Commissioner Cassellius: Education reform

/ 10 March 2012 / jennifer

Brenda Cassellius, Star Tribune, March 10, 2012 –

We’ve made good changes, and there’s no need to force bad ones.

When it comes to education, we all want what is best for our children. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Minnesota who does not agree.

No one wants to see children fail in school, especially their teachers. That’s why teachers must be at the table in our important reform work.

During the previous decade, about the only significant “reform” in Minnesota’s public education system was a reduction in state funding. Last year, however, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature worked to enact several major reforms and increase funding.

Together, we passed an alternative pathway to teacher licensure, a top priority of business and other civic organizations. We passed comprehensive teacher and principal evaluation systems, now being developed by a task force of more than 35 key education stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, parents and business leaders.

We increased funding for early childhood programs throughout Minnesota and expanded our quality rating system to help parents make good child care decisions.

We worked closely with state Sen. Gen Olson on two important goals — ensuring that all children are reading well by third grade and making it easier for high school students to take technical education.

All told, we funded education reform to the tune of $132 million.

Our efforts have not gone unnoticed. Due to an aligned and strategic seven-point plan, Minnesota is one of seven states to win a Race to the Top-Early Learning grant. We were one of 11 states to earn a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

Just this week, we received a federal Charter School Program grant of $28.2 million to support, reward and replicate strategies that work. Along with other highly competitive grants awarded to our state — Investing in Innovation (i3) and Promise Neighborhood among them — the total federal investment in “Minnesota-grown” reforms add up to $118 million.

That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment for any administration, much less one in its first year.

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said during a recent visit, “Minnesota is on the move.”

Yet rather than supporting or acknowledging these nation-leading reforms, some legislators and groups have launched the latest round of indictments against teachers.

They claim an untold number of ineffective teachers are being protected by seniority, which they say must be replaced by a vaguely defined combination of student test scores, teacher evaluations and seniority (“DFL is stuck in the mud of teacher seniority,” March 7).

Anyone who doesn’t jump on board immediately is accused of defending the status quo and being “against reform.”

The new teacher evaluation system is still in its infancy. The new layoff procedures being proposed would not take effect until the start of the 2016-17 school year. One might ask, “Why the rush?”

What successful business would tell employees, “In four years, we will start a new system to decide which of you might lose your jobs, maybe even your careers; but we can’t tell you what it will be, because we haven’t figured it out yet?”

Do we really expect morale and productivity to improve with that threat looming?

Focusing on teacher layoffs four years from now only distracts school officials from developing and implementing the new evaluation systems and other reforms already underway that will better support efforts to improve student achievement.

I have been an educator and school leader for more than 20 years. I know without a doubt that we must make improvements in our ability to assure all parents that their children have the best teachers and principals. Gov. Dayton is absolutely committed to making that a reality. So am I. Anyone who doubts our resolve doesn’t know either of us.

The “last in, first out” bill under consideration does not address the underlying need for an effective system to prepare, support and ensure effective teaching. From my professional experience, I know that if a school or district fails to provide the proper structure to support and retain great teachers, or to remove an ineffective teacher, it is most likely the failure of an ineffective system rather than the failure of an individual teacher.

Our newly passed teacher evaluation law is specifically designed to build the best teaching corps. We can’t fire or cut our way to great teaching. We must prepare, support and mentor teachers so they can improve and help their students succeed.

Quick fixes, silver bullets, or “policies du jour” won’t move the achievement needle for kids. And trying to bulldoze change by enacting bad policy or targeting teachers as the sole source of our problems minimizes our challenges.

In order to truly improve student achievement and close gaps, school change must be deliberate, strategic, and include the voices of those closest to the work.

That is what we are doing now, and what we will continue to do. We know that’s the only way to ensure all Minnesota students achieve their full potential.

Brenda Cassellius is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education.