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These three finalists have a shot at becoming Michigan’s next state schools superintendent

Finalists for the state superintendent's job in Michigan are, from left, Brenda Cassellius, Michael Rice, and Jeanice Swift
Finalists for the state superintendent's job in Michigan are, from left, Brenda Cassellius, Michael Rice, and Jeanice Swift

Michigan’s next state superintendent could be the current superintendents of the Ann Arbor or Kalamazoo school districts, or it could be the former commissioner of education in Minnesota.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday selected three finalists for the state superintendent’s job — after two days of interviews with the five people they invited to try out for the position.

The three finalists are:

  • Brenda Cassellius, former commissioner of education for the Minnesota Department of Education. Cassellius is also a finalist for the superintendent’s job in Boston Public Schools.
  • Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools.
  • Jeanice Swift, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools.

The board is seeking to replace Brian Whiston, who died nearly a year ago.

The board is looking for a candidate who can reverse Michigan’s years-long academic decline. The state superintendent, while overseen by the board, runs the Michigan Department of Education and will be a part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s cabinet. The person selected will also have a hand in shaping a number of important issues, such as school accountability, testing and oversight of struggling schools.

The two who didn’t make the cut included Eric Thomas, the chief turnaround officer for the Georgia Board of Education, and Randy Liepa, the superintendent of the Wayne (County) Regional Educational Service Agency.

Liepa, who had some fervent supporters on the board, would be invited back as a finalist if one of the three who were selected backs out.

That could happen if Cassellius lands a job offer in Boston and opts to take that job.

The board split the interviews across two days, interviewing Cassellius and Thomas on Monday and Liepa, Rice, and Swift on Wednesday. The board spent almost two hours deliberating and debating after the interviews.

Board member Lupe Ramos-Montigny was among those displeased that Liepa — who in the first round of voting had the most votes — didn’t make the final cut. Liepa also didn’t make the cut in 2015, the last time the position was open.

“I don’t think Randy should be the person to leave. He’s got the most experience and has worked with large organizations. He has qualifications this department needs,” she said.

The board has scheduled interviews with the finalists for May 7.

Board member Tiffany Tilley said she wasn’t overly impressed with any of the candidates, though she ultimately pushed for the two out-of-state contenders.

“I wish we had more qualified candidates to have a pool from,” Tilley said.

Others, though, appeared pleased with the quality of the candidates. Board President Casandra Ulbrich several times described all five candidates as phenomenal.

“It’s a tough decision,” Ulbrich said.

Here’s how the candidates on Wednesday responded to two key questions from members of the board. The full interviews can be found on the YouTube page of the Michigan Department of Education.

What are the critical issues facing Michigan schools in the next three to five years?

Rice: He cited a number of issues. One of them was the need for a school funding system that acknowledges that it costs more to educate students who are from low-income families, have special education needs, and are English language learners.

“This isn’t just my opinion,” Rice said. “This is research.”

He said literacy is important, but not necessarily because of the state’s tough third-grade reading law that requires schools hold back some struggling readers. This change kicks in next school year.

“It’s about children’s ability to read and their capacity to be functioning, participative adults later in life.”

Career and technical education programs need more attention, he said.

“We’ve oversold university education at the expense of career and technical education programs,” Rice said. “The vast majority of new jobs in the next 10 years do not require four-year degrees. They require two-year degrees.”

Liepa: He cited one key area as critical: talent and ensuring that teachers have the training and resources they need, as well as addressing the difficulty many districts have filling teaching jobs. He said it’s even harder to find good teachers in districts that serve low-income communities.

“Personally, I am concerned,” Liepa said. “We have to address this head-on.”

He highlighted some promising initiatives, such as a unique teacher residency program in Detroit that will train would-be teachers similar to the way doctors are trained, a Wayne State University program that invites high school seniors to campus to learn about teaching, and an early college program in Dearborn Public Schools that will train students who want to become teachers. Students in these specialized schools take a mix of high school and college classes and often earn associate’s degrees.

Liepa said that district leaders can have strong plans to improve, but without the people “to make it happen, it’s not going to happen.”

Swift: She said the state needs to address issues related to equity, access and opportunity, particularly given that two out of every three students “comes to us from a home impacted by poverty.” She said the state should heed research that shows it costs more to educate some students, including students from low-income families.

Swift said another critical issue is attracting and retaining talent into the state’s teaching force. She said the state needs to recruit the best talent into teaching, ensure they are supported, well-compensated, and well-respected.

Swift also said the state should ensure that schools serve the needs of students with special education needs “in ways that cause them to achieve well,” and should address the growing mental health needs and behavior concerns schools have to address.

Describe your ideal accountability system for student achievement.

Rice: He said one thing he wouldn’t look for is a system that assigned a letter grade to schools, saying schools are complex organizations and “deserve complex treatment.”

Rice said an existing accountability system designed by the Michigan Department of Education “is the strongest accountability system that you’ve had in half a decade.” That system includes an online “parent dashboard” with a host of data — much of it academic — on every school in the state.

Rice said it’s strong in part because it places more weight on how much improvement that school is seeing in academic achievement; and because it evaluates important factors, such as graduation rates and the success of students identified as English language learners.

But he said the state standardized exam — the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, known as the M-STEP — has issues related to comparability, reliability, and validity and said “it needs to be reviewed very carefully and thoughtfully, if it is to remain.” Results on that exam are used in the state accountability system.

Liepa: He said he likes the current accountability system created by the department, saying it offers transparency, outlines important areas, and allows schools to measure themselves against their peers.

But he said he hopes to see no more changes in how schools are held accountable. “If we’re going to have a target, can we keep the target the same, and have us continue to move toward that target over time.”

Swift: She said that effective accountability is a two-way street that involves a partnership and a relationship.

“It’s about high expectations. It’s about achieving clarity on the goals, having well-defined metrics to measure our progress on the goal.”

But she also noted that accountability should also be about focusing less on what she described as “lagging indicators” like graduation rates — which focused on an end result — and more on earlier metrics, like how many ninth-graders are on track to graduation.

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