The Gospel According to Carol Johnson

Minneapolis's top teacher keeps the faith in trying times


CP: Agreed.

Johnson: I use this analogy a lot to describe the way I think about this work. We are in this marathon and here is what happens: You and I know about it. So what we have been doing for the last six months is training. When we show up on Saturday, at 7:00, we are ready to go. And the bell rings and we go. Around about 10:00, this other group shows up. And they didn't know you have to train yourself to get in shape. And yet they are in the same race with us. Now, the group that started at 7:00, I don't get to slow [them] down, because the race isn't just about Minneapolis; it is about the global community. But I have a responsibility to those who arrive at 10:00. It is not to belabor: Why were you late? Didn't you meet your bus? Didn't you read your mail? That's irrelevant. The only thing I have to do is figure out how to put them on Rollerblades so they really are in the race and they can get caught up.

Now there will be people who will fight against me putting Rollerblades on those folks. The people who say, "Why do we have to spend so much money on these kids?' But they have to be in the race. And if they are not in the race, guess what? I get to give them a ride later.


CP: I like that analogy, and I want to use it to give you an idea of what I'm trying to get at. Let's say that those untrained kids aren't showing up at 10:00; they are showing up at 7:00. There are thousands of them, and there are thousands of the trained kids who also show up at 7:00. The street is only so wide. How do you decide who to put at the front of the line when the gun goes off?

Johnson: During the race there are going to be people who need more help. So it doesn't really matter who is at the front.


CP: Except that if the people who are at the front are the untrained--

Johnson: They may hold everybody back? Is that your point?


CP: When they start. But to put the untrained kids way back in the pack, so that you can give the trained a clear start from the front, is that fair either? The bottom line remains that the people who are racing competitively know they are going to be held back if the untrained are beside them. And they may not enter the race next year.

Johnson: This is important. This is really important. Because--here's what. [Johnson pauses, tears in her eyes.] I think that we have to reach multiple audiences with our message. And our message has to be broad enough that people understand that their children will achieve success, and at the same time realize there are some special circumstances where children need a helping hand.


CP: At both ends of the spectrum?

Johnson: That's right. I think that most people who understand and value American public education understand that that is what is really unique and special about American public education; that it is accessible to all who come. And that it tries to be, as Thomas Jefferson said, the social equalizer. Now what you describe to me reminds me more of what I think private schools may be designed to do. And I don't want to be negative about private schools, but public schools are unique in their capacity to deal with a broad range of students, and to not pick and choose.

So when you say to me, who starts? Well, we don't have an application process; we don't pick and choose who starts first. We just say anybody can come; we don't want to be deciding. We don't prematurely decide that these kids, because they have money, are going to be the smart kids and these kids who don't have money aren't. [Again, Johnson's eyes become teary.] I believe there is absolutely no limit in our capacity to overcome the conditions of poverty with quality teaching.


CP: I agree. But for some, there is less to overcome.

Johnson: There is less to overcome for some. And so we have to figure out how, as we design and maintain this public accessibility, how do we create opportunities for kids who can move further faster, to ensure that they are constantly challenged so they are in the race? How do we also accommodate those kids who for whatever reason don't have those opportunities? And this is the big challenge for public education. It is the hardest part of the work.


CP: I don't think parents want their kids to succeed at the expense of somebody else. Because of state "compensatory aid" funding formulas, more than twice as much is spent per pupil on impoverished kids at Bethune than on the predominantly middle- and upper-class students at Barton Open School. Most people in the system are very comfortable with the idea that the poor kids in Bethune will get more money than the kids at Barton.

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