive District Design — the name was electrifying right from the start! — was first proposed at a strategic retreat of the board, Graff asked for direction. Did the elected leaders want community schools, which KerryJo Felder had already announced were the new plan, or integrated schools? Perhaps unable to acknowledge this problematic impasse, the board adjourned without setting a direction.  

When the community’s visceral reaction to the first design, which many people read as an unsophisticated way to save money on busing, was spilling out, the board’s ambivalence was raised a lot in Graff’s defense. I’m sorry, but the converse can be true: No firm direction by your board can be interpreted as tacit permission to do what you feel like doing.

The aforementioned early wins? Yep. That’s a textbook way to score a couple. But if you aren’t willing to engage people in your own backyard, why would you look to cities where real progress is taking place and ask how they did it?

By the time the new schedule plays out, it will have been four years since Graff was hired. By the time any specific school-level changes are implemented it will be 2022. Then six years will have gone by, which is the average tenure of a big city supe. It’s also half a child’s school career — a generation ground to bits by the PowerPoint machine.

A few months into Graff’s tenure when people in the community were beginning to complain that the new administration didn’t seem very interested in hearing their frustrations and hopes, I was on the phone with a fellow curmudgeon.

“You know,” he said, “not engaging is a survival strategy.”

True dat.

I’m afraid that the can is being kicked down the road again. I’m afraid that the need to respond to very justifiable federal mandates to make painful changes — which is why we have federal mandates, FYI — is dominating an agenda that could be dedicated to finding ways to energize the community to take ownership of a system of next-generation schools.

I am afraid, bottom line, that we are squandering an opportunity. While the lack of engagement might make it easier to quietly shuffle some things around between now and 2022, it’s ultimately the death-knell for an institution that cannot afford a scintilla more public disinvestment.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

4 thoughts on “Ed Graff and the Unbearable Lightness of Being

  1. Rivkele

    Great article. One thing: the public charge changes being made by DHS are scary. They will impact a lot of families. Just because it has a boring name doesn’t mean it’s not terrifying. Under the new public charge rules, accepting Medicaid, SNAP, WIC, or Section 8 can negatively impact immigrants by labeling them “public charge” – a burden to the public. Scary stuff for undocumented and other immigrant families.

    Reply
    1. Beth Hawkins Post author

      It’s horrible. The ramifications are terrifying and chilling. And the impact absolutely should be discussed in public forums. I’d argue the topic merits its own discussion, which should take place in lay-friendly language.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Ms. Johnson, I apologize – Citizen Stewart

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