Montana Politics

OPI Candidate Forum: Denise Juneau

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Denise Juneau is currently the Director of Indian Education at the Montana Office of Public Instruction. You can learn more information about Denise at her web page.

Question 1: The Thomas Fordham Foundation has rated Montana’s content standards with an F, suggesting that they are too general, devoid of content, and missing basic instructional processes. Do you agree that Montana’s content standards need substantial revision? How do you propose to improve them?

I usually disagree with much of the Fordham Foundation’s analysis about public education. However, I must agree that Montana’s content standards are in need of substantial revision. Our current standards provide a guideline of knowledge about what our students should know and understand at grades 4, 8, and upon graduation, but they are vague and ambiguous. They should be less general, include some content, and outline some basic instructional processes. Our current process is that OPI brings together educators from across the state every five or so years to rewrite the standards. The Board of Public Education reviews them, suggests changes if necessary, and approves them for use. The voices of classroom educators should certainly continue to be included in the revision process. We do not, however, have to reinvent the wheel. We should take advantage of the fact that we have shown up late and should learn from other states’ experiences. There’s no reason we cannot pull together a panel that takes model standards from another state and retool them to fit Montana schools. For example, Algebra content is not really all that different in Massachusetts or Delaware. Our education system finds itself in a standards-driven era and we must be cognizant of the end point we are driving our students toward. As Superintendent, I will work toward providing better, clearer, and more helpful content standards. I will also work toward providing specific grade level expectations to fill the gaps between grades 4, 8, and 12 and to develop curriculum guidance to help schools meet the standards.

2. To some extent, all of you have been critics of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.  Given that the federal mandates are unlikely to change in the short term, how can OPI help Montana schools deal with the consequences of the law?

As Superintendent, I will continue to advocate for changes to NCLB at the federal level. All educators know that this law has been devastating to the profession of teaching and has crushed the spirit of student learning. U.S. Representative Dale Kildee has a terrific way of referencing the appropriate role for the federal government in education. He says that providing education is a state responsibility, a local function, and a federal interest. We appreciate the interest and assistance of our federal partners, but I argue for a federal role that is supportive of state efforts – not one that attempts to control our important work – or that seeks to simply penalize our schools without providing sufficient resources to address areas that need improvement. Although academic achievement is a critical goal, I believe schools have a much more nuanced role for students and communities than raising test scores on math and reading. Despite its limitations, NCLB has shed light on achievement gaps between groups of students in our schools, and we must remain ever vigilant in our efforts to close those gaps through concentrated focus and support. We must provide additional resources to help schools out of the NCLB sanction process.

We must also develop additional ways to determine the quality of schools that go beyond a single test score, since we all understand that one test score does not paint the entire picture. For example, an evaluation of a school should consider its contribution to the growth of students in academic areas (test scores, grades, courses taken, graduation rates) and social areas (attendance, behavior, attitude towards school, civic participation, etc).

We can also work toward streamlining, even further, the additional financial and administrative requirements and burdens placed on schools because of NCLB.

In addition to highlighting and working on areas of potential improvement, we need to also promote the good things that are happening in our schools every day. Montana is full of bright, capable and motivated students, teachers and administrators who deserve to be recognized for their many accomplishments.

3. One of the issues that has been highlighted by NCLB is the issue of student achievement gaps. What will you do as Superintendent to close the gap and improve student scores for reservation and high-poverty schools?

The achievement gap in our state lies primarily between students in poverty and their non-poor peers. This is the work I have been engaged in for years and I am currently the Director of Indian Education where we focus on this issue. We have analyzed the data and found that when there are areas where poverty is deep, concentrated, isolated, and generational; you will find schools that are not performing well on these tests. In Montana, that type of poverty is found on our Indian Reservations. Indeed, all of our schools in the “restructuring” phase of NCLB are on reservations. The OPI currently offers very strong support and additional resources to assist these schools. This assistance comes in the form of school support teams and school coaches. A comprehensive evaluation, using many and varied indicators, is taken – and support is then offered to help improve those areas of the school. The OPI does not engage in the punitive measures required by NCLB, but instead believes in collaborating and assisting these schools in their improvement efforts. Schools actually do a pretty good job of increasing academic growth throughout the school year, but they cannot overcome the deep poverty context of their setting. The OPI is currently working with pilot projects in these schools to discover best practices that might help with school efforts. More must be done to offer high quality pre-schools, adult basic education, and transition programs. As Superintendent, I will reach out to communities, tribal governments, and community organizations to change the structure of the present system. This challenge is not for the education community alone, and it is certainly not only a Reservation issue. It is incumbent on ALL of us to ensure that every Montanan is offered the opportunity to meet their full educational potential. The students in all of our schools will go on to become our next state, tribal, and federal leaders. We must work to make sure our future is secured by offering a high quality education to all students NOW. I have a colleague who says that “we must keep the children sacred, not the system.” I believe in the worth of all students and, as Superintendent, will help nurture their brilliance, creativity, and talents.

4. Do you favor or oppose dual credit courses, in which students can simultaneously receive high school and college credit?

I favor dual credit courses as long as the courses are offered by a qualified, licensed, and endorsed educator. The education community recently arrived at a compromise that allows college faculty to teach these courses through a new license classification – Class 8. High school teachers should also be permitted to teach these courses. The challenge is to ensure that the teachers of these types of courses have specific skills to teach high school level students. If dual credit courses help students leave school with a head start on their college education, we should work toward making sure they are prepared by a qualified teacher who understands student developmental needs, knows the curricula and content, and can bridge the high school-college transition. These courses are a great alternative to AP courses that are expensive for schools to offer. These types of programs are not new. When I graduated from high school (a while ago) I left with college credits in Composition and World History because of such programs. Those classes were taught by my qualified, licensed, and endorsed high school teachers.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it’s a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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