Top Michigan officials spent more than three hours in a Lansing boardroom Tuesday getting to know two out-of-state candidates for state superintendent.
The in-depth question and answer session offered a closer look at Brenda Cassellius, a former Minnesota commissioner of education, and Eric Thomas, chief turnaround officer for the Georgia Department of Education.
The candidates are vying for a leading role in the effort to reverse a 20-year downward trend in Michigan’s school system. As the state’s top education official, they would be responsible for implementing state policy on critical issues such as school accountability, testing, and oversight of struggling schools.
While the rules are generally set by the legislature, it’s the superintendent who helps bring the rules to life. When the legislature says “oversee struggling schools,” the education department’s implementation decisions can determine, for example, how many schools might be closed.
The new superintendent will replace Brian Whiston, who died last May.
Thomas’ more than two decades in public education have been focused largely on turning around struggling schools. As an administrator, he says he distinguished himself by building support for new accountability measures: He helped develop Cincinnati’s teacher evaluation system, which was the first in the state of Ohio to factor in test scores.
Cassellius began her career working with special needs students in the classroom, then went on to become a top official in Minnesota. Along the way, she says she focused on helping students of color and other groups. In the interview, she highlighted her efforts to protect transgender students from bullying and to prevent “lunch shaming,” the practice of publicly embarrassing students who haven’t paid off their school cafeteria accounts.
Thomas traveled to Lansing for the interview, while Cassellius spoke to the board through a live video link. The public seating area in the boardroom was mostly empty.
Here’s how the candidates responded to two key questions from members of the State Board of Education. Their answers — which wade into controversial questions about testing, charter schools, vouchers, and state oversight — have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. The full interviews are here.
The remaining three candidates will be interviewed on April 24, when the state board is also expected to announce finalists for the job.
What are the critical issues facing Michigan schools in the next three to five years?
Cassellius: I believe Michigan is in a similar place as most states in terms of the threats that are facing it. Michigan would like to move up in the ranking among states and be a national leader.
But I think Michigan is much like other states in that they face the threats of inadequate funding and chronic underfunding, our teacher supply and recruitment and retention, and the professionalism of the teacher practice, and the lack of resources going to and supporting teachers. The competitiveness of teacher pay — it’s very challenging to recruit teachers into the field because they have different opportunities.
And then I think the final one is public confidence in public education. In Minnesota we’ve seen the growth of charter schools as evidence of the lack of confidence in our traditional public schools and kind of those contentious difficult conversations around school choice and disinvestment in public education.
Thomas: One challenge is going to be the transformation of outcomes for the state. If you look at where the state is now and where it was 20 years ago, it’s a trend heading in the wrong direction.
The [Michigan Department of Education] has identified the whole child and prenatal to age 8 in literacy as areas of focus. I support those areas of focus.
The only thing I would add is around the literacy piece — I know there’s conversation around third-grade retention and third-grade reading — whether it stays in place or not, I think there’s a chance to learn from other states.
The federal government has identified students with disabilities and the protocols around students with disabilities, so I think that’s a challenge.
Here in Michigan, from a constitutional standpoint, the idea of vouchers may not exist. But if you listen to what’s going on at the federal level there is a conversation around vouchers so there is a conversation about vouchers that needs to be had.
I would also add potential teacher shortages or teacher retention.
Describe your ideal accountability system for student achievement.
Cassellius: I do believe that these test-based accountability systems have failed. We’ve been trying it for 20 years. Our students have not improved to the point we’d like them to. It’s hard, but that’s what we have. We have to work with what we have now as we transition to how we can do better.
[Education officials in Minnesota have] done a lot of thinking over the last 24 months. We wanted to get to more well-rounded measures.
But we didn’t have the statewide data capacity in which to collect common data from every single school around [physical education] classes being offered or ap classes offered — or science in elementary school, or concurrent enrollment classes being offered, or support services and school counselors.
I’d like to see a system that has more of those well-rounded components in it but we still get stuck in looking at test-based accountability. Even though we’re looking at growth more, it’s still based on a test.
Thomas: Kids walk into the school house in different places. If we have them for nine months, there should be some growth during those nine months, and I think that should be the focus of whether we’re seeing schools and students improving or not. Did they grow?
The other thing that’s important at the state level is a very robust support structure, having had an opportunity to work with state departments of education across the country.
The third thing is that based on performance, there’s a difference in levels of intervention. Obviously if you’re a high performing school and a high performing district, go and do your thing.
If that’s not the case, we’ve got to start looking at, if you’re not making progress, then the role that [the state department of education] plays has to increase. The idea of increased intervention based on overall performance I think has to be a critical piece of that, and I think bringing people together, what could that look like, and learning from some other states as well.
Correction: April 25, 2019: A previous version of this story misspelled Brenda Cassellius’ name.