The Power of Information

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No matter what you think of it, last month’s sudden resignation of Bernadeia Johnson, superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools district, is a testament to the power of information.

Over the past two years our organization, Better Ed, has been conducting a public awareness campaign highlighting the high spending and poor achievement of the Minneapolis school district. Currently, barely half of its high school students graduate. Less than half of all students in the district are proficient in reading, math, and science. Furthermore, there’s a scandalous gap between the proficiency of white and non-white students—over 50 percentage points in most cases.

These trends have been going on for years in Minneapolis, but significant pressure has not come until recently. That is because, before, most of the public was in the dark about these trends. If there’s not widespread public consciousness that something’s broken, then there’s not going to be a significant desire for improvement.

In a time when education reform has become sexy, it’s strange to think that much of the local public would be unaware of the distressingly low achievement by the school district in the state’s largest city.

But it’s not so strange if you understand the dominant model of education reform. Most education reform groups are not primarily geared toward engaging the public. They spend a significant amount of time pursuing lobbying efforts, dialoguing with administrators and legislators, and producing policy briefs and white papers that are read by a very small handful of people.

They do good and necessary work, and we draw plenty from it. But alone, without much public awareness, these groups can but move meaningful education reform forward at a glacial pace. And frankly, the students of Minneapolis and the larger society don’t have time to wait for glaciers.

That's why we decided to do things differently with Better Ed. Since beginning our efforts in 2012, over 33,000 members of the public have joined the discussion on our Facebook page, and we’ve reached up to 2 million people in a single week. Hundreds of thousands of Minneapolis residents, as well as local thought-leaders and legislators, have received our postcards. And, as you might have seen, we have a billboard that sits across from the Minneapolis district headquarters.

As a result of our efforts, along with those of some local activists, we have witnessed a significant shift in the public’s attitude toward the district. They have grown weary of the endless parade of bureaucratic promises and programs, and have put increasing amounts of pressure on the district to produce measurable improvement. As the local news media mentioned, “A growing number of parents [have been] pulling their students from city schools.”

We have also witnessed local educators and reformers becoming more emboldened. Just one example of this is the remarkable things that have come from the mouth of outgoing Minneapolis Public Schools board chairman Alberto Monserrate, who a few months back said that “the problem [with the district] is the product,” and in a more recent interview said, “All of the successful examples that I see in drastically reducing the learning gaps are happening in smaller organizations.” We should take Mr. Monserrate’s words and hints at decentralization seriously.

One of the predictable, and perhaps unfortunate, consequences of the increased public awareness and pressure is the resignation of Superintendent Johnson, who could only be expected to do so much when faced with an entrenched bureaucracy. But the public should not release this pressure in the hopes that a new superintendent, who will eventually roll out “new” programs, will solve the problems that plague Minneapolis and its schools. These problems are cultural and systemic, and will require massive cultural and systemic change. Adequately addressing them will require not merely the filling of an administrative slot, but a very different-looking district with increased flexibility for parents and schools to creatively participate in the solutions process.

As a further testament to the power of information, one need look no further than across the river at St. Paul. The sad fact is, St. Paul’s proficiency scores are worse than Minneapolis’!!! Take a look:

Better Ed has not yet run a full-scale public awareness campaign focused on the St. Paul Public Schools district. We are building the resources to do so. In the absence of a such a campaign, there has not been much public pressure for the St. Paul district to significantly change its ways. In fact, the very day after Bernadeia Johnson announced her resignation in Minneapolis, the Pioneer Press announced that St. Paul’s superintendent, Valeria Silva, was getting a raise and a probable contract extension!

What the people of Minneapolis and St. Paul haven’t known has been hurting them, the greater metro area, and the state, for some time. We have to take the world somewhat as it is, and in that world, people simply cannot flourish without basic reading and math skills. The culture cannot flourish without people who have knowledge of the ideas and values on which our society was founded. The economy cannot flourish without people who have competency in the skills needed for today’s jobs. As the numbers show, the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts are simply not providing their students with these things.

The consistent failures of large districts like Minneapolis and St. Paul will have a snowball effect, as one generation’s ignorance tends to be replicated and furthered in the next. To turn things around, it’s going to take a lot of work, and we must act fast.

What Better Ed is doing is working. As is being shown in Minneapolis, and as we hope to show in St. Paul, information is a powerful agent for change.

We simply need to get that information out to more people.