Reform is working for our schools

This column was written with Alberto Monserrate, chair of the Minneapolis Board of Education.

As leaders of the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), we are often surprised but pleased by the number of people who fervently follow the ebbs and flows of teacher contract talks. We need more people paying attention to the critical issues pertaining to public education in our country. While reading articles, blog posts and editorials, we sometimes wonder if people truly understand the complexities of our work. Education reform: What does that really mean? It is so much more than making adjustments to the teachers’ contract.

In 2007, MPS embarked on a transformational journey with our strategic plan as our roadmap. The plan clearly laid out many of the core strategies needed to raise every student’s achievement, close the racial and income achievement gaps and deliver on our vision to make every child ready for college and a career.

We are very proud of our efforts as a school district to push hard for increasing academic achievement for all our students. This year we approved a new comprehensive academic improvement plan and are working with urgency to close the achievement gap with proven strategies. We have an eight-year trend of improving graduation rates and we have increased post-secondary enrollment rates.

Most significantly, for the first time in six years, MPS has made progress in narrowing the achievement gap between students of color and white students. There is no question that we need to get results at a faster pace, but we remain confident that the right plans are in place to achieve our goals.

The teachers’ contract is only one piece of a large, complex puzzle when it comes to reaching our strategic goals. Teacher negotiations get much of the attention, but it is also the reform work that MPS has committed to over the past several years that will drastically improve the academic outcomes of our students. Reforming schools will require transformational shifts across the school district.

Some might perceive that Minneapolis is lagging behind with aggressive contract negotiations, but we continue to work alongside our teachers’ union on many substantial reforms that will convert MPS into a model urban school district. With the support of the Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi Foundation, we are at least two years ahead of most other school districts in implementing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that recognizes exemplary teachers and provides specific professional development opportunities for teachers who may need additional support.

We were pleased to announce that MPS and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) reached a tentative agreement on a new contract on March 22 that strengthens the commitment to providing the city’s youth with excellent educational opportunities. This collaboratively developed agreement will help accelerate positive academic outcomes for students across the school district.

Collaboration with the teachers’ union over the past several years has enabled our schools to retain instructional staff members who best fit program needs, place uniquely qualified staff in difficult-to-fill positions and create greater stability for programs that need extra support.

Through negotiations, we agreed to eliminate seniority-based realignment and implement a process to place teachers based on mutual consent of the teacher and the school site. Through negotiations, we built in protection from layoffs in certain programs like Montessori, immersion, native language literacy and autism. Through negotiations, we increased stability by enabling teachers to make three-year commitments at schools receiving new program status.

For MPS, reform means transforming a large bureaucracy into a nimble, productive school district that effectively serves our youth. We have collaborative working relationships with national foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation that are shaping the work across the country.

In the last year alone, our team contributed expertise and support in securing early education funding from Race to the Top, as well as Promise Neighborhood funding for the Northside Achievement Zone and $3 million from The McKnight Foundation to improve early literacy. In May 2011, we received major investments of over $13 million from Target, Cargill, General Mills and Medtronic to help further MPS strategic plan priorities in areas across the pre-K-12 academic continuum. These investments represent the best of what makes Minnesota great — a strong partnership between the private and public sector on behalf of our children’s futures.

There is no silver bullet. While many in our community are looking for the perfect 100 percent solution, the reality is that the answer to reducing the learning gap is spread among many solutions. The little things we do and the incremental changes we implement make all the difference. This is about putting together many critical components of a plan; changing laws, policies, structures and strategies; and, most of all, having the right people in place — that’s when the magic happens.

Bernadeia H. Johnson, Ed.D. is superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.