Smart Cities: Twin Cities is no Wobegon but on the Rise

A Literacy Specialist in the Eden Prairie School District said, “I am thinking about the thousands of iPads being handed out to kids right now in districts around the Twin Cities and I’m curious to see what we will be able to do with them and to what degree we will be able to differentiate for our students.”
The Minneapolis and St. Paul districts face complex challenges but are making steady progress. Some locals worry about the improvement strategy, “The standardization of instruction in both districts is striking,” said Ted Kolderie (architect of the country’s first charter law) about the tight scripting of teachers’ work.
It will be about 5 degrees tonight in the Twin Cities–colder than any place human beings should live.  But natives like Suzanne Tacheny Kubach say, “I LOVE this city.” She should know better having lived in California for 15 years, but she notes the parks and trails, music and theater, food, and the “mind bender: more shoreline here than California, Florida and Hawaii combined.”
There you have it–natives that love it, urban districts addressing complex challenges, and suburban districts plunging headlong into the future.
No Wobegon. Despite a pretty good economy, lots of amenities, and lots of good public schools, “the fact that we have one of the country’s largest achievement gaps is especially sad,” said Tacheny Kubach who runs the Policy Innovators in Education Network (PIE-Net), 40 reform groups that share lessons in advocacy. It’s “not a place where every child is smarter than average because they all don’t have access to the kinds of schools that exist in our neighborhood–there is still lots of blatant inequity in our political choices.”
But things are changing, “The landscape for reform has exploded with urgent new voices,” said Tacheny Kubach. New voices for educational equity include MinnCAN (with a power board), StudentsFirst, and Educators 4 Excellence.  Charter School Partners is advocating for quality charters.
In addition to PIE-Net, there are several national impact organizations here. Matt Kramer runs Teach For America and Aimee Rogstad Guidera runs the Data Quality Campaign from the Twin Cities (see the latest DQC report on empowering people to use education data).
The most interesting national voice is the Center for Policy Studies and its project, Education Evolving, a policy design shop with an unencumbered perspective on educational options, school governance and finance, and systems change.  In addition to Ted Kolderie, the Center boosts 14 Senior Fellows including Curtis Johnson, the other author of Disrupting Class.  An Education Evolving video featuring Ananth Pai’s elementary classroom explains the need for both improvement and innovation and makes the case for student-centered learning and mastery-based progressions.
Crystal Brakke runs the local office of TFA with support from some high powered board members like Phil Soran, former Compellent Technologies CEO, and Doug Kubach, a Pearson division president. She has 76 corps members and more than 300 area alumni.
Joe Nathan said, “Target has taken a leading position in promoting strong reading skills by the end of the third grade, which research points to as one of priority areas for school success.”   Target committed $500 million over the next decade on this issue, plus considerable time of their people. Target has worked with both district and charters on this effort, along with a variety of community groups like Nathan’s Center for School Change.
Joe introduced me to the Twin Cities in 2000 (while helping Steve Adamowski engineer impressive high school improvement in Cincinnati). I guess I was expecting a lot of blonde Lutherans and was surprised to find large Hmong, African American, and Latino populations and very diverse schools.
Cool Schools. Locals point to schools leading the way:

  • School for Environmental Sciences (the Zoo School) students have researched and helped create exhibits for the Minnesota Zoo. Once you visit, you can only ask, “Why doesn’t every zoo in the country have an associated school.”
  • St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts, headquarters is on 5th floor of downtown St. Paul Landmark Center, uses downtown professional theater and ballet studio to help produce national award winning students.
  • Hiawatha Academies,extremely high performing charters serving virtually all low income families for whom Spanish is the first language.
  • Harvest Prep, very high performing charters serving virtually all low income, African American students.
  • Pierre Bottineau French Immersion, Minneapolis Public Schools, is the first “site governed” school in the state and an effort to create in-district options.
  • Plalen Lake Hmong Magnet, St. Paul Public Schools, brings elders and families in to help  teach Hmong Culture.
  • KIPP Stand Academy is a 5-8 middle school.
  • Harvest Prep, African-centric P-6 school, is part of the Northside Achievement Zone, a Promise Neighborhood collaboration of 50 organizations including 9 schools led by a dynamo named Sondra Samuels.
  • High School for Recording Arts uses music to reach students with whom other schools have not been successful. State Farm and Verizon, among others, have contracted with students to produce YouTube Videos on various subjects. Junior Achievement recently called HSRA one of the most entrepreneurial in the country.
  • Venture Academy will be a year-round, 6-12 school opening in Minneapolis in the fall. Each student will chart a unique path weekly during a 1:1 session with their personal coach. The Venture blend won an NGLC grant and was featured on Getting Smart in an NGLC series.
  • Minnesota New Country School (MNCS), opened in Henderson (50 miles southwest) in 1993–one of the first charter schools, one of the flex schools, and one of the first teacher coop run schools in the country. Ted Kolderie showed up in my office in 2000 with a MNCS picture book.  When he took me on a tour, I called it “The coolest school in America.” It’s a school worth visiting.

MNCS became the anchor of EdVisions, a project-based competency-based network of schools in more than 30 communities around the country. Edvisions is frequently featured on Getting Smart for pioneering a personalized approach. The Hope Survey, one of the innovations to come from the Edvisions network, validated assessment examining whether students are developing key “soft skills of persistence, goal setting, positive attitudes so vital for success. For a full investigation of teacher led schools like MNCS, see a recently published book Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots (a project of Education Evolving; see the Getting Smart review).
Minnesota passed the first charter school bill in the country in 1991. Author of the bill Senator Ember Reichgott Junge published the definitive history last year, Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story.
Minnesota Guild is the first local teacher union charter school authorizer. Created by Minneapolis Federation of Teachers to serve as an authorizer of charter schools that outstanding teachers want to create.
Brookings gives Minneapolis a solid B (tied with D.C and behind only NYC and NOLA) on their Education Choice and Competition Index.  Joe Nathan said, “Thanks to a strong [charter] law, suburban and rural, as well as urban Minnesota families have high quality options, including district and charter schools.”
Districts On The Move. Little Falls launched Project REAL, iPads for every student in grades 5-12.  It was spearheaded by Little Falls District Technology Coordinator Mark Diehl and Superintendent of Schools Curt Tryggestad (now in Eden Prairie).  The goal is to improve student achievement through increased student engagement and to focus on 21st Century skills. Local edtech giant Atomic Learning supports tech integration with PD.
Eden Prairie launched  iLEARN, a middle school iPAD initiative to be followed up with a 1:1 high school initiative in the fall. Minnetonka handed out iPads to 9th and 10th graders.
TIES, a edtech cooperative owned by 47 Minnesota school districts, held a Technical Leadership Conference last week where they honored 82 teachers including Jason Backes from Intermediate District 287 who supports a promising 12 district collaborative using iPads with students with Autism Spectrum.
St Paul serves about 39,000 students and is led by home grown Broad grad Superintendent Valeria Silva. An ELL student herself three decades ago, Silva pioneered mainstream instruction for newcomers to St. Paul earning an EdWeek profile. Last year they issued a forward leaning RFP for a learning platform and they recently cut a deal with Dell after I urged caution about custom development.
“The Twin Cities and state business community is deeply involved in efforts to improve public schools,” said Nathan. “The Minnesota Business Partnership and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce work hard at the legislature to increase school choice, improve accountability for public schools, help improve teacher and principal evaluations, and provide more flexibility for district as well as charter public schools.” Nationally known companies such as Cargill, Carlson, Ecolab, General Mills, Medtronic, Securian, 3M, and Target have made contributions to Twin Cities education.
In a recent blog, Nathan enumerates how foundations are propelling schools and district forward. Tacheny Kubach appreciates the way the Minneapolis Foundation on a long-range plan to change the “reform ecosystem”.
Options Online. Keeping Pace notes, “Minnesota was among the first states to allow students to choose a single online course from among multiple providers.” There are 26 providers approved to provide either a fully online education or part-time classes to out-of-district students including:

Since 1985, Minnesota has allowed high school juniors and seniors to take courses full or part time, on college campuses, with state funds paying all tuition, book and lab fees. Students also are allowed to take these college courses online.  More than 110,000 students have used this Post Secondary Option and last year opportunity was extended to allow 10th graders to take career tech classes on college campuses.
There are two online universities headquartered in Minneapolis: Capella (which also owns anywhere anytime learning platform Sophia) and Walden.
Up to the Test. Pearson (through predecessor NCS) has been in Minneapolis since 1962 when a computer scoring system was spun out of UM. Today it is the headquarters for Pearson’s assessment businesses–the world’s largest. In an important sign of the times, Pearson combined instructional content and assessment into a business unit led by Doug Kubach.
Minneapolis is one of the centers in the U.S. for assessment; in addition to Pearson, two other educational assessment companies are headquartered here–both are spinoffs from Pearson– Data Recognition Corporation and Questar Assessments.
Naiku is an online formative assessment platform founded in late 2010. Forget the clickers, just ask students to BYOD and use Quick Question is student response system that uses an web device.
The University of Minnesota is one of the leading research universities for educational assessment research, and houses the National Center on Educational Outcomes, which is the leading center for research and assessment for students with learning disabilities.
EdTech. Plato, now Edmentum, was acquired by private equity giant Thoma Bravo in 2010 and turned around and acquired EdOptions in 2011 and Archipelago Learning in 2012.
Infinite Campus is an SIS tracking the progress of 5 million students in 43 states. AvenueASL, from the University of Minnesota, serves up one million videos a year to sign language learners.
Things are really exciting here in the Twin Cities for EdTech, said Naiku CEO, Adisack Nhouyvanisvong. “We had the second annual EduTech Showcase in October of 2012. We have many local edtech companies and entrepreneurs who showcased their companies…We’re working with businesses, government, and education to make the Twin Cities the hub for ed tech.” This effort is being lead by the Minnesota High Tech Association, which connects STEM teachers and professionals through
What it Means.  Doug (Edvisions) and Dee Thomas (MNCS) will always represent for me the best of Minnesota: equity-focused, innovative, and collaborative.  They imagined and created a completely new pedagogy, school format, and governance system.  They’ve never received the credit or support they deserve.
The Twin Cities offer a surprisingly rich array of educational choices but suffers some big gaps–within districts not just between urban and suburban. It suggests that we can’t where we need to with the system we have. As Kolderie said last week, “It is time to drop the debate about The One Best System. It will be a challenge for those in the traditional discussion to get comfortable with the idea of different models running simultaneously. But opening to innovation is the only practical way to get education reinvented.”
There is the beginning of some edtech innovation, but I’m a little concerned about the truckloads of iPads showing up in suburban districts.  I’m glad, they are trying to stay relevant but I hope it’s not another thin layer on top of how we’ve always done school.
The most hopeful sign in the Twin Cities is the vibrant advocacy community pushing for better options and more equitable outcomes.
Thanks to Suzanne Tacheny Kubach, Ted Kolderie, Joe Nathan, Julie Sabo, Karen Johnson. Pearson and K12 are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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