for participants' responses to this interview.
Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota Commissioner of Education
Early childhood is the most critical issue in education
Civic CaucusFocus on CompetitivenessInterview
Dave Broden (vice chair), Brenda Cassellius, Janis Clay, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, Dana Schroeder,
Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Audrey Clay, Pat Davies, Randy
According to Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, early
childhood is the most critical issue in education. She says investment
in early childhood yields a 16-to-1 return. She believes the state's
emphasis on early learning helped boost 2013 national achievement test
scores for the state's fourth-graders. In fact,
fourth-graders ranked first in the country on the 2013 National
Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) math assessment. She says the
NAEP scores for fourth- and eighth-graders show that the state has
made some improvement in closing the achievement gaps between white
students and students of color.
reports that under
waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, the state has
developed a new accountability system that uses multiple measures to
hold all schools accountable, not just those receiving Title I
funding. Also, Minnesota now has a state framework for a new, rigorous
teacher evaluation system, which she calls "fantastic."
Cassellius calls on school superintendents to take responsibility for
kids through age 21 who have not completed high school, since the
state provides funding for those students. School districts, she says,
should help those students earn postsecondary credentials,
certificates or associate degrees while they are earning a high school
diploma. She also believes that school districts should take
responsibility for all students and not "warehouse" those who are
credit deficient in alternative schools.
Brenda Cassellius is Minnesota Commissioner of Education, appointed by
Gov. Mark Dayton on Dec.
Under her leadership, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE)
applied for and received a waiver from the federal No Child Left
Behind (NCLB) law, allowing for a better, fairer, more accurate and
supportive accountability system. MDE was awarded a $45 million Race
to the Top - Early Learning Challenge grant to further develop and
strengthen early education efforts. The Department was also awarded a
$28.2 federal Public Charter Schools grant to design and implement
high-quality charter schools.
Cassellius was critical in passing new alternative licensure,
principal and teacher evaluation laws, increased funding for PK-12
education, legislation ensuring a sharp, statewide focus on every
child reading well by third grade, and expanded access to quality
early childhood education.
Cassellius has had a 23-year career as a classroom teacher,
administrator and superintendent in school systems in Minnesota and
Tennessee. Prior to her current post, she was the superintendent of
the East Metro Integration District, which includes 10 suburban school
districts. Previously, as an associate superintendent in the
Minneapolis Public Schools, she led 19 middle and high schools and was
responsible for the implementation of the Minneapolis Secondary
Redesign, which put the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in
all but one
high school. As the academic superintendent of middle schools in
Memphis, Tenn., Cassellius was responsible for middle school and
district reforms that led to accelerated gains and the narrowing of
achievement gaps among students.
much of her childhood, Cassellius grew up in poverty in the public
housing projects of southeast
near Prospect Park, and she refers to herself as a "Head Start baby."
She credits a summer camp in Waconia that she attended for two weeks
every summer with sparking her interest in working with kids. She
received her B.A. degree in Psychology and Child Psychology minor from
the University of Minnesota and her Master's in Teaching and
Specialist in Administration degrees from the University of St. Thomas
in St. Paul. She received her doctorate in 2007 in Organizational
Leadership and Policy from the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
The past 10 years have been very troubling for Minnesota schools.
According to Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius,
Minnesota schools have
struggled financially over the past 10 years. "We kind of stalled for
the past decade in
and even went backwards a bit," she said. "There was a lack of focus
on the things that really matter to move achievement forward. We know
kids have had to take remedial classes in postsecondary institutions
over the last 10 years."
acknowledged that because of the troubles over the past 10 years,
there is a bubble, as former State Economist Tom Stinson calls it, of
people employers think aren't prepared for the workforce. An
interviewer commented, "We need to do a recall on people who went
through the system to help them in some way."
But the trend is now changing.
"There's a different way we prepare kids now to make them college and
career ready," Cassellius said. "We're remedying the need for remedial
postsecondary classes now and are trying to get in alignment with
said she is working collaboratively with Steve Rosenstone, chancellor
of the Minnesota State College and University system (MnSCU), to try
to create a seamless prekindergarten-to-age 20 system. "These things
have usually been separated," she said. "They have worked in
isolation. We're bringing them into one cohesive, coherent educational
system, which is very promising."
Minnesota scores well above the national average on the
National Assessment of Educational Progress
The NAEP tests are reading and math assessments given every two years
to a statistically significant sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in
all 50 states. Also called "The Nation's Report Card," NAEP is "a very
good barometer of our competitiveness with other states," according to
On the 2013 fourth-grade math assessment,
Minnesota students ranked first in the country, with an average score
of 253 points out of a possible 500, compared with the national
average of 241 points.
On the 2013 eighth-grade math assessment,
Minnesota students ranked fifth in the country, with an average of 295
points, compared with the national average of 284.
On the 2013 fourth-grade reading assessment,
Minnesota students ranked 10th in the country, with an
average score of 227 points, compared with the national average of
On the 2013 eighth-grade reading assessment,
Minnesota students ranked 11th in the country, with an
average of 271 points, compared with the national average of 266.
Cassellius pointed out that
scores higher in both math and reading at both the fourth- and
eighth-grade levels than any of the other four states in the region:
South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin.
2013 NAEP scores showed some improvement in achievement gaps.
Cassellius said the NAEP scores showed achievement gap closures in the
fourth grade reading assessment. "We closed gaps by 10 points since
2009," she said. "That's a 25 percent gap closure within four years."
pointed out that in fourth-grade math, Minnesota's black students
scored fourth highest among black students nationwide in 2013. She
called that "huge movement," since their scores in 2011 ranked 22nd
in the nation.
eighth-grade math, Asian students gained nine points over their 2011
average score. And eight percent more Asian students scored as
proficient this year.
Cassellius said the gap in eighth-grade reading grew between white and
black students, which she called "very discouraging." "These are
students who have had 10 years of disinvestment in our public
schools," she said. "It's been very, very stagnant for them." She
noted that in the last three years, there has been much more focus on
early learning than on older students.
In math and science,
students score internationally among the top in the world.
Cassellius said results of the 2011 Trends in International Math and
Science Study (TIMSS) show that
students score near the top, with only China and Massachusetts ranking
higher. And Minnesota scores well above the TIMSS national average. (Minnesota
and eight other states competed in the TIMSS testing as countries.)
state and international comparisons of 2011 TIMSS results.
Using sample testing, as the NAEP and TIMSS assessments do, is better
than testing every child at every school.
Cassellius said we should trust teachers to do daily assessments of
every student all year. "I don't think we need to give five tests to
each kid every single year to get the information we need as
policymakers to make the best decisions for students," she said.
Minnesota's waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal
accountability system for schools that receive Title I funding, means
all schools are now held more accountable.
Title I schools receive extra federal funding, based on high numbers
or high percentages of children from low-income families, to help
ensure that all children meet state academic standards. Under NCLB,
Title I schools were held more accountable than more affluent schools,
Under Minnesota's new NCLB waiver, Cassellius said, "Every school must
pay attention. Minnesota's new accountability system measures growth,
how fast kids are growing and closing achievement gaps, proficiency
and high school graduation rates. The scores are reported in the
press. It's making a difference."
said with the NCLB waiver, the MDE has created three regional centers
of excellence to support the schools that are struggling the most.
Among the lowest performing five percent of schools, known as
"priority schools," 78 percent improved their multiple measurements
rating in 2013.Among the 10 percent of schools with the largest
achievement gaps, known as "focus schools," 71 percent improved their
scores in 2013 and made progress in closing their gaps.
"We've never seen that type of growth before," Cassellius said. "We've
thought systemically about the kind of support teachers need to do
their jobs better, especially in rural Minnesota, where they can't
afford teaching specialists. We've created teams of folks who coach
and co-teach with teachers at the school and help do strategic
planning. They help the teachers implement the programs they want to
implement. We are support to them, helping them do what they want to
do to help their kids."
Minnesota was awarded a federal Race to the Top grant, which provided
$45 million for early learning.
Cassellius said it was used to start a program of early learning
scholarships in 2011 and a Parent Aware System to measure
pre-kindergarten program quality.
The 2013 Legislature appropriated $485 million to funda variety of initiatives: all-day kindergarten and 4,000 more
pre-K school scholarships; help with the special education subsidies
paid by school districts; and paying back the schools for past
borrowing of state education funds the state had used to help balance
its budgets. "We're now paying our schools, not borrowing from them,"
she said. "We're making investments."
The Read Well by Third Grade initiative helped raise fourth grade
reading scores in 2013. In
2011, Cassellius said,Gov. Mark Dayton worked with then-state Sen. Gen
Olson (R-Mound), who served from 1993 to 2012, to have a bipartisan
Read Well by Third Grade initiative.
Dayton's number one priority, according to Cassellius, is that every
single third-grader in Minnesota read at grade level. The initiative
came with $50 million for schools to implement it. "We think that's a
big reason why we saw our reading scores really climb in fourth grade
this year," she said. "In 2013, we rewrote the entire third-grade
literacy bill and put some teeth in it. It was a hope document
Under the new law, she said, every district must have a literacy plan,
start assessing students in grades pre-K to two, and give reports to
parents as to whether their kids are reading at grade level or not. If
kids are not reading at grade level, the school has to provide
intervention to them earlier than in the past.
"We've never done this level of oversight to assure that kids are
getting earlier intervention," Cassellius said. "These are fluency
tests, comprehension, vocabulary and phonics awareness." The schools
get additional fundingper student if they meet the third-grade
requirement and additional dollars if students improve their scores
from third to fourth grade. Over $50 million goes out to schools for
There is strong bipartisan support for education and we must stay on
the things that matter:
early childhood; all-day kindergarten; maintaining our high standards,
which haven't been changed; and making sure every child is reading
well by third grade. "We have to get kids in grades eight to12 ready
for postsecondary education or for the workforce," Cassellius said.
"They're not ready. How do we intervene now with high schoolers?"
Industrial art programs are not likely to return to the high schools.
Cassellius said most of the state's efforts have been on early
childhood, but the department has been doing some planning on high
school to postsecondary alignment. As part of the call to action from
the 1983 Nation at Risk report, she said, things shifted very
rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s to the idea that every kid should go to
college for four years.
"Schools dumped their career technical education programs," she said.
"To rebuild that programming at the high schools would be very
expensive. We will work collaboratively with our community and
technical colleges to ensure multiple pathways to careers."
noted that one way of doing this is for students to enroll at
postsecondary institutions through the state's Postsecondary
Enrollment Options (PSEO) program. As of 2012, 10th graders
can enroll through PSEO, which was previously limited to 11th
and 12th graders. The program allows these high school
students to take college classes at any postsecondary institution in
Minnesota without paying tuition. Tenth graders are restricted to
taking postsecondary technical career training classes through PSEO.
fund schools to serve students who haven't finished their high school
diplomas through age 21," Cassellius said. "But the K-12 system pretty
much drops kids at age18. I'm trying to tell superintendents, 'You own
these kids till age 21. Work with community and technical colleges to
get these kids an associate degree, a credential or a certificate,
while you're getting them their high school diploma. Merge them and
make it more fluid.'"
The state has little authority over what local schools districts do in
terms of program choice, curricular choice and staffing choices.
An interviewer asked what the role of the state and the role of local
teacher contracts are in school reform. Cassellius stressed that
schools are locally controlled by local school boards. She noted that
Minneapolis has historically had a "very progressive teachers
contract," which gives the district the ability to "fresh start"
schools. A "fresh start" can dramatically reorganize a school's staff
and provide extra resources to improve student performance.Shesaid as
an associate superintendent in Minneapolis, she helped to "fresh
start" Washburn and Edison high schools in 2008. "Sometimes you have
to make the tough decisions and the tough calls," she said. "But you
do that in collaboration with the unions and the teachers. "
Competencies are more important than simply what classes a student has
interviewer asked how education is connecting to the world of work and
how it is adapting to new technology and rapid change. "We're not as
adaptive as we need to be," Cassellius said. "I'm not sure a high
school diploma carries the same value any more. It means I took high
school English 1, 2, 3 and 4. But what competencies do I have to do my
job when I get out?"
said MnSCU's Rosenstone is looking at a competency-based approach.
He's working with the business community to look at what skills we
need for the future and where we are headed. He got bonding money for
specialized manufacturing equipment for colleges to teach people the
skills they'll need.
School districts should take responsibility for all their kids and not
"warehouse" them in alternative schools.
An interviewer commented that virtually none of the kids at the
Juvenile Detention Center
go to regular high schools or regular middle schools. Instead, they're
going to alternative schools, he said, where he senses there are
minimal expectations and very little performance required.
Cassellius responded that in the 2013 legislative session, she tried
to reform alternative learning funding by having it transferred into
the general fund of school districts, because she thinks districts
ought to take responsibility for all their kids. "When they're credit
deficient, they go to contract alternative schools and they get
warehoused," she said. "Other kids there have issues like behavioral
problems and delinquency. It is a significant issue, especially for
the Minneapolis Public Schools, where they have multiple contract
alternatives." She pointed out that the graduation rates are much
higher when you look at the seven large high schools in
and don't count in the alternative schools.
Early childhood is the most critical issue in education.
"Most brain development happens before age five," Cassellius said. The
state funds Head Start, the
Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP),
four-year-old readiness programs, preschool scholarships and Early
Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) programs. "Where are we getting
the most bang for the buck?" she asked. "There's a 16-to-1 return on
early learning. Don't put pre-K against all-day kindergarten; we need
The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has 485 employees, 40
percent funded through the state and 60 percent federally funded, and
a departmental budget of $18 million.
Cassellius said most employees are at the state agency and that many
of them are in the finance division, because the agency puts out a
$15.8 billion education budget. Many employees work on food and
nutrition and there is a large special education staff. "I've tried to
beef up the school support division, the academic division and the
curricular division," she said. "That's where we'll be able to support
teaching and learning."
In 2011, the Legislature passed a state framework for a teacher
evaluation system to be implemented in 2014.
Cassellius said school districts have to use the new state evaluation
system if they can't agree on a local one. "It's much more rigorous
than principal evaluation," she said. Both the teacher and principal
evaluations require that 35 percent of the evaluation be based on
student outcomes. Districts can locally determine what testing they
want to use.
that the evaluation system is in place, she said, it will take three
years to get all of the state's 52,000 teachers evaluated. Thirty
percent of Minnesota teachers will be evaluated each year. "We have a
fantastic teacher evaluation system now," Cassellius remarked.
said each district has a teacher committee that must recommend each
teacher for renewal to the state Board of Teaching. The committee
could recommend that the board not renew a teacher's license. If a
teacher does not improve, administrators have the power to decide what
to do, all the way up to dismissal and termination. "Administrators
have to do their job," she said.
Open enrollment, consolidation, transportation, increasing diversity,
and demographic shifts are big challenges to rural communities in
Cassellius said if a school district can't pass a referendum, parents
will drive to another school district that can and enroll their
children there. She also said she's very surprised at the growing
diversity of students across the entire state.
on the right track," Cassellius concluded. "We see in the fourth-grade
test results that our early childhood efforts are paying off. Also,
taking care of the underprepared kids in the bubble is really
important work. I think we continue to double down and move forward."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
David Broden, Janis Clay, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje,
Jan Hively, Dan Loritz (Chair), Marina Lyon, Joe Mansky,
Tim McDonald, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and