Money, People, and the Building of Dreams
On Monday morning, hundreds of people piled into an auditorium and a stuffed overflow room at the Humphrey School for Public Affairs. The reason was a presentation, run by former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, about the work of Generation Next, the massive collaboration of business, nonprofit, and public leaders aimed at changing educational outcomes in the Twin Cities.
Three efforts headlined Generation Next’s event. The first is work to ensure all Minneapolis and Saint Paul children are screened for health and development before age 3. The second is to train tutors from a host of programs and align their work so that every student in the two cities reads proficiently (presumably as measured by tests) by the end of third grade. The third goal is to help every student in Minneapolis and Saint Paul develop a life plan to keep themselves on track for high school graduation.
In the presentation of these efforts—each introduced by Rybak, discussed in more detail by a representative from an organization doing the relevant work, and personalized by someone who delivers that work and/or benefited from it —as well as the parade of speeches by various notables afterward, the intended message was clear: corporations, philanthropists, and public officials can work together to coordinate services and push them into schools.
That notion of collective impact comes to Generation Next by way of the Cincinnati Strive initiative, which has been credited with helping that city’s schools improve dramatically. The work in Cincinnati was mentioned briefly, and it warrants more discussion. Joe Nathan of Minnesota’s Center for School Change represented the Gates Foundation for several years of its involvement with Strive, and shared some lessons from his experience nearly seven years ago in the Star Tribune.
Those lessons don’t need to be treated as scripture. They include some ideas I agree with very strongly, such as involving union leaders in the change process, engaging and empowering families, and respecting and involving teachers in selecting focused topics and workshops for professional development. Others, such as emphasizing competition between schools, I find more problematic.
Considering Generation Next’s intellectual heritage, though, applying these lessons is instructive about what the effort is and is not doing. There are a few of Nathan’s lessons that Generation Next is doing well on, such as creating focused partnerships. For the many lessons that relate to the actual practice of schooling, it looks like Generation Next may have a fair bit of work ahead of it.
It could be that I’m missing some important pieces of context, but certainly most of the work Generation Next emphasized on Monday was about coordinating outside services that work in schools rather than changing school practice. One exception would be the announcement of the $1.1 million “Bright Spots Initiative” organized by Target and United Way with help from Generation Next, the Education Transformation Initiative (a collection of foundations and other organizations looking to coordinate philanthropic giving and services around education), the Minnesota Business Partnership, and the Itasca Project (a group of business leaders), among others. The project aims to identify and spread best practices at Twin Cities district and charter schools.
Outside of that, the discussion was largely one of collaboration and alignment of services provided by groups other than schools. This is hardly a problem. In fact, one could argue that this is a preferable role for major philanthropy looking to support education. Certainly it seems preferable to the politically-inflected giving and decision-making that too often shape education-related philanthropy today.
I did see a couple major groups missing from the stage at Monday’s event. While private, public, and nonprofit leaders were well-represented on stage, there was little to no emphasis on the role of families, teachers, and students themselves in shaping the improvement of education. One brief, shining exception was the passionate speech by Husna Ibrahim during the section on life plans for secondary students. Born in South Africa to Somali parents, Ibrahim ended up graduating from Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis and is now a student at the University of Minnesota. She credits this in part to Project Success, which helped her through the process of, as she put it, “dreambuilding.”
It is the shared building of dreams that has too often been left out of education reform efforts, and which I wish I’d seen more of on Monday. After years, decades even of reform from the top, it is still all too rare to see the people most intimately involved with schools empowered to help change them. It’s something we can and should build more of in Minnesota.