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Why did Minnesota skip the math Common Core standards?

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Minnesota Commissioner of Education
Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius visits the Minnesota Public Radio studios in St. Paul, Minn., on May 26, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

On The Daily Circuit Tuesday, we discussed how the new Common Core standards for K-12 schools are changing U.S. education. In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty adopted the English language arts standards, but not the math standards while he was in office. Gov. Mark Dayton has stuck with that decision.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius spoke with The Daily Circuit about the thinking behind that decision.

Brenda Cassellius: They felt that ours were more rigorous and matched where kids were mastering those (skills) in their content areas.

Tom Weber:  So, in other words, the idea was the proposal for what they want to do in Common Core in math, Minnesota is already doing and more - so why join it?

BC: Right, it was different and we had already gone through revising our standards to be college and career ready; they had worked on that extensively, in terms of having that focus be on mastery. And so they wanted to stick with what they were doing and they felt good about what they were doing and they felt good about the direction they were going, in terms of rigor in the standards. And Minnesota is second in the nation in math scores, so we do pretty well with our math and our teachers have adhered to those standards and have been working pretty diligently on them, in terms of their own curriculum and placement of where they have those offered in the middle and high schools, so kids can master and move on."

TW: And that was a decision made during the Pawlenty administration when Alice Seagren was commissioner. When you came in as commissioner, did you agree with that decision?

BC: I can tell you I was a pretty big proponent of Common Core, nationally.  So when I came in, I questioned the decision and I talked with my staff here. I did inherit the decision, so I wanted to insure myself, as a new commissioner, that we didn't adopt them just to not adopt them - but that we had really good, sound reasons not to adopt them. And Beth Aune, the director of standards here at the department, assured me we had more rigor within our standards; that they were placed in the right grade levels; and that they were sound, in terms of how they were structured back and built back to kindergarten - so kids could progress throughout the years.

So, I had my own comfort level with them, after speaking with director Aune.

TW:  Did you consider the avenue of joining Common Core, just to say you're a part of a larger idea, but that we'd keep doing our thing here in Minnesota?

BC: Well, I thought about that, too, but as we got started on the (No Child Left Behind) waiver and certifying our standards for the waiver, I spoke with folks about our standards and made sure we had high standards.  And so, I just feel we're in a good spot here and our teachers are really teaching them.  Then, we got our NAEP scores back and I could see we were making progress there, so I didn't want to upset the apple cart.  

We also had a new accountability system we would be working with; we have our tests all aligned to that new system, so we had a number of things in the hopper already working, and to switch gears now on teachers, I think, would have been very difficult.

TW: But let me clarify, you still are a big proponent of Common Core on a national level."

BC: Correct, I still think it's a good effort.

TW: One of the states that has adopted Common Core is Massachusetts, and a lot of times in education circles, Minnesota and Massachusetts are compared to each other as being high-achieving states. So, I wonder if it's good enough for Massachusetts, why isn't it good enough for Minnesota?

BC: I wondered that, too. The majority of states have adopted both, I believe Minnesota is the only state to have only adopted one (English language arts), and really, I think it's about pacing and where we were at in timing and not wanting to change the game on teachers.

We have a number of initiatives going on where we're holding schools to a higher standard, and we want be make sure we can move those things in a timely way that's strategic and purposeful.

TW: And in sum, you're saying 'we're not part of Common Core, but that's because we think we're doing better things here and have more rigor.'

BC: Let me be clear, it's not that we don't want to Common Core, just to not go.  We're doing it because we believe we have a sound system right now that's working that's placing us atop other states in the nation, and we believe teachers know these standards and they're starting to embed them. And we see our scores are going up in math, so we want to be sure we stay the course, and that we continue to take what's good and make it better, and continue to move forward and support teachers.  

TW: If all of that that's happening really well right now changed, could Minnesota change and join Common Core?

BC: Sure, it might take some state legislation, and I'm not sure how legislators feel about changing to Common Core, but it could be done.