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New school standards recommendations are complete, but old rancor remains

Judy Baxter, via Flickr

Groups that have been meeting for the past year to come up with new standards for Missouri schools have turned their homework in to state education officials.

Where those standards go from here is the next big test.

The new standards were created by eight groups – two each for four subject areas, representing two sets of grade levels. The standards will next be discussed at a state hearing Oct. 26, then reviewed by lawmakers and the state board of education, before theboard votes next March on whether the groups’ work will become official.

The groups’ reports have been posted on the website of the Department of Elementary and Secondary education here. Alex Cuenca, a Saint Louis University professor who worked on social studies standards for upper grades, said he thinks his group’s conclusions will help students.

“I think there is a lot more clarity for educators,” Cuenca said. “I think the organization provides a clearer path toward what it is the standards are asking you to accomplish.”

But even before reviews of the documents begin, the dissent that has been present since the first meetings a year ago has surfaced again. In some cases, members of a group submitted a minority report to go along with the main submission; in at least one other case, five members dropped out altogether in protest.  Still others submitted a final document but had outspoken dissenters who plan to make their unhappiness known at the public hearing.

Complaints persist that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education played too great a role in the entire process – and opponents say that emails from DESE, which they obtained through public records requests, back up their view.

“It is my opinion,” wrote Toni Becker, a dissenting member of the group working on science standards for secondary schools, “that the corrupted process renders the final products illegitimate as DESE circumvented the will of the citizens expressed in legislation passed by their elected representatives and imposed its own will upon the process instead.”

Five people who resigned from the English work group for upper grades complained of “arrogance and disrespectful behavior” by state officials toward the process.

And Laura Martin, who resigned from the group working on math standards for secondary grades, had this to say in an email:

“I have no comment on the standards ... only on the process. And the process has been a big disappointment to me. I believe we might all have saved a lot of time had we simply had a raise of hands on the first day and said, ‘Who wants to keep the standards we have?’ ‘Who doesn't?’ Ok, great, majority rules ... let's keep the standards and we can all go home.”

Sarah Potter, a spokeswoman for DESE, said that despite such complaints, the department took no active role in drawing up the standards and instead maintained the hands-off approach as required by law.

“We had very little role in this process,” she said. “We convened the work groups in the same manner we do other work groups with facilitators to help them manage getting started. After that, the work groups worked on their own. We really have had little knowledge or involvement for most of the year.”

National standards or home-grown ones?

The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, were developed starting in 2009  in response to a movement to establish a more uniform set of goals for what American students should know in English and mathematics. Governors and education commissioners from states nationwide consulted with teachers and other groups to put the standards together.

The plan was to lay out the kinds of things that students should know as they move through school, but leave to local schools and districts the exact curriculum that would be used to reach those goals.

But in Missouri, as elsewhere, Common Core became a rallying cry for those who felt the standards eroded local control over schools. Though the state board of education adopted the standards in 2010, opposition grew to the point that, last year, lawmakers passed and Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill calling for new standards to be developed.

Mary Byrne
Credit Provided
Mary Byrne

The legislation, known as HB 1490, set out a timeline for work groups to meet to put together new standards for Missouri in English, math, social studies and science. The groups had a deadline of Oct 1, 2015 to submit the result of their work to the state board of education.

Until new standards are adopted next year, and new statewide tests can be written to test whether goals of the standards have been met, Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests given to students each spring will be based on Common Core.

But because another law forced Missouri to drop out of a consortium of states that administered Common Core-based tests, the state is working to come up with a different exam to give this coming spring. That procedure means students will take four different tests within four or five years, depending on how quickly tests based on the home-grown standards can be devised.

The work groups’ reports can be compared to what is in place now, called the Missouri Learning Standards.

Rancor, then reconciliation

Two members of the group that worked social studies standards for grades 6 through 12 had varying views on how the process went.

Mary Byrne, who has been active in a group called Missouri Coalition Against Common Core, said she felt, despite pressure from DESE, the new standards simply mirror Common Core, “the work groups worked very courageously to continue being authentic.”

She said her group found information that was missing from current standards on history and government, and also information that was wrong.

“I think when social studies instructors throughout the state review them, they’re going to find them far superior to what we did have," Byrne said.

Cuenca, the SLU professor, agreed with that assessment. He said the group’s work should help both teachers and students achieve the goal of producing thoughtful, educated citizens.

“I feel like there are different markers and benchmarks for students to achieve,” Cuenca said. “So I'm hoping that this will make the assessments a lot clearer, and it will make the education a lot smoother to attain. I'm hopeful that this will be a net positive for the students of Missouri.”

He said once members of his group got past any posturing based on politics and got to know each other as individuals, the work went much more smoothly. Having educators and non-educators together made the results better, Cuenca said.

SLU Professor Alex Cuenca
Credit Saint Louis University
Alex Cuenca

“Some moments,” he added, “you saw the educators take the lead and say, 'This is exactly what students need. This is exactly what we see is missing in the standards.'

"At that point, the parents would defer. But when we were engaging in perhaps what they would argue would be a little more academic language, they would kind of slow it down.”

The document isn’t perfect, he said, but it improves on what Missouri has now.

“I think there are some missing gaps, to be honest with you,” Cuenca said. “There are some things I would like to see in critical areas like race or gender, but that notwithstanding, I think it's a much better document than what we had in the past.” 

Byrne appreciates the effort for another reason. One of her big problems with Common Core, she said, was the fact that the standards have been copyrighted by the governors' group and council of state school commissioners that put them together.

Since Common Core includes just English and math, not social studies, Byrne said her group was not under any kind of pressure to worry about copyright. “So we had the freedom to actually unleash the professional knowledge of teachers in the state,” she said. “I think that the product was excellent.”

In the end, though, Byrne thinks it won’t be the standards that determine whether Missouri students make the kind of progress in student achievement that educators are looking for.

“Standards have never been demonstrated to be the factor that would support student success,” she said. “It's always been the professionalism of the teachers, the support from the families. Historically it’s always been the factors we should have been working with. Copyrighted standards were never the answer.” 

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.

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