Minneapolis School superintendant Bernardeia Johnson resigned her office yesterday.
Johnson was also recently thrust into a dicey position by incendiary news stories and a legislative probe into a questionable $405,000 no-bid contract awarded to Community Standards Initiative (CSI), a politically connected group run by community activists Al Flowers and Clarence Hightower. For months, groups in the African-American community exerted enormous pressure on Johnson to take a side and say whether two Minneapolis DFLers — state Sens. Bobby Joe Champion and Jeff Hayden — strong-armed her into going forward with the CSI contract. Some of the pressure came in the form of a viral social media campaign using the hashtag #JimCrowJr.
An affidavit submitted to lawmakers in her name suggested she strove to protect the district from an untenable situation. A state Senate committee hearing into the matter proved to be more partisan theater than a quest for facts that might have supplied some much-needed context.
By all accounts I’ve read and heard, she was a perfectly capable school administrator.
Of course, by all accounts, all of the superintendents have been capable administrators, as far as we know – and yet Minneapolis’ school district is a mess (outside some of the elite challenge programs), and the mess has largely resisted any number of bureaucratic initiatives to change the situation.
And Johnson had her share of those:
Perhaps the most symbolic of the problems that dogged her tenure was the teaching corps’ failure to consistently and enthusiastically dive into a program central to her vision, Focused Instruction. Johnson struggled to articulate the merits of the approach, and it’s believed that half or more of the district’s teachers simply ignored the initiative.
Focused Instruction is a form of data-driven teaching that is, on one level, something that works in some districts and, on another, is one of those buzzwords that translates into “one size fits all approach to teaching tens of thousands of individual kids”. There’s more to it than that, of course – it’s not the dumbest teaching fad to hit the market.
But just as politics is the worst possible way to allocate resources or solve problems, it’s also the worst possible way to education individual children. School districts are fundamentally political institutions, not educational ones. Any solution they proffer will first and foremost be, necessarily, a political one, designed to be the most attractive common denominator for the student body as an aggregate (and their teachers, administrators, district stakeholders, etc etc etc). Nowhere in that aggregation is the idea that kids are unique individuals who aren’t interchangeable cogs on an intellectual assembly line.
So the next Minneapolis superintendent may be, like Bernardeia Johnson, a good person, a well-respected administrator, and a capable bureaucrat. Or they might be a complete schnook. And it probably won’t matter much, because in the end they’re all selling one-size-fits-all education that is designed to serve everyone, and therefore serves nobody.