ROSEVILLE, Minn. — Minnesota's new Department of Education Commissioner starts in that role on Thursday. Commissioner Heather Mueller says she's especially focused on closing achievement gaps for students of color.
She helped unveil the state's new "Due North Education Plan" at the end of January, along with Governor Tim Walz.
It focuses on these four main points.
- Support students during and after the COVID-19 pandemic
- Reform our school finance system
- Expand opportunities for students in Greater Minnesota
- Build the most qualified and diverse teaching workforce in the nation
But it also strives to end a history of disparities within the education system.
"We've known for a long time that our state has some of the biggest gaps between our White students and our Black students as well as Indigenous," said Mueller. "We know that we can do this work better."
MDE wants to put a bigger emphasis on ethnic studies. It also created a new Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Center to help schools address bias and unfairness. Dr. Macarre Traynham was recently named its director and started in that position on March 31, 2021.
"We know that there may be policies that may have some type of systemic barriers that are built into that and we need to have the opportunity to look at that and reinforce that and support our schools as we do this," explained Mueller.
There's also a proposed mentor program for teachers, in part, to help retain a shrinking profession. Mueller is also pushing to hire a more diverse workforce.
MDE data shows only 5% of Minnesota teachers are teachers of color compared to 36% of students.
"It's incredibly important for our Indigenous students and students of color to have a teacher who reflects who they are and may have similar experiences and background," said Mueller.
Minnesota has historically scored well in public education - it often has some of the highest math test scores. But Mueller says transforming the entire system to ensure everyone's success can bridge other divides.
"We need to be able to do better and we need to be able to provide support for our schools to be able to do that," said Mueller.
Mueller said she's humbled and excited by the new role after serving as MDE's Deputy Commissioner for about a year. She started her career as a teacher at Mankato West High school. She taught U.S. history and government for 11 years before earning a doctoral degree and transitioning into professional development.
"I think it would be incredibly overwhelming if I knew I was doing it alone, but I know I have incredible partners and people who believe in centering students and so, frankly, it becomes much more exciting," said Mueller.
A lot of Mueller's goals are outlined in the omnibus education policy bill that's making its way through the legislature right now. Lawmakers won't make any decisions on it until at least next week when they come back from a holiday break.