Saturday, January 01, 2005

Reference -- Interview with Cheri-Pierson Yecke

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:00 AM |  

CW: May 16 is an anniversary of sorts for you. It was May 16, 2004 that the Minnesota Senate on a party line vote said “No more Cheri Yecke,” after, what was it 15 months . . .

Yecke: 16 months.

CW: 16 months. It’s a year later -- you’re a Senior Fellow at the Center for the American Experiment, a candidate for Congress in the sixth district. A year ago, neither of those two situation were on your radar. Let’s talk about how you got from here to there . . . Let’s start with May 16th. What was that day like?

Yecke: It was not a pleasant day. Certainly that 3:30 AM vote really took us by surprise, because there were some Democrats that had pledged to support me. So we really were taken by surprise. After the vote had occurred we had to -- because we were taken by surprise -- we had to figure out “How do we address this? How do we deal with this?” Obviously I’m no longer an employee of the state, so we couldn’t have an event in the state buildings, so we invited reporters so we invited reporters here [her homein Blaine]. We invited reporters here to talk about that. Folk wanted to know. They wanted to know, to talk to me about it, but I thought it would be inappropriate to have it at the department of education.

So we had the press conference, and after that it was, “Well, what is the next step? What is the direction that my life is going to take?” At that time my daughter was getting. She’s getting married July 3. This is May 16, I said “You know what? I’m not making any decisions now. I’m just going to take my time, get ready for this wedding, an live my life, and after that we’ll see what’s out there.”

I did get calls from Washington. People wanted me to go back out there, but this is my home. My mom’s here. She’s elderly. My sisters’ families are all here. My husband’s family’s all here. And my thought was “They might have voted not to confirm me, but they’re not going to run me off. This is my home, and I intend to stay here.”

CW: Your confirmation fight was not pretty. A lot of things were said about you personally. Your competency was questioned . . .

Yecke: You know, I understood a lot of that to be political as opposed to personal. Four point five billion dollar deficient, No Child Left Behind coming on the scene and the department had done nothing in previous years to implement it. I had to do two years of implementation of that law in one year. The Profile [of Learning] being repealed. New standards. It was a lot of change in a short period of time. And that can be a little disconcerting for people.

The thing that was toughest for me is what this did to my Mother. That she would open the paper in the morning and read about these terrible things that were being said about me, and it hurt her. It just stabbed her in the heart. I just feel so bad that she had to go through that. It pained me to see how it was affecting her. You know, I would open up the papers and say “Holy cow! If only half of this were true, I would hate me too.” [Laughs] It’s really sad. But . . It’s like . . . One it happened -- alright. You can’t remain bitter. I looked to Mathew 5:44 -- Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If you don’t do that, you can just let bitterness consume you, and that is not productive. Just like making a vote as a legislator in a very vindictive way. That’s not good public policy. If you’re motivated by vindictiveness, you’re not doing good public policy. So I felt it was important to take the high road.

CW: Do you think some of those voting against you were acting out of vindictiveness?

Yecke: [Laughs] You’ll have to ask them.

CW: Sen. Steve Kelley was among your biggest critics. He continually made statements to the effect that you were a “divider, not a healer.” In fact, that was a recurring theme when people talked about you. How do you respond to that particular charge. Are you a divider. Are you a divisive personality?

Yecke: You know, my response is “the killed the messenger because they didn’t like the message.” When I got here and saw the extent of the achievement gap between white kids and black kids in this state, I was appalled. Absolutely appalled. And so when I would go around talking about No Child Left Behind, the new accountability, the need for higher standards, I would point out the achievement gap.

If you look at, I believe it is 8th grade math, white students score very well in the 8th grade and they start high school with 8th grade skills. Black students in this state as a group start high school with the skills of white 4th graders.

How do you over come that? [incredulously] That is huge. This is a moral outrage. Yet when I would go around the state talking about this, I was accused of bashing public education. This is not bashing public education. This is called “telling the truth.” You have to identify a problem and recognize and admit that it exists before you can solve it.

CW: Let me play Pat Harvey (Superintendent, St. Paul Public Schools). [Yecke groans with a chuckle]. The achievement gap isn’t as bad as it seems because A) white kids in Minnesota do so much better than the national average and b) Minnesota has such a good education system that we draw families from areas like Chicago and Gary, Indiana, that come to Minnesota and lower our curve for children of color.

Yecke: You know, I would say, “Why would you blame the victim?” Why would you blame those kids who are coming here to get a good education and say they are the reason we are under performing when it comes to the achievement of minorities.

CW: But what Pat Harvey would say is that we are not under performing. The fact is we have white students performing at a high level and thenwe have a group that hasn’t been in our system long enough to show results.

Yecke: Then my response would be lets triangulate the data. Let‘s look at something other than achievement scores. Let‘s look at graduation rates. There’s a report that shows Minneapolis is second to Washington DC in the gap between white and black graduation rates. So you can look at multiple . . . You can look at our BST [Basic Skills Test] scores; you can look at the National Assessment for Educational Progress; you can look at graduation rates. Once you triangulate, you can find from multiple perspectives, this is an issue in this state, and you can’t explain it away by saying other people are moving here. The data won‘t hold that up.

CW: Back to the “divider” issue. You attribute that tag to the fact that you were “telling the truth” -- delivering an unpopular message. But doesn’t that beg the question? Couln’t that news have been delivered in way that didn’t rankle people?

Yecke: No. You see when I arrived here, there was a great deal of angst here: Number 1 for having a Republican governor; number 2 having a reform-minded education commissioner. There were some people who had preconceived notions about me and made up their minds before they ever met me or listened to what I had to say. Once you start out with people -- you’re not starting with a blank slate, but you’re starting with preconceived notions -- it can be very difficult to get your message through.

I just want to give you an example as an aside. This fall I was a surrogate speaker for President Bush, so I went around and would speak at editorial boards and little radio stations in greater Minnesota. And after one tour through the central part of the state, I got a thank-you card from the news director of a small radio station in central Minnesota. He said, “You know, you aren’t anything I expected you to be like. I had a certain stereotype of what Republicans were like, and you blew that stereotype away.” He said “You were articulate, you were smart, you were compassionate and understand the issues.” And he thanked me for opening his eyes to the fact that some Republicans aren’t the stereotype some people make them out to be.

That is a man of great integrity -- that he could admit that, and admit that to the point where he sent me a letter . . . You see what I’m saying. That meant a lot to me. That shows that often times people do judge you by these preconceived notions, where once they meet you one-on-one. It’s a whole different ballgame.

Just one quick other example that fits here. After I got dumped, I had a speaking engagement at St. Mary’s University. This was not anything related to confirmation, this was about my book [The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America's Middle Schools]. After I was dumped as commissioner, I canceled all of my education-related events. So when people called and asked me to speak, I would say “I hope you know I am no longer commissioner” because I wanted to do the right thing.

CW: You didn’t ask if they’d been living in a cave?

Yecke: [Laughing] Right. . . Oh dear. But the guy who introduced me at St. Mary’s -- this is the best introduction I’ve ever gotten. He said, “I’m going to introduce a person to you that you’re not going to recognize because you expect her to have horns and a tail. [Laughing] I though that was great.

CW: Pretty good. Sometimes lost in your non-confirmation is the fact that you were commissioner for 16 months . . .

Yecke: [Emphatically] Yes.

CW: Laymen like me look at that as wonder, why did it take the legislature 16 months to decide that they didn’t want this person [Yecke laughs] and despite how divisive this person was, they waited until the work was done?

Yecke: Exactly. And you can look at that two ways. One is after the work was done. Look what we did. God rid of . . . For years people had talked about getting rid of the Profile, but until I got here and established a plan, it didn’t happen. Now, granted, a lot of people spent a great deal of time laying that ground work, but when I met with Governor Pawlenty in December of ’02, I said “Look. You’re not going to get rid of the Profile unless people have something to vote for. They want to know what’s going to take its place. And you can’t put together a set of standards behind closed doors. That’s what got us into trouble with the Profile in the first place. People were working behind closed doors and then suddenly they would give you these standards it was like “We know best what is best for your children. That is not the way you build trust between the public and the schools.”

So I told him that I would like to have citizens’ committees put these standards together. That’s important. Then take them (standards) on the road. Put out a draft -- throw everything in there that the committee is considering -- everything and the kitchen sink -- and then get feedback from the public so you can start to winnow and take out and streamline. And I believe that’s how we were able to get rid of the profile. Legislators knew there was something there to take its place.

CW: The reality was, though, that your methodology opened you up for a lot of criticism, because people took that first draft as the final form of the standards . . .

Yecke: That is so unfortunate. Again, it’s people having these preconceived notions. Instead of listening and hearing “This is a draft. This if for discussion purposes only. We want your feedback,” they had a knee-jerk reaction. “Oh this is too much. Oh this is too much here. I don’t like this. I don’t like that.” Well, you know what, that’s what the public hearings were for.

Unfortunately there were some people who came to the public hearings and all they did was say “I don’t like this,” instead of saying “on page six do this. On page 8 do this.” That was the most helpful feedback we got. Very specific feedback. And that was the purpose of these public hearings -- for people to give very specific feedback. And those who did, were heard. Other people who got up there and said “I don’t like this” -- How do you process that? How do you make that into “Let’s fix this document?”

CW: What process did you use to decide how people would be on these committees?

Yecke: That’s really interesting. When we made the announcement back in January -- the Governor and I -- when we announced that we were going to be seeking citizen volunteers, in the first 24 hours we had 700 applications. It was huge.

CW: Usually the first people to respond have an axe to grind. Is that what you found here.

Yecke: We really don‘t know, because we didn‘t look at them until we had all the applications in. We hasd a two-week period, and there were over 2,000 applications.

The first thing we did was to go through and sort according to topic area, because it was going to be math and language arts, math and English. So we set aside all of those people who were music, art and history and so forth. Then we took a look at such things as qualifications and enthusiasm.

You could have a person who writes in and says “I’m a second grade teacher, and I teach English. I would like to part of this committee.” Well, compare that to “I’m a second grade teacher and love what I do. I love teaching children to read. And I believe all children should read, and my children are reading and here’s the data for my children . . . .” I mean there was a huge difference in how people sold themselves. What we were looking for was the knowledge, the expertise -- the content level expertise -- and the enthusiasm, the passion. People who really felt strongly about this.

Then after we did this, we looked geographically, because we felt it was very important to have every part of the state covered. Then we also had to look at grade level spans to make sure we had the appropriate number of elementary, etc.

So the process went through a number of iterations until it came down to a group of folks we thought was really excellent. We wanted to have teachers, of course, some teachers. But it couldn’t be exclusively teachers, because these are the public’s schools, and I felt it was important to include all members of the community -- businesses, taxpayers, moms and parents and even home school parents, because if they are dissatisfied with the system and choose to leave it, then wouldn‘t you want them at the table to help you make it better?

CW: Any representation from private schools?

Yecke: We had some private school people in the second round. I can’t remember if we had private school people the first round. I can’t remember.

CW: Ideology played no role in the selection?

Yecke: Well, if you look at the forms, it was very difficult to tell ideology unless people actually expressed it. Another thing, we didn’t have a box to check if you were a member of a minority group. We were looking for expertise. We weren’t going to make a decision on other issues.

Sometimes ideology came through. Some people wrote in and said “Oh! I’m so glad that you all are getting rid of the Profile. It’s about time.” So that kind of thing sometimes would come through, and you know, if they had the content knowledge and the enthusiasm, we certainly would include them.

CW: Looking back on the committees now, did you get a diversity of ideology on the committees?

Yecke: Absolutely.

CW: And did you get a good ethnic diversity mix?

Yecke: Both times around, we had diverse ideology because, of course, you had some people who submitted minority reports. If we had gone with people who all thought the same, there wouldn’t have been that kind of discord. The first time around, we were criticized, because we did not have the kind of ethnic diversity that some people thought we should have. So the second time around, we tried to be a little more proactive that way.

CW: How were you “proactive.”?

Yecke: We asked for recommendations from some local superintendents.

CW: I guess this is a good place to give you a commercial break. From the 16 months you were Commissioner of Education, what do you think you accomplished? What are you most proud of? How much of what you did is still in place today.?

Yecke: That is what is so remarkable, because some people sa “Oh she is divisive!” Well, you know what -- take a step back, and look at the accomplishments that have occurred. Number 1: The Profile is gone. Number 2: We have specific, grade-level standards that are specific, rigorous, academically challenging and content and knowledge based.

We have an accountability system, which parents in this state, which taxpayers in this state never had before. You can know the achievement level of your school compared to the achievement levels of other schools along with financial and demographic information on other schools. That has never happened statewide -- where you can do an apples to apples comparison. I think that’s huge. All of that is still in place.

So when people say “Oh she’s divisive and bashing public education” -- Hello! Let’s take a look at the accomplishments and no one is trying to uproot that. There aren’t people out there protesting against the standards like they were protesting against the Profile. I think the truth is . . . look at the product. The product is still there. The product has strengthened Minnesota schools.

In fact, you’ll see on my microwave . . . This is one of the most endearing little notes [pulls a 3 by 5 card from her microwave door] , I have received. I’ve kept it there for a couple months.

CW: [Reading] “I am sending you five dollars for your campaign [6th District]. I can’t really afford more, but I am sending you this as a thank you for your good work on education of Minnesota. I have seven children and seen the difference testing has made in the classrooms.

“For example, teachers in District 11 for the first time in decades are starting to teach grammar. [CW aside -- my kids never were taught grammar. Yecke chuckles.] Also, there is much more emphasis on math skills. I would like to see a strong pro-life woman in congress rather than a businessman or a lawyer “[Yecke laughs].

Yecke: Isn’t that great? This means a lot to me. And not a week goes by where I’m not stopped at the grocery store or in the mall. People will say “Are you the old commissioner?” And I’ll say “Ya.” And they’ll say, “You know it’s terrible what they did to you,” or else they’ll say “Thank you for making the change in our schools.” So you people at the capital that beat the tar out of me during confirmation, but I care about what the little people say. I care about what the average citizen says.

I was in Shakopee in November . . . Middle of November after the elections . . . I had to give a speech at the Rotary at noon -- I’d started the day at a Rotary in Owatonna at 7 AM -- so I had a couple hours to kill. I was in a McDonalds, and these two elderly ladies came up to me and said “You look like our old commissioner.” And I said “well, I am.” And they said “Well, we’re Democrats, and you need to know that we voted for President Bush because we’re still mad at Senator Kelley for how mean he was to you.” True story. I swear.

And that is huge. That the average person understands that what happened to me was political and unfair and that they feel badly about it.

CW: That’s interesting. Let’s look at some of that crticism. You were criticized by Kelly. Going back to the testimony at your confirmation hearing. A Dr. Noel Schmidt . . .

Yecke: He’s the middle school guy.

CW: Right. He criticized you for your book . . .

Yecke: Which is interesting because now people are taking a hard look at middle schools.

CW Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL - Clearbrook) said that your certainty of purpose tells those who disagree with you that they are not included. And then Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) said there’s a lack of clarity about who you are.

Yecke: [Laughing] Yes. They contradict each other and the accusations that they made, they have nothing to back them up with. I mean, “Bashes public education” -- my response is “Please tell me. Please tell me.” Norm Draper at “the other paper” had written an article -- do you have that?

CW: I’ve read it, yes.

Yecke: He went to every speech. He red my book. He went to everything I’d ever written. Nowhere have I bashed public education. And yet is was very convenient for . . . You know if you can’t argue with someone on matters of principle, or you can’t argue with them on the issues, it’s just easiest to demonize.

CW: Sen. Leroy Stumpf (DFL-Thief River Falls) said the state is going in the wrong direction in education and without better leadership, it won’t get going in the right direction.

Yecke: But nothings changed [from what Yecke accomplished]. It’s just bizarre.

CW: So, could those people feel safe walking in front of your car on an icy road.?

Yecke: [Laughing]. You know, again, I go back to Mathew 5:44. You look at these folks, and in some ways I feel very sorry them that they allowed themselves to be driven by that level of anger.

A reporter asked me on the day that I announced for Congress do you have any ill will towards the membership of the senate that voted you down, and my response was “I should thank them,” because I never would have had the opportunity to run for a seat in congress if they hadn’t handed it to me.

CW: Speaking of the press conference, which you held here at your home after the Senate voted not to confirm your nomination . . .

Yecke: Yes. Yes.

CW: An MPR headline said Yecke Blasts Political climate for the senate vote -- “Yecke” and “blasts” seems to be a recurring theme in those days --

Yecke: [Laughs] Right.

CW: You blasted this and that. You did a lot of “blasting” when you were commissioner. But be that as it may, after the session in a summation, Sen. Dean Johnson cited your ouster as a “GOP setback.” Steve Dornfeld had an opinion piece in the Pioneer Press called “the Borking of Cheri Yecki . . .

Yecke: I loved the title of that piece.

CW: . . . that made you out to be a poster girl for partisanship attacks.

Yecke: Well, you know when Conalezza Rice was undergoing her confirmation hearings, I was watching that an my heart just bled for her. It was like, I have sat there. I have been through this. How cruel they were to her. It was unspeakable. They weren’t questioning policy. It was personal attacks. Sorry to interrupt . . .

CW: That’s okay. Here’s the point I want to get to, because this is a burr under my saddle when it comes to education. The politics that surrounded your confirmation -- doesn’t that lead to the conclusion that as long as the state is the primary educator, that kids are always going to be vitims of the whims of what is going on at the capital.

We got rid of the Profile -- and I was one of the people who fought against it -- but if I’m honest and step back from it, the Profile never had a chance because people like me were saying “We don’t want this. This is terrible.” And it was and we didn’t, but now we have high standards -- and the arguments being made against those were in form, if not content, the same as I made against the Profile. I like the standards that are in place now, but I have to ask, “What right do I have to force those standards on someone who doesn’t agree with them just because “my” governor and “my” commissioner are in power?”

Is there something to that? Can a parent even plan today what their kids’ education is going to be when in four years you can have another commissioner and a whole new set of standards?

Yecke: Think about it this way. In a perfect world . . . In a perfect world . . . We’d be able to choose whatever school we want for our children. Even within the same family you have different kids with different needs. In a perfect world we’d be able to say this is a perfect school for my child and therefore I’m putting her here. Or my other child is going here.

But stepping back, it’s not a perfect world. And we have to deal with the realty that we have. And I think that if you look at the movement toward vouchers, the movement for charter schools, what drives that? What drives that is parents that don’t have choices and school districts that are not responding to parental requests and parental desires.

I can give you an example. Eagle Ridge Academy is a charter school that opened up last fall in the West suburbs. The parents begged -- they begged -- their local school district for years to enhance their gifted and talented program. They said their kids were bored. They’re kids were not challenged. The school district had 101 excuses why not to do that. So the parents got together and started this charter school. They contacted the school district in June and said send our Children’s records to Eagle Ridge Academy, that‘s where they are going in the fall. Two weeks later, everyone of those parents got a letter in the mail announcing, guess what? “We’ve just started this new gifted and talented program.”

So all of that to say that there are options for parents. The unfortunate thing now is that you have to work so hard to make them happen. And so by starting your own charter school -- and it’s difficult and it’s time consuming -- but you can make that happen. Now it should not be that hard for parents to have that kind of option. What I’m saying is it’s there, it’s not like we have a monolithic sort of system and monopoly where you can’t break away. You can break away, but it’s at the cost of great effort.

CW: But let’s be honest. The low-income family . . .

Yecke: Ya. Ya.

CW: . . . Doesn’t have the time to study charter schools . . .

Yecke: Exactly. And that’s where you look at Minneapolis right now, and you look at the statistics, and it’s heartbreaking. Only 53 percent of the kids are graduating. Where Washington DC is the only large metropolitan area with at least 10,000 black students that has a higher gap in the graduation rate between whites and blacks. There has to be options for parents who feel as though they are trapped within a system.

I really believe what we have to do, Craig, is focus on the child, not on the system. The focus, the energy, the dedication must be to the individual child, not to save the system. You have some systems that are functioning very well, and parents are pleased. Other systems that are broken. And we need to worry about the child.

CW: Let’s expand on that idea. What of the big issues with “public education” with air quotes around public education is a system that educates for the public good and is not synonymous with a system that delivers skills and knowledge. It could include private schools, religious schools, home schools cyber schools . . .

Yecke: We’ll go back to that one. But think about this. This was another thing I talked about that people did not like. When I talked about public education, I talked about it as a large umbrella, and underneath that you’ve got the government schools, the private schools, the parochial schools, home schools you’ve got a multiplicity of choices under this umbrella called public education.

The goal of public education is to have a well-educated public. You can get to that end game any number of ways. You can take multiple paths to get there. That again, gets there by focusing on the child.

Now, what was that thing we said we were going to get back to?

CW: Cyberschools. But let’s stick on this line for a minute.

Yecke: Okay.

CW: Under this big umbrella -- let’s get down to where the rubber meets the road -- where do you stand on something like the Hann/Buesgens bill, which says we’re going to take state education money, and let parents, for the benefit of their kids, choose another schools. Is that something . . . .

Yecke: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a good thing, because it gives parents control. It helps parents to become more involved because to make a choice you have to become more educated about what the choices are, so you have to become aware of what is out there that I can choose for my child.

In addition to that -- I know there was some controversy with the Hann/Buesgens bill where there were some folks who said that there should be no accountability. My belief is that if we are going to give parents those choices to opt out of the public system into the private system, we do need to have accountability, because it is the taxpayers dollars. Public officials have an obligation to be responsible stewards of the taxpayer dollars. And that means that you have to show, no matter what school you’re attending, that you’re making appropriate academic progress.

CW: Okay. Let me be the devil’s advocate on that one. Your view is kind of a catch-22 for private schools. They don’t want some of the strings associated with public schools and from the parents perspective, they are leaving public education to get away from things in that they don’t like in public schools. So just how far does this “accountability” need to go?

In the House Education committee that was essentially the strategy used to try and kill the voucher bill -- amend it to death to the point where it was unacceptable to private schools and unattractive for parents.

Yecke: Unfortunately, I think those strings are necessary. If what you say this is the expected outcome -- “At the end of third grade, a child should be able to do math and read at the third grade level.” Now, the you choose the path to get there -- you choose the path school or you choose the path parent -- is the beauty of the new standards as opposed to the profile. The teacher sets the path, knowing what the end game is. That’s the difference.

If you look at the Hann/Buesgens bill, what we would say is “Here is the endgame for a third-grade student. Now if you choose to put your child in a private school, they can teach whatever curricula they want, but at the end, kids have to show they have mastered the skills at this level. I think that’s just good stewardship.

CW: To that degree, that’s what the Hann/Buesgens bill did. What the committee did was add strings way beyond that.

Yecke: Yes. And I admire Senator Hann and Representative Buesgens for coming forward with this. A lot of people wonder why? Not in their district. Why? Because they are compassionate. They care about children and focusing on the child and not the system.

But what you find that in places like Florida and Milwaukee, where voucher bills have been introduced, it has been a positive thing for the local school districts. Public schools have improved. So it’s been a good thing all around. No one is coming in and saying “Oooo. We’re trying to destroy public education, which is what Doug Grow wrote in his column that I was hand-picked by Carl Rove to come and do to this state and that there were other members of House Education Committee that believed I was hand-picked to come here and destroy public education.

My counter to that was “Why did I work so hard to establish the standards, the accountability. And to get the leniency we were granted under No Child Left Behind. Etc. etc.” I’m getting off on a different thing here. Sorry.

CW: Let’s talk about the cyber school issue that is another Yecke controversy.

Yecke: [Laughing] Aaagggggggghhhh. The cyberschool issue was essentially this. It was a definition of the term “deliver.” If a provider wanted to provide academic through the computer, through the Internet, the question was do you have a teacher preparing the lessons and putting them on a computer and a teacher at the receiving end where the child is receiving the lesson.

My understanding is the union argued that you needed a teacher at both ends. Our argument was “No. The purpose of using the internet is to streamline things. If you have the teacher write and design the program and it goes on the Internet, that you don’t need to have a teacher sitting with the child at the other end when it is received by the child.

So it went to court. I was accused on the floor of the Senate of being in cahoots with Bill Bennett . . .

CW: You were using Bennett’s K-12 Program . . .

Yecke: Right. That I was paying off Bill Bennett or some kind of nonsense. And of course, I was not there to defend myself and say that had nothing to do with it. I happen to know him. He wrote the forward to my book -- and did a mighty fine job, I might add -- but that had nothing to do with it. BUT, what is so ironic is after something like three days after I got dumped by the Senate, the judged ruled in our favor and the case got thrown out. So we were right from the get go. So they beat the tar out of me on the issue during confirmation, yet the courts ruled in our favor.

CW: Do you see this as a union issue rather than an education issue? It again seems like a case of protecting the system.

Yecke: It is my understanding that their complaint was they wanted a teacher at the receiving end, and that completely disregards the whole concept of cyber-learning where using the internet for delivery instruction.

If you want to, for example, deliver Calculus over the internet to some isolated school up in some far northwestern part of the state, that’s the beauty of the Internet. You can do that; or an Advanced Placement class to a district that is isolated. It’s not going to happen if you have to have a teacher at the receiving end.

CW: The student, thought, still has access to a teacher over the Internet if he or she had questions, right?

Yecke: A teach was available, but a teacher did not physically sit with the child.

CW: Okay. I’d like to get back to No Child Left Behind. This is one of those issues where the written record comes into play. You have published a lot of articles. Some of the things you wrote when you were in Virginia -- during the Clinton Administration -- talked about getting the government out of education. . .

Yecke: [Chuckling] Right.

CW: You wrote that government had no business micromanaging education. It ought to get out.

Yecke: Right. I gave testimony in congress that’s in the congressional record.

CW: When No Child Left Behind comes along, which many people see as federal interference, federal conrol -- I look in my constitution, and I can’t find the education clause [Yecke laughs] -- now the federal government is in and Cheri Yecke’s got the pompoms out jumping up and down for federal involvement . . .

Yecke: [Laughing] But imagine that picture, Craig: Horns and tail and pompoms.

CW: Looks like a Website to me. Anyhow, City Pages jumped all over that. They had a pretty good line -- “hypocritical flexibility” I think they called your position.

Yecke: [Laughing] Let’s look at it this way. I am a 10th Amendment type of person. I felt very strongly under Goals 2000, there was going to be a veto --

(Side exchange as an Indigo Bunting lands on the feeder outside Yecke’s dining room window.)

I was on the State Board of Education in Virginia and voted against Goals 2000 because I thought it was way too intrusive. It leaned toward a federal test. Leaned toward a federal curriculum. I still to this day disagree with the federalization of education. Disagree with a federal test, other than NEAP Test which is a statistical sample and you don’t report individual students.

I also disagree with a national cirriculum, because if you look at what happened with welfare reform -- once we went from a centralized system and left it to the states, we had 50 laboratories where people could experiment. Some things worked; some things didn’t work. It all started with Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin. Since we live in a Republic with 50 different states, why not allow them each to do their own thing and then you can learn from the mistakes of others or the success of others.

Now, in Virginia how it works. . . A governor only serves one term . . . So I worked for Governor Allen, Governor Gilmore, then Governor Warner was elected. Governor Warner was a Democrat, so of course I was going to be out of a job. That was around the same time Bush was elected. I got a call from Washington that asked me to come up and serve in the Bush administration. I told them no, because I felt so strongly about that 10th Amendment role. No Child Left Behind had not yet been passed, it was still under discussion.

I got a second call; I told them no, but they said “We really need good people up here to serve in the department [of Education], because the department had a certain mindset that was not reform minded. It was more about protecting the system rather than thinking about the child and that’s why the name “No Child Left Behind” intrigued me because the focus was on the child, and not the system. Under Clinton, it was the “Improving America’s Schools Act.” Fundamentally, the name signals a change in priorities.

So I went through a period where I really struggled with this issue of the 10th Amendment, and finally I came to this conclusion. You know, if you’re in a small time and there’s a lion roaming the streets, you can lock your house and bar your windows, and you know you’re going to be safe. But what’s going to happen to that lion out there and what’s going to happen to other people? I felt that it’s important that you you have to look out for other folks.

I taught within my own children’s schools district so I could choose what teachers they had and what teachers to avoid. I had insider knowledge. And that gave me a huge advantage in getting my own kids educated. It wasn’t fair that other parents didn’t have that knowledge.

And those kinds of thoughts encouraged me to say I’d go up there and give it a try. I’m very glad I went up there because I understand now the reality is it exists. There is a federal role in education. We are not going to get away from that. It’s there. Why not get in there and steer it in the direction it needs to go -- more flexibility at the local level, however ensuring accountability -- as opposed to just letting the other side control it.

So you go into this, and it’s almost like Daniel in the lion’s den. You’re waling into a situation where people don’t agree with your philosophy of education. They are not reform minded. They want to retain the status quo. And that’s going to continue unless good people are going to make the sacrifice to walk into that den and start to make changes.

CW: You used the phrase “letting the other side control it.” Aren’t you reall talking about putting education into a partisan arena . . .

Yecke: It is! It is in a partisan arena. What you have to do is . . . You have to look at the research and you have to make sure that iti is not research that is bent to favor one ideology over another. You have to look at honest-to-goodness research and say this is what must be driving our decisions. Data-driven decision making. School districts are doing it all the time now. Needs to be done at the federal level as well.

If there’s going to be support for a specific type of reading program, it has to be scientifically based, and that’s what Reading First is about.

Another thing about No Child Left Behind. It now allows single-sex classes. We know that in some situations, girls will learn better in math and science if they’re taught separately from boys, especially when you get to the middle school age where they’re all squirrelly anyway. So, looking at the research instead of going “Oh no. It’s discriminatory if we separate girls and boys” -- that’s an opinion -- if you look at hard empirical data that shows they‘re achievement will be higher, that should be driving your decision as opposed to ideology.

Now too often I think you look at folks that have allowed ideology to drive their education decisions. That’s where we get whole language. You don’t want to control a child. You don’t want to direct a child. You want them to be immersed in literature. And somehow by osmosis they’re going to learn.

CW: Doesn’t this go back to the point you made earlier. You have a set of standards that says a child must be reading at the third-grade level at the end of third grade. You have one teacher teaching phonics; one teacher teaching whole language. At the end of third grade, one kid can read; one kid can’t.

Yecke: There you go.

CW: Then you look at the school?

Yecke: You look at the school. You look at the relative effectiveness of the individual teacher. And you determine what’s working. And what works best for one group of kids may not work best for another so you have to match them up demographically. That’s what we did when we had that Target Conference -- you might remember that -- where we brought in the high-performing high poverty schools and said talk to the low performing high poverty schools -- talk to the staff and teachers -- and share your ideas. What are you doing differently?

And it was so inspiring, because so many schools came off of that under performing list. They learned lessons and were inspired by people of similar demographics. Staff members who had kids of similar demographics were able to get over that hurdle and get kids to learn.

CW: I still want to play devil’s advocate on the No Child Left Behind Act for a bit. I’ve heard David Berliner speak about high-stakes testing. He talks about kids who are so nervous that they throw up on their tests. He talks about teachers teaching to tests, even cheating on tests so their school rates better. High states testing doesn’t accomplish anything and does a lot bad. How do you respond to those criticisms?

Yecke: Okay. There are some people who say that kids shouldn’t be tested. Well, you know what, what gets tested is what gets measured is what gets taught. So if you have a situation where kids aren’t tested, how do you know when they start to fall behind?

When we studied those schools that were high poverty low performance, we found consistently there was very little testing in the schools. There was one school in particular, and I will not name it, that was shocked -- shocked! -- when their kids took the MCAs and found out that most of them couldn’t read. Well they hadn’t even tested them throughout the entire year. The high poverty high performing schools test, sometimes even weekly. The minute the kids start to fall behind, they get special attention.

CW: But those are tests for the kids benefit . . .

Yecke: But they’re given to ensure that kids are going to meet the standards at the end of the year. Remember, the whole thing about here’s the endgame and you set the pat. Well, you can set a path that is pretty straight because you’re testing to make sure your kids don’t deviate from that path and have milestones along the way. But people who have no milestones and have no idea how well or how poorly their kids are doing, they’re not going to have a chance of meeting that endgame.

The reality is, testing is a part of life. If you want to get a driver’s license, you have to take a test. If you want to be a journeyman electrician, you have to take a test. These people who are a bit idealistic and say “Oh. But we don’t want to give children tests” -- I’m sorry, but they’re going to have to get used to it because that’s part of being an American citizen. You will take tests.

Now, about the argument that teachers are going to teach to the test. When I was a teacher. Teaching to the test meant that the teacher sat with a copy of the test in her lap and the teacher would ask questions directly off the test to coach the kids. I don’t think that’s what people mean right now even if they use that phrase. What they mean is we can only teach what is required by the standards. But if the standards are good and they are rigorous, why is there a problem with that?

What I would tell teachers is that you have solid standards in place and you build you instruction around those standards, why are you worried about the tests. The tests will take care of themselves. Let me give you an anecdote that shows this is really true.

In Virginia when I was on the State Board of Education we passed standards in 1995.The first testing was in 1998. There was some lag time because this was one of the first states
That went with a standards and accountability system. There was a school in Arlington, northern Virginia called Barcroft Elementary School, and their whole curriculum was based on Leonardo DaVinci -- his music, his art, his science. It was a Leonardo-based curriculum that the teachers had written.

When the new standards were passed in ‘95, they were just devastated. They said “we’re going to have to give all this up, throw this all away because of the new state standards.” The principal said “no. We’re going to keep what we have. We’re going to infuse the standards from the state. We’ll let the tests take care of themselves.”

So they modified their curriculum to match it up to the state standards. In the first year of testing, they blew away all the rich white suburbs. This is a school that has a large percentage of kids who don’t speak English, a large percentage of kids on free or reduced school lunch. So they became this Mecca and people just kept going to this school saying “How did you do it?” And the principal just kept saying the same thing. “We just taught to rigorous stands and didn’t worry about the tests. The tests will take care of themselves.”
I really believe that.

CW: That sounds interesting.

Yecke: It was. They used the Renaissance as an anchor. The school was decorated with Renaissance are -- Universal Man and the like. It was a wonderful, exciting school.

CW: It reminds me of some of the classical academies that as starting in the area . . .

Yecke: Nova.

CW: Where you take the classical rhetoric approach to education. Still on No Child Left Behind -- what about the controversy over putting schools on probation?

Yecke: Well, it’s not a perfect law. There are modifications that are needed.

CW: You did a report on that.

Yecke: Yes. I did a report on that. The program is up for reauthorization in 2007. I want to be sitting at that table during reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

When I was in Washington in ‘02 and ‘03, there were times when we’d sit around a table and it would be a bunch of lawyers and me, and I was the only person who had ever set foot in a classroom. And we’d be talking about the policy interpretations and I’s say think about the unintended consequences with this or this is not going to work. I won some battles, I lost some battle.

I think now, people have come to the realization that you can write something on paper and it looks really good, but when you go to implement it, it’s going to be a completely different kind of a ballgame. You’re going to have to go back and make modifications. And that’s where we are with No Child Left Behind. It needs to evolve.

Some of the things that need to change include going from a static model of accountability to a value-added model of accountability so you‘re looking at the same cohort of children over time. Looking at special education, which Margaret Spellings to her credit has made a change to because there was a conflict between IDEA and No Child Left Behind. IDEA says a child should meet the goals of his IEP. No Child Left Behind said grade-level goals. That’s not right.

CW: Maybe you should do the acronym translation.

Yecke: Sorry. IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act. So are things that need to be changed. Why should schools be punished for things that are beyond their control, such as high numbers of children who are highly mobile, who have high numbers of childen moving in and out.

CW: That’s Pat Harvey’s argument.

Yecke: This is not so much a St. Paul issue as it is a Brooklyn Center issue. Brooklyn Center has a hugely mobile population, and most people wouldn’t realize that, but why should a school be held accountable if 50 percent of the kids they end the school year with are different than the kids they started the school year with. Those are things the bureaucrats in Washington had no clue about when they set this up.

I believe that schools should be held accountable for achievement, but in order for a system to be credible, it has to be fair. It can’t be unfair and hold people accountable for things that are not heir fault.

CW: Do you see any danger in giving the federal government the kind of authority in education that No Child Left Behind give it? Specifically, a new administration comes in and takes the NCLB tool and does something different with it.

Yecke: No. I think the American people have good common sense.They are calling for changes to No Child Left Behind. Some people are calling for scrapping the whole thing. That’s unrealistic. It’s here. It’s going to stay. But come forward with thoughtful changes. But hold that thought, because there is something about No Child Left Behind that goes to what you asked.

Two things were in that law before it went through congress -- before it went through all the discussion, permutations and changes. One was the Straight As legislation. Straight As was actually a separate bill. What it aid was that if you have a state with high academic achievement, and you’re closing that achievement gap, why have any federal involvement at all. Write them a check. Send them a block grant. I think that is a great idea.

I testified as the deputy as secretary of education in Virginia before congress on that and said that this was the way we need go. This was part of No Child Left Behind. it’s the way we need to go. If a state can meet and show that their children are learning and that they’re closing their achievement gap, again, why should we care what path they take to meet that endgame. So I’m philosophically consistent because I believe we should do that at the federal level as well. This idea should be resurrected. It needs to come back.

In addition, No Child Left Behind originally had vouchers. Again, I think that you’re going to see -- and people who think that vouchers are gong away have their heads in the sand -- they’re here, the movement is growing, it’s here to stay, it’s not going away, so you may as well be realistic and deal with it. One way to deal with it is in federal legislation. Isn’t that a wake-up call to say we want to have that level of change.

It comes back to the whole idea of an educated public. It comes back to the endgame of an educated public. If you go the private route, the home school route, the government school route, whatever choice is right for you, as long as we meet that goal [educated public], that’s what is important.

CW: To be clear -- it’s your position, you don’t have a problem with public dollars going outside the government school system provided there is some level of accountability?

Yecke: Yes. I’m fine with that because I think it serves the public good, serves the greater good.

CW: What about the charge that No Child Left Behind is not fully funded?

Yecke: No Child Left Behind is not a mandatory program. You do not have to take the dollars. There are two arguments there. One, it is not mandated, so when you choose to take the dollars you are choosing the strings that are attached.

Number two, the people who are arguing that it is not fully funded don’t understand the way congress works. The committee that came out with No Child Left Behind said “This is going to be the authorization cap. You cannot fund this program above this level.” This is the cap. Then it goes to the money committees, and then the money committees chose the appropriation level. The appropriation level is never the authorization level. Ever. It wasn’t under the Clinton Administration the Carter administration the Reagan administration. You’ve got the authorization cap and the appropriation level. Rarely are they one in the same.

So people are very disingenuous when they say it is underfunded. That is not the case. The appropriation level and the authorization cap are two different things.

CW: The appropriation level sounds like a trial and error approach.

Yecke: I wouldn’t call it trial and error. I would just say that, like a family budget, you have look at how much money you have and how you’re going to spend it. So the people who make the policy say no more than this amount can be spent, but the people who make the funding decisions set the actual amount of funding.

CW: You noted that a state doesn’t have to take No Child Left Behind funds if it doesn’t want to acept the strings that are attached. Sen. Kelley is among those advocating that Minnesota consider that option. Reaction?

Yecke: My response would be if legislators want to opt Minnesota out of No Child Left Behind, then how are they going to come up with the $250 million dollars to plug that hole? So I think it is irresponsible to flippantly say we’re going to opt out of a program, when you can’t fill in the back end, when you can’t say what the $250 million means . . .

CW: $250 million dollars is not small change -- it would cover my bar bill for a month or so -- but it is less than 7 percent of the state education budget.

Yecke: If times were flush, there might be states that would choose to opt out. And that would certainly be their business. There are individual districts that have opted out. That’s a choice that has to be made, but I think that when you make a choice, you have to know up front what the consequences of that choice have to be.

CW: And in theory, you could opt out of the program, but still implement the ideas.

Yecke: So we opt out of the program. Does that mean we’re going to stop testing? No. does that mean we’re no longer going to hold the schools accountable? No. The public is never going to turn back the clock on either one of those because the public understands now that we can identify the relative effectiveness of individual schools. Eventually it will be down to the effectiveness of individual teachers as we start testing on an individual basis and go to a value-added system. There are some metropolitan school districts that can determining the relative effectiveness of individual teachers based on the assessment data.

There are some people for whom accountability is a scary thing. But again, I go back to the whole idea of being a responsible steward of the taxpayers dollars. We have to hold entities accountable if they are going to avail themselves of public dollars.

CW: Accountability for individual teachers. I’ll challenge you -- who’s talking about reality here? [Yecke laughs] How are you going to get that past the teacher’s union?

Yecke: Well, what we’re talking about is relative effectiveness.

CW: But what are the consequences. My teacher isn’t as effective as your teacher, so what happens?

Yecke: Okay, let’s look at it this way. If I were a building principal, and the data showed me that some teachers were more effective than others -- if I had the option, number one I would certainly give them extra pay because that rewards success and motivates other people to do well. Number two, I would have them mentor other teachers. What are they doing that makes them so successful with their children? Share the magic. Share what they know how to do.

Number three -- if there are teachers who refuse to change, then you would want to counsel them out of the career. Now with tenure, that’s very difficult to do. When I did my listening tour last summer, around the state, I was shocked at the level of frustration principals and superintendents feel over the issue of tenure.

They say “Look. I am more than happy to be held accountable for the achievement of students in my school building, but let me pick my staff. They understand there are some teachers, and only a few, that wind up giving tenure a bad name. Only a few who are not carrying their own weight or who know they are very close to retirement and instead of realizing that this is the age of accountability in education, they‘re not pulling their weight.

That’s frustrating for other teachers and frustrating for administrators. It’s not fair. It’s a program that’s here [tenure] , and it needs to be addressed. I talked about it one of my reports.

CW: Thanks, Cheri. I still have some doubts about No Child Left Behind. My libertarian instincts . . . when I put my tin-foil -lined hat on and listen for black helicopters, I can’t help feeling a little uneasy thinking about a Department of Education under Clinton II and the return of Mark Tucker.

Yecke: But think about it like this -- what a change has taken place in education. The whole dialogue has changed. People are talking about data-driven decision making and accountability. That’s a major change -- for the better.

[Actual Post date 5/18/05]