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[\participants' responses to this interview.
Director, Office of New Schools, Mpls Public Schools
8301 Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
June 10, 2011
Verne Johnson (chair); Janis Clay, Jim Hetland (phone), Sallie Kemper, Tim
McDonald, John Mooty (phone), Clarence Schallbetter
Summary of meeting:
Outgoing director of the state's first district new schools office, Jon
Bacal discusses with the Civic Caucus what other states and metropolitan
regions are doing to develop environments that encourage and support new,
innovative schools. He outlines steps Minnesota must take to change its
static education system into one where both the chartered and district
sectors engage in successful innovation.
Welcome and introductions.
Jon Bacal is the
founding Executive Director of the Office of New Schools at Minneapolis
Public Schools (MPS), Minnesota's first school district unit with specific
responsibility for new schools. The MPS Office of New Schools
recruits, approves, and oversees a growing portfolio of public charter and
other autonomous schools aimed at dramatically improving the learning of
joining MPS, Bacal founded and co-led Hiawatha Leadership Academy in south
Minneapolis, a high-achieving, high-poverty charter school. Previously
he had founded and led SchoolStart, a nonprofit consulting firm that
helped launch 20 charter schools in three states, co-founded St.
Paul's Twin Cities Academy charter school, and served as St. Paul Mayor
Norm Coleman's education advisor. He is a fourth-generation graduate of
Minnesota public schools and of Georgetown University.
B. Comments and
Mr. Bacal opened the
discussion by quoting article 13 of the Minnesota constitution: The
stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the
intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish
a general and uniform system of public schools.
Thus the purpose of
public schools is to ensure a strong democratic-republican form of
government, he said. It is a system that served Minnesota well for its
first century and a half. "I was a second grader when Governor Wendell
Anderson was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. That time might have
been the apex of the relative position of Minnesota, in the nation and in
The United States, and
with it Minnesota, has fallen rather substantially in rankings of student
achievement. In 1990, the country was still #1 in the world in the
percentage of the population with a college degree. Now the U.S. ranks in
the mid-teens in college completion. We are also near the bottom in high
school graduation rates. In math and science, American 15-year-olds trail
their peers from almost every other developed nation. The relative school
performance of American students, compared to other students, is weak and
declines the longer children are in school (4th grade vs. 8th
grade vs. 12th grade).
Even as America
declines in international rankings, Minnesota is no longer the highest
performing American state on many indicators. Minnesota drops lower when
its results are disaggregated by ethnicity. Even the state's majority
students do not rank as high as they once did. Meanwhile, Minnesota's
black and Latino students rank at the bottom of the nation in absolute
terms-and lower than their peers in the Deep South. We're no longer a
state where people come to Minnesota to learn about our K-12
system-certainly not to learn anything about the education of urban kids.
Knowing that our
situation now is far from ideal, what do we want to accomplish for
Minnesota's K-12 education system? Our goal is, or should be,
straightforward: for Minnesota to be a great place to learn, to teach, to
start new schools, and to innovate for the purpose of accelerating
learning without accelerating costs.
Bacal said he has been
fortunate in his current role to lead many study visits to other cities.
There are a lot of exciting developments in the field, he said, including
the development of citywide and regional "ecosystems" to strengthen K-12
learning. There is not one single answer to the question, "how do we build
a better school?" Rather, we need to learn from all the best new school
and learning models being tested across the country.
To illustrate his
point about the "ecosystem" that nurtures quality K-12 learning, Bacal
asked, "What makes Silicon Valley work?" It is a complex environment of
people, with a focus on measurable results over rules and process, a
critical mass of highly networked human and financial capital; a spirit of
openness to risk and taking chances; a sense that occasional failure is
okay if it leads to better solutions; and overall, real rewards for
ingenuity and high performance and consequences for non-performance. In
recent years you have heard local leaders around the country asking how
they can become the Silicon Valley of education. However, we haven't heard
that question asked much in Minnesota, as there seems to be a considerable
lack of urgency as we take comfort in the state's increasingly distant
There are other places
that are developing a supportive educational ecosystem, he said, in the
sense that they promote the development of the human capital, financial
capital, quality control, and civic and school system leadership to
produce the educational gains required to compete nationally and
Denver: A model of a
dynamic school-improvement ecosystem
There are a lot of
analogues between Denver and the Twin Cities metropolitan area, Bacal
said. The metro areas are close in size and the overall state populations
In recent years Denver
has seen significant changes though in its K-12 system, where the district
and city leadership have come to view high quality and innovative
chartered and other public schools as a central means for bring about
dramatic improvement in student achievement levels. There has developed a
critical mass of talent, fed by a robust pipeline of dynamic new teachers
coming into the environment. These changes have resulted from a very
successful bi-partisan, cross-sectoral effort.
What's the key that
made Denver move this much, a participant asked-was it competition?
"I'm less confident
competition alone creates performance in this environment," Bacal replied.
"I think that civic leadership has been critical. In Denver the
philanthropic community has identified education as its top priority. The
mayor, superintendent, philanthropic and legislative leaders are all
involved, and they know that things will need to be started new in order
to bring about the necessary changes.
We brought Minnesota
philanthropists to visit Denver and they asked if it was possible to get
the changes that are necessary by simply improving existing [charter]
schools. The Denver leaders shook their heads and said, 'you can get
faster results if you start new.'"
Bacal said the Denver
experience tells us that a dynamic can be created; that you can optimize
the resources a community already has. Colorado in fact is not a high-cost
state for education spending. Denver spends about one-third less per
student than many urban areas, including the Twin Cities, he said.
New Orleans: Creating
Katrina, New Orleans had one of the worst public education systems in the
country. It was both corrupt and educationally inept. Well before the
storm, the state created the "Recovery School District," to address the
very critical situation, Bacal said. That organization was given control
over the New Orleans public school district. Then the storm came.
In the wake of the
storm, New Orleans decentralized its schools under state oversight,
giving far more autonomy to schools to deal with the conditions at hand in
exchange for much high levels of accountability. The result has been
remarkable progress. Today, over 70 percent of the students are enrolled
in chartered schools, Bacal said. There was only one such school in 2003.
There is healthy
tension in the New Orleans system, he added, in the sense that there are
powerful consequences for non-performance. There is a clause in the law
that if your school doesn't meet an objective measure of student
achievement it will be closed. This has created a system that provides
incentives and disincentives for the adult professionals.
Perhaps the key driver
in the development of the New Orleans ecosystem has been New Schools for
New Orleans (NSNO), that seeks and cultivates talent, capital and ideas
for new school incubation, growth and quality. As a result of all these
developments citywide performance is improving significantly.
Collectively, New Orleans public schools are on a trajectory to pass the
state of Louisiana as measured by average achievement scores. That would
be a remarkable turnaround. The reason for it, Bacal believes, is the
nurturance of an educational ecosystem and a critical mass of similarly
achievement results-oriented innovators.
A guest noted that one
of the things you'll see when you walk into a high performing school in
New Orleans is evidence of student performance on the wall. The schools
are hyper-aware of their own performance measures, and the students are
hyper-aware of where they are relative to goals. Teachers and students get
high quality test-based data fast. The focus on results pervades the whole
There is no central
top-down bureaucratic leadership. The recovery district is still in
charge, but this notion of the ecosystem illustrates that given the right
conditions and support, autonomous on-site management of individual
schools seems to produce the positive results that centralized or top-down
administration of schools had failed to produce.
is a nonprofit charter management organization that has started three
high-performing schools serving low-income minority children in northern
California. They have been so successful that they've received funding to
spread to other regions. What is different about the Rocketship model is
improved productivity, Bacal said. They have fewer licensed teachers and
pay them more. They make more use of nonlicensed educators and tutors to
assist teachers by working with students on lower level learning tasks.
Rocketship is an example of a "blended learning" model-25 percent of the
week is spent with kids online on computers, helping them master basic
skills; the balance of the time involves face-to-face teacher-directed
The blended model and
use of non-teacher educators and tutors are not merely ways of improving
achievement but also drivers of improving educational productivity:
more learning per dollar spent. . We need to let Minnesota public schools
experiment with similar diverse staffing models, he argued, but it is
questionable whether a Rocketship would even be legally possible in this
state. Minnesota's educator licensing laws have been so restrictive that,
until the passage of alternative certification a few months ago, even top
educators from other states were prohibited from teaching in Minnesota
(without returning to graduate school first).
districts in Minnesota
Fewer than 1/10 of 1
percent of American K-12 funding goes into anything that can be remotely
characterized as research and development, Bacal lamented. None of the $10
billion Minnesota spends annually on public K-12 schools is for the
purpose of R&D. And as Tim McDonald pointed out last week Minnesota has
opened very few chartered schools in the past year-only four.
"Talent flexibility is
key: we need to remove restrictions in policy on the ability of all public
schools, district and charter, to hire and deploy people. Over 90 percent
of our students are still in the district system and less than ten percent
in charters (25% in Minneapolis). We are clearly not New Orleans," and the
district system is not going away. We need to take the handcuffs off
districts and all schools to help them get better results faster.
There is a network of
about 20 urban "portfolio" school districts working with Paul Hill at the
Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) in Washington that
see themselves more in a venture capital mentality-looking to cultivate
and contract with a variety of school providers, giving them autonomy in
exchange for accountability, using charter, site-governed and other
organizational models for schools-to create a "portfolio" of schools.
Denver is an example
of a portfolio district. Minneapolis has started along this path as have
New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and others-recognizing we
may have more types of schools in a district than just one. Portfolio
districts are agnostic about the organizational type of schools-in
other words, agnostic about who employs the adults. Instead, the focus is
on student achievement.
"School districts [or
for that matter, charter schools] have no sacred status under the
Minnesota constitution," Bacal noted. "They are statutorily created for
the purpose of educating children. We need to focus on what kids need,
rather on the comfort and convenience of the adults.
Bacal went on to note
that the public school system is full of bright and well-intentioned
people. But systems don't change easily, and hope springs eternal that
things will just work out in the end. But it is difficult now to identify
more than a handful of schools in this state, district or charter, working
particularly well with black and Latino students. By contrast, there are
hundreds of such schools nationally..
It is not clear that
it is possible for traditional public school districts, at least as they
are currently structured and regulated, to achieve dramatically better
results for struggling children.
In other places the
change has come from outside providers and "de-bureaucratized,"
Status of unions
There is always
resistance to change, Bacal said, yet Minnesota is the first state where a
union local is genuinely interested in creating chartered schools. The
Minneapolis Federation of Teachers received a major grant last year to
create a charter school authorizing capacity.
Over the past two
years, many states have adopted dramatic K-12 staffing reforms. The
current LIFO (last in, first out), seniority-based treatment of teacher
lay-offs, that is, the notion of last teacher hired, first teacher fired,
is something that has to change. And new teachers do not get paid very
much for the extraordinarily hard work that they do. We don't necessarily
have environments that reward the people that are in the classrooms doing
the hardest work. We have talented people in our schools, in our
classrooms, but we don't have the "ecosystem" that attracts, develops and
rewards the best and the brightest.
How to address
The demographics of
Minnesota are changing rapidly across the state. We have seen little real
civic leadership in trying to close the gap with black and Latino
children, Bacal said. A participant asked Bacal if he were governor, what
are the two or three steps he would take to improve schools?
1. Make the
performance of children that are falling behind an urgent priority. We're
not known as a state that puts a top priority on school performance. And
if those results aren't coming there need to be significant consequences.
The school needs to adapt the learning needs of students, not vice versa.
2. Focus on results, not process or regulatory compliance
I keep coming back to
this results-orientated mindset, a guest said. Something you could do in
policy is to make information from state tests available earlier, while
school is still in session. It isn't sufficient that we won't get results
until August. You need to be able to get results and reflect while it's
still fresh in the minds of educators. Work with instructional leaders to
use data more effectively; connect students and families to the data to
set goals and learn how to use it. Being an instructional leader is a
skill set-it is difficult to get someone doing that because that kind of
leadership is not valued.
There is one idea that
is common to high performing cities that could be improved in Minnesota,
he said-it is a sense that we can help children from all backgrounds to
learn at dramatically higher levels. There is too often a sense of
fatalism in Minnesota about the extent of what schools are able to do.
There is lots of evidence from around the country that schools can lead
the effort of making up for deficiencies elsewhere in society, and the
idea that they can't is poisonous and not worthy of Minnesota.
The notion of focusing
on results and not just process is important. There are examples of
countries roughly the size of Minnesota that have made transformational
progress, he argued. Singapore and Finland are two countries that were not
doing particularly well a few decades ago. Finland, after the Iron Curtain
fell, had 25 percent unemployment. They were driven by the crisis-they had
to change. After radically revamping its K-12 system, Finland is now #1
in the world by age 15 in math, science and reading.
And the change has to
be substantial, the chair observed. It will not be sufficient just to make
incremental steps inside the existing system.
Thanks to Mr. Bacal
for the visit.