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of Meeting with Curt Johnson, Education|Evolving
8301 Creekside Circle,
Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, April 10,
speaker: Curt Johnson,
managing partner, Education|Evolving
of the meeting:
The Civic Caucus has tried to keep abreast of significant education policy
developments in the Minnesota Legislature. Today we're learning more
about a proposal to allow new schools to be created within the
jurisdiction of existing school districts.
Johnson, chair; David Broden, Marianne Curry, Bill Frenzel (by phone),
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Dan Loritz, and Tim McDonald
Welcome and introductions--Verne
and Paul welcomed and introduced Curt Johnson,
managing partner, Education|Evolving. A native of Texas, where he
received his Ph.D. in education from the
of Texas, Johnson was serving as president of Minneapolis Community
College in Minneapolis in 1980, when he was selected as executive director
of the Citizens League. Later he served as policy adviser and chief of
staff for Governor Arne Carlson and after that, as chair of the
Metropolitan Council. He has had a long association with
Education|Evolving and also as a national consultant/author of books and
feature newspaper articles with columnist Neal Peirce. Johnson
co-authored, with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen
and Michael Horn, the 2008 book
Comments and discussion--During
Johnson's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus, the following
points were raised:
1. An unconventional approach to innovation--Today's
discussion for education invites readers to adjust their thinking. It's a
cooperative proposal that invites school boards, the administration, and
the teachers union to agree in advance. Under this proposal no one is
ordered to do anything. It’s all about opportunity. Under the proposal
advanced by Education|Evolving, innovative, relatively autonomous schools
are authorized but may be set up only with the consent of the local
school board, the administration and the local teachers union.
2. Stimulating zones of innovation within
school districts--The vanguard of educational improvement
around the nation is now shifting to emerging innovation in new kinds of
schools set up within school districts around the county, Johnson said.
This is happening across the country, from Boston to Los Angeles, he said.
Education|Evolving is working on setting up a national meeting later this
year that will, for the first time, bring together in one place the best
examples of innovation within school districts.
3. Opening up school districts in Minnesota to
more innovation--Johnson has seen plenty of evidence of what he
calls "impulse and temptation" but not enough action within Minnesota. He
then outlined an initiative by Education|Evolving that is being considered
by the 2009 Legislature (HF 751 and SF 486). This bill, which is totally
voluntary for school districts, would allow new self-governed schools to
be established by school districts and be exempt from the same laws as are
charter schools. If this legislation is enacted, agreement would be
necessary by the local school board and the teachers' union.
Johnson said that a
number of legislators have emerged as major champions for a more
innovative approach to Minnesota schools; Rep. John Benson, R-Minnetonka
and Rep. David Bly, D-Northfield have been key players in the House, with
consistent support and cooperation from Education Finance Committee chair
Mindy Grieling. In the Senate, Sen. Kathy Saltzman, D-Stillwater has
emerged as a major player. Johnson also commended Commissioner Alice
Seagren and her staff, as well as the governor’s legislative team for
their assistance in advancing this initiative.
said much of the energy and enthusiasm for this bill comes from teachers
who declare they want to start and run schools themselves. The authority
that a teacher-governed school within a school district must receive was
imbedded in a 2005 site management law, but that law only described a
process and addressed only converting existing schools to a different
model. This year’s bill spells out what autonomy means: including
selection of staff, decisions about what learning model to use, control
over money and budget, and how schools are to be judged on performance and
achievement. Such schools would be closed if they failed to live up to
their agreements. And if a board were to arbitrarily close such a school
without cause, the school would have the right to become a chartered
school and continue operations – sort of a poison-pill provision to assure
good faith agreements. Teachers would continue to be employees of the
district, operate under state tenure laws and would continue to be members
of the teachers union.
4. Some school districts are ready to go--Considerable
support is present in
Johnson said, where the school board, administration, and teachers union
are ready to go, with group of teachers ready to propose new self-governed
schools. In addition to considerable support from Minneapolis, Johnson
said that superintendents in several suburban school districts have
indicated their support, as have several superintendents (and teachers) in
rural Minnesota, especially in districts enduring declines in enrollment
where there is a strong sense of a need for a richer diversity of learning
5. Constructively competitive with charter
schools--Education|Evolving has been heavily involved in the
establishment and spread of charter schools in Minnesota and elsewhere,
and continues to support charter schools, Johnson said. A key difference
between charter schools and self-governed schools under HF751 is that
charter schools can be set up independently without approval of the school
board. The new innovative schools would require school board approval.
Education|Evolving is a champion of innovation, whether by chartering or
any other mechanism, he said. Innovation, Johnson said, is not merely
replicating new things that emerge and work well elsewhere. Innovation is
the result of trying something that hasn't been tried before.
Education|Evolving likes to think up the next important change in
education policy, persuade the Minnesota Legislature to pass a law, get
people to try it, and if it succeeds help new models spread around the
6. Possibility of continued drop in school
district enrollments--Without the new legislation a serious
risk exists, Johnson said, that within six years at least one major urban
school district will have lost more than one-half its potential
residential enrollments to choice options. The proposed legislation
offers an opportunity for local school districts to give their resident
students an option for an innovative school environment without going
outside the district.
7. Need for non-governmental new schools agency--Both
for charter schools and new district schools there is a need for a new
non-governmental statewide agency to conduct research, raise funds, and
provide technical assistance to new school start-ups, Johnson said. Most
funds for such an agency would be raised privately, he said. EE’s bills
call this new agency NewSchoolsMinnesota.
8. Attacking a crisis in rural
pending legislation, also crafted by E|E, provides a clear alternative to
closing schools in areas of Minnesota with sharply declining enrollment,
he said. Without any action to the contrary it is likely that another
round of conventional consolidation will occur. This legislation
contemplates both planning grants to foster, using the state's joint
powers act consolidation of functions like accounting, procurement,
pensions, and payroll. But even with such changes, there's still a
feeling that rural high schools must mimic large high schools in urban
areas. That is not necessary; indeed it is a conceptual barrier, he
said. It is possible, using new models that would emerge under the
proposed new school legislation, for high schools of 100-300 students to
survive economically and thrive educationally. They're simply trapped in
the wrong model, now, he said.
9. No great opposition, just the logistics of a difficult
is broad support for the new schools approach, Johnson said. The biggest
problem is simply the politics of a legislative session which is dominated
by how to close a multi-billion-dollar gap in the state's budget.
10. We're losing too many kids--The
chief motivating force for the new schools initiative, Johnson said, is
that too many kids are dropping out of school too early and that too many
others are losing interest because they find school to be boring.
11. We're not attracting enough top talent into
teaching--The need for new
schools is extremely important in attracting more highly-qualified people
into the teaching profession, Johnson said. If the best of the best
aren't going into teaching, it's because they don't see an opportunity to
change things; they're forced to teach in a highly regimented system that
doesn't give them flexibility for innovation. The new schools approach
being advanced by Education|Evolving is a way to offer teachers maximum
flexibility to teach they way they want to.
schools might help encourage younger teachers to remain in the field,
Johnson said. So many teachers nowadays leave the profession within five
12. Reference made to Disrupting Class--In
response to a question Johnson said he indeed was heavily involved as
co-author with Clayton Christensen, Harvard professor, in writing the book
Disrupting Class, which outlines in detail how individualized
learning by computer is rapidly spreading across the nation. Johnson also
made mention of Century of the City, a book just published by the
Rockefeller Foundation, co-authored by Neal Peirce and Johnson.
13. Extra expense with new schools?--Johnson
and Tim McDonald, also an associate at Education|Evolving, said that
chartered schools often operate at lower expense than traditional
schools. Facilities are lower cost and they don't need as many
specialists. It's not unusual for properly-designed charter schools to
run a surplus, McDonald said.
14. New kinds of motivation for teachers--Teachers
who have the opportunity to run their own schools work harder than they
ever imagined they would but do so with great satisfaction, Johnson said.
He urged people to take note of Who Controls Teachers' Work? Power and
Accountability in America's Schools, by Richard Ingersoll, professor,
Graduate School of Education, The University of Pennsylvania.
prepared by Ingersoll reveals that the rate of teacher turnover varies
inversely with the amount of influence teachers have over student
discipline and tracking.
15. Giving students an opportunity to act more
as adults--Johnson quoted
psychologist and author Robert Epstein (The Case Against Adolescence)
who points to an unfortunate "quarantine" of youth in school between
ages 13 and 19. It's a mistake to segregate them during their adolescent
years and expect them to be responsible adults when the get out of high
school. Think, he said, of how serious youth approach the matter of
driver training. They are highly motivated to pass the drivers' test.
That's giving them an opportunity to act as adults.
shows that the proportion of “adult attributes” among teens is roughly the
same as it is among actual adults. He suggests that teens should be able
to test out of adolescence if they can demonstrate those attributes.
16. Contribution by schools of education--Schools
of education generally are not in a leadership role when it comes to
training future teachers who might have an opportunity to run their own
schools, Johnson said. Why don’t they change? In the first place,
schools of education are largely the "cash cows" for universities. The
universities need large numbers of enrollees in their schools of education
because the expense of providing education for future teachers is
relatively less than the expense of education in many other fields.
A few schools of
education, however, are exploring a sort of second track, which teachers
interested in running their own schools could follow. Hamline University
and Minnesota State University Mankato are in the forefront of change
among Minnesota schools of education, he said.
17. Important policy changes in Minnesota--Johnson
reviewed significant changes for school choice in Minnesota, beginning in
the mid-1980s with giving high schoolers the opportunity to take college
courses, continuing on with open enrollment and then to the first charter
school law in the nation in 1991. The new schools initiative this year,
he said, can open an entirely new chapter on effective schooling.
Unfortunately, the national discussion seems to focus more on
18. Concern about proposed change in the Metropolitan
the end of the meeting the conversation shifted briefly to proposed
legislation that would put county commissioners on the Metropolitan
Council, a move opposed by Johnson, a former chair of the Council. A
Civic Caucus member noted that the main allegiance of county commissioners
is to the county that elected them. They can't simultaneously represent
the county and the metro area. Even if they could reconcile their
representation responsibilities, he said, they could not responsibly do
both jobs well, given the demands on their time.
of whether the boundaries of the Metropolitan Council should be enlarged,
Johnson suggested that voluntary process for enlargement be developed,
rather than requiring that additional counties be added. Such a voluntary
process could outline the benefits of becoming part of the Council as well
as the responsibilities.
19. Thanks--On behalf of the Civic
Caucus, Verne thanked Johnson for meeting with us today.