Joe Nathan

Heather Mueller, the new Minnesota Department of Education commissioner, has some terrific ideas that I hope she can carry out.

That’s my conclusion after talking with her on March 17, shortly before took on this new job. Many students will learn much more if she succeeds.Mueller believes, “We need to support students and give them hope for what they may not yet believe is possible.”

Education is personal as well as professional for Mueller, who has two children in high school and whose husband is a high school teacher. She views schools as an educator and a parent. I think that’s a plus. Turns out she knew Gov. Tim Walz when they both taught at Mankato West High School. Mueller explained that she and Walz taught social studies in rooms next to each other at the high school. In fact, she recalled, laughing, “He was an older teacher and had a larger room. He moved on to Congress, and I moved to a larger room.”

After 11 years of teaching, she was asked to help train other teachers, and then was named director of teaching and learning for the Mankato district. This is her 24th year in education. Like others before her, Mueller explained, “One thing I would like to change is the gap in educational opportunity and achievement.” How? “Every single student, every single day must have access, must be able to participate, and must be represented in rigorous classes, in and out of school opportunities, and each and every student must feel valued, seen, and heard in the development of the culture of the school.”

Her work will be judged, in part, on whether Minnesota makes progress in these areas. One of former Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker’s strengths was bringing together district and charter educators during the pandemic to learn from each other. Mueller told me, “One area where we really saw this come to life was how to best support every single student through distance learning at the beginning of the pandemic.” She wants to expand this, “As we move forward, I would like to see MDE promote the exchange of best practices in family engagement, instruction, social/emotional learning models, and progress monitoring and assessments, to name a few.”

Mueller strongly supports dual credit programs — where students earn credit for high school and college classes simultaneously — like AP, IB, concurrent enrollment and PSEO. She pointed out that the governor has recommended additional funding for a number of these programs. She’s “a big fan of allowing for wide participation.” She wants to help promote learning from Minnesota high schools, district and charter, where the majority of students earn free college credit. Mueller also wants to hear from students, educators and families. That’s a plus.

Sometimes state agencies forget to listen to people they are supposed to serve. Mueller told me that she wants MDE “to be a learning organization.”She also pointed out that MDE doesn’t just serve K-12 schools. It also supports pre-K and adult education, for longtime residents and people new to the country, and libraries. She describes all of them as “incredibly important.”

Mueller started the interview by asking, “Would you please call me Heather?” She impressed me as being passionately committed to helping students achieve even more than they thought possible.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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