Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Reasonable people understand Yecke was not good for Minnesota

Nick Coleman
Star Tribune
Sour grapes from Yecke

C heri Pierson Yecke, having been fired as education commissar, is now bad-mouthing Minnesota, claiming she was whacked by partisan thugs (beaten like a "piƱata," she says) and victimized by a political culture that has "fallen into the gutter."
What happened to Minnesota Nice, she is asking, which is like Lizzie Borden asking what happened to Mommy and Daddy while holding a dripping ax.
Yecke, the most political education commissioner the state has ever had, came from Virginia on a mission to remake the state's educational system in her image, and if she didn't entirely succeed at that, she did manage to ratchet up the rhetorical wars. But Minnesotans hardly need be ashamed that she has been given the heave-ho.
Her firing by the DFL-controlled state Senate, which gave her the sack as the clock ran out on the Legislature early Sunday, wasn't as shocking as she makes it sound.
Yecke had been on probation for a very long time and she got expelled for very familiar reasons: She didn't listen, she called people names, she didn't play nicely with others and she couldn't count -- not to 34, anyway.
That's how many votes she needed -- 34 -- to win confirmation of her appointment by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
But her historic rejection, on a 35 to 31 vote along party lines, was not preordained. If she had taken advice from people like Mary Beth Blegen and Wendy Swanson-Choi, she might have survived.
Blegen is the 1996 National Teacher of the Year, a Democrat who now works as a consultant for the St. Paul public schools. Swanson-Choi is a parent from Eagan, a Republican who volunteered on Pawlenty's election campaign. Both say that if Yecke is looking for someone to blame, she ought to get in front of a mirror.
Swanson-Choi is a leader of Parents United for Public Schools, a group that has criticized the No Child Left Behind approach to education reform.
"She did herself in," Swanson-Choi says of Yecke's ouster. "From the time I met her and saw her interacting with people, I thought, 'You know what? We're set up for a problem here.' She didn't listen to anyone. It was just, 'We're doing it my way. I'm right.' "
Swanson-Choi, who served on Yecke's language-arts committee, was turned off by Yecke's "name-calling." (Yecke said critics had a "hate-America agenda" and "education establishment" were always dirty words).
Swanson-Choi also was appalled by the lack of curriculum experts on her committee and the influence of religious conservatives and private-school backers. She said this was so pervasive that her committee wasted time on discussions such as whether students should learn the concept of "inferring" something (I see Tommy is wearing a parka; therefore, I infer that it is cold outside), or whether inferring things might lead to denying literal interpretations of Scripture.
"Now Yecke is saying that Minnesota politics are in the gutter," Swanson-Choi says. "But I say, 'You are part of the reason things have gotten to this level.' I feel bad for anyone who loses her job. But this is best for the kids."
Blegen, who taught history in Worthington, Minn., for 30 years before winning National Teacher of the Year honors, tried several times to meet with Yecke but eventually gave up. Like Swanson-Choi, she watched in horror as what could have been a nonpartisan reform effort became a train wreck.
"I'm just an old teacher, but I would have talked to her about how to work with teachers and build bridges to people who disagreed with her," Blegen says. "Teachers aren't against standards. But we don't need people who don't know what MY school's problems are telling us what to do."
Blegen, who spent three years as a teacher in residence in the U.S. Department of Education, says that Yecke's strident and ideological views inflamed the reform issue and that matters worsened when she gave too much influence to partisan think tanks, downplayed the growing racial diversity of Minnesota, gave short shrift to the state's largest school districts in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and shut out many veteran educators with impeccable credentials who found they were not wanted.
One teacher who didn't get a place in the discussion? National Teacher of the Year Mary Beth Blegen.
"A first-grader in 2004 won't get out of college until 2020," Blegen says. "The world won't be the same as it is now. We can't just give them facts to memorize. We have to give them the skills and the ability to adapt and adjust and work together and step into a culture of change. If we don't, we will fail."
In the end, Cheri Pierson Yecke didn't learn how to adapt, adjust or work together. Her rejection in the Senate shows that the fight over education can only be resolved by consensus and bridge-building, not by polemics, partisan rhetoric and arrogance.
The surprising thing is she came within three votes of confirmation. She deserves an "A" for effort. But when her final report card comes in, it will show that Yecke was not a good fit for Minnesota.
The only thing worse than her firing might have been if she had stayed.
Nick Coleman is at ncoleman@startribune.com.