Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bad News from Minneapolis

Per yesterday's report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Minneapolis public school system is showing bad signs of advanced charteritis.

The city schools have been hit by low enrollment; they planned for 900 more students this year, but the actual number was two. That translates into a huge loss of state money. “For a long time we were the big player in town. That has created a sense of complacency,” said Robert Doty.

Doty is the Chief Operations Officer for the district, and if that sounds more corporate than educational, then you are just starting to get the picture. Here's the rest of that quote: “We haven’t focused on student retention and student recruitment as others in the market have.”

Yes, the Minneapolis public school system is not suffering from low enrollment-- they are suffering from a diminishing "market share." And they need to find ways to "recruit and retain" students.

This is free market schooling in action. It's not a contest of educational excellence-- it's a battle of marketing prowess, and it creates some tough choices for the people charged with running--well, managing, I suppose, Minneapolis's school system. And it highlights all the things fundamentally wrong with such a system.

First, it takes focus off doing a good job of creating education and puts it on doing a good job of selling seats in a building.

You can claim that, well, of course, the best way to market schools is to make them really excellent. But at the last meeting, Doty did not call the board together to talk about education. "At Tuesday night’s meeting, Doty and other staff members gave the board an update on the grim enrollment numbers and proposed the creation of a comprehensive marketing plan."

And this isn't just a philosophical problem-- marketing plans cost money. The outrage and upset over having a band program cut because of budget slashing or shifting resources to more test prep-- that outrage is old hat at this point. But imagine finding out that your child's band program must be cut because the board needs money to buy a series of tv spots and billboards. It's alarming, but as long as charter chains like K12 can divert taxpayer dollars directly into an advertising budget, what other choice does a public school have?

Free market schooling does not demand superior schools. It demands superior marketing.

It's not all lost in Minneapolis. At that same meeting, "some" board members tried to get back to business. Board member Alberto Monserrate suggested that the board need to stop worrying about marketing and get its focus back on educating students.

“We need to stop our obsession with market share,” Monserrate said at the board meeting. “We are not a business. At some point you have to have the right product to market.”

Yes, that's right. The guy whose point was "we need to stop talking about school like it's a business" then went on to talk about schools like they are a business. Sigh.

Not that Doty heard a word Monserrate said.

Doty said he agrees on the need to improve student achievement, but said he’s confident that the district’s new strategic plan will address the issue. The plan will require schools to increase math and reading scores by 5 percent every year for the next five years. For students of color, leaders want those standards to increase by 8 percent each year.

Maybe there's more to this than the paper reported, but I bet not. If you've worked in retail, you will recognize this management approach. Set numbers for the new quarter. Then institute your "plan" by pushing those numbers down the line. Some suit in the Big Boardroom says, "We will increase these numbers by 5%," and a month later, a store manager is telling a part-time, minimum wage sales person, "These are your target numbers for the quarter. Hit them, or else." It's a very popular management technique, because although it's absolutely destined for failure, it pushes blame for that failure down to the least important, most expendable people in the company.

So kudos, Mr. Doty, for bringing yet another time-tested business technique to schools.

[Update: I'm still learning about the Minneapolis situation, including the role of the Kramer family who are, it should be said, kind of amazing. My esteemed colleague edushyster profiled these folks a few years back. Dad used to own the newspaper, and the children (most of whom went the TFA-to-Master of the Universe education route) include a boss of TFA, a couple of charter honchos,and a director of a charter-promoting group in Minneapolis. Plus active roles in many reformster organizations nationally, as well as chipping in to buy support their very own school board candidate. And these days Dad runs a site that promotes the whole package. Clearly Minneapolis is a great town to be rich and committed to reformsterizing schools even as your charterfy your way to more riches. No wonder the public schools are on the ropes.]

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis public school system is being bled dry. The charters have scooped up about 20,000 students, leaving 34,000 in the public system. The dollar amounts being drained from the public schools are huge, putting the district in "triage" mode. But of course it lacks the charter power to pick and choose its students. So the money is drained, the cream is scooped off, and the public system must increasingly carry the weight of inevitable failure-- all while trying to divert some of its meager resources to marketing plans. And of course marketing becomes increasingly difficult because in this scenario, the public schools will sooner or later be largely failing-- not because they collapsed, but because they were attacked, their resources stripped, and their remaining schools charged with the task of educating all the students that the charters don't want.

I do not know how to reverse this, other than to require that charter schools function like the public schools they pretend to be (though of course that would make them far less profitable and therefor far less interesting to the hedge fund masters of the universe currently pushing them). You would also have to fix the funding system of the state, and it might be a good idea to slap some sort of legislative lid on advertising activities so that tax dollars meant for education are not being wasted on marketing.

But fundamentally you have to get back to the idea that public education is a public trust and that we have an obligation to maintain it for the benefit of all students. As long as we keep treating it like a consumer good to be marketed like breakfast cereal and automobiles, for the profit of corporate investors and for the use of those few customers who can afford the very best-- as long as we keep doing that, Minneapolis is the future for many cities.

1 comment:

  1. The situation in Minneapolis is so f****ed up. There are so many reform crooks with their hands in our quickly disappearing public good. They cart off bits of the Minneapolis Public Schools in their charter school wheelbarrows every week it seems. It's enough to make me want to jump off the roof of the Davis Center. Minneapolis citizens need to WAKE UP AND DO YOUR HOMEWORK!! It's not easy homework, but once you start, it is compelling. The answers will certainly not be found in MinnPOST, or even the Star Tribune.