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Integration issue stalls at Capitol, BlueSky to stay open — and more

Your Humble Blogger was gone last week, rejuvenating in warmer climes and, yes, neglecting all things educational. The news, however, refused to cooperate by putting itself on hiatus. And so today we offer a smattering of recent items of interest:

Two weeks ago this space held a story about the rarest of achievements: bipartisan agreement on a topic that has long divided Minnesota policymakers.

Brenda CasselliusBrenda Cassellius

Specifically, on Feb. 15 a state task force appointed to consider the future of both Minnesota’s official position on the integration of schools and the outdated process for paying for integration-related programming delivered its report to the Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who in turn delivered it to the Legislature.

The very short recap: During last year’s polarized session, DFLers wanted to keep the ban on segregation but fix the revenue issues. The GOP leadership wanted to scrap both. As part of the shutdown-ending compromise, Republicans and Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration each got to name six members of a committee that would decide whether to replace the status quo with something else.

The end product: After 41 persuasive witnesses and massive doses of good faith, the task force voted 10-2 to keep the integration rule and the funding, some $108 million a year, and to build in the long-sought accountability measures.

One of the dissenters, task force co-chair Peter Swenson, was generally in favor of the group’s overall thinking, but wanted tougher accountability and more emphasis on closing the achievement gap.

katherine kersten portrait
MinnPost/Bill KelleyKatherine Kersten

The other, conservative think tank fellow and columnist Katherine Kersten, would still like to see the integration rule go away.

According to the Pioneer Press, Kersten got the chance last week to air her views before the state Senate Education Committee. The task force, meanwhile, has been unable to get the same lawmakers who appointed half its members to take up the report.

House Education Finance Committee Chair Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, told the paper he was waiting for Cassellius to craft a proposal based on the recommendations: "’There are a lot of empty boxes that need to be filled in,’ he said of the task force report. ‘The devil will be in the details.’"    

The commissioner and the task force’s other co-chair, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Educational Equity Coordinator Scott Thomas, separately countered that the ball was in the Legislature’s court.

“I’ve never heard of the Department of Education making a proposal based on recommendations made by a task force appointed by the Legislature,” said Thomas. “There has been not one request — nothing — from either the Senate or the House to have any testimony from any member of the task force other than Katherine.

“It appears to be a strategy to delay having the conversation,” Thomas added.

If that’s true, it’s in keeping with a seeming new House trend of hearing very little. Yesterday this blog carried an item noting that the Education Finance Committee scheduled, twice rescheduled and ultimately canceled a hearing at which several angry parents had registered to testify.

Two other controversial votes were taken so swiftly — one in 15 minutes, one before lawmakers were even seated — that there was nothing to hear.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, echoed Thomas' sentiments. "There should be a hearing," he said. "The clock is ticking. We have a committee deadline coming up in three weeks.

"This is a pretty significant task," he continued. "We're talking about $100 million. We're talking about racial equity, which is a very important topic, and integration, which has a rich history in this state."

Mariani is having the panel's proposal drafted into a bill, which he plans to introduce later this week. He has no guarantee the committee will hear it.

Blue Sky to stay open

Separately, Commissioner Cassellius issued a 100-page order [PDF] officially ending the state’s efforts to shutter Minnesota’s first online-only charter high school, BlueSky Online. The school’s 700 or so students and their teachers are doubtless relieved to have the chapter closed, even as school administrators in both the charter and online sectors are busy flyspecking the order for clues as to what their regulatory future looks like.

First, the official word that landed in my inbox, courtesy of DOE Chief of Staff Charlene Briner:

“As you can see, it was a very close case. It is clear from the evidence that BlueSky did in fact graduate students in 2009 and 2010 who had not met graduation requirements. It is also clear that BlueSky did not provide sufficient support to demonstrate all benchmarks were covered in their curriculum.

“You will also see that the Commissioner agreed with the ALJ that the Department did not act in a manner that was arbitrary or capricious. However, the Commissioner also determined that there was insufficient evidence as required by law to demonstrate a history of major or repeated violations to the extent termination was justified at this time.”

All true, but perhaps not the end. A couple of thoughts:

No one hereabouts is yet fully prepared to evaluate digital classrooms, which vary wildly in quality and will only proliferate going forward.

In contrast to past DOE regimes, which put lots of emphasis on regulatory enforcement, particularly during an era that saw headline after headline about fiscal mismanagement and other scandals involving charter schools, Cassellius is said to want the department to spend more energy giving schools technical support and other assistance upping their game.  

Teacher quality the heart of many matters

So many of the thorny issues before lawmakers and education reformers at the moment involve the matter of teacher quality. I won’t recap the well-made case for the impact an individual instructor can have on an individual student, circumstance notwithstanding.  

Instead, I steer the serious policy geeks among you to the section of the DOE’s (shiny new) website being populated at a nice clip with all kinds of documents that will help another legislatively established task force, this one on teacher evaluations, do its very tough work.

It's very tough and very crucial work, I should have said. Think about it: If Minnesota is going to move toward using effectiveness data in hiring, school staffing, layoff and compensation decisions, how we evaluate teachers really matters. And the devil really is in the details.

The link embedded above will take you to a page linking to PDFs of hybrid evaluation models that are getting good results in other states, local models and data (unhelpfully titled  “Reaction Panel — Dave Heistad Info”) about our ability to parse test data and other evolving sources of information about effectiveness.

Heistad is Minneapolis Public Schools’ data guru, who has a growing national profile when it comes to this type of thing. He is joined on the task force by trench-veterans of union-district collaborations that have produced noteworthy evaluation processes, including St. Francis Schools’ Randy Keillor and St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker, who has been appointed co-chair of the panel.

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Comments (4)

That's rich

"No one hereabouts is yet fully prepared to evaluate digital classrooms, which vary wildly in quality and will only proliferate going forward."

Here's an idea: Why don't we take the rubrics and criteria being used to evaluate the effectiveness of classroom teachers and tweak that to make it fit for online sessions. Oh wait ...

All Schools should be nervous!

In Ms. Cassellius 100 page order she makes a statement (on page 3) that should make all schools in Minnesota quake with fear. She states...

"The legislature emphasized that all benchmarks and standards must be taught and assessed. Failing to address even ONE benchmark is a violation of state law."

Every school district curriculum coordinator that I've ever talked with (and I have talked with a number of them) has stated that the benchmarks are examples of how a school can go about teaching the standards. What Ms. Cassellius is saying is that this common perception is wrong. She is stating that each and every benchmark must be taught and assessed (tested). To fail in teaching and assessing even ONE benchmark is to break the law.

What does that mean? It means that if a student is not taught and assessed even ONE benchmark and is given a diploma...that school district has improperly graduated that student!

Let me ask the readers...How does your school district intend to take in a student who transfers in from another state and ensure that the student is taught and assessed in every benchmark when that student comes in as a senior? There are over 400 benchmarks for Social Studies alone, not to mention Math, Science, Language Arts, P.E. etc... By Ms. Cassellius order she has condemned every school district in Minnesota and every student who graduates this spring from any public school district in the state will be illegally graduating because they have not been taught and assessed in EVERY benchmark.

Why don't schools teach and assess every benchmark?'s because there isn't enough time in the day or year to do so. This is precisely why schools focus in on the standards and use the benchmarks as suggestions for teaching the standard. Ms. Cassellius has changed the entire understanding of benchmarks that schools have used.

Can you imagine your school district monitoring every teacher, for every hour, in every class so that they can assure the DOE that every benchmark has been taught and assessed for every student in the school? It is insane that Ms. Cassellius would make this argument. No school can do it nor does any school have the resources to do it. The only school coming close to this standard is now, in fact, BlueSky Online! All others are falling woefully short of the new requirement that Ms. Cassellius has issued.

I know why Ms. Cassellius did this, however. She was looking for a way to save face and to try get out from under the obvious fact that her subordinates screwed up with BlueSky. She wanted to somehow not throw them under the bus while acknowledging that BlueSky had in fact acted in accordance with the law. So...what does she do...she comes up with a convoluted thought that condemns all schools in Minnesota just to try save face for her own Department.

I contend that the State Senate Education Committee should call a hearing to discuss this ruling with Ms. Cassellius before things get out of hand. At present any parent can go to their local school, demand that the school produce full data showing exactly how the school is teaching and assessing every benchmark. If the parent feels that the information is inadequate they can call on the DOE to investigate the school and call for a ruling. At present, every school district will fail this test and therefore should be thoroughly investigated. Why? Because by Ms. Cassellius ruling EVERY school district and EVERY student that graduates this spring is graduating illegally and has not met the stringent requirements that Ms. Cassellius says the legislature has demanded. Every school district is BREAKING the LAW!!!

Ms. disappoint me yet again!

“…It is clear from the

“…It is clear from the evidence that BlueSky did in fact graduate students in 2009 and 2010 who had not met graduation requirements. It is also clear that BlueSky did not provide sufficient support to demonstrate all benchmarks were covered in their curriculum.

You will also see that the Commissioner agreed with the ALJ that the Department did not act in a manner that was arbitrary or capricious. However, the Commissioner also determined that there was insufficient evidence as required by law to demonstrate a history of major or repeated violations to the extent termination was justified at this time.”

I’m not exactly a BlueSky enthusiast, but what’s quoted from the DOE report is something that could likely be applied in equal measure to dozens of school, public, private, parochial, nonsectarian, charter, etc., throughout the state.

Plenty of students graduate every year who cannot really write a coherent essay, or who can write the essay, but can’t perform arithmetic with any significant degree of confidence or skill, or who are math whizzes, but unable to provide a sensible definition of “honesty,” or whose ethics are above reproach, but who can’t explain the physics of an explosion. That’s not because those topics were never presented to them, but because, for a variety of reasons, some good, some not very, the student in question never really got her brain around that particular set of skills or sequence of knowledge. Thus the escape clause of the second paragraph, noting that there’s no “history of major or repeated violations” to justify terminating the school.

Almost surely, this isn’t the end, not just for BlueSky, but for similar operations across the state. Online instruction appears to be a rapidly growing segment of education, and digital classrooms, unlike physical ones, take a variety of forms not typically seen in a brick-and-mortar school. I think Beth is probably correct in suggesting that evaluating those electronic classrooms is something we (“we” meaning the society, and especially those professionally interested and responsible) don’t really quite know how to do yet. Part of that may simply be that there’s no agreed-upon technological standard for determining what instructional shape that learning session is supposed to take. There are many technological and practical issues that have to be addressed and resolved before there’s any sort of uniformity – enough uniformity to be able to draft coherent standards. Until there *are* coherent standards, and some notion of uniformity about how it’s all supposed to work, meaningful evaluation of teachers and programs and schools falls near the “impossible” end of the spectrum.

With that in mind, and knowing that no one in the DOE cares what I think, Ms. Cassellius’ change in emphasis in the DOE seems a productive one to me. The more emphasis there is on technological means of instruction, the more technical support schools – both online and brick-and-mortar – are going to need.

And it ought to go without saying, but can’t go without saying because there are ideologues at both ends, that the very important matter of teacher evaluation cannot be sensibly approached unless and until there are reasonable standards for that process upon which the interested parties can largely agree. Perfection is the enemy of the excellent, but without general agreement among those with a vested interest, including not only the public, but also the teachers and administrators, “reform” is far more likely to take the form of either meaningless but hopeful-sounding statements, or a regimen of punishment for anyone who doesn’t fit some sort of arbitrary mold. Neither of those is likely to be constructive… It is, after all, the end result that matters in this, not necessarily the technique(s) used to achieve it.

Ray, for the most part I

Ray, for the most part I agree with you. It would be great if the DOE actually went about looking to try support schools and help them become sharpen their skills with what works. I see great potential in online learning, but it also can be improved by developing objective criteria and data showing best practices.

I do think, however, that we have to be careful in expecting all learners to be proficient in all areas of learning. I think Albert Einstein hit the nail on the head with this statement:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” At present our methods of assessment often fail in providing enough differentiation for all students to show what they know and to display the skills that they have mastered. As adults we don't take the time to study those things that don't matter to our jobs or to our interests. We should be careful then to think that young people would somehow be more "Renaissance" than we ourselves tend to be.

I am not a big fan of the DOE mainly because I was able to sit in on the meetings that took place between BlueSky and MDE. MDE did not attempt to try help BlueSky improve their services, but instead acted like those at the Salem Witch Trials who were hellbent on ensuring that someone gets charged as a witch! In this case MDE was hellbent on charging BlueSky as that witch. It really was a sad performance by MDE that every citizen in Minnesota should be concerned about. It was a clear abuse of power.