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Meet the superintendent who nearly lost his job over Balanced Literacy this week

On Tuesday evening, a group of parents gathered to protest outside of the Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters. Signs read, “Literacy for all” and “Less than 50% of MPS students read at grade level.”

Later that evening, Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff nearly lost his job. Four school board directors voted not to extend his contract. The only named concerns related to literacy, a weak spot in his performance review and a source of community concern (cut to 1:52:15 of the meeting for more). Graff held onto his job by only one vote.

The story is both unique and all-too-familiar to literacy advocates. It deserves national attention – especially by superintendents in balanced literacy districts (which is most school districts in America). 

The concerns in Minneapolis aren’t new. Parents with concerns about literacy outcomes in MPS have been organizing for more than a year now, and held their first protest back in June

These concerns also aren’t unique to MPS. Minneapolis teaches kids to read via an approach described as balanced literacy. It’s the dominant model in K–12 schools, having risen to popularity over the last two decades – a period marked by flat reading outcomes in US schools. And while the nuances of implementation vary, common issues persist in balanced literacy curricula and classrooms.

Parents are catching on to these issues, as evidenced by a growing chorus of voices in social media and a growing number of districts whose parents have organized to advocate for better approaches. The issues in Minneapolis are absolutely reflected in districts across America.

But Graff may be the first superintendent to nearly lose his job over this issue. Let’s talk about that – it’s significant.

First, a quick overview of the all-too-familiar issues in Minneapolis. As parent organizer Sara Spafford Freeman writes, “1/2 of MPS students don’t read at grade level. 1/2 of Black & American Indian students read two or more grade levels behind.” The district uses a weak curriculum with balanced literacy hallmarks. And there are clear red flags in its data.

One standout detail: in the district’s own assessments, students perform worse in the spring than in the Fall. This chart tells you that students are making less than a year’s worth of expected literacy growth in a year:

At 3:30 of this video, David Weingartener shows that 60% of MPS students are not making a year of growth in a school year.

EEK. How does any district see such data without raising alarms? 

I’d recommend watching this entire conversation for a wide-ranging exploration of the issues.

So if these issues are common, how did Minneapolis go from a district with frustrated parents’ to a district with a nearly-fired superintendent? Its parent protests appear to be a key ingredient.

When Minneapolis Academics Advocacy held its first protest in June, it was the first time we had parents with picket signs over literacy. What came next: an excellent feature article in The 74, A New Kind of Curriculum Night: Armed With Protest Signs and Data, Diverse Group of Minneapolis Parents Demands Better Reading Instruction for Their Kids. And now MPS Academics Advocacy appears to have won over four of the nine school board members. They are still battling roadblocks with the rest of the board, but I suspect they have the superintendent’s attention.

There is power in picket signs. We saw the same effect in NYC, where Queens parents drew media attention to academic issues in area schools with organized protest. Media watcher Alexander Russo notes that school board protest stories are “easy to cover” for journalists. I saw this firsthand last year, as parents rallied against school closures. Announcing a protest or press conference is simply the best way to get your concerns on the evening news.

We have seen lots of powerful parent advocacy, from media engagement to parent organizing to lawsuits. Yet most of it is happening in local Zoom meetings and facebook groups. I hope we see some of that energy channeled into picket signs.

And there is definite power in seeing this level of pressure on a superintendent. While having to settle lawsuits may get superintendents’ attention, nearly losing a contract renewal is probably a bigger motivator – for Graff, and even for his peers who catch wind of his story. It’s my fervent hope that Graff uses this moment as a learning opportunity. Unfortunately, he has described the matter as a “philosophical conversation,” suggesting that he sees the concerns as simply a pendulum swing, as opposed to a field coming to terms with its issues. But perhaps Graff will find his way to the national reading conversation (exec summary here), and to voices like the district leaders who have openly admitted that they only learned key reading research after stepping into district office, and have his own moment of truth.

There’s one other essential lesson from Minneapolis: MPS Academics Advocacy is a diverse coalition of parents from schools across the city. Beth Hawkins explained it best in The 74. This may be the most important reason that the coalition got through to nearly half of the school board – and I hope advocates across the country take note.

Keep watching this space. I doubt these will be the last protests, nor the last superintendent under serious fire, over the pervasive literacy issues in US schools. 

For more info:

To keep tabs on parent advocacy for better reading instruction, join the Parents for Research-Aligned Reading Instruction Facebook group.


To learn more about MPS Academics Advocacy, follow them on Twitter or Facebook or check out their website, which I think is fantastic and exemplary. I’d also suggest following leaders Khulia Pringle, David Weingartener, and Sara Spafford Freeman.

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