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‘Overachiever’ Brenda Cassellius gets good news on Minnesota NCLB waivers

The state’s education commissioner was thrilled today when Education Secretary Arne Duncan told her that Minnesota’s waiver proposal needed just a few “tweaks” to become a winner.

This morning, Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s commissioner of education, cleared White House security, posed for a photo, beaming like a schoolgirl, in front of a podium bearing the presidential seal, tweeted it and took her seat in time to hear President Barack Obama announce major changes to the nation’s education reform law.

After the president’s remarks, Minnesota’s top education leader shook his hand, thanked him for his leadership and then participated in a press conference where U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lauded her “courageous leadership” and called her “an overachiever.”

The speech contained absolutely nothing surprising. Obama declared the goal of the 10-year-old No Child Left Behind act “admirable,” decried its dismal results and rebuked lawmakers’ failure, after four years of debate, to reform the reform.

Brenda Cassellius
Brenda Cassellius

“Congress hasn’t been able to do it,” he said. “So I will.”

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“Now is the time to make our education system the best in the world, the envy of the rest of the world,” Obama said.

Duncan, Cassellius on same wave length
Over the summer, Duncan announced his intention to give states waivers from compliance in exchange for agreeing to an unspecified “basket” of reforms. This morning, Obama elaborated: States that want relief from NCLB’s punitive sanctions will have to raise standards [PDF] in several areas.

Which is where Overachiever Casselius’ invitation becomes relevant. The details dovetail nicely with a proposal the commissioner — who did not wait for the specifics or for an official application — put forth in a letter [PDF] to Duncan a month ago.

Today, the secretary said Minnesota’s proposal [PDF] needed just a few “tweaks” to become a winning application. “What you guys submitted was so close,” he said.

Cassellius was thrilled. “The good news is Minnesota is already ahead of the curve in terms of implementing the kinds of reforms the president and Secretary Duncan have called for,” she said. “Today is a great, great day for parents, teachers and schools and, most importantly, our students.”

Waivers will be granted to states that set or maintain high academic standards, institute teacher evaluation systems that incorporate student achievement data and make intensive efforts to turnaround the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools.

In exchange, the feds will release states from a requirement that all students pass standardized tests by 2013-2014, suspend the diversion of $1 billion in funds schools labeled failures must now set aside for outside services and will allow states to design their own school turnarounds, rather than selecting from four rigid models.

The broad outlines of the waiver program are in keeping with Obama and Duncan’s education policy prescriptions to date. Earlier this year, for example, Duncan made the first School Improvement Grants to states with plans for turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools.

Locally, that money has paid for interventions state and district leaders are designing together. In struggling Twin Cities schools, they include extra “seat-time,” the hiring of retired educators and learning-support specialists to make sure those hours are focused and for instructional coaches for teachers who need to figure out how to reach kids who are behind, among other measures.

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The administration — which continues to irk educators with its prescriptive policies — says it would like states to come up with their own solutions, just expand them to the next lowest 10 percent of performers.

More flexibility
States also will be able to reward their highest performers and school that make significant gains. Rural districts will have additional flexibility in using their funds, and funds to meet the needs of particular populations of disadvantaged students will be protected.

Academic standards, which some states quietly lowered as NCLB’s sanctions began to kick in, must go up. Many intend to do this by adopting the Common Core Standards, an initiative led by the states but opposed by Republican lawmakers both in Minnesota and at the federal level as the first step toward a national curriculum.

Duncan supports Common Core, but has said he will not require states to adopt them.

The standards were particularly contentious during the recent Minnesota legislative session. GOP lawmakers passed a bill barring Cassellius from adopting them, which Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed. The provision was gone from the final, compromise education bill.

This morning, Cassellius said that Minnesota already had adopted the standards in English and language arts and was seeking certification on the math standards.

Less clear was how much work Minnesota will have to do to meet Duncan’s requirements on teacher and principal evaluations. The administration wants states to come up with at least three different measurements of teacher effectiveness, including student growth.

This, too, was a blazing-hot potato during the recent legislative session, which ended with an agreement that charged Cassellius with convening a task force to come up with mechanisms for evaluation based by at least a third on student achievement data.

Of everything in the waiver “basket,” this is the item educators are watching most closely. Virtually all of Minnesota’s districts and teachers unions are in agreement that systematic evaluations are long overdue but have concerns about the way student performance data are incorporated.

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Tying overall proficiency scores to a particular teacher does not yield much information that’s useful in terms of evaluating that teacher’s abilities as an instructor, they caution. Much more accurate information is to be gleaned from real-time assessments that discern whether a particular lesson or skill was taught effectively.

Minnesota is home to several districts that use this type of evaluation; presumably, Cassellius is well aware of this. And while the fine print on Duncan’s parameters is still being parsed, the commissioner sounded confident this morning that her task force, which she said will meet next month, will meet the goal.

“I think it’s significant that we have policy,” she said. “And we get credit for moving forward.”

Overachiever or not, Casellius will have to “tweak” her letter to Duncan and turn it into a formal request. A first round of applications is due in November. Another round of requests will be received in January.

Winning states will receive their waivers early next year, which means benchmarks for acceptable growth could change for the 2011-2012 school year. Relief from sanctions would not arrive until the 2012-2013 school year, however.

So is there anything left on Cassellius’ agenda of overachievements?

We humbly suggest a walk on the mall — we hear the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial will move one to tears — followed by celebratory crab cakes at the Old Ebbitt Grill. Send the bill to Duncan.