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14 Candidates Seek Missouri Education Commissioner Post

Peter Herschend
DESE website

The Missouri state board of education has a field of 14 candidates from which to choose the state’s new commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

After the board’s open meeting in Branson Thursday, where it approved added responsibility for the appointed school board that is running the Normandy Schools Collaborative, board president Peter Herschend said in a telephone interview that the applications of the 14 people who want to succeed retiring Commissioner Chris Nicastro would be reviewed in a closed session on Friday.

The plan, he added, is for the board to narrow the field to between three and five candidates, then make those names public on Monday. After interviewing the finalists, the board plans to choose the new commissioner and make the appointment the following week. Nicastro announced in September she would be leaving her post at the end of December after five and a half years on the job.

Herschend said most of the applications came from people inside Missouri, though a few were from outside the state. One is from a person currently working in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, he added, and another is from someone who used to work at DESE.

Though the DESE website lists qualities that the board is seeking in a new commissioner — everything from vision to empathy to management skills to effective communication and a record of success — Herschend said the one question he wants to ask finalists for the job is this:

“What would you do to put Missouri in the top 10 by ’20.”

That goal, raising standards and achievement for the state’s students so that Missouri ranks among leaders nationwide by the year 2020, has been a hallmark of Nicastro’s tenure.

Coming in the wake of the vote to give the Normandy board more authority and a detailed discussion about making sure that teachers understand the needs of students in struggling districts, Herschend was asked whether it was important that the new commissioner be a minority or come from an area where minority students predominate.

He quickly answered that those characteristics are not his main concern. Instead, he said, he wants to make sure that the new commissioner understands the challenges involved and can inspire DESE and local districts to succeed.

“You're looking for leadership in education,” he said. “Leadership. Not just a good teacher, but a CEO, a leader.”

And the successful candidate’s experience does not necessarily have to have been in an impoverished urban area, either, Herschend added.

“That would be very, very nice,” he said, “but then on the other hand, what do you say to somebody who is in a rural, poor district, where poverty is just rampant? Are you going to say they're not important? There are thousands of those youngsters, too.”

After being criticized for trying to compress the selection process, Herschend extended it. He said Thursday that Missouri benefited from a better field of candidates because of the wider, longer search.

More authority for Normandy board

As expected, the state board approved expanded authority for the appointed board that runs the new Normandy Schools Collaborative. The new arrangement, which had already been accepted by Normandy’s five-member Joint Executive Governing Board, gives it direct responsibility for hiring, evaluating and disciplining personnel as well as for improving student achievement and implementing the district’s accountability plan.

The district is expected to continue making quarterly progress reports to the state board.

“This is just the next level of execution of what we hope will be a turnaround,” said Mike Jones of St. Louis, vice president of the state board, who joined the meeting by telephone. “We still retain ultimate 

'We're willingly delegating authority to them, but if they screw up, we can willingly undelegate.' — Peter Herschend, on new power for the Normandy board


Deputy commissioner Margie Vandeven agreed, saying:

“The department is not backing away from this. It’s clearly about trying to align authority and decision making powers to people more effectively ... . We are still very much available and very much accountable for their success or failures.”

Herschend added that the quarterly reports from Normandy need to be more than mere summaries of what is going on.

“They need to be able to chart progress,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about… . We’re willingly delegating authority to them, but if they screw up, we can willingly undelegate.”

Preparing the right teachers

Earlier in the meeting, state board members talked about the best ways to make sure that prospective teachers are not only well prepared but reflect the areas in which they will be serving.

Board member John Martin of Kansas City, who also served as a deputy superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, said Missouri has to be sure that the tests to make sure that teachers are qualified do not use questions that are racially or ethnically biased. That hasn’t always been the case, he added.

“Some of the test questions are worded in ways that undermine minority students in their responses,” Martin said. “If our tests continue to confirm what we’ve done in the past, we’re going to get the results we’ve had in the past …

“We’re predestining ourselves to failure. We must change, or we must cause our vendors to change the way they are dealing with these issues.”

Nicastro said that she agreed with Martin, though she noted that there is no way to eliminate institutional racism altogether and she thought the company that provides the tests for prospective teachers has done a good job.

“I would argue,” she added, “that the issue is not with the assessment but with the preparation and that preparation begins before the kids even begin in school….

“It all boils down to expectations. Students of color are not as well prepared as other children.”

Martin pointed to studies that show that students with Nordic or Germanic backgrounds have tended to score relatively higher on tests.

“There is nothing in my experience,” he said, “that tells me that being from northern Europe makes you smarter than if you are from northern Africa.”

Herschend announced that board member Victor Lenz of south St. Louis County was absent from the meeting because he was undergoing heart surgery.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.