Boston Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius’ license to run a school system in Massachusetts has expired because she never took the state’s certification exams, a turn of events that puts her in violation of her contract.
She appears to be the only unlicensed superintendent across the state’s 400 school districts, according to a Globe review, after failing to take the necessary tests within an allotted two years. The deadline for taking the test and securing a new license was last Saturday.
An outspoken critic of standardized testing, Cassellius, a former education commissioner in Minnesota, said in an interview that she had no philosophical objections to taking the tests. She said she was not being “a conscientious objector or something like that.” Rather, she simply hasn’t had the time to take it.
“I have been busy handling a pandemic. It’s a five-hour test, by the way,” she said, later adding, “I’ll do the task, it’s required, it’s law. I respect that.”
Cassellius apologized to the School Committee Wednesday night after the Globe published a story about her license lapsing, saying it was due to a misunderstanding over licensing deadlines. She told them she is scheduled to take the tests on Aug. 14.
Cassellius, who holds educator licenses in her home state of Minnesota, including one to work as a superintendent there, told the Globe earlier, “I just don’t need anything hanging over my head. I don’t need anyone questioning my competency or trying to, you know, cause muck in the mayoral race. . . . I want the confidence to be in me and my leadership in the district so that we can move forward and I’m not a distraction.”
State officials said the school district will have to request a waiver from the state for Cassellius’ lack of a license. Such a waiver, officials said, would be temporary and she would still be required to take and pass the tests.
The development comes a little more than a month after the School Committee gave her a glowing performance review and approved a two-year extension to her contract, which requires her to hold a valid Massachusetts superintendent’s license or face termination. The contract extension was finalized in recent days amid the licensing snafu.
During Wednesday night’s meeting, School Committee member Ernani Jose DeAraujo called Cassellius’ acknowledgement that her license expired “a very significant disclosure” and he questioned whether the School Committee had failed to do its due diligence in not checking on her status.
“Has the state granted you a further grace period to allow you to operate as our superintendent?” DeAraujo asked.
“I’m in conversations right now with the commissioner and he’s looking at that with his lawyers,” Cassellius said.
But chair Jeri Robinson blamed the school department’s human resources office for failing to notify the committee to potential problems with her license.
“The licensure of all staff is the responsibility of the human resources department,” she said. “It was our assumption that it was being taken care of by them. They should have alerted us to an issue.”
“This is a lesson learned,” Robinson said. “We should have a checklist that says all of these things are in place and we did not.”
Cassellius, who holds a doctorate in leadership and policy from the University of Memphis, had been working under a temporary license since taking the top job on July 1, 2019. She told the Globe on Tuesday that she still has the temporary license because her status is listed that way on the state’s website. But state education spokesperson Colleen Quinn said Wednesday that as of July 31, Cassellius holds no valid license.
As it was, Cassellius was given double the customary period of time to take the test. Educators on a temporary license are given a year to take and pass the test. But because of the pandemic, Cassellius had two years to get the task done as the state kept extending the expiration dates of licenses, most recently to July 31, 2021.
Cassellius was supposed to secure a standard superintendent’s license during that time, but she never completed the final task: taking and passing the MTEL communication and literacy skills exams, a licensing requirement for almost all public school teachers and administrators in Massachusetts.
She was reminded twice by the state in the last six months that she needed to take the test, officials said.
Every superintendent hired after the test was first administered in 1998 has had to pass it. In 2003, former Lawrence school superintendent Wilfredo Laboy, for whom English was a second language, failed the test three times. Then-state education commissioner David Driscoll said he would recommend Laboy be removed from his job if he didn’t pass the test.
Laboy ultimately did on the fourth try.
The MTEL licensure exams have been controversial, most notably due to the enormous gaps in pass rates among educators of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Between September 2019 and August 2020, 80 percent of white educators passed the Communications and Literacy Skills exams, compared to 46 percent of Black educators, 58 percent of Latino educators, and 64 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander educators.
Men are also more apt to pass than women, state data show.
The statistics apply to all educators and there is no separate breakdown for superintendents.
The state education department’s website says the high-stakes test employs “reading and writing subtests and assesses skills such as reading comprehension, summarizing, sentence construction, vocabulary, grammar, punctuation and writing.
The purpose of the test, according to the website, “is to ensure that newly licensed educators have the communication and literacy skills necessary for effective instruction and communication with parents/guardians and others.”
Cassellius is the second superintendent in recent years whose licensing credentials have emerged as a potential issue. In 2018, several educators of color criticized the School Committee for hiring Laura Perille, a white nonprofit leader, as interim superintendent, noting she never worked in a public school system before and did not hold any kind of license. They argued the school system would have never hired a person of color with similar credentials.
Perille took and passed the MTEL and secured a provisional superintendent’s license within three months of taking the job, a shorter timeframe required under state licensing rules when an uncertified educator with no experience steps into a public school job.
Other former Boston superintendents, including Tommy Chang and Carol Johnson, secured their licenses and so did John McDonough, who served as an interim between those two permanent leaders.
Cassellius has sharpened her criticism of standardized testing over the past year. In March, toward the end of a long School Committee meeting, she said, “I have a pretty strong philosophical belief that standardized tests, given at one point in time, are not a good measure of students’ overall achievement. And I do believe that they are racist in nature.”
As commissioner in Minnesota, she got rules changed so high school students would no longer need to pass state tests to receive their diplomas, and in Boston, Cassellius had scaled back standardized testing requirements in schools and persuaded the School Committee to reduce the role of an entrance test in the exam-school admission tests.
While Cassellius expressed confidence during the Globe interview that she could pass the licensing exams, she did voice concerns about the difficulty some teachers experience in passing them, adding that “a real good story actually to write is why is it that these tests are biased against people of color.”
“They’re brilliant teachers,” she said. “They get excellent evaluations, and the fact that they could lose their license because of a 36-question multiple choice . . . is heartbreaking. It is an impediment to us being able to diversify our team.”
Yet Cassellius has taken a hard line on licensing for teachers in the past. As education commissioner in Minnesota, she threatened to withhold funding from local districts a decade ago for allowing hundreds of educators to teach subjects for which they were not licensed.
“It’s about training and compliance and holding people accountable,” she said, according to the Minnesota Star Tribune.
Cassellius said she originally intended to take the superintendent exams after she completed her 100-day tour of the school system and other critical tasks, including developing an academic improvement plan for the district. Work on that coincided with the state education department’s sweeping review of the district, which ultimately led to the state entering into a memorandum of agreement with the school system to make drastic improvements.
The state released the review the same day Cassellius and then-mayor Martin J. Walsh announced schools would be closing due to the pandemic.
“There’s just a lot going on that . . . I’ve just been busy with,” she said. “This hasn’t been the number one task that I’ve had to get done. It’s not that I won’t get it done, I will.”