State funding allows additional education centers

/ 25 November 2013 / eunice

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, November 25, 2013 – The Minnesota Department of Education will spend $2 million over the next two years to expand a support system for the state’s most struggling schools.

Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner, announced Monday that her department would tap new state funds to double the number of “Regional Centers of Excellence” that were launched last year with federal money.

The job of the centers is to help educators improve teaching, boosting student performance and closing the achievement gap between minority and poor students and their peers.

The centers of excellence put specialists inside schools to provide training to teachers and then help them share concepts that are successful in their schools.

“The only way to get systems moving is by getting teachers talking to other teachers — across hallways, across buildings and across school districts,” Cassellius said.

The support system is a key part of the state’s new Multiple Measurement Ratings, or MMR, which grade schools as part of Minnesota’s waiver from requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Schools ranked in the state’s bottom 25 percent on measures including math and reading proficiency, student academic growth, progress toward closing the achievement gap and graduation rates are given labels of “priority” and “focus” schools.

In 2012, state education leaders launched centers of excellence in Thief River Falls, St. Cloud and Rochester with $2.8 million in federal funding to help those schools improve. New state funding and new centers opening in Marshall, Fergus Falls and Mountain Iron will give any district that wants help access to resources.

The centers are staffed by education specialists, who will spend much of their time visiting classrooms and working with educators to improve teaching and then share successful concepts around the state. Last year, staff from the regional centers spent 14,396 hours in schools, the education department said.

It’s a system Don Pascoe, Osseo schools director of research and assessment, has experienced firsthand.

Staff from the St. Cloud center helped teachers at North View Junior High and Garden City Elementary improve students’ math scores enough to boost the schools’ MMR ratings, Pascoe said. Those improvements were enough to get North View off the “priority” list and Garden City make progress toward exiting the “focus” list.

Pascoe said that the support system was helpful to his district and that he believes the new way of grading schools is a better measurement of their productivity. Students in both Osseo district schools showed academic improvement, but in most grades less than half of students scored proficient in math on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

“Our job, in its simplest form, is to help students grow as quickly as possible while we have them,” Pascoe said. “The productivity of a school, of students and of families is best measured by that growth.”

But critics worry the new rating system is not identifying schools that could benefit the most from the support the regional centers provide.

Jim Bartholomew, Minnesota Business Partnership education policy director, says the state now “over-emphasizes growth at the expense of grade level performance.” That new way of grading means some schools with academic disparities will be harder to find.

Bartholomew supports the centers of excellence concept as a way of improving teaching and learning, but he wants to see educators focus more on paths to proficiency for all students. Without that target, some students will never catch up to their peers.

“Growth is good, but you also have to have a plan to get students were they need to be,” Bartholomew said.

Cassellius hopes to expand the centers of excellence further in coming years. She says the model is a good middle ground between just providing money for improvement efforts and directly dictating how schools will aid students.

“It really is a beautiful partnership that has evolved,” Cassellius said. “We are much more engaged now than just giving money. We help set the agenda.”

Early next year, state education leaders must reapply for Minnesota’s No Child Left Behind waiver.

Cassellius said the application will work to improve the MMR grading system, but she believes its principles are solid and the state’s ultimate goal is for every student to achieve academic proficiency.

“We expect the best out of everybody,” she said.