TCB Q&A: Former Minneapolis Public School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson
Photography by Jake Armour

TCB Q&A: Former Minneapolis Public School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson

Johnson gets real about the hot-button issues vexing public education and thus workforce readiness.

Urban schools and equity remain the hot topic in public education. As labor shortages emerge and businesses clamor for a skilled workforce, the continuing struggles of public education to educate all of Minnesota’s kids fester. Bernadeia Johnson was Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent from 2010-15. Her history in public school administration dates back to 1997. Currently on the education faculty of Minnesota State’s Edina campus, she is training the next generation of Minnesota school leaders. Whereas most educators today speak in befuddling jargon, a private language for stakeholders and insiders, Johnson has always kept it real. She agreed to sit down and address, jargon-free, why progress in public education seems so hard to come by.

TCB | If we were going to start from scratch and remake urban public education, how would it look different than today?
| To me, you would build a system that was built on the natural progression of students. One that’s Montessori-like, where you take kids’ interests and guide them and promote that. Schools led by leaders who are passionate, culturally competent, with the flexibility to hire the best teachers, and you would give them some autonomies around budget, scheduling, curriculum, and they could hire the best leader and teachers for their needs.

School boards would not exist. The system would be set up to support schools but not inhibit them. The best leaders in urban schools are the ones that pay attention to the rules but not at the expense of doing what’s best for their schools. Funding would follow the child, so we didn’t have as much district administration.

Q | Would the rank-and-file educators rejoice?
| There would be total autonomy in a system like that but also total accountability. Now, in theory, principals and schools say they want that, but in practice they really want to be able to point the finger at somebody and say, “I can’t do this because of this.”

Evaluating teachers and principals became this big reform. Well, everyone in organizations is evaluated. Why wouldn’t a teacher and school be held accountable?

Q | You’re really talking about a total redesign.
| You would have to, because systems are designed to get the results they get. Even when I tried to make change [in Minneapolis], it’s like a rubber band. You stretch, but when you let it go it bounces back to the same shape.

Q | Has this been tried on a large-scale basis?
| I don’t know of any. If I could have fresh-started the district I would have, not just one school. But people like me come in and we try to make things fit a system because it’s easier to monitor and report. “We have this reading strategy …,” etc.

Q | What’s the low-hanging fruit in urban districts? What can be fixed without major changes in structure, culture, or financing?
| To build collaboration and competency between teachers and families. They need to be connected and engaged. It’s not about money; it’s about cultural competency. Maybe a bit of training money. It would help with behavior, attendance, parent involvement. Cultural competency is about affirming who people are.

Q | Why isn’t that happening?
| Teacher ed programs need to start focusing on it. We can’t assume everyone knows it. So we’re producing the same type of teachers. If you’re not connected to the culture of the people you’re teaching—and I don’t mean like taco night or things like that, everyone’s eating a taco now—how do you bring in who I am? How do we talk about Latinx people and convey “I respect you and your experiences”? Pronouncing kids’ names right. We want to shorten people’s names when they are long or complicated, but it’s a person’s sense of identity.

I grew up in the segregated South and was taught by teachers who looked like me. But I have kids in my master’s program who have never had a teacher of color. Charter schools tend to be culturally affirming. You want to be in an environment when you feel affirmed and you have worth and value to be a contributing member of society.

Q | Let’s talk integration. There’s an active lawsuit saying that schools have resegregated. But we have a charter school community segregated by design.
| Communities are diverse, so it’s important kids have an intercultural experience. I’ve been agnostic about school choice [charters] because it’s open to affluent families, so why shouldn’t it be open to all? I don’t disagree with integration, but schools are segregated because communities are segregated. The reality is schools are responsible for a lot of stuff—that kids don’t get pregnant, that they have values—and we’re responsible for integration. But mainly parents are interested in culturally affirming environments, not integrated ones. Also, we still define integration as black and white, but we have Somali, Latinx, Russian kids. It’s complex. We have to work it out.

Q | Is integration a solution to school achievement?
| In and of itself, it’s not.

Q | The data tell us that the most experienced, competent teachers are in the highest-performing urban schools. I’ve known a bunch of them, and I question their capacity to be effective outside of that comfort zone. Can you port the best teachers to any environment?
| You want both. It’s about mindset, beliefs, skill. One thing to look at is if a person is coachable. I had some good white teachers I would put up against any teacher, and I’d send my grandchildren to them if they were still teaching.

Q | How successful are efforts to diversify teaching?
| I think because of how harshly we talk about teachers and educators that we are not seeing as many people going into teaching. When I grew up in the South, you were a preacher or teacher—those were the vocations of prestige. Now you can go to the college you want to and go to Target or General Mills and make more money. So there’s less interest in teaching. Also, people talk about their experience, and if people feel negatively about urban districts, that word gets out. I may instead want to go to Bloomington or another suburb. Teachers with high skill levels want to be in good environments.

Also, you can’t hire just one person of color, because they are isolated. I hired several Latinx teachers for this one school, and the faculty was just awful to them. It’s not enough to recruit them; you have to look at where you place them and report their retention. And I didn’t do those last two things.

Q | Kids bring their home life to school. Are we burdening schools with expectations they can’t meet?
| Expectations are really, really high. It is asking a lot. I believe teachers are trained to teach. And teachers come with their own issues—divorce, addiction, etc. Too many distractions and you end up with a totally bankrupt environment for learning.

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Q | So teachers can be effective in spite of the kind of trauma many students bring to school?
| We’ve always had that, and we’ve had people excel. Teachers given the right type of training and support can overcome those things. I’ve taught with all of that.

Q | What do we understand about the effect of suspensions as a reinforcer of behavior?
| Kids don’t learn the lesson. We were suspending large numbers of preschoolers, and so I put a moratorium on preschool to second-grade suspensions. You don’t learn when you’re suspended. You are stuck with families that are already overwhelmed. Kids come back and we haven’t addressed the behavior, haven’t repaired the relationship with the teacher.

Eight days of absence causes students to fall behind. Especially math, because it’s sequential.

I also know people suspend for foolish stuff. It’s usually something stupid that could have been corrected. A kindergartner was suspended for refusing to put away a ChapStick. She ran out of the classroom. She was suspended for being unsafe. I would have explained to the girl that I only put on lipstick once a day. Just put it in your desk and you can reapply it after lunch.

Q | A suspension has to be issued by a principal?
| Yes, but a teacher will hound the principal, and if they don’t suspend, the teacher will report it to the union.

Q | Are we fixing this?
| We rewrote the discipline code. We started to recategorize behaviors—disrespect, defiance, all the subjective criteria. It has to be observable, violent, injurious. Lipstick wasn’t one of them. … I will say that disruptive behaviors make it impossible for teachers to teach. It’s too chaotic. But some students who disrupt in one class don’t in another because those teacher relationships have been built.

Q | Are the local teachers’ unions an impediment to fixing the public schools or are they are a constructive partner?
| They are challenging to work with even when you agree. Their rhetoric is constructive. But I know the union is not the teachers. I decided I had to get beyond the leadership and talk to teachers, who don’t always agree with them. I believe in the unions for the things they do that promote quality of life for teachers. But when it interferes with what I want for my vulnerable kids, I part ways with them.

Q | Is that the division point? That many of the prerogatives teachers enjoy make it difficult to improve underperforming schools?
| I feel like it does. Things that have worked elsewhere that can be impactful are so challenging. You first have to negotiate with a board and then a union.

Q | Should last-in, first-out (LIFO) layoff priority end?
| LIFO sends some of your best teachers and your teachers of color to suburban districts because they tend to be less senior [and are laid off]. I had LIFO on my legislative agenda, and my board lost its mind. That’s why I implemented [teacher] evaluations, so the least effective teachers go rather than [better ones to] layoffs.

Q | Student testing and evaluation is so controversial among teachers and the liberal intelligentsia. My feeling as a parent is it’s another data point, so why opt out?
| I believe in accountability. I understand why teachers are opposed: It’s not the full story [on a student]. It doesn’t explain the child’s context, so it’s not fair to use it for accountability. But that’s nonsense. The alternative is relying exclusively on the teacher. When kids switch schools, you often find out the truth [that a child is behind or that the previous education was ineffective]. Just tell parents the truth.

Q | In a perfect world what would school boards do?
| They would clearly stick to policy and finance and hiring superintendents. That’s all they should do. But I can’t tell you how many trainings we did to keep them from dipping below the line [into tactics and process].

Q | It’s a poorly compensated job that requires a lot of time and fundraising.
| Who has the resources? So you get a certain profile. People come often to address a problem or experience they had in their family situation, or they are an activist [who’s been recruited].

Q | Can urban districts continue to maintain schools that work while uplifting ones that don’t, or is it a zero-sum game, where for more to benefit, others must lose?
| No one could question that some students need more funding to meet their academic, social, and emotional needs to excel. [So] it is important to allocate resources based on needs, such as special education, ELL, etc. Schools that serve diverse populations should get more resources, and schools with no or little diversity would get less allocated [than at present].

Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.