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At last minute, Missouri education officials pull plug on new accreditation rules

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2011 - For the second time in two years, education officials in Missouri have pulled back from new rules for determining how well school districts in the state are performing.

A 30-day public comment period for the new proposal -- known as MSIP5, the fifth version of the Missouri School Improvement Program -- was set to go into effect on Friday after the state Board of Education approved it last month.

But late Thursday, Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said that she would ask the board next week to withdraw the rule so that department officials could get more feedback from education groups across the state that had panned the proposal.

"Nothing is more important for our children and for our state than ensuring a high-quality public education system is available," Nicastro said in a statement. "A major part of how that happens is the criteria for holding schools accountable for academic performance.

"There appears to be a lack of understanding about the current proposal, and we need additional time to work with our partners and stakeholders to reach consensus of what that looks like."

The state went through a similar exercise two years ago, reaching the stage where they were before Nicastro's announcement Thursday, when the public could comment on the proposals. At that point, Nicastro was new on the job, and the federal Race to the Top program was announced; officials decided to put the process on hold while the state's application for a share of $4 billion in money from Washington could be put together.

Officials at DESE say that proposals from that 2009 exercise weren't scrapped altogether, and even though Missouri did not get a grant from Race to the Top, many of the initiatives developed for that application -- college and career readiness, kindergarten readiness, and preparation and support of effective educators -- were part of the basis for MSIP5. Now that plan also will be put on hold, if the state board agrees to Nicastro's request.

"We know that the proposed standards might not be perfect," Nicastro's statement said, "but they do offer a sound proposal that has the interests of nearly 1 million students and their futures in mind. We need to hear from our stakeholders -- parents, employers, educators and community leaders -- about what will be good for our students and public education, as well as constructive comments on what might need to be revised before it is adopted."

MSIP5 would have made two major changes.

First, instead of taking into account results in student achievement as well as standards involving a district's resources and other non-achievement standards, MSIP5 it would have concentrated on achievement alone.

Second, where the old version of the program evaluated districts every five years, with 20 percent of the state's districts receiving their judgment each year, the new version would have taken a more active approach, possibly evaluating some districts each year.

Interviewed earlier this week, before Nicastro's unexpected announcement, Margie Vandeven, assistant commissioner in the office of quality schools, explained that the new time interval could help the state identify difficulties sooner and move to correct them.

"We won't wait five years anymore," she said. "It didn't make sense to have a district be in the rotation to be evaluated in year four and be sitting there in year one having problems."

That part of the proposed change hadn't drawn much criticism, but other revisions did. A coalition of statewide education groups, representing teachers, administrators, school boards, PTAs and others, had expressed their displeasure with the proposal, to the extent that they hoped the state board would once again go back to the blackboard and do the whole lesson over.

"We're not necessarily advocating throwing out every part of MSIP5," Brent Ghan of the Missouri School Boards Association told the Beacon earlier this week. "But we want to go through a new process of developing standards that include stakeholder input from all of the various organizations. We would like to see a little more involvement in the process leading up to the proposal by the state board."

It looks like they got their wish.

Top 10 by 20

Missouri school officials established their first standards for classifying and accrediting districts in 1950, long before the federal government went into the standards business. The process has undergone several revisions; each time, state officials say, the goal has been to make the standards more rigorous and improve education throughout the state.

The latest revision is proceeding at the same time as a new initiative from DESE called Top 10 by 20, a drive to make Missouri schools in the top 10 in the nation by the year 2020. Currently, the state ranks in the middle of the pack on most key assessments.

DESE says the states that are now in the top 10 -- Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, Minnesota, Virginia, Montana, Wisconsin and New York -- share several characteristics. They include an emphasis on nonfiction or informational writing; quality early childhood education programs; quality standards and assessments; an appointed, not elected, chief state school officer; and effective use of scarce resources.

Nicastro has said that improving the state's ranking in education is "something of vital importance for every child, business and resident of our state."

She also has said she wanted to make sure that everyone interested in education has a chance to contribute to the MSIP5 standards. "There is a very wise Japanese proverb: 'None of us is as smart as all of us,'" she said. "We need to hear from everyone."

Before the standards were approved by the state board last month for inclusion in the public comment period, Nicastro said, education officials met with groups across Missouri and heard more than 600 comments that were reviewed and weighed as the MSIP5 proposal was put together.

But that apparently wasn't enough.

The Biggest Changes

Under current accreditation procedures, districts are reviewed according to their performance in three groups of standards: resource standards, process standards and performance standards.

Resource standards involve basic requirements that all districts must meet and generally are measurable, like the number of courses offered and the ratio of students to teachers. Process standards take into account a district's policies and procedures as well as the services and facilities it provides.

In MSIP5, those two categories would have received less attention, with the focus placed more sharply on achievement standards -- how well students are performing. Vandeven said that given Missouri's goal of reaching the top 10, that shift in emphasis is a natural move.

"We're not shooting for mediocrity anymore," she said. "The status quo has been keeping us average nationally; we're shooting at a higher target.

"Our students are no longer competitive just within their local district or with neighboring districts. It's a global society in which we live, and students will have to be competitive globally."

Given Missouri's financial straits, would the state be able to come up with the money to help make such a vision become reality?

"I think everyone in this nation is struggling with resources right now," Vandeven said. "That's a hurdle we're going to have to cross. The entire state is going to have to get behind this 10 by 20 initiative for us to get there. For some of the assessments to come into place, we're going to require additional resources. We need that to be not something we consider an obstacle."

Opposition from Education Groups

Even before the public comment period was to begin, education groups across the state began weighing in against certain aspects of MSIP5.

Ghan, at the school boards association, said the new plan "represents a continued erosion of local decision making. It includes many more standards that relate to testing and various other requirements that we feel should be left to local boards of education.

"MSIP5 seems to have an almost total emphasis on preparing kids for college and neglects preparing them for technical-vocational education or for work. School districts under MSIP5 are going to beheld very much accountable for not only preparing kids for college but for their success in college. Success isn't necessary defined solely by a bachelor's degree in college."

He, like others, were interviewed before Nicastro made her announcement Thursday.

Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, criticized one particular provision that he said would require students to take tests in areas like chemistry or physics, even if they haven't taken those courses.

"If you want all of the kids to take the course before they take the exam," he said, "you would have to employ a large number of physics and chemistry teachers, and those folks are hard to find. If you're not going to employ those folks and say we don't care, you are really putting the students in a difficult situation to say, 'You have to take this test on a subject you know nothing about -- just fill in those little circles and move on.'

"The results are going to be terrible, and that's going to reflect badly on the students and their district."

State officials acknowledged that citing physics and chemistry may have been confusing and they were meant only to be an example of what could be asked, not a concrete requirement.

Members of the Missouri National Education Association were being urged to comment on several aspects of MSIP5, including concerns about planning time for teachers, class size and instruction in music, art and physical education. (Read the Beacon's earlier coverage of that issue.)

Ann Jarrett, teaching and learning director at MNEA, said the MSIP5 standards "place almost all of the accountability on teachers but don't give adequate planning time or support services."

She said she thinks that the state board and Nicastro are sympathetic to teachers' concerns and may be responding to federal mandates, but she was worried that they "may not completely understand the role that teachers play in making students successful."

Those are the kinds of concerns that Kurtz had hoped the state board and officials at DESE would pay attention to once public comments begin coming in.

"I give them credit," he said. "They are willing to listen. I just hope that when they do read these comments, they take them as sincere, that we are truly looking at what is in the best interest of kids."

Now, if Nicastro has her way, there will be more time to make that point.

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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