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Commentary: Missouri Should Take Its Time In Finding New Education Commissioner

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Missouri’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Chris Nicastro has tendered her resignation as of December 2014 and there will be an important search for a new commissioner to fill that position. The deadline for nominations and applications is Nov. 21, a date that is later than the board chair wanted.

It is my hope that the State Board of Education will not be in a hurry to replace Nicastro, but will rather hire an interim person so that an extensive search will be possible. This can be an excellent opportunity to look for a person to take us to the next and most important level of successful education for all of our children. Nicastro did a fine job and put us into the position where we can hunt for an internationally recognized person who has taken steps beyond where we currently are.

In states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, children are academically beyond our current level. In fact Massachusetts scored the highest in the U.S. in the recent international education assessment.

So what should we do in Missouri? First let us visit those commissioners and states that have been successful academically to find out how they operate; what programs are in place; what assessments and instructional materials are used; what staffing is anticipated; how they deal with social and economic classroom diversity; how teachers are hired and what follow up is expected in each of these areas.

This difficult, but extremely important, mission for Missouri will take time. But this is the state’s chance to find an individual who can successfully lead us to higher levels of educational success for all of our children, who has a vision of what is possible and believes that all children can learn. Right now we rank around 45th out of 50 states in academic success and none of us can be very proud of that. Also data from three years ago indicates that only 35 percent of Missourians have college degrees. I know we have the ability to do much better.

If we hurry in this process, we are unlikely to find the best candidate and educational progress will stagnate. Missouri needs a person who believes in the future of this state and the role well educated adults can have in keeping the best and the brightest here rather than having them move to other places.

We must, in Missouri, have a positive perspective about who we are and what we can achieve. We have much to be thankful for -- a great and reasonable standard of living, incredible cultural institutions, wonderful productive farming, great cities and great higher education institutions. All of this must be communicated to the person who will lead the state’s elementary and secondary education in the future. As we know, academic success is the path to future success in life. As a state we must acknowledge this and, again, hire the best and the brightest. Hiring a quick replacement for the commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education will do an injustice to our children and adults alike.

So please let us take our time. Not only will we be better off but the time spent will pay for itself over and over again in our future.

Susan Uchitelle is the former executive director of the St. Louis Voluntary Interdistrict Coordinating Council.