How To Keep Minneapolis-St. Paul Prosperous

For Minneapolis and St. Paul to remain prosperous, we should learn from other cities, like Denver.

This is the first of two articles exploring ideas from around the world that might inform and inspire us in tackling issues in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. They are adapted from a report [PDF] for the McKnight Foundation’s Food for Thought series by local author Jay Walljasper. The second story can be seen here.

How Cincinnati, Maryland & Finland improve education

  1. Implement student-based budgeting
  2. Initiate peer review programs for teachers
  3. Empower teachers to shape curriculum
  4. Customize learning

The growing disparity in educational performance between minority and white students strikes at the heart of our self-image as the kind of place where any talented kid can get ahead. With kids of color being one in four elementary students across Minnesota today (and a much higher percentage in the MSP region), it’s time for all-out action to restore educational opportunity.

Cincinnati faced an overwhelming crisis in 2000, when barely half of all students in its public schools graduated from high school. A decade later, the overall graduation rate has climbed to 83 percent with 80 percent of African-Americans and 76 percent of low-income students earning diplomas. Test scores rose over the same period along with an increase in students attending college.

A report from the MSP-based group Growth & Justice credits student-based budgeting as a key factor in the Cincinnati turnaround. This means the school district allocates funds on the basis of students enrolled at a school after factoring in special needs of English language learners, students with disabilities, gifted students and students from low-income neighborhoods. Some authority in decision-making was also decentralized to individual schools.

In 1999 Montgomery County, Maryland, in suburban D.C., set a goal that all students would finish high school qualified for college or a well-paying job. They focused close attention on African-American and Latino students with special training for teachers and cross-cultural discussion circles for students, parents and teachers. Additionally, a Peer Assistance and Review Program, jointly run by teachers and principals, offered help to new and underperforming teachers. Between 2003 and 2010 test scores for African-American and Latino third-graders climbed 23 to 39 percent.  The achievement gap was also narrowed for eighth-graders.

Educators and school reformers from all over the world descend on Finland to discover the secrets of its educational system, which since 2001 has ranked No. 1 (or close to it) for the performance of 15-year-olds on standardized tests in reading, math and science. 

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The irony is that Finland doesn’t place much emphasis on standardized tests. What it values most is teaching. Surveys show that Finnish men name teachers as the most desirable profession for a spouse, while Finnish women rank only doctors and veterinarians higher as potential mates, notes Pasi Sahlberg of the Finnish Education Ministry in his book “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Changes in Finland.” The result of this respect is that teachers are given considerable freedom to shape curriculum in their classrooms, which Sahlberg believes translates into better-educated kids.

Another element of the Finnish success story is personalized learning: Students work at their own pace, based on abilities and interests.  “Personalization is not about having students work independently at computer terminals,” Sahlberg notes. “Technology is not a substitute but merely a tool to complement interaction with teachers and fellow students.”

How Denver & Houston attract creative young people

5.  Think big about transit
6.  Make ambitious plans for downtown
7.  Foster mixed-use development

Denver envy is breaking out across the country. The Mile High City stands above all regions in attracting coveted professionals aged 25-34—the future entrepreneurs, inventors, designers, activists, chefs, educators, artists, business leaders and talented employees every region needs. Minneapolis-St. Paul ranks 39th in the same Brookings Institute study. Ouch!

In 2004, Denver area voters overwhelmingly approved a $4.7 billion dollar sales tax increase to build 119 miles of light rail and commuter rail and improve bus service and park-and-ride facilities throughout the region.

How did Denver become so cool after years of being dismissed as “900,000 people waiting for the weekend” (meaning the city’s only virtue was proximity to the Rocky Mountains)? It’s a long story, according to Richard Fleming, who headed the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce for many years. It began with a visionary plan for downtown Denver (drafted by community activists working together with business leaders) that aggressively promoted transit, walkability, public spaces, historic preservation, high-density housing and mixed-use development. Then in 2004, Denver area voters overwhelmingly approved a $4.7 billion dollar sales tax increase to build 119 miles of light rail and commuter rail and improve bus service and park-and-ride facilities throughout the region.

The Millennial Generation, which shows a distinct preference for urbane lifestyles and plentiful transportation options, is moving to Denver in droves.  Even the #2 metropolitan region on the Brookings Institute list—Houston, which is generally not heralded for its livability—is building two new light rail lines and extending another line, all scheduled to open in 2015.  They’ve also created two splashy new parks downtown as part of a concerted push to enliven the city.  

How Cleveland, Boston & Philadelphia strengthen neighborhoods

8.  Tap the power of “anchor” institutions
9.  Launch worker cooperatives

Anchor institutions—hospitals, colleges and other organizations that have an intrinsic stake in making sure their neighborhoods thrive—are tools for revitalizing low-income communities. The University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia, a consortium of hospitals in central Boston, Wayne State University and major medical centers in Midtown Detroit and Syracuse University in Syracuse devised strategies to harness the economic impact of anchor institutions to create more good jobs for neighborhood residents, more opportunities for local businesses and more resources for community improvement projects.

An initiative in Cleveland helps inner city residents become owners of new businesses that serve a cluster of hospitals, universities and cultural institutions on the struggling East Side of the city. The Cleveland Foundation teamed up with the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland to launch the Evergreen Cooperatives: 1) a green employee-owned laundry with a contract to clean linens and scrubs for the Cleveland Clinic and other hospitals; 2) an employee-owned 3.25 acre greenhouse that produces greens year-round for hospitals and Case Western Reserve university; and 3) an employee-owned company that installs photovoltaic panels and makes weatherization improvements for anchor institutions and local residents.    

How Botkyrka, Sweden, takes advantage of diversity

10. Collaborate across racial & social divides
11. Embrace Interculturalism

In an ever more globalized economy, we depend on workers, entrepreneurs, innovations and ideas from across the planet for our continuing prosperity. MSP’s weak reputation for diversity hinders us in attracting multinational businesses and diverse workers,  as well as tarnishes our image as a forward-looking place.

“How do we create a city that recognizes that cultural diversity is an asset,” asks Lisa Tabor, who founded Culture Brokers to promote cultural. “How do we become proactive about the need to evolve our community to take part in a global society?” Tabor sees the answer in Interculturalism, a new perspective on diversity that promotes “intercultural interaction and intercultural co-creation, in which no group is expected to give up any of their cultural assets.” Interculturalism goes beyond multiculturalism in its focus on cross-cultural engagement and collaboration.

The movement emerged as a way to address heightened racial and cultural friction in European cities, which similar to MSP, are no longer overwhelmingly white. Botkyrka, Sweden’s most diverse city, seeks to instill people with pride in their ethnic heritage as well as a Swedish identity. “The experience of living and acting in a multicultural environment will give all those residents in our municipal district, regardless of background, an advantage in an increasingly globalised world,” states an Intercultural strategy document [PDF] approved by the city council.

How Austin, Texas, grabs the world’s attention

12. Blow your own horn
13. Celebrate what’s distinctive

Minneapolis-St. Paul will continue to be defined in most people’s minds by subzero temperatures until we do a better job of talking up our qualities. We might learn a few pointers on self-promotion by looking a thousand miles south on 1-35.

Austin, Texas, could be famous for its scorching summer heat and unchecked suburban sprawl, but instead it’s celebrated as the home of Willie Nelson, the University of Texas, the “Austin City Limits” PBS show, the South by Southwest festival and its lively non-conformity (as seen in the ubiquitous bumper sticker “Keep Austin Weird”). Austin parlays these assets to market itself as the creative, youthful, progressive epicenter of the South. Bright college grads and start-up businesses have flocked here, especially in the high-tech field.

What we can learn from Austin is to truly appreciate and nurture what’s distinctive about this place—everything from bikes to booyah stew, Scandinavians to Somalis, pond hockey to the only waterfall on the Mississippi, our location on the 45th parallel (exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole) to the fact the Twin Cities are far from identical (think of Boston next door to Seattle). And if any of these ideas sounds weird, all the better.