A couple of weeks ago, I was in the audience as many of our candidates for mayor discussed their ideas for addressing the education crisis in Minneapolis (“Mayoral hopefuls talk education,” Sept. 29). Though the forum lasted two hours, what the candidates had to say could have been summed up as “Education: Not my job.” The most common phrase, echoed by most, was: “The mayor doesn’t run the schools.” Then they would proceed to pivot to their standard list of campaign issues, largely ignoring the elephant in the room, the failure of our schools to effectively educate too many of our kids.
On the other hand, they are right. The mayor does not run the schools. The mayor and the city do not hire teachers or decide on the curriculum. That is the work of the school board, which will face the voters next year. But the mayor can and should make a big difference for our schools and our children. Here are five ideas for whoever wins.
1) Demand competence over credentials. The city government is one of our largest employers. For most employers, a high school diploma is no longer enough to get a good job. But it could be if that diploma actually meant that the graduates possessed the requisite skills, capabilities and competencies. The city should redefine its entry-level job requirements in terms of skills and competencies rather than credentials. Then it should tell the schools and the students of Minneapolis that if they can prove they have the needed competencies, they will get preference in hiring. And the city should call on other employers to do the same thing. By doing so, the mayor could lead the way in pressing the school district to actually achieve its mission of ensuring that all students learn.
2) A 5 percent commitment to learning. Make the city workforce a resource for students and their learning. Require every employee to spend two hours each week (5 percent of their time) mentoring or tutoring one or more students to help them achieve specific learning objectives. Tutoring works when it is organized to achieve specific ends with tutors who are trained and prepared. The city could mobilize its workforce to be a major resource to student achievement.
3) Be an agent for all children. Every kid in Minneapolis deserves the very best education. Though one-third of children living in Minneapolis choose not to attend a Minneapolis public school, they are every bit our children as are the other two-thirds. The mayor should be the agent for all children advocating for them, and helping them navigate the school choice maze to find the school that is best for them regardless of who runs it.
4) Enhance the best, challenge the rest. We have lots of schools that families can choose from. Traditional public schools, charter public schools, contract schools and private schools. Some of each kind are very, very good. Some of each kind are very, very bad. Someone has to keep score. One of the mayor’s jobs ought to be to identify and hold up the very best — calling parents’ attention to those that serve our kids most successfully and urging families to attend these schools. By the same token, the mayor should call out those that are failing, even damaging, our kids, challenging them directly to get better or get gone, and helping parents find better alternatives.
5) Define the curriculum of the community. Kids spend only small fraction of their waking hours in our schools. The rest of the time they are exposed to the “curriculum of the community.” Every home, church, park, nonprofit, government organization, foundation and business is part of that curriculum. Today they are all doing their own things, sometimes nothing, but seldom the same thing. The mayor can press these disparate parts of the community to come together to ensure that every kid gets to school every day, that every kid learns to read and do numbers, that every kid does their homework; and, per Project Success, that every kid has the chance “to dream about their futures, create a plan to get there, and get the tools and support they need to achieve their goals.”
Next week we will choose a mayor. We need an agent for children, not an education bystander.
Peter Hutchinson is former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools.