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New Missouri learning standards win final approval

State board President Charlie Shields and education Commissioner Margie Vandeven listen to Tuesday's discussion
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

After more than two years of sometimes contentious debate by lawmakers and educators, new Missouri learning standards won unanimous approval Tuesday from the state board of education.

Meeting in Jefferson City, board members stressed that the new standards — which replace Common Core standards — spell out what Missouri students should know in English, math, social studies and science at various grade levels. But local districts retain the authority and the responsibility to determine how those subjects will be taught.

Board member Peter Herschend put the difference this way:

“We are dealing here with policy, not a how-to manual. That’s the difference between policy and curriculum. How it will be taught in Blue Eye is considerably different than how it will be taught in Ballwin.”

Tests based on the new standards in English and math will begin in the spring of 2018.

The process to draw up the new learning guidelines began in 2014, when the Missouri General Assembly passed a law saying the state should abandon Common Core, which at one time was adopted by more than 40 states nationwide.

But those standards, which were drawn up by a group headed by the nation’s governors, drew sharp criticism from opponents who said they represented a federal mandate for a national curriculum. In Missouri, those favoring new standards said they should have more input from educators in the state.

From the start of the process, debates occurred over who would name members of the work groups in each of the four subject areas, and what role the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would play. After initial disputes, the groups got down to the work of spelling out what students in each grade should know in each of the subjects.

Their work was submitted to the state board in October. Then, DESE opened the process to public scrutiny and reaction, and more than 3,600 comments were submitted. The size of the response led the department to postpone final action on the standards from last month to this, so that changes deemed appropriate could be made.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the biggest disagreement came over social studies standards in the elementary grades. Board member Maynard Wallace of Thornfield, a former school superintendent, disagreed with moving Missouri history from fourth grade down to third grade, where it had been taught before 1997.

“I think we’re attempting to diminish the importance of Missouri history,” he said, “which I feel if you’re going to live in this state, you need to have some understanding of it.”

Department officials explained that the move was not an effort to downplay state history, and they said there were other opportunities where the state’s past would be studied.

Wallace was the only vote against adopting the elementary grades’ standards in social studies. The overall document was approved unanimously.

After the vote, board chairman Charlie Shields of St. Joseph praised the lengthy effort.

These standards represent thousands of hours of work, the majority of it done by volunteers,” Shields said. “These are true Missouri standards, developed by Missourians, and we should be proud.”

DESE now plans to meet with educators to help them develop local curriculum to implement the standards in advance of the upcoming new tests. Until that time, tests now being taken and those to be administered next year will be based on standards that include Common Core.

From appointed boards to elected ones

After the standards vote, the state board moved to another issue that has prompted vigorous discussion — when districts that are being run by appointed boards should return to governance by elected ones.

Currently, that situation covers schools in St. Louis, Riverview Gardens and Normandy. Different laws apply to the different districts, but the overall concern for the state board is how to determine when — and how — the transition should occur.

St. Louis has been governed by a three-member Special Administrative Board since 2007. An SAB was appointed for Riverview Gardens in 2010. In Normandy, the old district was dissolved two years ago in favor of the Normandy Schools Collaborative, which is governed by a five-member Joint Executive Governing Board.

DESE officials presented criteria the state board could consider to determine when an elected board could resume control in each district. The list included leadership, finance, academic achievement, the district’s climate and culture and support from parents and the community.

Much of the subsequent discussion centered not just when the transition should be made, but how.

“I don’t see this happening as ‘You meet all these, and in 30 days we hand over the keys,’” Shields said. “It’s a little more complicated than that. The how still has to be developed.”

Board member Mike Jones of St. Louis likened the situation to putting Humpty Dumpty back together again — something that no law or regulation can necessarily accomplish.

“Someone has to take those pieces and see how they start to fit,” he said, “and that requires management of a culture. I don’t think you can come up with a statutory formula for that. Conditions on the ground won’t necessarily get you the kind of handoff you’re looking for so you don’t have to come back and do it all again.”

St. Louis has an elected board that has remained in place while the SAB had the authority to run the district, but no such entity exists in Normandy or Riverview Gardens. The elected board in St. Louis has submitted a transition plan that calls for the change-over to begin as early as the end of this June. Then, the elected board members would work with the SAB until, by the end of June of next year, the elected board members would assume the authority.

The SAB would like to go home, and the elected board would like to take over. The question is, what are the terms and conditions of that transition? — State school board member Mike Jones

The transition plan notes that residents of the district should have more say in who runs the schools, through an election.

“We believe that the future of SLPS is too important to be decided by a small group of people without the input of the community members, parents and students whom the school district serves,” it said.

But members of the state board said that before any such transition takes place, in any of the affected districts, prospective board members require training. Jones likened the situation to jazz: There has to be a basic structure, but there also have to be players well versed in how to improvise when changing conditions call for a new approach.

“The SAB would like to go home,” he said, “and the elected board would like to take over. The question is, what are the terms and conditions of that transition? They need to have that conversation. Someone needs to create that structure.”

Commissioner Margie Vandeven said that, in the minds of some, once a district gains provisional accreditation, as the city schools have and as Riverview Gardens could as soon as this summer, an elected board should be restored. But, she said, the law doesn’t work that way.

The board intends to continue the discussion next month. In the meantime, anyone who wants to comment on the criteria presented at the meeting or other aspects of the situation may email SABcomments@dese.mo.gov by May 13.

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.