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Federal official tapped for education post
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Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke is called a "bona fide change agent" by Gov. Pawlenty. She will oversee the possible scrapping of the Profile of Learning and development of a new set of education standards -- she faced a similar debate while in charge of Virginia's schools. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Gov. Pawlenty has named the former secretary of education for the state of Virginia as Minnesota's next education commissioner. Cheri Pierson Yecke is currently the director of teacher quality and public school choice with the U.S. Department of Education. Yecke describes herself as a supporter of local control. Pawlenty calls her a bona fide change agent who can help guide his school reform agenda.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty says his choice for education commissioner was the result of a long and extensive national search. He says Cheri Pierson Yecke was his first choice, and brings with her an "extraordinary resume of education reform and innovation and improvement." Pawlenty says she'll also help a department in need of strong leadership.

"Dr. Yecke, I would submit to you, is going to be well received because she knows what she's talking about, she is very energetic and she's very seasoned," Pawlenty says. "I don't view this as just a marketing job, or a sales job. This is a job that will lead the substantive policy discussion at the Legislature -- at the Capitol." Yecke is a Minnesota native, growing up in St. Paul. She lived in Cottage Grove in the early 1990s while teaching high school in Prescott, Wisconsin. She held several key state positions in Virginia and helped shaped that state's public school standards.

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Image Reaction is cautious but optimistic

Yecke says she's impressed with Pawlenty's commitment to genuine education reform, including his pledge to repeal the Profile of Learning. She says she looks forward to developing a new set of core academic standards for Minnesota that are both teachable and measurable.

"What I'm going to propose is that what we put together is a document that is specific by grade level, specific by subject area that talks about what we want students to learn, what do students need to know -- not how should they be taught," Yecke says. "Because I trust teachers. And I believe teachers are the best people to make those decisions within the classroom. We shouldn't prescribe methodology."

Yecke will also oversee Minnesota's implementation of new federal education requirements under the No Child Left Behind law, a document she helped shape at the U.S Department of Education. The law requires all states to soon have academic standards in place. She says replacing the Profile of Learning should not take long, because the standards don't have to be created from scratch.

"Now we have organizations such as Achieve and Fordham Foundation, which have evaluated the standards of other states. We have the luxury of being able to pick and choose, modify to fit Minnesota's unique circumstances and to see what is the best out there," says Yecke.

Pawlenty's choice of a former teacher and education administrator as his education chief is welcome news to many state education groups. Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, says he looks forward to working with the new commissioner.

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Image Barbara Klaas agrees with name change of education agency

"We are going to do everything we can to help set up a positive relationship between her, the CFL and the public schools. We need to be working together to resolve some of the issues and problems here in Minnesota, so we can have a great education system," Kyte says.

Yecke will take over the state Department of Children, Families and Learning full-time on Feb. 5. But Gov. Pawlenty is proposing a name change for the agency. Earlier in the day, the governor told members of the Minnesota School Boards Association that the name Department of Education will better reflect the agency's purpose.

"We don't want the Department of Children, Families, Learning, Happy Thoughts and other things. We want to focus on core mission," Pawlenty said. "That's not to be disrespectful or smart-alecky about the other things that are important too, but we want to send a message that the core mission here is educating children, and it's about education."

Many local school board leaders agree with the plan. Barbara Klaas of Hopkins, a School Boards Association director, says the departments needs a change in its focus.

"Rather than being strictly a monitoring or punitive department, to try to find those things that are wrong -- which isn't to say that shouldn't also occur -- there needs to be some direction to help schools and school districts identify their problems, and then provide them some solutions that can be used around the state," says Klaas.

Gov. Pawlenty says the department name change will require legislative action. Commissioner Yecke is expected to meet briefly Friday with a group of superintendents and school board members.

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