Listen: Nebraska Commissioner of Education reflects on 9 years as commissioner
By Aaron Bonderson , Report for America Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Jan. 4, 2023, 5 a.m. ·
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Commissioner of Education, Matthew Blomstedt, stepped down from his role on Tuesday, January 3rd. Nebraska Public Media spoke with him about his experience as commissioner during a particularly chaotic time and what it all means going forward.
AARON BONDERSON, NEBRASKA PUBLIC MEDIA: You helped lead the Department of Education for nearly a decade. What do you think your biggest accomplishment was as Commissioner of Education?
MATTHEW BLOMSTEDT, FORMER NEBRASKA COMMISSIONER OF EDUCATION: We established a strategic plan for the state and improved the role and modernized the role of the department to help schools make improvements where they needed that assistance. I think I'm probably most proud of the ability to, kind of, manage through difficult times, obviously. But, I think the opportunity to really go in and be assistive to school districts and school leaders as they try to make improvements and improve educational outcomes for all their students has been one of my key features of my work.
BONDERSON: What have been the biggest challenges for public education in Nebraska in your time as commissioner?
BLOMSTEDT: Pre-pandemic, I think a lot of the energy and attention was how do we close achievement gaps from various student groups by race and ethnicity and poverty and special education needs? Really, we were identifying that well and coming up with the set of strategies that would move us forward. Those achievement gaps are something that were widely considered problematic across the country. And, Nebraska is no different. So, we really wanted to be intentional about that particular work. Obviously, the challenges of the pandemic were one of those environments that created, perhaps, even more hardships for certain students that weren't already doing very well in school. And, it is challenging, because our schools do a remarkable job of everything across that realm. For a Commissioner of Education, for the Department of Education, discovering how we could be most helpful for those students and for the schools that serve those students is a challenge. And, it's a relationship-building challenge that we've done over time.
BONDERSON: Also, schools are facing teacher burnout and teacher shortages – an increase in student misbehaviors with paraprofessional shortages. What advice would you have for the next commissioner to address those issues, specifically?
BLOMSTEDT: What we've done across the state is, kind of, build a set of partnerships with our post-secondary institutions and with our schools, to come up with unique models where people enter that profession – where we hope that we continue to support teachers in the classroom as well as outside the classroom in professional development. What I would say for our next commissioner is look at some of the rules and regulations. In fact, we recently have suggested removing the Praxis Common Core as a requirement [for teacher certification]. It’s a statute change that allows that to happen. And so, I would expect that reexamining the process in which teachers are prepared and certified to, kind of, remove barriers from that and make it a really attractive profession for the future.
BONDERSON: Public education in the state leading up to the 2022 State Board of Education Election was continuously a hotbed for political conversation, such as the health standards, banning books and the like. What do you think this means for the future of public education in Nebraska? And what advice would you have for the next commissioner to handle that?
BLOMSTEDT: We've seen that across the country. And for whatever reason, coming out of the pandemic, that attention politically on education was a unique challenge. I think it's important for future leaders to realize what are the challenges and what are the things that are going to improve our educational system? And, pay that attention there. I mean, hopefully, parental engagement more broadly is looking at what's going to be really best for a student at a given school and within a given community. I find it interesting that, generally, if you talk to folks around the state, they'll say their schools are doing a really good job. And, I think we have to build on that support and understand the local control piece of the puzzle in Nebraska is what makes us strong. And, we need to continue to focus on that.
BONDERSON: What's next for you after your last days as commissioner?
BLOMSTEDT: I'm excited. I will take some of the experiences and the work that we've done in Nebraska, and I have a chance to work nationally on a lot of different education policy issues. I'll be joining a consulting firm, called Foresight Law and Policy. And, I'll continue in this work – looking at federal policy and the intersections with state policy. I'll return to what I would call my policy, wonk roots. And, I hope to be engaged in some of that work, really, across the country. The nice part is I will still live in Nebraska, so I get to work and live in the best state in the country.
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