In education circles, Dayton’s choice of Cassellius greeted with optimism, skepticism

/ 4 January 2011 / jennifer

Beth Hawkins, MinnPost, January 4, 2011 –

During even the earliest days on the campaign trail, it was clear that Mark Dayton spent a lot of time in schools. Principals reported that the candidate would spontaneously drop in to chat about, say “value-added” testing, or to ask about a niche program that showed promise. On the dais during a debate, he could muster a specific on-the-ground example, complete with names, to illustrate a point.

But more than that, confronted with questions that required some pedagogical expertise or a command of the nuances of the school-reform debate, Dayton’s replies were typically surefooted. He seemed, in short, plugged in.

And so it is with equal measures of positive and negative shock that public-education advocates have greeted the announcement of Dayton’s nomination of former Minneapolis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Brenda Cassellius for education commissioner.

Brenda Cassellius</p>
Brenda Cassellius

The optimism: A member of former MPS Superintendent Carol Johnson’s kitchen cabinet both here and in Memphis, Tenn., Cassellius has a reputation for being reform-minded and willing to take on big challenges. In Memphis, she oversaw a widely lauded overhaul of the city’s flagging middle schools.

The skepticism: Particularly among MPS parents and teachers, Cassellius has not made a lot of friends. And reviews of a hotly awaited high-school redesign she initiated here are decidedly mixed.

Agreement that Dayton sends a message on priorities

There was universal agreement, however, that Dayton’s decision to appoint a racial minority with deep roots in urban education  and a commitment to school integration sends a message about the new governor’s priorities.

“I’m finding the whole thing completely shocking and hugely compelling,” said outgoing Minneapolis school board member Chris Stewart. “This is a surprise to nearly everyone. It establishes a sense that [Dayton] gets it, that he gets the sense of urgency in public education.”

“I think her demeanor is probably right for the job,” agreed Bill English, co-chair of the Council of Black Churches and an ardent proponent of reform in MPS. “She’s a good listener. I think she deserves a chance to take this challenge on.”

A number of parent activists posting to the online Minneapolis Parents Forum, however, described themselves as “aghast,” and characterized Cassellius as a rhetorically inclined bureaucrat whose reforms had not delivered as promised.

“My jaw dropped,” one, Peggy Clark, said in an interview. “The whole high-school stuff in Minneapolis has been a non-cohesive mess for a long time.”

Worked with Johnson here and in Memphis

The mother of three, Cassellius grew up in a Minneapolis public housing project and began her career teaching in St. Paul and Burnsville. She went on to serve as an assistant principal in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and later an administrator under former superintendent Carol Johnson, whom she followed to Memphis, Tenn., in 2004.

In Memphis, Cassellius helped “fresh-start” schools in the worst academic standing, instituted changes in the way discipline was handled and created a middle-school reform model that won praise from the National Middle Schools Association and ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

When Johnson left Tennessee to become superintendent in Boston in 2007, Cassellius and two other senior members of her Memphis team took jobs in Oklahoma City. After less than a month there, all three resigned. After a brief stop back in Memphis, Cassellius joined then-deputy superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, also a Johnson kitchen-cabinet alum, in Minneapolis.

During her most recent stint in MPS, Cassellius was responsible for a far-reaching redesign of the district’s high schools. Several high schools underwent a fresh start, small learning communities and specialized programs were created throughout the system and International Baccalaureate programming was instituted in all but one of the schools.

Not a silver bullet

One key goal: To give students who might not go on to earn a liberal arts degree the high-tech skills needed to shore up Minnesota’s workforce. Initially heralded as a courageous reform effort, the overhaul has not proven the silver bullet many in the district hoped it would.

In July, Cassellius took over as superintendent of the East Metro Integration District, a voluntary integration effort by St. Paul Public Schools and nine east-metro suburbs.

As commissioner, Cassellius will be tasked with figuring out how to guide Minnesota schools struggling to close the achievement gap during a virtually unprecedented fiscal crisis. Many of the issues confronting the incoming Legislature and her Department of Education are particularly challenging for DFLers.

“It’s a lot less predictable what one does as a Democrat than as a Republican,” said Stewart. “So for Gov. Dayton to do this is definitely more of a signal.”

To pave the way for needed reforms, many education policymakers believe Minnesota needs to overhaul laws pertaining to teacher hiring, evaluation and retention, as well as the state’s procedures for testing students and measuring teacher effectiveness.

Reform efforts stalled

A stalemate between now-former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the state’s largest teachers union, Education Minnesota, stalled reform efforts during last year’s legislative session. Dayton won the union’s powerful endorsement, but has signaled his intent to push for many of the changes Education Minnesota opposed.

According to a statement put out by the union, Cassellius and Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher were scheduled to meet last weekend.

In Stewart’s view, Dayton’s decision to appoint Cassellius is a clear signal that where education is concerned, politics will be anything but usual. Depending on how many DFL lawmakers are prepared to go forward with a reform agenda similar to last year’s, albeit with policy changes less antagonistic to teachers, the upcoming legislative session could be much more productive than last year, he said.

“For me, it’s a bumper sticker,” said Stewart. “It’s a plane going by with a message trailing off the back of it.”