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On ways to boost student success in Minnesota: A Q&A with Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker

Now that she’s had a few months to settle into her new role — a whirlwind that included a number of listening sessions in school districts across the state — MinnPost sat down with Ricker at the Department of Education to hear about her vision for Minnesota students and schools.

Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker: "It is my responsibility to look at achievement barriers and do something about them."
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

In many ways, Minnesota’s new education commissioner, Mary Cathryn Ricker, is working to preserve education initiatives and priorities put in place under the watch of her predecessor, Brenda Cassellius.

During her first state legislative session, that list included priorities like continuing funding for the 4,000 voluntary pre-K seats, which was scheduled to expire, and securing new increases to the general education funding formula.

But the longtime union leader — first as president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, then as executive vice president for the American Federation of Teachers — is also eager to help develop new ways to boost student achievement.

“I think one of the driving goals of this administration that inspired me to want to work with them so much was this idea of taking a holistic look at students and their families,” she said.

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Her union leadership experience may have helped make for a smooth transition to her new role as she delved into education data and forged new relationships at the Capitol. But her leadership experience isn’t the credential she often leads with. The Hibbing native earned her teaching degree at University of St. Thomas and went on to teach in St. Paul, St. Cloud and South Korea.

Now that she’s had a few months to settle into her new role — a whirlwind that included a number of listening sessions in school districts across the state — MinnPost sat down with Ricker at the Department of Education to see what sort of vision she has for Minnesota students and schools. The interview has been trimmed.

MinnPost: What sort of feedback have you been getting from your school visits?

Mary Cathryn Ricker: Everybody wants us to succeed with students and their families. And the vast majority of those people who are really rooting for us to succeed also just want to know what their role is  — how they can help. I got variations of that question in a lot of capacities, in a lot of different places.

Part of that is also just helping people recognize the sort of talents they have that can be plugged in someplace locally. And there are places where it’s already happening. So I really feel one of the exciting opportunities for me in this role is to be that conduit, or that connector, who says, “If this community is trying to figure out how to tap into the talent and expertise that resides in a community, and this community over here has already figured it out — through different neighborhood organizations, or through different business organizations — then if I can be that connector and elevate that story and make those introductions … I think it’s a powerful role I can play.” And it’s also extremely simple as well — in just making sure that we help manage those relationships, or we help blossom those relationships, really.

MP: Do you want to talk a bit about National Board Certification for teachers, and why it’s something you care so much about?

MCR: It was really important to me to earn my National Board Certification. In many respects, I came of age as a teacher just as the National Board process was being developed — sort of the last time we, as a nation, looked to reimagine the teaching profession. And it was to create the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

When I got my job in St. Paul Public Schools in 2000, that’s when I met my first National Board Certified teachers. As I talked to them about the reflective practice that developed out of pursuing board certification, not only did I become intrigued, but I became mentored by them.

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To fast forward a little bit, to when I became president of the local teachers union, I wanted everyone to have this experience. I wanted this to be open to everyone, so it was a priority for me, to negotiate pathways to board certification.  

MP: Looking at the achievement gap, do you have any quick wins in mind? Or is it more of a long game?

MCR: I really think of it in terms of both. It is my responsibility to look at achievement barriers and do something about them. Because of that, I look at what can be done right away. I think if it hasn’t been thought of already, then what have we been missing?

Also, as our lieutenant governor now famously says: “Kids don’t come in pieces” — this idea that we were pursuing support for students and their families on so many fronts at the same time. It was not all being carried in an education bill. We were very enthusiastic about what we were carrying in the education bill. And, at the same time, we had Homework Starts with Home be carried in housing finance. We had school-based mental health supports being carried in human services. Having these opportunities and supports for students and their families being built into so many other budgets was an intentional part of seeing students and families as whole in the state of Minnesota.

If I can just add … I approach data as it’s our students telling us a story about themselves — our students are revealing stories of themselves. As I look at the graduation data, for example, and I see progress that we have been making, one of the things I want to do is to dig in and say: “What are the students in Grand Rapids telling us, when over 98 percent of their Native American students are graduating in four years, when our statewide number is not telling us that story?” That’s when I get to be that connector, again.

All across the state of Minnesota, we are breaking down these barriers to achievement. So if you haven’t done that yet, chances are really good there’s a community from which you can learn. That is both an exciting place to be and a daunting place to be — to say that we have perhaps figured it out in other places, we have to humble ourselves to the fact that someone else may show us the way to what breaking down that barrier looks like.

MP: What are some of the other priorities you’ve set for the department? For yourself?

MCR: One of the opportunities that I’ve had in these visits that is really exciting is this idea of rethinking what our secondary experience looks like. Quite frankly, our students are telling us they are already doing it: Some students are seeking out these alternative learning or area learning experiences. Some are obviously seeking out postsecondary enrollment options, concurrent enrollment. Minnesota led the way in learning what dual enrollment could look like.

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We also are starting to reimagine what career and technical education looks like. Much like many other states, when we were going through periods of austerity and when we were going through periods of focusing absolutely every resource we had on reading and math at the expense of programs like career and technical education, we were cutting back on carpentry courses, trades courses, other emerging-industry courses, and we got caught a little flat-footed. Students were telling us they wanted them. Communities were telling us they wanted to partner with our school districts and our school communities to reinvent them. So that’s been happening across the state.

And our students are telling us they want the sort of flexibility of earning credits, but also showing what they know. So right now we have this legacy system of Carnegie credits, we have statutory language around hours and days required, and we have schools experimenting — very carefully — with: “What does performance-based knowledge look like?”

MP: What are a few of the major education impacts of this past legislative session?

MCR: If I were to narrow that to the education budget, one of the things that’s exciting is we don’t know how vast the impact will be of freezing special education costs. As they have been rising, our elected leaders have been working really hard over the last years to increase the funding formula. While that’s been happening, the cost of special education has been rising as well.

So to go in with a budget priority that froze the rise in special education, [now] we can see what 2 percent looks like when you can continue to devote that to the general education formula and we have taken care of whatever the rise in special education costs is that would have come out of that. So I am looking forward to seeing the impact that has across the state of Minnesota.

I also think it sets us up for another priority of Gov. Walz and Lt. Gov. Flanagan and mine: that is to have a school finance task force again. So that as we are looking at this adjustment we made in real time, what are some of the other conversations we can be having about our school finance system that will make that sort of lasting impact and will reflect, again, the ambitions our students, as a state, have that we’re investing in?

State Sen. Carla Nelson and Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Carla Nelson and Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker attending the signing of the 2019 education bill at Bruce Vento Elementary School in St. Paul in May.
MP: How well did the new education finance bill address concerns raised by schools in rural Minnesota?

MCR: I know that one of the priorities they had was an increase to the general education funding formula. I know a freeze in the special education cross-subsidy will also impact them, commensurately.

And it was also a priority to make sure those 4,000 4-year-old spots that we preserved got preserved, because of the 80 communities, a majority of those seats are in Greater Minnesota. As I had the chance to visit some of those 4-year-old programs, no one in Greater Minnesota treated the addition of those 4-year-old programs like an add-on — like snapping a Lego onto the corner of a house. They treated them very intentionally as to how they would be plugged into a community, of meeting the needs of students.

And I think when we move forward with the school finance task force that there are some really unique concerns that we’re going to want to make sure we lift up.

MP: Republican lawmakers have raised concerns about your union ties. How do you respond?

MCR: As a practitioner, I pursue leadership positions in my profession. And I had a real opportunity in my union to pursue what teacher leadership looked like. The narrative of unions may precede me, but I think that I took that leadership position and I reimagined what it could look like. When I was first elected in 2005 — and it stayed my goal the entire time I was a teacher union leader — I really believed our teacher contract could be the most powerful document our school district had to attract and retain a diverse workforce who knew how to meet the needs of our students. I really worked for what that could look like, and reimagining our union and the relationship we had with our students and their families, with our community.

MP: Do you think you can shake preconceived notions folks have about you?

MCR: At the end of the day, if I haven’t, I don’t know if that says as much about me as it says about how stubborn that preconceived notion could be. If I really wanted to do things differently, I had a responsibility not to have any preconceived notions myself; and to go into relationships assuming positive intentions and then working toward them. So that is something that feels incredibly natural to me. I think part of that stems from my experience as a classroom teacher — to say everyone gets a second chance and a third chance and we’re here to work together, and that’s the bottom line.