New Minnesota schools chief brings a teacher's eye to the job

State Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
State Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker talks to teachers, support staff, students and parents in the Hibbing High School library in Hibbing, Minn., on Friday. Ricker is a graduate of Hibbing High School.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Education

It's not hard to understand Mary Cathryn Ricker's attraction to teaching. It's in her blood.

Her father and grandfather both taught school on Minnesota's Iron Range. She can remember watching her father mentor and inspire students on community service trips. Becoming a third-generation teacher seemed like destiny.

"Watching my dad interact with [students] and watching them interact with my dad, and this respectful rapport they had with each other," said Ricker, "it showed me the world of opportunity that is in teaching and in meeting the needs of kids."

Ricker, 50, has an opportunity now to shape education in ways few teachers ever get. As Minnesota's new education commissioner, she's responsible for guiding policy and instruction for more than 860,000 public school students in a state with some of the nation's highest test scores — and some of its worst achievement gaps.

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Commissioners for decades have walked in the door vowing to close those gaps between white students and students of color only to walk out frustrated. That becomes Ricker's struggle now, one she has vowed to take up. Those who know her from her work as a St. Paul classroom teacher and union leader say she's up for the fight.

"I am an optimist," Ricker said in a recent interview. "I really, truly believe there are very few problems that are impossible to solve. I want to stay at something, stay in a conversation about something, even if there is a lot of tension present until we get to a solution, until we get to some common ground."

'Common good' negotiating

Ricker got her first teaching job at a middle school in St. Cloud, Minn., after earning an undergraduate degree from the University of St. Thomas. She holds a graduate degree from the University of Minnesota. She's also taught overseas in Yemen and South Korea.

In St. Paul, she taught and also served nine years as president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. For the last five years, she's worked in national labor circles as executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Former colleagues at the St. Paul union describe her as a creative and forward-thinking leader who pioneered a completely new approach to collective bargaining.

Prior to Ricker's leadership, teacher contract bargaining in St. Paul had been a standard, closed-door series of negotiations that involved lawyers, union leaders and human resources representatives sitting around tables, hammering out the details of pay and benefits.

Ricker changed that negotiating process, opening it to parents, students and community groups, said Denise Rodriguez, who took over as president of the St. Paul union after Ricker moved on to the national federation.

"Mary Cathryn [Ricker] really brought a whole new vision to our union, very forward-thinking and very student-centered," Rodriguez said. "For me, it was very hard. I kind of say I'm the old dog learning new tricks. I was so used to, for example, having all the control at the bargaining table as one of the negotiators."

Rodriguez said she remembers trying to negotiate class sizes with district leaders unmoved by her stories of trying to teach Spanish with as many as 40 junior high students in the room. Feelings changed, though, when a parent came talked about how there wasn't any space in classrooms to come in and volunteer with their own children, and suddenly the school district sat up and took notice.

Ricker, she said, "brought this [approach], which is now known around the country as bargaining for the common good. She was on the forefront of that, getting our leaders trained in how we negotiate our contract to improve student learning."

But St. Paul public school leaders said this strategy of bringing in more stakeholders made contract negotiations more adversarial than they needed to be.

Laurin Cathey, executive director of human resources for St. Paul Public Schools, sat across the negotiating table from Ricker in 2013.

He described Ricker as passionate, purpose-driven and action-oriented. But he said "bargaining for the common good" was a negotiating technique that put the district in a defensive position.

"It leaves us as anti-common good," Cathey said, "when really what we're trying to do is make sure that our efforts benefit the entire system."

'Focus on students'

Gov. Tim Walz, a former Minnesota high school teacher, enjoyed solid support from teacher unions during his 2018 campaign. So, it made sense he'd pick an education commissioner with strong union and classroom ties.

That has union leaders excited about the next four years.

"I believe what we're going to see in this administration is respect," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, a statewide teachers union. "We are going to see support and I think that we are going to see a lot of conversations around how we support students and the people who deliver education in Minnesota."

Specht said she cried when she watched Walz's inauguration. "My heart just swelled when I saw all of the educators in that room," she said.

Still, Ricker is walking into some entrenched problems in Minnesota's education system. Racial disparities in achievement continue to be a problem, despite funding increases during former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's eight years in office.

Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee Chair Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said she's concerned about how Ricker's deep union ties might influence her decision making as commissioner.

"When we look at changing, innovations, doing things differently so that all kids can have access to very personalized education, that might be contrary to a teacher union's mission. And I think the public needs to understand that," said Nelson.

"Obviously the commissioner is in a new role now. She is no longer the president of the teacher's union," she added. "I expect her to focus on students."

Ricker said her mission all along has been to help students, and that's what she hopes to do as education commissioner.

"The answers to all of those questions in my classroom practice were sometimes simple and sometimes complicated," Ricker said. "I recognized I wanted to be part of finding those answers."