Having served as the chief academic officer of the Minneapolis Public Schools from 2010-2013, I had the opportunity to live inside a system that desperately wanted to improve learning outcomes for all students.
The district struggles to serve the complexity of stakeholders within its system, and has left in its wake a series of initiatives, new programs and “bold” agendas.
While incremental improvements have emerged in some places, the transformational change needed to meet the needs of all students is far from accomplished. I can personally attest that this is not from a lack of passion, interest or skill. Many talented educators and non-educators have churned through classroom, staff, administrative and board positions in an attempt to address this noble challenge. Yet the results produce more questions than answers when it comes to serving the students most in need of our persistence.
When systems produce roughly the same results over a long period of time despite valiant efforts to make change happen, something significant is needed to disrupt the deeply ingrained patterns that keep the system stuck. For this reason, I believe change needs to happen at the governance level of the Minneapolis Public Schools, so that new patterns of behavior, interaction and decisionmaking can emerge.
The pervasive narrative advanced by many stakeholders both inside and outside of the system spins around the dysfunction of how the district operates, how decisions get made, who has control and authority, and who is not doing their part. These “stuck” narratives lead groups of stakeholders to react in certain predictable ways that block real change from happening. Building a new governance model and other important structures that flow from it possesses the highest likelihood of disrupting the current story — that nothing ever changes at the district.
Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, has made a proposal to break up the district into six smaller ones; it is an attempt to initiate this conversation. Some large urban districts across the country are beginning to demonstrate the positive impact of having a single point of accountability by shifting toward mayoral control. Alternatively, research would generally endorse the notion that “smaller is better” (and easier to manage and change), so perhaps the senator is on to something by proposing the division of the district into smaller, more autonomous management units.
I ask those who quickly rejected this proposal to reconsider. This is not a Democratic or a Republican issue, and we must not defend a status quo that is not working. Bringing together stakeholders from inside and outside of the district would be an important next step in understanding the challenge and the opportunity in shifting the way the system is governed.
Dismissing this proposal, in my mind, is a vote to accept the current stalemate. While there are certainly risks associated with a governance change, I would argue that not moving in this direction is the bigger risk. No one wants to be having this same conversation 10 years from now.
Since moving to Minnesota in 2001, I have been continuously inspired by this community and its passion and ambition to educate our children in the best possible way. Public schools are of the people, by the people, for the people. Never before has there been such urgency to build a new collective story about what is possible for our schools and the students served within them.
Such a story envisions a future where students are engaged in relevant and challenging learning, where teachers, staff and administrators are excited to come to work, and where innovation and continuous improvement is the norm rather than a rare exception. There is a new story waiting to be created for the Minneapolis Public Schools. I hope our community can come together to write it.
Emily Puetz is an education consultant in Minneapolis.