Minnesota education chief's 5 lessons learned

Brenda Cassellius
Brenda Cassellius, the outgoing Minnesota education commissioner, poses for a portrait at the Kling Public Media Center on Dec. 28, 2018.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius steps down in a few days after eight years overseeing Minnesota public schools for Gov. Mark Dayton. She'll soon hand the keys to Mary Cathryn Ricker, Gov.-elect Tim Walz's pick for commissioner.

Visiting classrooms across the state, Cassellius has a unique perspective on education. While most of her work involved explaining policy, she said her favorite part of the job was reading to preschoolers.

She said she's also learned a few things about schools that Minnesotans should know. Here are five:

1) There's a secret sauce for helping kids learn

Some Minnesota schools are doing excellent work that's been recognized over the years by the state education department. When she visited some of those schools, Cassellius asked teachers what got them sustained results.

"Teachers would say to me, 'It's because we feel like a family. We don't let each other down,'" she said.

And after visiting 44 four- and five-time reward schools, Cassellius said four ingredients make for excellent schools with sustained academic achievements:

• Experienced teachers with a strong grasp of the content

• Strong relationships between school leaders, teachers, parents and kids

• Community support

• Strong leadership

2) Low test scores aren't necessarily an indication of student achievement or teacher effectiveness

Minnesota students take a lot of tests that measure their learning against a set of Minnesota academic standards in math, reading, science and language. But Cassellius said a low test score doesn't necessarily indicate a gap in student learning. Instead, she said, it's often a gap between what's being taught and what's being tested.

"I've tried to share that with teachers as much as I can," Cassellius said. "We have a lot of children who are succeeding in those things that they're being taught. And so on teacher tests that are given ... the kids are doing really well. But that's not the comprehensive assessment we give at the state level."

Part of the work Cassellius and the Dayton administration have done to address that gap between teaching and testing shows up in the education department's regional centers of excellence, which are meant to provide resources, training and support to teachers.

3) Schools need community help

When Cassellius started her term in 2011, she vowed to work on closing Minnesota's achievement gap between white students and students of color. But eight years later, she says there's only so much that can be achieved in the classroom.

"What else I've learned about the achievement gap is that it's not just in-school factors that affect the gap," Cassellius said. "It is housing. It's health access. It's transportation. It's economic. It's jobs. It's all of these things together that a community can solve for children and for families if it wants to."

4) Parents and teachers have the power to make change

After almost a decade working to shape education policy in Minnesota, Cassellius said she wants to see more parents and teachers involved at the Capitol.

"We don't see very many people down at the Capitol at all," Cassellius said. "And I'll tell you, when we do, the stories are powerful that the parents tell us. And so the more we can have parents and community members coming down and painting a picture of what their schools are to actual policy makers, the better for our kids."

5) Minnesota has really great schools

U.S. News and World Report ranks Minnesota 13th in the nation in education, which Cassellius said she's seen up close in hundreds of school visits the past eight years.

"I was really actually surprised at how awesome our schools really are," said Cassellius. "We may not show that on our test scores, but the learning and the caring that's going on in our schools is really amazing"

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