Public Education: About the Child, Not the System: an exclusive interview with Cheri Pierson Yecke

Published February 1, 2005

“In an age of cynicism, the parents of America still believe in their country–and they want the public schools to teach their children to believe as well. … We found a clear-eyed patriotism among parents of all backgrounds; a deep belief that the United States is a unique nation, while acknowledging its faults. Parents want the schools to face those faults, but not to dwell on them. …”
1998 Public Agenda Survey:
A Lot to Be Thankful For: What Parents Want Children to Learn About America

In the 16 months after she was named Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education by GOP Governor Tim Pawlenty in January 2003, former public school teacher Cheri Pierson Yecke brought widespread changes to the state’s public education system. She established a new performance reporting system for Minnesota’s 2,000 public schools and helped develop rigorous state curriculum standards in language arts, math, science, and social studies. Her stand on the social studies curriculum–where she said most parents wanted to see “history standards that reflect the greatness of the country”–generated controversy among educators.

What could be so controversial about wanting schools to affirm America’s fundamental values? Yecke found out in the early morning hours of May 17, 2004, when the Democrat-controlled Minnesota Senate voted 35-31 along party lines to deny her confirmation as the state’s education commissioner despite earlier pledges of support from key Senate Democrats.

Yecke is currently the distinguished senior fellow for education and social policy at the Center of the American Experiment, “Minnesota’s conservative think tank.” She was named to the position in July 2004. Her aim is to inform the public about common-sense education reforms and educational excellence in Minnesota.

Prior to her appointment as education commissioner, Yecke served as director of teacher quality and public school choice at the U.S. Department of Education (2002-03), and as Virginia’s secretary of education (2001-02) and deputy secretary of education (1998-2001). As a member of the Virginia State Board of Education (1995-98), she helped develop the state’s nationally acclaimed Standards of Learning, which describe the commonwealth’s expectations for student learning and achievement in grades K-12.

A native of Minnesota, Yecke received a B.A. in history from the University of Hawaii, an M.S. in teaching from the University of Wisconsin, and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Virginia. Her book, The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools, was released in 2003. Yecke recently spoke with School Reform News Associate Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become involved in school reform?

Yecke: My husband was in the Marine Corps, and so we were stationed all over the place. We were stationed here in Minnesota in the mid-1980s, and both of my children started school here. When we got orders to go to Virginia, I was worried because the schools in the South did not have a good reputation. But my worries turned out to be unfounded, as my children ended up with a wonderful educational experience in the public schools of Stafford County, Virginia. I taught at Drew Middle School, where I was selected as Teacher of the Year in my second year.

We were there for seven years, and then we got ordered back to Minnesota. I was very insistent that we return to the same school district we had been in originally, because my children had had such good educational experiences there, in School District 833. But within a week, I knew something was terribly wrong.

I found my children were light years ahead of their peers. People were asking them, “Have you been in a private school for seven years?”

My seventh-grader, Tiffany, was told she had to be put into eighth grade because they could not meet her needs in seventh grade. My tenth-grader, Anastasia, tested out of American History, Spanish Four, Physical Science, and several other courses. I couldn’t believe it. What had happened since we had left?

I asked the school district staff, and they gave me the current newsletter, which said test scores were high; but there was no longitudinal data. So I went to the public library and looked through the old annual reports from the school district. I found the district had implemented outcome-based education the year after we left. The reports also showed that after a couple of years of outcome-based education, test scores were declining precipitously.

As practiced in this district, outcome-based education meant a teacher could not fail a child, only give an “incomplete.” Children learned very quickly that there was no reason to study for a test, because they could always retake it. Teachers were going crazy because of the paperwork from make-up tests.

On paper, outcome-based education might sound very good: “We’re going to make sure that every child has mastered this material before they’ll be allowed to move on.” But it destroyed motivation because an “incomplete” meant you could never fail. There were no consequences for irresponsible behavior, so motivation disappeared. In high school, students who were earning “B” grades on difficult courses were finding their class rank was dropping because students who had multiple incompletes and an “A” in something like PE had a higher GPA. It was a mess.

Fortunately, Minnesota has public school choice, and I was able to take my children out of those schools and transfer them to other schools that were more appropriate.

I documented what I had found and wrote three articles for the local weekly newspaper. Then other parents started calling me with their concerns about outcome-based education. I even got calls from Wyoming, Alaska, and Virginia–and this was before the Internet.

One of the calls was to invite me to Richmond, Virginia in August of 1993 to participate in a debate on outcome-based education at Huguenot High School. It was organized by the Family Foundation and moderated by Robert Holland, who is now with the Lexington Institute.

Clowes: Bob is one of our contributing editors.

Yecke: Bob is a great man and a strong supporter of school reform. His dedication to the issue is legendary. Back in 1993 he was editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In the summer of 1993, my husband had just received orders to move back to Virginia, and so I agreed to participate in the debate. At that time, Virginia was on the cusp of adopting outcome-based education, and this debate was pivotal. It took place during the gubernatorial contest between Republican George Allen, who wanted to get rid of outcome-based education, and Democrat Mary Sue Terry, who supported it. Both wanted to get the endorsement of the seated governor, Doug Wilder, a Democrat.

There were four people on each side, speaking to a packed auditorium. Those speaking in support of outcome-based education included three officials from the state Department of Education. Our side included me, Janet Parshall, who now has a national television show, Janet Parshall’s America, and Sylvia Kramer, a scientist for NASA.

While those on the other side read prepared remarks that had obviously been written by someone else, we spoke from the heart, with intensity and passion–as moms who saw what outcome-based education was doing to our children and to education in our country.

The crowd responded overwhelmingly to us and to what we were saying. Less than a week later, Governor Wilder issued an executive order saying outcome-based education was “graveyard dead” in Virginia. That was an implicit endorsement of George Allen, who went on to win the election.

Governor Allen then put me and another teacher, Lee Ware, on the State Board of Education. He recognized he needed to have people on the board who would return our schools to what their primary purpose was meant to be, and that is academic instruction.

Virginia was on the cutting edge of standards-based reform. There were three of us who worked diligently–me, board president Michelle Easton, and Lil Tuttle–to push through reforms that we saw as absolutely necessary if we were going to maintain the integrity of public education. The result was Virginia’s Standards of Learning.

Clowes: One of the concerns raised in your book, The War Against Excellence, is how American values are no longer taught in most public schools. Could you address that?

Yecke: When you look at the destiny of our country, it’s a very serious concern. So many individuals have been raised on moral relativism–where you can’t say that some values or cultures are better than others–that there is a fear of teaching American values in the public schools. And yet, with all of the immigrants we have in our nation, what better place than the public schools for these students to learn what it means to be an American, the common themes that unite us as Americans, and the common history that we share. I fear that that is being lost–and the public fears that, too, according to the 1998 Public Agenda report, “A Lot to Be Thankful For.”

Parents expect schools to teach American values, and if it’s not happening in schools, where is it going to happen? There is a lot of frustration among members of the public because they feel this is what the schools need to be doing, and they’re falling down on it. I do believe you will find a strong movement for charter schools and school choice whenever a school district is not responsive to what parents want.

When a district is nonresponsive to parents, then parents should have the option to go elsewhere. That is the essence of school choice–giving parents the right to match their child’s needs to an appropriate school.

When we talk about public education, we should not be talking about a system, because public schools are just one component of an educated public. You’ve got your public schools that are run by the government; you’ve got charter schools, which are government schools that have their own governance; you’ve got private schools; and you have home schooling. These are all elements under the larger umbrella of “public education,” or an educated public.

People need to stop thinking about public education as being a system, and we need to focus on the child, and the needs of the child, under this larger umbrella.

Clowes: What is your current aim with the Center of the American Experiment?

Yecke: My goal is to keep the public well-informed about education issues, to improve the education system, and to allow parents to have options they deserve to have for their children. So far, I have completed two studies, one on implementing No Child Left Behind in Minnesota, and another on protecting taxpayer resources from misuse for political purposes.

I also have two other studies under way. One is an examination of how efficiently various school districts use their funding. The other one, for the Fordham Foundation, is a report on the movement away from middle schools to the K-8 model.

Clowes: What can individuals do about the misuse of taxpayer resources?

Yecke: There are two issues. One is the misuse of resources–public resources, such as the school photocopy machine, or the teachers’ mailboxes in school, or the e-mail and Internet access. That’s one issue.

The other issue is the misuse of students, and that can happen in a number of ways. It could involve stuffing materials in their backpacks, or it could be using classrooms for advocacy, as a place to push a particular political agenda.

Probably 98 percent of teachers understand that it’s unethical to misuse their trust as a classroom teacher in this way, but parents must stay vigilant. They should keep copies of questionable materials that get sent home. Also, if a child comes home and says, “Ms. Jones is wearing a John Kerry button,” that is inappropriate. When you are on the taxpayers’ dime, your classroom needs to be a politically neutral place.

Parents should stay vigilant and, if they find questionable materials being sent home in their child’s backpack, they should go to the school board. They also should go to their state legislator and demand legislation to address these issues. Virginia and Arizona, for example, have specific prohibitions against putting political advocacy materials in students’ backpacks.

My report has a database that shows the laws that address this issue in other states. It can be found on the Web site of the Center of the American Experiment at

Clowes: Since No Child Left Behind leaves the issue of teacher quality up to the states, what are your suggestions for improving teacher quality?

Yecke: First of all, we need to look at student outcomes, not at the piece of paper behind a teacher’s name. You may have one teacher with a master’s degree and another with only a B.A., but it’s how they work with students and how they bring them to higher levels of intellectual development that matters.

Teachers should be paid on the basis of how effective they are, and student academic achievement should be the determining factor in rating teachers as effective versus ineffective. If teachers are ineffective, they should go back and receive further training, or perhaps consider another career.

Second, it’s important that states have alternative pathways to licensure for mature professionals who want to enter the classroom. The training needs of a 20-year-old college student who wants to be a chemistry teacher are very different from those of someone with a Ph.D. who’s been in the profession for 30 years.

This alternative certification is actually a quiet revolution that most people don’t realize is happening. If you look, for example, at the data from Emily Feistritzer, you see that out of the 75,000 new teachers who have entered the classroom in the past three years, one-third have been certified through alternative routes.

Clowes: Going back to curriculum standards, what is the difference between criterion-referenced and norm-referenced standards?

Yecke: The best way to describe this is through the types of testing that are associated with them.

A norm-referenced test, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, assumes a broad basic set of skills, and a broad base of knowledge. It’s general, rather than specific. With a norm-referenced test, there will always be 50 percent above average and 50 percent below average.

A criterion-referenced test, on the other hand, involves testing against a very specific set of standards. For example, at the beginning of third grade, the teacher knows what the goals are for the end of school year. The teacher knows students should be able to meet various standards in their knowledge base and their skill base. A criterion-referenced test is tied directly to those standards, and so it’s possible for every child in the class to pass that test.

Another example would be a swimming test. A norm-referenced swim test would rank swimmers on how quickly or how slowly they could swim. A criterion-referenced swim test might call for a swimmer to use the butterfly stroke for a length of the pool. If the swimmer meets that criterion, he or she has passed the test.

In a criterion-referenced test, the key is how high or how low the bar is set. Are students expected to know 50 percent of the material, or 70 percent of the material? That bar can be changed in a criterion-referenced test because children are being tested against a set of standards, as opposed to just ranking them in order of achievement.