On Tuesday evening the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education met for its final meeting of 2021. The Committee of the Whole meeting was focused on the ongoing development of a strategic plan for the district. 

The board began development at its annual retreat in August, agreed on goals for the plan in November, and discussed metrics to measure progress towards the strategic plan goals last night. 

The agenda and presentations can be found here.

The strategic plan has four goals: academic achievement, student well-being, effective staff, and school and district climate.

For each of the goals, senior officer Eric Moore presented specific metrics for the district to track over the next five years. The previous strategic plan which had specific annual targets. This plan only has five year goals. 

The administration will continue to provide updates to the board on progress towards each metric, but believes that progress will not happen linearly. In addition to the metrics for each goal, the administration laid out the necessary structural conditions that must be present in the district in order for the goals to be attainable.

Many of these conditions are long-standing challenges that the district has made little previous progress towards eliminating, Moore noted.

Academic achievement

For the academic achievement goal, the metrics are focused on student proficiency in math and reading, closing the gaps in proficiency between students of color and white students, the four-year high school graduation rate, and participation in advanced high school coursework. 

For kindergarten students, the district goal is to increase the reading proficiency rate from 59 percent this year to 76 percent by the 2026-27 school year. The pre-pandemic reading proficiency rate was 67 percent.

Kindergarten reading proficiency rates

The goal for closing the proficiency gap between students of color and white students is getting the gap down to 17 percent. The gap is currently 40 percent and was 30 percent points before the pandemic.

Kindergarten reading proficiency gap between students of color and white students

Over the five years of the strategic plan, the district’s aim is to increase proficiency in literacy for students of color in kindergarten by 22 percentage points, and for white students by 5 percentage points. In 2026-27, 86 percent of white students and 63 percent of students of color would be proficient in reading. The presentation includes many more metrics like this.

Kindergarten reading proficiency rates for students of color and white students

The structural conditions necessary for the district to meet the metrics for academic achievement require changes to both operations in schools, as well as Human Resources for the district. 

Within schools, the daily schedules for buildings and teachers need to align with district recommendations. For example, many K-5 schools include the recommended 145 minutes for literacy instruction each day but some do not. Changing school schedules will require working with principals and classroom teachers. 

Another structural condition the administration has identified is time for staff to participate in professional development. Other barriers to meeting the goal for academic achievement include sustainable funding for staff, and utilization of district-approved curriculum materials.

Student well-being 

The second goal is for students’ physical and mental well-being. The five-year metrics will be based on surveys of students in 4th-12th grade. 

The district faces several structural barriers to achieving its goal for student well-being. The district needs additional mental health staff, especially staff who reflect the diversity of cultural backgrounds of students in the district. Student representative Ghebremeskal and board member Ira Jourdain have both spoken at previous meetings about the current long wait-lists students face in trying to access mental health services in schools.

MSP School Board Member Ira Jourdain

The district also faces challenges in staffing for nutrition services, custodial staff, bus drivers and bus aides, who are all critical to maintaining school services that meet the physical needs of students.

The district will also be tracking suspension disparity data as part of student well-being. Before the pandemic, students of color were suspended from school at nearly six times the rate as white students.The district has faced a large disparity in discipline for many years. According to Moore, the district has made little progress towards addressing this disparity. 

Effective staff

Having effective staff is the third goal of the strategic plan. The district will utilize metrics around staff retention, staff diversity and vacancy rates to measure its progress. These goals are focused in particular on hiring and retaining staff of color who reflect the diversity of the students in the district.

The main barriers the district faces in its goal for effective staff center on current contract language around seniority, competitive wages and benefits, and organizational climate. The district and the teachers union are currently in mediation over the contract. Before entering mediation, they were negotiating changes to contract language that would insulate teachers of color from reductions in staffing outside of seniority order.

School and district climate

The fourth goal is for MPS to have a welcoming and responsive climate. The district has been working towards implementing a new climate framework to address parent, student and staff concerns about school climate. The metrics for this goal will center on surveys of parents, students and staff. Work towards this goal is underway, including with professional development, student placement policies and outreach to stakeholder groups. The district identifies stopping or delaying this work as a barrier to achieving its goal for school climate.

Strategic plan feedback

Following the presentation, the board members asked questions and gave comments about the strategic plan metrics. 

Ghebremeskal pointed out that many of the goals depend on staffing, which requires both hiring and funding for positions, but that there is no guarantee either will exist. 

Board director Josh Pauly voiced concerns about how the board will monitor progress when the plan only includes five-year targets for the metrics but not annual metrics. Pauly’s concerns reflected public comments during the Dec. 14 meeting where members of the public asked for a new contract with Superintendent Graff. The contract that is currently being negotiated includes specific annual targets for academic proficiency.

Feedback on implementing curriculum 

Pauly asked for more details on how the district will overcome some of the challenges identified when these structural barriers have existed in the district for multiple decades. He also asked about the district’s use of the Benchmark curriculum for elementary literacy. Pauly shared that many MPS teachers were unaware of what curriculum the district had approved, district communication was ineffective, and the district did not provide sufficient professional development for teachers to implement the curriculum. 

Graff responded noting the district went through a proposal process to select Benchmark, but that there was a difference between implementing a curriculum and teaching that curriculum with fidelity. He said there has to be professional development to support teachers in implementing a new curriculum. Graff said that there has to be a culture shift within MPS so that teachers start following a specified scope and sequence of instruction, and stop picking and choosing only some parts of the curriculum.

In response, senior officer Aimee Fearing said that curriculum is just a tool, and offered the analogy of the emergency tools she keeps in her car. She has these tools but doesn’t know how to use all of them. Teachers need professional development in order to know how to use a curriculum. She acknowledged that in the past the district has brought in new curriculum, without the expectation that teachers will use it, and without the professional development that teachers need to implement the curriculum in their classrooms. 

Fearing said her department is currently working to bring professional development to teachers, and to utilize school-based coaches to help teachers identify gaps in their instruction and supplement their resources. Fearing also noted that the district has not historically engaged in a cycle of review for its approved curricula, or had a process in place for the district to make adjustments when needed.

Pauly recommended the district have clear expectations for teachers. He said that without this, it is a hope but not a plan. He said the budget has to be linked to these goals. It is a heavy ask, he said, for the district to address these underlying conditions in order to meet the strategic plan goals. 

Board of Education Director Adriana Cerillo asked  what needs to happen to get the district to 90 percent proficiency for all students in literacy and math. Moore responded that he doesn’t believe that it is a realistic goal for the district given the current circumstances. He also questioned whether there is any district in the nation that has achieved literacy and math proficiency levels that high.

Directors Inz Nelson and Kimberly Caprini highlighted that it has been a challenge for the district to implement changes consistently across the many schools in the district. Inz, Caprini and Director Jenny Arneson expressed their support for the current goals and metrics.

The MPS board will meet next on Jan. 11, 2022.