Shoring Up a School District Crucial to the Minnesota Economy
Ed Graff has been superintendent in the state’s third-largest and most prominent school district for nearly two years, the latest educator to try to stabilize a district beset by all the problems America’s cities face. Graff, 49, spent most of his professional career within and running the Anchorage, Alaska, public schools. He is soft-spoken, using the lingua franca of educators and public servants. He chooses his words carefully and can be non-specific at times, avoiding opportunities to address hot-button topics.
He manages some of the state’s highest-functioning schools and some of its lowest. He is accountable to an elected school board and an increasingly polarized public, where the schools are held to account for society’s failures. The subtext of his perspective is that Minneapolis Public Schools currently lacks many of the systems and structures needed to equitably and effectively educate its students.
He is moving less to reinvent MPS than shore up its foundations, though his work is challenged by the endless funding crises that beset urban school districts. He is clearly stung by the legion of complaints about MPS—from the media, parents and its voluble and frequently frustrated teacher corps. At the close of our interview he challenged this MPS parent and other district stakeholders to fixate less on the district’s failings than its successes, lest it lose the esteem so essential to its functioning.
Q What appealed to you about this job? It’s been professional quicksand for many of its recent inhabitants.
The needs and the opportunities were very similar to what I saw in Anchorage, and I felt like I could make a difference addressing some of those needs.
Q In the last 15 school years, the district has had seven superintendents: Carol Johnson, David Jennings, Thandiwe Peebles, Bill Green, Bernadeia Johnson, Michael Goar and yourself. From the perspective of someone who observes corporations, leadership instability of this magnitude is inherently destructive. What is it about public education that promotes such instability?
The average tenure of a superintendent in an urban district is a little over three years. Typically, it’s associated with contract length. You work for boards of education and they change with elections and there often becomes misalignment in that partnership. When I took this position, I said it’s not going to be about one individual. Our success is going to be about how successful we are in aligning all the stakeholders, from students to community members to board members to the public at large, and my job is to try to bring everyone together.
Q And you are very focused right now on sustainability of mission.
What is important is that people understand that continuity and sustainability, the predictability and success we have to create for our graduates, does not come in one, two, three years. It comes from pre-K through 12th grade. So the greater predictability of what those opportunities are going to be for kids, the faster we can get at what their needs are.
Q What is it in your agenda that differentiates you from your predecessors?
I don’t know. I’m a teacher at heart. Both my parents were educators. When I talk about what it is about what we want to accomplish, I see through my own personal experience and lens. It’s not easy for someone who’s not in education to understand.
Q You’ve talked about a concept called social-emotional learning as integral to your approach. Can you explain it?
When you are able to understand how you show up as a teacher, you are able to have greater understanding of your students who may have situational experiences that are preventing them from really connecting in the classroom, or just [understanding] who they are as an individual and what they need [so they can] more strongly connect with their learning. [It’s] knowing every one of your students as they walk in the door. Knowing that Adam has a challenging home situation—or that he’s found a passion in writing.
It’s also understanding where your biases might be. How you are presenting yourself to students? Is that limiting their ability to engage or take healthy risks in a classroom? [Do they know] they won’t be put in a space where they will be questioning their own intelligence and worth and value?
Q Is this part of contemporary educator training?
It’s unfortunately not something that a lot of people get access to in pre-service. More work needs to be done with colleges and universities around how critical those skills are.
Q Your predecessor was concerned that MPS was not able to recruit teachers with the skill sets needed in urban districts. Has that improved?
We’ve had a great deal of success with our residency program, where we provide [classroom assistants destined for teaching] with university credits. Over the years they stayed employed and we were able to hire them. When I first came into the district, two-thirds of them were people of color, so we had a great opportunity for students to see themselves in their teachers. And they knew some of the nuances of our district and did not have to have an extra challenge when they started their profession as a teacher. Now we’ve since had to move away from elementary and focus on special education because we have a greater need, but that investment and return has been very positive. We need more models like that—where we have people who are invested in our schools to begin with, and we can retain them by providing development and growth.
Q One of the things that puzzles the broader community is why the district seems to be perpetually in a financial crisis. What is the vicious cycle that doesn’t seem to get broken?
In all my tenure as a superintendent [in Anchorage and Minneapolis] I’ve never had a year where we didn’t have it.
Q What is at the root of it?
Our expenditures exceed our revenue. More than 80 percent of our funding goes to people. From my observation, the funding for education has not kept up with the costs. I understand some yearly adjustments are inevitable, but the amounts we’re having to adjust for annually are not sustainable.
Q Are we talking about the myriad unfunded but mandated special services?
Yes, and the problem is statewide. I was approached by an outstate superintendent who faces proportionally the same problems we face. You have a myriad of needs. Some [students] need physical therapy, speech and language support, occupational therapy. It’s not a single teaching specificity. We’re going to provide it. We’ve not shied away from it. We value our students and we are going to do our best to serve them.
Q The public flashpoint has been whether to use budget reserves for one more year rather than cut, until the results of funding referenda in the fall. Is that right?
We’ve been trying to bridge this gap. We did that last year. We had $13 million we needed to address mid-year. Last year when we did this year’s budget, we used reserves to cover a $16 million gap, taking it below the board policy of 8 percent [reserve], but now we’re still looking at a projected deficit of $33 million, because when we took that $16 million we didn’t make those adjustments. We still had those costs moving forward. I would love to be in a position to not make these cuts, but it won’t be sustainable.
Q How do you choose what to cut?
I’m working with the board on a strategic plan. It’s critical. We’re using one that’s been in place for a number of years, but it’s time we reevaluate it and align it with our current values. Absent that, what I did this year is prioritized four areas of focus based on what I had gathered in months of listening.
- We prioritized literacy first. Pre-K through fifth grade, it’s the bedrock of learning.
- Then, equity; we need to figure out how it looks when we distribute our resources equitably. How does it look in the classroom? Making sure people understand the biases they have.
- Then, social-emotional learning. When I came into the district, there was a lot of conversation about wanting to move forward this aspect. We had . . . schools apply, we got funding support from organizations, [and] put together a three-year plan with a goal of it eventually being systemic across the district.
- Finally, creating multi-tiered systems to support students on all levels, from those that need interventions to those that need to advance their learning.
Q High-school graduation rates continue to rise at MPS. But former superintendent Peter Hutchinson wrote an op-ed that contended they were illusory and that many graduates lacked the skills for the modern workforce or college. Fair?
I think you have to be cautious about putting too much on one statistic. I wonder if I was college-ready when I graduated high school.
Q What sort of communication do you have with higher education or employers to gauge if you’re graduating kids ready to function in those worlds?
The general comments are that we’re not there. There’s a gap. But we need to be clear that graduation is not the end point. We need stronger collaboration with universities.
Q There are growing shortages of skilled tradespeople in our economy, to the point that at age 25 you can be a sole-proprietor with a six-figure income after the right apprenticeship. Should some of these options be introduced in high school? Are they?
Career technical education is a needed field. The question is how do we do that? We don’t have shop rooms anymore. Part of it is [things like] our STEM expo and creating ties with [Minneapolis Community and Technical College]. Internships and partnerships are key.
Q One thing I’ve seen in our family’s 15 years in MPS is the importance of stable leadership in a school environment. The schools we’ve been a part of that functioned best had established leadership. My daughter’s school has had five principals in six years, and it’s my belief the school is poorer for it. And it puzzles me why the district seems so incapable of stabilizing leadership in what is by any definition a high-functioning school.
We have a process we engage in with stakeholders [parents, teachers, students]. Is the leader aligned with their philosophical beliefs? We take that in and blend it with what we know we need. The more time we have with an individual [in the interviewing process], the better the outcomes. Sometimes we don’t have that because of the suddenness of the change, sometimes because the applicant pool is [inadequate], other times we need to develop that in people over a period of years. This work is not for the faint of heart. When we get it right, you see years of strong, successful outcomes for kids, and when it doesn’t go well, you see changes. And that’s problematic because schools have to restart and adjust. We’re developing leadership profiles for each of our schools to make the process of navigating these transitions easier.
Q Does the turnover at the administrative level, with each superintendent change, contribute to this lack of consistency of process and expectation?
Well, it’s part of what’s needed for a strong district, that infrastructure. When you get into challenging times, [administrative support] positions are the first things to go. We’re having to scale back some of that support we provide schools. It’s a really delicate balance.
Q Before she was a candidate for mayor, Nekima Levy-Pounds called the MPS achievement gap a manifestation of institutional racism and a majority-white teaching corps; that the phenomena that “experts” attributed this gap to—poverty, family instability, housing scarcity—were a crutch that the white community clung to in order to avoid taking responsibility. Is the achievement gap a manifestation of your failure or the broader society’s?
I started by saying that our success is going to be based on our ability to come together. Our schools exist because of our community. We have obvious disparities. My responsibility is to 36,000 students, individually and collectively. I can’t meet that through one lens. It takes multiple approaches. We’re going to continue to do hard work around achievement, equity, racism, social-emotional learning, creating structures for all of our students to be successful. That’s what I have to believe in.
Q Do you believe your teacher corps has the skill sets they need to educate the entirety of the student body?
I think there’s certainly a need for more support. They’re very dedicated, but we’re asking them to do some things they don’t have the resources to do. We talk about reading achievement—but they did not have a curriculum, as I would define it, available to them. One [teacher] might have a strong background in professional development and be able to overcome that, but another might not. So we’re leaving it to chance, where I feel like we need to make the standard consistent. We can’t do it fast enough; we can’t do it thoroughly enough. But it takes years.
Q State law has made last-in, first-out a hallmark of urban teacher contracts. In an era where you are laying off teachers nearly every year, do you feel you have the flexibility to retain the skill sets you need to make progress with your vision?
We have agreements [with the union] to prioritize educators in our residency program. That’s been important progress.
Q There are financial consequences for MPS each time you lose a student to a non-MPS school. There’s been significant erosion to charter schools, particularly from schools experiencing poor educational outcomes. Do you feel you have a handle on what these families are in search of and how to stem that tide?
Choice is something everyone is interested in. Speaking more broadly than Minneapolis, there’s a sense in education that “there’s got to be something better.” That’s what we are challenged with in education—how do we make it more interesting to families looking for something unique and different? Via surveys and contacts, we are trying to understand when families choose elsewhere what are they looking for.
Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.