One Day with the Commissioner: Venturing to northeast Nebraska with Dr. Matt Blomstedt

One Day with the Commissioner: Venturing to northeast Nebraska with Dr. Matt Blomstedt

(Publisher's Note: This article was first published for the Nebraska Council of School Administrators)

By Tyler Dahlgren

Last Thursday, NCSA communications specialist Tyler Dahlgren joined Nebraska Commissioner of Education on a tour of schools in northeast Nebraska, and the rolling highways lined with fall foliage provided the perfect setting for an interview.

There’s a lot of ground to cover from Lincoln to Lyons, both literally and, for the purposes of this article, metaphorically. Ninety miles for what seemed like 90 questions for Dr. Matt Blomstedt, who spent the remainder of the day with administrators, teachers and students at both Lyons-Decatur and Walthill Public School.

Throughout the course of the day, the commissioner held meaningful conversations with school boards. He learned about challenges and spent time laughing with students. He ate lunch with the Walthill school board, smoked brisket and “Commissioner’s Cupcakes” baked by the district’s first-grade teacher. Most importantly, he listened.

But first he had to talk. All the way from the capital city to the entrance of Lyons-Decatur’s building a handful of streets south of Main. On the heels of an unprecedented 20 months, we covered it all.

NCSA appreciated the invitation to tag along, and the day resulted in deep insight.

Teacher Certification

As always, Dr. Blomstedt was gracious with his time and candid in his responses to a gamut of questions, starting with teacher certification, a hot topic across Nebraska as school districts, both rural and urban, continue to combat the teacher shortage.

There is a backlog of applications, and Blomstedt pointed to a system challenge as the reason why. The pandemic interrupted the design of the new system. In response, NDE is doubling the number of staff working in the certification office from five to 10. Blomstedt credits Brad Dirksen, Administrator of the Office of Accountability, Accreditation and Program Approval, for taking the lead on ensuring systems are coming into place.

“Going into next year, we believe there needs to be some policy and system changes that would automate some of that process a bit more,” said Blomstedt.

NDE’s New Structure

The commissioner recently unveiled a new structure for the department, which will still include the three deputy model but will incorporate some shifts. Five years ago, Dr. Blomstedt built out an organizational chart along three separate divisions: Agency Support and Services, Student and Client Success and Support Systems, and School Improvement in Support Systems.

“I’m actually maintaining those divisions, but not necessarily having specific deputy leadership over those divisions but rather thinking of a future where we go down a path where the deputy plays a higher-level role,” Blomstedt said. “I’ll use some of our other leadership administrators and officers to provide leadership in the divisions. And they’ve done a great job. When we first started that organizational chart, we had a lot of new leaders.”

Five years of experience has allowed for those administrators and officers to build cohesion. They know how to function and work with one another. Part of Blomstedt’s goal is to come up with strategies that will allow superintendents to have a direct contact person into the agency, though he wasn’t ready to reveal how that might look.

There have been significant staffing changes at the department, due to retirements. NDE is adding a legal council position, moving from two to three, and recently brought Kristin Yates on as Information Services Director.

Blomstedt is focusing in on maximizing capacities within schools, too, specifically relative to skilled positions where there might be possibilities to either borrow staff or work with schools to provide key staff for a period of time.

“That could be a healthy relationship for both the schools and the department,” he added. “They have folks rotate at least part of their career through the agency, and it would be interesting to see how that would work on some of these leadership paths. We’ve seen a few instances where people have started with the agency and moved on to school districts. Beginning to formalize that, so that it doesn’t just happen haphazard, would be a benefit for the entire system.”

Dr. Blomstedt’s Appropriations Committee Testimony

Most of the federal funds funneling through to Nebraska are driven by Title 1 formula, but on October 5 the commissioner testified in front of the Appropriations Committee regarding the other funds and the historic opportunity to leverage those towards significant issues in the education arena.

First, Dr. Blomstedt focused on the mental health and wellbeing of students, a topic that was brought up in several testimonies that day.

“I found that to be both encouraging that people are seeing the need is there, but also in the sense that there might be some further partnerships we can form in education to address mental health challenges across the state,” Blomstedt said. “What we wanted to hint at was investing resources in continuing those conversations with various education and community groups.”

Such conversations, the commissioner explained, lend themselves well in the early childhood and career and tech arenas as well.

“We know that schools can’t solve all of the challenges of the pandemic on their own,” Blomstedt said. “Those investments and the ensuing partnerships would support the set of leadership that schools provide in their communities to ensure that the entire community has a chance to thrive coming out of the pandemic.”

In his three-minute testimony, Dr. Blomstedt also expressed the importance of investing in teacher and educator workforce. Conversations around that area have led to the examination of how NDE can use funds to assist in alleviating such challenges. NDE is expanding the number of staff that are currently working on federal programs, just as schools are.

“Each of these new federal pots of money have created three new programs that are as big as our Title 1 programs are overall,” said Blomstedt, who also noted data system capacity challenges at the state and local level. “Most of our data systems in Nebraska are built on federal funds. We’ve never had appropriation from a state level, or it’s been very minor if we have, to cover the cost of those reporting systems. We hope we can make strides on that front, too.”

The Commitment to Equity

In each “Catching up with the Commissioner” article published, Dr. Blomstedt has been intentional about the department’s commitment to equity. Equity drives much of their operations, including the strategic plan.

The department is approximately 70-percent federally funded, and many of those funds are driven to ensure that poverty and equity in special education are being identified. There’s a difference, however, between assessment and what Blomstedt calls “admiring the problem” and taking action.

“The single largest check we write is for assessment, but in regards to creating equity for all students, that doesn’t help you on its own,” the commissioner said. “It’s one thing to measure achievement gaps. It’s another to actually think about how structurally and systemically we address those gaps in our work.”

Similar mindsets have been successful as equity has been prioritized across education. No longer is accountability about a “Gotcha!” moment. It’s shifted to developing strategies that help improve outcomes for students.

“Finding that balance is really important to me and important to the agency,” Blomstedt said. “We maybe haven’t been able to strike that balance everywhere just yet, but that’s the message that we intend to deliver around equity. That there’s a real outcome push to ensure that every kid is as successful as they can possibly be.”

Early childhood education, early literacy and improved instructional strategies and materials are all evidence-based strategies supported by demonstrated science and research and proven to make a difference.

“That’s our big push, and I think schools get it, too.”

Blomstedt’s term as CCSSO President

Commissioner Blomstedt will see his two-year term as president of the Washington D.C.-based Council of Chief State School Officers come to an end this month, and will shift into the role of past president.

“I really look at CCSSO to be a policy advocacy leader for education across the country,” Blomstedt said. “CCSSO is probably the one place where state education agencies can look to for professional development for their own roles.”

It’s a tremendous network to be a part of, said the commissioner, who served his tenure under peculiar circumstances with the global pandemic and only met in-person one time in two years. Still, the opportunity was worthwhile and beneficial.

“My real push that I hoped to accomplish was addressing systems involving youth; foster care, the juvenile justice system, homelessness,” Blomstedt said. “One silver lining of the pandemic was that it actually highlighted all of those things as real and immediate needs.”

In his ensuing past president role, the commissioner will be able to provide policy leadership for the organization. He looks forward to the task.

“Folks really looked to CCSSE to figure out how to provide that leadership (during the pandemic),” said Blomstedt. “There’s some great benefits for Nebraska in that, including when I’ve had those chances to testify in front of Congress and to put Nebraska on the map. Not just as a place in the Midwest that has a lot of things together, but as a leader in these spaces.”

Nebraska, Dr. Blomstedt likes to say, is leading from the middle. As one of the longest-serving education commissioners in the United States, Blomstedt has consistently used his position to dive into the different strategies his colleagues are using and implementing in several different areas.

“I’ll continue to work on the federal policy side, and partnership with NCSA is going to be important in keeping our delegation in the right spot and, even further, keeping Nebraska in a position to have influence in D.C.”

A Look to Session

As the legislative session nears and the priorities NDE will take to the Capitol come into focus, Blomstedt said the department will be intentional about engaging NCSA and administrative leaders.

“As I talk to folks and we find the right set of themes, I want to be able to strategize with the field about how to make those things happen,” said Blomstedt.

The conversation again comes back to workforce. What barriers exist within the law that might need to be changed to address teacher certification, recruitment and reciprocity with other states? Blomsted said the department is working on the answer.

“I want to put us in a position to be the best system for the highest quality teachers, while are the same time providing the most flexibility for prospective teachers to enter the profession and to return to the profession or to bring their skills and talents to Nebraska,” he said. “We also was to make sure that we can diversify our teacher workforce too, which will be a substantial benefit for our students when they can look to teachers who look like them.”

Blomstedt wants to make a push for first-generation college students to enter teaching profession, and has put Early Childhood high on his list of priorities. The very same challenges schools are facing in K-12 environments are prevalent in pre-K environments.

“I want to remove some of the barriers that exist in the way of schools assisting in providing pre-K environments, infant and toddler, childcare and daycare environments and see if we can decouple some of the regulatory things that I think slow schools down in their quest to be assistive in community partnerships,” Blomstedt said. “That’s a big area for us, as is career education, though I don’t know if we’ll see as much on that in session.”

Nebraska, the commissioner points out, is the only state that doesn’t invest in career education by at least matching the amount of Perkins dollars that it receives. He’d like for that to change.

“It’s important that students, by the time they’re entering middle school and high school, have some type of path to be what I call ‘Nebraska ready.’”

In Walthill, where the commissioner’s day wrapped up, a group of high school students gathered around Dr. Blomstedt and showered their special visitor with questions.

He took his time answering each and every one, the same as he did in every classroom we visited.
“I look around the state and I’m amazed at the incredible things being done by students,” he said. “There’s so much promise in you all. There’s so much promise for the future.”

In Rita Gomez’s first-grade classroom, the kids introduced the commissioner to their class pet, a tadpole who they were proud to show off. The commissioner, a member of the last graduating class from Palisade High School, was in his element.

“I would have looked at this school as huge,” Blomstedt told students in Lyons-Decatur that morning.

He valued the feedback and listened intently, not only to members from the Walthill school board (who knocked the BBQ lunch out of the park), but to kids in music class (Blomstedt is a music guy himself) and to first-graders captivated by a tadpole. Blomstedt spent time in every single classroom in both schools.

“For me, it’s good to get out and into schools and gauge how things are going.”

Days like this are why Dr. Blomstedt does what he does. For the commissioner of education, they’re invaluable. Priceless.

“Schools really are the livelihood of communities.”