Last week students in Michigan State University’s Master of Public Policy program had the privilege of talking with Venessa Keesler, the Deputy Superintendent for Accountability Services at the Michigan Department of Education, about the challenges and rewards of creating and implementing policies that affect children and families across the state.
“I come from a working class family,” said Keesler, who grew up in Michigan. “My parents sent me to public school, and expected public school to do its job—and it did.” Keesler went on to get her Bachelor’s degree in sociology from Harvard University, and then, wanting to “make a difference” for people in need, she took a job as a seventh-grade social studies teacher in a low-income suburb of Boston.
While she enjoyed teaching, she came to feel that the extent of influence she, or any teacher, could have was limited by the systems in which they worked. So Keesler set out to learn how to improve school systems, getting a Ph.D. in Measurement and Quantitative Methods from MSU’s College of Education. From there she started working with the Michigan Department of Education, ascending through the ranks to her current position.
As Deputy Superintendent for Accountability Services, Keesler is in charge of standardized testing for Michigan students as well as educator evaluations, teacher evaluations, school district accountability, and more. While she acknowledges that many of the areas she works on are contentious, Keesler says she continues to be very excited about the potential that assessment and accountability measures have to help improve education for children throughout the state.
Policy in the Real World
Keesler gave MPP students a fascinating glimpse at what awaits many of them in the real world of creating and implementing policies. While most public servants would like to make their decisions as evidence-based as possible, she said, the desire to be methodical must be balanced against the need to respond in a timely fashion to demands from elected officials and the public. Policymakers are also constrained by budgets and by political dynamics. For example, while Keesler emphasized that the MDE is a nonpartisan entity, she noted that some interesting dynamics arise in the current situation in which Democrats hold a majority of seats on Michigan’s Board of Education, while the State’s Executive and Legislature are Republican-controlled.
Keesler also emphasized the importance of the people-skills needed for “making bureaucracy work and actually getting a policy implemented.”
“I would love to have a cadre of people doing research on all of these areas”
MPP students who came to the talk looking for ideas for research projects were not disappointed. Keesler encouraged students to learn more about MDE’s “Top 10 in 10” initiative, which aims to put Michigan into the top 10 states in educational performance within the next decade. She said research regarding all seven of the initiative’s strategic goals would be valuable to MDE and the state.
“I would love to have a cadre of people doing research on all of these areas” to inform policy decisions, said Keesler.
Keesler said research in the following policy areas, among others, would be helpful to the state:
- Supply-demand mismatch: Keesler noted that while in the aggregate Michigan has an abundant supply of teachers (each year the number of teachers Michigan produces is higher than the number of open teaching jobs), there are communities that cannot get enough teachers. Cities such as Pontiac, Flint, and Detroit deal with shortages as high as 50% of their ideal levels of full-time teachers. “What policies could Michigan implement to correct this?” asked Keesler.
- Accountability systems: Keesler said that research on best practices for evaluating schools and districts in a way that recognizes needs and problems, but that results in support instead of punishment for those districts, would be valuable.
- Educator evaluations: Keesler said research on best practices on methods of evaluating educators would also be helpful to the MDE.