The board of the Minneapolis Public Schools is in disarray not only because we have been unable to choose a superintendent despite a yearlong process, but because we lack a shared vision on how to move our district forward. Despite the majority of us voting for the district’s strategic plan, Acceleration 2020, some board members seem unclear about what it means, while others do not support many of its premises and promises. Our disarray comes not from individual incompetence or lack of goodwill, but from unspoken, unresolved tensions about how to move forward.
In 2014, the board passed Acceleration 2020, a groundbreaking departure. It identified “schools as the unit of change” and sought to distribute power and authority to site teams led by principals, teachers and families.
Traditionally, districts operate with a “command and control” model. The superintendent is the supreme leader, directing a cabinet that enforces a vision down the chain to principals to teachers. People in central administration, rather than the people who work in our schools, decide how money will be spent, what the curriculum and the schedule will be, and what services will be prioritized.
By focusing on schools as the unit of change, Acceleration 2020 sought to upend the status quo. It calls for the district to support the school as the primary site of decisionmaking regarding teaching and learning. The goal is to help teachers, school leaders, families and community members develop the capacity to lead and govern their own buildings and to ensure that all children in their care succeed. Changes involved include the following:
• Currently, the central office identifies new initiatives — and expects schools to comply. With schools as the unit of change, the central office will offer training and support on new initiatives, but the schools will determine whether to implement them based on their students’ needs.
• Currently, the superintendent and the school board determine a theme for schools — IB, Montessori, arts, dual-immersion. With schools as the unit of change, site teams would determine their themes and curricula.
• Currently, the central office builds the budget around projected class sizes. With schools as the unit of change, the money allocated by the state to the district would follow students to their schools, and the site teams would make staffing and other resource allocation decisions.
The board is in disarray because some of my colleagues want to stick with the traditional system of command and control, while others of us want to fundamentally change how we govern schools in Minneapolis. The argument for change is clear. For too long our schools have failed too many of our young people, particularly black and brown students, and we need to try something very different.
Adapting to the children in Minneapolis means embracing one of the most intensely diverse student bodies in the country. By meeting our children where they are, success will be owned by the school community. This could mean a focus on multilingualism rather than English first, inclusion rather than special education, culturally competent schools in integrated neighborhoods and true teacher voice in the design of schools.
The ossified bureaucracy of command and control forged over the past century by school boards, superintendents and union leaders must be overturned, because it has not worked and it often impedes teaching and learning. If schools are the unit of change, then the job of the superintendent is not to dictate what happens at the school and classroom levels but to ensure that schools have the leaders and the resources they need.
Over the last year, hard work has been done to bring this vision to fruition. We downsized the central office. We hired a chief financial officer who understands how to set up accounting systems in which funding follows children to the schoolhouse rather than being disbursed by the central office. And we forged strong relationships with union leaders to launch Community Partnership Schools with new governance and greater autonomy.
I submit that we are in disarray as a board because we are not unified in support of the innovations in our current strategic plan. The debacle around hiring a superintendent is just the most recent example of our lack of leadership and unity.
If we were true to our strategic plan, why would we have preferred Sergio Paez, a candidate who voiced deep skepticism about schools as the unit of change and who clearly positioned himself as a “command and control” leader? Why did we not support Interim Superintendent Michael Goar, an architect of Acceleration 2020 with long-standing loyalty to our district? Advisers from the Council of the Great City Schools told the board that strategic plans rarely — if ever — survive a change in the superintendency.
If we on this board had the courage of our convictions, we would not be in disarray. So the question is: Do we lack convictions or courage — or both?
Carla Bates is a member of the Minneapolis school board.