The Gospel According to Carol Johnson

There is probably no public official in the Twin Cities who is more admired by the people she works with than Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson. Last summer, when the school board in Nashville, Tennessee, offered Johnson the superintendent's job at a larger district for more money near her childhood home, it prompted a huge outpouring of support from students, parents, administrators, and business and community leaders from across the political spectrum in a successful effort to convince her to stay in Minneapolis. After she announced her decision, relieved school board members voted to bump Johnson's annual salary up to $190,000, but she further ennobled her reputation by donating most of the $30,000 raise back to the Minneapolis Public Schools Foundation.

Since taking over as Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) superintendent in 1997, Johnson, now 54, has revamped the system's middle schools, instituted a goal-oriented District Improvement Agenda, and put in place a comprehensive plan to measure progress and achievement toward those goals. She has fostered a wide array of partnerships with businesses, foundations, and faith-based organizations. The results thus far, however, have been mixed at best.

After some initial progress, the percentage of MPS students who passed the Minnesota Basic Standards Test in eighth-grade reading remained virtually unchanged last year, while the percentage of those passing the math portion of the test actually declined. Even more troubling, less than half of the ninth-grade students at MPS during the 1996-97 school term went on to graduate within four years. Fewer than one in three students of color graduated within four years.

Johnson and others in the district point to a raft of destabilizing social and political factors that markedly influence this poor performance. Students already enrolled in the Minneapolis schools during eighth grade have higher test scores and are more than twice as likely to graduate as students who transfer into the system. Because of immigration from Southeast Asia, Somalia, and Latin America, there are three times as many MPS students whose first language is not English as there were just ten years ago.

And then there are the effects of poverty, which create enormous obstacles to learning. For example, consider the instability caused partly by the lack of affordable housing: The graduation rate for students who change schools at least once during the course of an academic year is 13 percent; students who don't move graduate 86 percent of the time. And in the face of these challenges, changes in the state formula for funding education has resulted in the district's loss of tens of millions of dollars over the past two years.

Similarly daunting scenarios are being played out in urban school districts across the country, making the job of big-city superintendent an inherently beleaguered, Sisyphean task. This is why Johnson's tone-setting compassion and perseverance make her valuable. At once indomitable and understated, she spends a great deal of her time listening to people at an endless procession of meetings, forever jotting things down on an endless procession of notepads, still governed by the sort of high-minded faith in human potential that enticed most educators into the field in the first place. It's an approach that bolsters morale, compels consensus, and engenders fierce loyalty.

"Carol's amazing," veteran education writer and newly elected school board member Dennis Schapiro said to me last week. "People gravitate toward her. I just came from a start-of-the-year meeting with our principals, and they just seem to have so much trust and affection for her. It's that way when she meets with private-sector folks or parent groups, too.

"Part of that is her style," he continues. "You want a snap decision and a sound bite, you've got the wrong person. For bottom-line, cut-to-the-chase types, her style can be an acquired taste; it can be frustrating. Her way to getting to solutions is not a straight line, not always that direct."

I knew what he meant. Two days earlier, I had arrived at Johnson's office in the MPS headquarters on West Broadway Avenue for what was supposed to be a one-hour interview. Just back from a week's vacation--at least partly devoted to catching up on paperwork and reading the first two Harry Potter books--she was so busy that her staff had originally said they couldn't squeeze me in. But she recalled that my son was enrolled in the district and, pen and notepad ready, asked me to talk about how he was doing. Fifteen minutes later, the interview began, stretching for more than two hours and through at least one canceled appointment. When we finally stopped, I was barely halfway through my list of questions.

The transcript of the entire interview is available at The excerpt printed here is mostly devoted to a discussion of whether the school board's 1996 decision to abandon its decades-old policy of busing students to racially balanced schools and its return to a system in which more kids attend schools in their neighborhoods has created middle-class enclaves within the district. Although the new policy has been well received by Minneapolis families, partly because fewer students now face long bus rides every day, it has made individual school demographics more reflective of the racially and economically segregated housing patterns that exist in the city. And in the six years since Johnson's controversial predecessor, Peter Hutchinson, implemented the community-schools policy, critics have blamed the return to neighborhood schools for widening the achievement gap between impoverished students and their more affluent peers.  

In general terms, the current system is designed to give students and their parents a choice between a guaranteed slot in a school in their neighborhood and a chance at a space in one of the district's popular magnet schools. Predictably, however, middle-class parents are better able to navigate the bureaucratic workings of the district to increase the chances that their child will land one of the more coveted spots. In 1997, the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP and a number of parents sued the district, charging that the policy failed to ensure their children an adequate education. A settlement forged in early 2000 increased the chances that kids from impoverished neighborhoods could attend the school of their choice, but few families have taken advantage of the arrangement.

Although the length and tenor of the interview were consistent with the way Johnson's friends describe her style, I wondered if her interest in my son was at least partly designed to curry favor with a journalist, and if her need to provide a broader context and add more nuance to many of her answers was a way to partially evade more directly unpleasant conclusions. It was hard to maintain those suspicions, however, as I saw tears occasionally well in her eyes, both out of joy when she spoke of the potential of children and of the opportunities the district was creating for them and out of frustration for the ways in which those opportunities were being denied.


CP: Middle-class parents and kids get a good education from the Minneapolis Public Schools for the most part. But there's a huge disparity, often driven by factors of race and class. It's been the pattern of urban school systems to allow enclaves, to keep a middle class in the system to advocate for the system. Because if the schools lose the middle-class advocates, they run the risk of white flight, lowered expectations, and low performance. To what extent are middle-class enclaves a necessary evil?

Johnson: I am not sure what you mean when you say enclaves.


CP: Places where good learning is ensured.

Johnson: I think that our job here is to improve and make all of our students better. Our whole accountability system is set up to measure not just one test score but to look at a range of indicators that tell us how a student is doing. What we know today is that you can go into schools that have very high numbers of students with poverty, and if you look at the continuously enrolled students within that school, you can see high levels of performance. And the reason is because we have a combination of stable staff, students coming to school every day, and really good instruction. Schools like Lincoln and Lyndale and Bancroft, which, despite the fact that they have higher percentages of poverty than other schools, are showing students with more than a year's growth from a year's instruction. To me, that is really the evidence of success.

Minneapolis has more choice than any other school district in the state. Students can go to schools closer to home. They can go to one of our magnets. We have schools at the high school level like the Perpich Center for the Arts or the Mall of America high school that we partner with, as well as 30 other alternative schools for students at the secondary level, as well as postsecondary enrollment and charter schools. So I think families do have a large range of choice of where they want to send their kids.

What we are striving for is creating a system where schools have high expectations for all kids. Some kids are entering schools and they are learning English for the first time. Their parents have high expectations for them to perform well, but that expectation may revolve around their English acquisition. It depends on how you define excellence. If I take a student who arrives from another country in third grade, and by fourth grade I have them speaking English and able to compute and do some initial writing, I may define that as excellence, given where they started. But another student who has been with me all that time, they have to perform at a higher level to get to that place.  


CP: But the reality of the system--

Johnson: The reality of the system is, we have some schools that have students with high mobility rates, and some schools that have fewer kids with free and reduced-price lunches. Parents choose on January 15th where they want their kids to go. The most involved parents, probably the better-educated parents, are more involved in our choice system. We have worked really hard to try and get information out there to a broader range of families. Next Saturday we'll be at the Urban League family day and have tables up with information about Early Childhood Family Education and how to register students for school. We'll be advertising in the neighborhood newspapers about how if you haven't registered yet here is what you need to do.


CP: Schools produce certain test scores, certain dropout rates. If in fact people's participation in the system occurred in equal numbers and if in fact there was a totally evenhanded approach--and I am not saying the district isn't evenhanded--there is still a danger of middle-class people leaving the system if they don't have their setup. If they couldn't work the system to their preference, they could vote with their feet and go to a different system or a private school.

Johnson: But don't you think we should be designing a system that creates opportunity? What we want for the best and the brightest of our kids is what we must want for all of our kids.


CP: I agree with that sentiment and I think a lot of middle-class parents do, too. And they will advocate for the schools system-wide. But they will put their kid where they need their kid to be.

Johnson: That is a little bit different. Every parent has a responsibility to advocate for their child, to get the best education possible. That is part of their job. And in doing so, some of the parents who advocate strongly can be advocating for other people's children as well, because they ratchet up the performance expectations that we as parents have. And it can improve for all children. The danger that you are outlining is that there is the potential for parents to advocate only for their own children, and in doing so threaten the district that if the district doesn't respond to their child only, as opposed to the larger community of learners, that they will go somewhere else.


CP: I don't think it's that nefarious or that planned. I think the district needs involved parents to advocate for them. And they are valuable people.

Johnson: Absolutely.


CP: And in order to keep those people around, the district allows a situation where these parents can send their kids to school where they want to. If you started to limit their choices on the basis of poor kids or kids without parent advocates getting in, if we wanted to say, "Let's make it so these kids get that same level of leverage..."

Johnson: I think our choice model is designed to give greater opportunities than we've had in the past to have all kids get to our most choice sites. We've increased the number of vacancies at Southwest High School and been able to greatly diversify our opportunities for students to participate in the international baccalaureate program both at Patrick Henry and at Southwest. We also, through the NAACP settlement, have certain targeted areas where families in those areas can get some priority for some of our schools that have less concentration of poverty and race.

A long time ago, we assigned space based solely upon where a kid lived. And because the housing stock in Minneapolis tends to be segregated by income, what that meant is that certain kids were attending schools in very isolated environments. Then we went to assigning students based on some number on how we wanted to create [racial] balance, and that was a state mandate, and we ended up with court-ordered busing and then a state guideline. What we have now, I think, is more open and more useful than either of those two. We are at a stage where we have choice. Some families choose to stay in neighborhood schools closest to their home and some choose to take advantage of our magnet schools and other outer-district choice opportunities.

I am not saying we have reached equality of outcome, because it is clear we have not. Otherwise, our performance rates for African-American students and American Indian students in particular would be better; our dropout rates would look different. And they don't yet.  


CP: But can we talk straight about how difficult it is to balance creating situations where people can stay in a school district instead of leaving, and the needs of bringing up the underachieving areas?

Johnson: We have families in our community who have been in our schools for a number of years. And they want their kids to do well academically, graduate from high school, and get into the best colleges and universities in the country. And our job is to make sure that that is possible. But our job is also to take the student who hasn't been with us for a long time, who may not speak English very well, and to equally try and accelerate them at a rate that also gets them into college. When I go over to the graduation ceremony at Roosevelt High School for the medical magnet [here Johnson's voice cracks with emotion], it is filled with students of color who have had not only classroom experiences, but internships and shadowing opportunities in the healthcare community so that they can think about going into the healthcare field, and not just as doctors and nurses but as technicians and paramedics and public-health administrators. They get to see the range of opportunity.

And I think that is both the beauty and the complexity of public education. That is, we take everybody who comes and are able to design a system that uniquely tailors them a pathway to high achievement. It is just that the pathway to getting there may require some variation because people come with different experiences as they enter. And so part of the work is trying to diagnose their needs and then try and map out a strategy. In order for us to be an effective public school system I don't think we can have an academic program that caters to either one group or the other. If we say we are a public institution that is going to accept all who come, regardless of race or family circumstance or handicap conditions, nationalization, whether they came here yesterday or speak English or not, then we have to design systems that allow us to take into account that we have different needs out there but still have high expectations for all the kids. I can't just throw a kid who is not English-speaking into a room and say, "I hope you can figure out this calculus."


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.

Johnson: Our job is making sure that that capacity happens at Bethune.

CP: I am just looking at the reality of the district. And I will grant you the success of the Lyndales and the Lincolns. But that sort of progress is already going to have had to happen before middle-class kids go there.

Johnson: It isn't necessarily white families. There are plenty of black families who are that way. I never met a parent who didn't care about their kids academically. I really haven't. But I have met parents who are better able to advocate than other parents.


CP: I have met parents who don't care and you have, too. It is like the guy who says he loves his wife and still beats her. There are parents who don't care about their kids as much as other parents. And those kids get hurt. And to the extent that the district can help them and give them added resources, they do. But you still need a critical mass of enthusiasm for the district among the most involved families. And one of the ways that happens is by allowing them the freedom to create that for their kids.

Johnson: I believe what keeps people in the district is either that the children have had an academically positive existence or that when kids have special-education needs or special needs they feel the district is responsive to whatever their child needs. And by the way, I feel that is true of both the children at the high end and the low end. Even families where they know their child has a special learning difficulty, if they think the teachers are working to help their child overcome that barrier or difficulty, then they will believe in the system and work closely with it.  

I think what happens in some families is that they access information. In some neighborhoods they talk to each other over the fence, or it might be at church or at Lunds or wherever they might find themselves. They ask questions about the schools. And there is a lot of informal talk about the schools that happens in neighborhoods that frames how people think about the schools, and it is based on personal experience. And so I think that a lot of decisions people make about the schools have to do with their own understanding about their child and their child's particular needs, as well as an understanding about what the school can offer. To the extent that those two conditions are met by us, people choose us.

Now I will also say that people choose private schools for a whole variety of reasons that have to do sometimes with religion or with their financial wherewithal or where they themselves went to school. And so in some cases no matter how good a job I do or how well we describe Southwest's IB program or South's liberal arts, there will be people who choose private schools, regardless of whether or not they can get into the public school of their choice.

CP: If you have a great principal, nine times out of ten they don't stay at that same school; they get moved somewhere else. You put topnotch principals in places where they are most needed.

Johnson: Yes, but I would say that we put top principals in some of our best schools as well. The goal here again is not to have some good principals and not others, some good schools and not others, but to have great schools, great principals, and great teachers.


CP: Obviously. And that's a perfect world. But there are places with durably good reputations within the district.

Johnson: Yes.


CP: And there are places with fluctuating and often not good reputations within the district.

Johnson: And we are working to improve them.


CP: I understand. I would argue that the places that have durably good reputations become a self-fulfilling prophecy because the people who talk at Lunds and over their back fences know that is where they want their kids to be. There are still times when you have to cater to the people who know the system, don't you?

Johnson: I think most parents are operating from a vantage point of just trying to do the best for their kid. And I don't think we should begrudge parents doing that. We should want them to constantly challenge us to do better than we are. And one of the ways we find out how well we are doing is related to parent demand. Because it is not just that we look at test scores. We also look to see how many choice cards did parents fill out to go here? And we have the opportunity to ask them what troubled them or pleased them about this choice.

I always hesitate to use a real-life school example. I am going to use this one, and hopefully there will be a way for you to put it in context without either being offensive to parents or scaring people, neither of which I would want to see happen. Windom Open School is located in southwest Minneapolis. It has a good principal and a strong group of teachers. Something like 35 to 40 percent of the student population is Latino, and they are learning English. And then you have families who live in southwest Minneapolis, and if they don't get into Barton, Windom might be the natural next choice. I think the real challenge here is meeting the needs of families who are learning English for the very first time, but also doing a good job for families sending their kids who are maybe reading before they come to kindergarten.

And I think the challenge for an elementary teacher in that building is to have these very different populations of students and try and meet that diverse range and still be responsive and culturally sensitive. I think sometimes parents of our English-speaking population have been worried that their kids might not get what they need. Not because they resent in any way the Latino families getting what they need, but they are worried because resources are limited and so much of the resources must go to the students who need support in learning English that it may mean that the accelerating and enriching experiences they want for their children may be compromised. I think the district has a special challenge to constantly work toward doing both and meeting the needs of those kids with such different experiences.  


CP: Learning progressions are also disparate. And that's the challenge.

Johnson: Right. Because there are kids who are very bright and what would be a mistake is to allow the fact that they don't speak English to keep them out of the IB program. How do you make sure that they get the content knowledge? It would be like if any one of us went to Germany and we didn't speak German but we knew enough to pass the ninth-grade tests, content-wise but not language- wise. And that is a piece that needs to be accommodated.


CP: And another piece that needs to be accommodated is the kid who is already very bright and already knows English. How do you keep that kid interested?

Johnson: That's right. Because if you can't keep that kid interested, parents will sense there is not a plan for them in that school. And when parents believe there isn't a learning agenda for their child, they will try and find a place where there is one. Let me suggest that our job is to ensure that all of the kids learn, not just the disadvantaged kids. The kids who are more advantaged shouldn't be made to feel guilty or not have a chance to progress because somehow, not due to their own making, they were raised in a family that gave them advantages and was able to do more for them.


CP: To what extent do the Minneapolis Public Schools provide opportunities for both the front runners and the slow runners? And when it doesn't do it well, where does it err?

Johnson: I think because we are using one accountability standard across all schools, and we're trying to measure growth based on where kids enter, that we have some accountability systems in place that help us to do a better job, rather than just looking at test scores. We have been working on a corrective action plan with the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights to do a better job of referring American Indian students into gifted-and-talented programs. Because when they did a review of our program they felt that we under-identified and underserved American Indians in that program. We are now looking at ways to further identify kids who might potentially be gifted but don't show up in the traditional methodologies we use.

The way we are doing our small communities in our high school reform has the potential for ratcheting up the success for more students to stay in school, but also doesn't destroy the programs that have been successful with the learners who have been with us for a while.

Where do I think we haven't gotten there yet? I think that one of the resources that we haven't tapped adequately is the peer community, the culture of the students themselves. When you go to the citywide student government meetings, what you are struck by is the high range of competent leadership from students of color among the participants. For the last several years, the presidents and leaders of our citywide student government have come from the African-American community. And yet what we haven't done well is tap into those kids to help us build bridges. They know the kids who are not doing well in school, and they also have a better capacity to reach back and pull those kids with them than adults do. I think we haven't actually understood that you really have to create a cultural community around high achievement, and that comes from within the community itself.

In the past we had only put money into remedial summer school, and about two or three years ago I said, "This is ridiculous; we are going to put money into enrichment summer school and then we are going to let teachers apply and they can design really creative, high-end enrichment activities for kids." And the last three summers we have had really good participation. I visited North Star Elementary and they had first-grade teachers with first-grade students--and this a school with over 90 percent kids in poverty, a lot of kids of color--but they had kids writing their own books and illustrating them. And then we had teachers at other schools that had more affluent kids doing technology, doing science experiments and other things. So I think there is a way, if you consciously decide that you are not going to be serving just one population.  

But you have to work at it. You have to say, "Okay, the Title I money and the other money for the remedial kids for summer school is going to go here. But now we have to prioritize some additional dollars to go here if you want to make sure you have some enrichment courses as well.

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