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Years of change: Retiring Missouri school board president reflects

Peter Herschend
DESE website

JEFFERSON CITY -- When Peter Herschend joined the Missouri state Board of Education in 1991, schools in the state were rated in three ways – A, AA or AAA.

But the rankings weren’t based on detailed accounts of how well students were doing in the classroom. Instead, Herschend noted in a recent interview, the factors that went into the classification ranged from salary structure to secretarial personnel to how many fire escapes the buildings had.

After running down a list of the criteria, Herschend said:

“That’s just a random extraction. What I did not read to you, because it’s not in there, is anything about education. Schools were judged exclusively on process and physical plant.”

Shortly after the Branson businessman joined the board, lawmakers passed the Outstanding Schools Act that led to the Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP) that is now in its fifth version. Herschend says the increasingly rigorous standards of MSIP have made Missouri schools better, and he calls the program one of the highlights of his tenure.

“The bar has been raised each cycle -- MSIP1, MSIP2, and so on,” Herschend, 80, said. “Each cycle. And the interesting thing in that, we now have 11 districts in the state that are provisionally accredited. Two that are unaccredited. Kind of a reflection of the times. In MSIP1, at the end of the five-year cycle, median number of provisionally accredited districts, remember 11 today, was 145.”

The landmark 1993 school legislation also included the transfer law that lets students who live in unaccredited districts transfer elsewhere. Herschend – whose 24-year tenure has included four separate two-year terms as president, including one that ended last week – said no one ever had a sense that the law would lead to the kind of controversy that has plagued Normandy and Riverview Gardens over the past two years.

“There's a lot of things wrong with the transfer law, as a philosophy of education management. What I absolutely object to is, we’re going to meet here in the next two days, and we will spend probably 25 to 30 percent of our time talking about ramifications of the transfer law, in one way or another. It affects exactly two districts in the state. It takes our attention away from the really good work that about 495 districts in the state are doing.  There are far better solutions than transfer ever, ever would be for districts that are in trouble.”

And, he says, transfers won’t solve the problems that those districts have. But the state board can’t implement better solutions until legislators change the transfer law.

“We can make rules that will change the way things are done, but we cannot change the law. We can't say our rule overrides the law of the legislature. It would be thrown out. …

“Would it be better if -- in the short run, not in the long run, never ever -- but if there were a benevolent dictator that could come in as a leader, an individual that could be assigned, appointed, found, and he/she had the authority to remake the structure of a Normandy, then things could change. Would it change automatically? The answer is no. You have to be sensitive to what's going on -- the community is the school, as the school is the community. But it is a messy process that we have of necessity of law have to work through today.”

Herschend, whose family owns the entertainment company that includes Silver Dollar City, had comments on other education issues as well, from Common Core to early childhood education. Here are excerpts from that discussion, edited for length and clarity.

On the difficulty of figuring out answers to transfers:

“Look how difficult it was to handle St. Louis, through the court-ordered deseg orders. It was a messy process, and it was messy in that it took way too long. We lost an entire school generation of kids because the adults, all of us, state board, the courts, the legislature, the city of, all were tied up working on trying to solve the process, and the federal government had a hand in, too. You get that many cooks working on one pot, and it's going to have an odd flavor of soup.”

On Common Core:

There is more disinformation about Common Core than you can shake a stick at. Common Core only said two things: It set standards for math and communication arts, by grade. This is what a child needs to know and be able to do, by grade. It doesn't make a particle of difference to me whether you call them Missouri learning standards. You can call them window curtains. You can call them anything you want.

“Where common core got in trouble was never in the standards. I have had some very angry people in my face arguing about common core. They never talked about Algebra I. They talked about political influence. They talked about the fear of the federal government coming in and taking over education. They talked about private interests benefitting from the common core, financially benefiting. I never heard an argument being made that the standards were too high, too low or kind of like Goldilocks, just right. That was never an argument. The emotion, the veins-standing-out-on-people's-necks emotions, were always about that damn federal government, and they blamed it on the present administration. I'm not a fan of the present administration, but they were blamed incorrectly. They blamed him wrongly. 

"There is more disinformation about common core than you can shake a stick at." -- Peter Herschend, outgoing president of the Missouri state Board of Education

“There must be standards, and they must be tough for a child to go through the Missouri system, come out on the other end, and we know that we have prepared him literally for grade 13. Our responsibility in the classic sense stops at grade 12. But in the real world, the kids who are going to make it are going to grade 13. That could be the military, that could be a good certified professional trade school, that could be community college, that can be four-year college. But they're going to have to go on. A student who quits at grade 12 has got a harder road.”

On testing:

I've heard all the phrases, that people are teaching to the test. Doggone right they are. If you have a physician who is learning to be a neurosurgeon, you really, really want him to be able to pass the neurosurgeon test. I don't want him to be able to pass the electrical contractor test.

On judging teachers by how well their students perform:

One of the things we're looking at for colleges of education is how well do your teachers teach? You certified them. It's somewhat like manufacturing a fine automobile. The manufacturer says, that's a very good car. Thank you very much. How do I know that? And the answer is, you prove it on the road. The answer in education is, you prove it in the classroom. Not 20 years down the line, for heaven's sake. But for the first two or three years, how's that teacher doing? Is learning taking place? That is measured in part certainly by how well (students) do on standardized tests. If there is another way to measure how well the colleges of education are doing, how well learning is happening, I'd be delighted to be open to that. All somebody needs to do is just show us what it is.

On early childhood education: 

The biggest single change that we can make in the lives of Missouri students, and therefore in the life of Missouri, is effective early childhood education. And the legislature has dabbled in it. Local school districts are doing a better job, many of them, not all of them, of early childhood education, than we are able to get to. It's not funded. We know what it ought to look like.

Peter Herschend, right, hands the gavel to incoming state school board President Charlie Shields. Behind them are Mike Jones (left), outgoing vice president, and incoming vice president Victor Lenz.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Peter Herschend, right, hands the gavel to incoming state school board President Charlie Shields. Behind them are Mike Jones (left), outgoing vice president, and incoming vice president Victor Lenz.

"But at this point, the word voluntary is in every piece of early childhood legislation that comes out of the House and Senate. Education as we're discussing it here, K-12 is not voluntary.  You will go. It's not just my opinion, or a nice thing to do for kids, but the numbers absolutely demonstrate that early childhood education makes a major difference in the ability of a child to thrive as a student down the line. 

“The legislature two sessions ago said when the budget, when the foundation formula is fully funded, and they’re a half a billion dollars off today, then we can move pre-K, early childhood education into the foundation formula. That will make a tremendous difference. I wish that day were here tomorrow.

“The other side is the philosophical side. People are saying, one, it's the parents' job to teach sub five-, sub six-year-old kids. That's mom and dad's job. They're right. The trouble is that mom and dad in large measure are not able to do it, not because they don't care, but because in most homes now, and in too many homes, there's just mom.  The second argument is that early childhood education in the school system will put too many church-operated early childhood programs -- many of them are education programs, many of them are also just babysitting, day care -- would put them out of business, and therefore the state will be interfering with church activities.” 

On Missouri’s goal to be in the top 10 of states educationally by the year 2020:

“In some subject areas, we're already there. We rank the entire spectrum of subjects taught in the state. Eighth-grade math, we're already at a score level equal to the scores of the states that are in the top 10. Will we be able to get there in all subject levels into that rare atmosphere? We have to work very hard to get there. It will be very hard to do. But it is the striving that makes the difference, not the score.”

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.