By Vickie Evans-Nash
Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius spoke with community members on February 22 at Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis. Photo by James L. Stroud
On Tuesday, February 22, Minneapolis Representatives Peter Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion held a town hall meeting that allowed the community to meet the newly appointed commissioner of education and hear her plans on changes made under her administration.
With over 20 years of experience in education, Commissioner Brenda Cassellius was also a 15-year-old counselor in training when she says she decided she wanted to devote her life to children. She began her career as an educational assistant at Harrison Elementary School in North Minneapolis.
“This great governor cast a wide net,” she says of a position she never applied for. She received a call from Josie Johnson to have a conversation, which was followed a week later by a request for her to meet with Governor Mark Dayton.
“He said ‘Let’s make a difference for these 835,000 children in Minnesota, and let’s just get this done once and for all,’” Cassellius says of the governor. “I could just see the passion and commitment in his eyes.”
Her efforts toward improving education include reforming the general education funding formula. Currently, she says, heavy reliance on referendums causes disparities across school districts. “Our constitution says it’s our responsibility as a state — not local property owners — to provide a uniform system of schools.” The proposed budget contains several efforts specifically targeted at eliminating the achievement gap.
Early childhood funding
Growing up in the projects, the daughter of a mother who had her first child at age 16, she attributes early childhood experiences — the Head Start program, the book mobile, and activities offered through the parks system — to her current position. “I am here today, I believe, because I had early learning experiences that bridged the opportunity gap for me.”
Two million dollars of the budget is allocated to setting quality childcare standards and informing parents of early childhood experiences that best benefit their children.
Currently districts address the 60 percent funding they receive for kindergarten-age students by offering half-day or in some cases every-other day programming. However, Cassellius says that in developing language, literacy and classroom social skills, knowing numbers, shapes and all the skills necessary for first grade, all-day, five-days-a week-kindergarten is essential.
Under the new budget, schools can apply to the state for total funding for children who receive free-and-reduced-priced lunch. “Philosophically we are saying, kindergarten all the way through 12th grade you should be in all-day programming.”
Incentives for innovation
The third budget element includes new awards aimed at strategies for closing the achievement gap. Cassellius pointed out a teacher in the audience whose students enter his classroom at third-grade level, but after one year they leave at fifth-grade level. “We need to recognize and reward where exceptional growth is happening…. If we want to close the gaps, proficient isn’t good enough.”
Access to these awards are not connected to whether or not students are proficient, but whether or not there is growth that exceeds one year of learning, with a requirement of sharing information: 50 percent of the award to be used to continue successful efforts, 50 percent used to pass on the information to other educators.
Third-grade reading proficiency
“Reading well by third grade, you now can transition and read to learn,” Cassellius said. “If you can’t read by third grade, then you can’t read to learn.”
Cassellius says that excuses can no longer be tolerated for inadequate teaching. “We need the best and the brightest teachers in front of our children, especially if we want to close the achievement gap,” she said.
The new commissioner says that all teachers are tired of testing children. In response, she has been charged by the governor to implement a test-reduction taskforce to begin eliminating tests that take children away from classroom lessons and do nothing to inform teachers on instruction. Governor Dayton wants to focus on measuring children by growth and applying for a waiver through the federal government to change educational accountability methods based on proficiency to methods based on growth.
The current No Child Left Behind(NCLB) laws have created a Department of Education that has gone from 60 to 40 percent of their staff being funded through state funds. The federal funds support NCLB monitoring and compliance, leaving support for studying efficient teaching and learning models lacking.
Cassellius took the time to answer questions from attendees well past the allotted time frame. One gentleman voiced his concerns about African American boys and whether there was a plan in place to address “a whole generation of people who aren’t part of the job market.” Cassellius believes that this issue will be addressed through their reading-by-third-grade initiative and they will set benchmarks in each school’s improvement plan. Progress will be made available to the community by student subgroup in their annual report card.
“I’ve been pretty clear in all of my public statements over the last six weeks that closing the achievement gap is a core issue of mine, and I will continue to highlight that as I go around the state.”
A teacher with 12 years of experience in Minneapolis stated, “The research that has been done in Tennessee showed that if you have a smaller class size, everybody gains…but you know who makes twice the gain? African American males.
Although Cassellius agrees that smaller classrooms make a difference, she says that it’s mainly effective with a student-to-teacher ratio of 15 to one. “I worked in Tennessee and I saw smaller class size and let me just say, there are some schools where class size doesn’t matter. When you have lousy teachers, it doesn’t matter how many kids you have in there.”
Decreasing the classroom in Minnesota to the levels where size would make a difference, she says, would mean doubling the teacher workforce and probably opening more schools — highly unlikely options in our current economic climate.
On alternative-teacher licensing, Cassellius says that of the 68,000 teachers in Minnesota, approximately 80 have alternative licensure. Two things that she will not compromise on in an alternative-licensure bill are that teachers know and can demonstrate knowledge of subject content. Also, for the first three years they would have to be supported by a college of education in order to compare program integrity.
One audience member stated that though she supports the notion of every child having access to post-secondary education, she said, “Every child does not necessary have the academic, intellectual and financial resources for secondary education.” She suggest that all students graduate with knowledge in a skilled trade through a state-of-the arts technical school, saying that “there are many trades where people make more money than college graduates, and many of those can be learned in six months or a shorter period of time.”
As to the diversity of programming, Cassellius asked, “Why don’t our colleges have programming for students and technical programs for student? And why did the University of Minnesota get rid of their general education?”
In regards to all children being college educated, Cassellius said, “I will respectfully disagree… Whether it is a graduate, two-year, or certificate program…[it’s] just not an option anymore. It needs to be the norm for our kids that they expect to go to college. For us to expect any less, shame on us.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org