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Missouri schools chief Vandeven: Normandy is ‘fixable’; approach must balance all districts’ needs

Provided | Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Margie Vandeven, Missouri commissioner of elementary and secondary education, visits with students in Warren County.

Margie Vandeven has been Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education for less than two months, but she’s hardly a newcomer to the state’s schools.

A native of O’Fallon, Mo. — and, since you know you want to know, a graduate of St. Dominic High School there — Vandeven joined the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education nine years ago after teaching English in private schools in Missouri and Maryland.

Working her way up the DESE bureaucracy, Vandeven, 46, became heavily involved in two areas that have made news in recent years: the latest version of Missouri’s school evaluation program, known as MSIP5, and changes in the Normandy schools, where the state first took over the district’s finances in the wake of the transfer program, then dissolved the district altogether to replace it with the Normandy Schools Collaborative, run by an appointed board.

She was appointed commissioner by the state board of education in December, succeeding Chris Nicastro, who retired after five and a half years on the job. In her new job, she is the point person for Missouri’s Top 10 by 20 program — a goal of pushing the state into the top 10 nationwide in education by the year 2020.

The three main parts of that effort: Making sure all children graduate ready for college or a career, making sure all children come to school ready to learn, and making sure there is an effective teacher in every classroom.

After a recent visit with students in Warren County, Vandeven came to the St. Louis Public Radio studio to sit down with education reporters Dale Singer and Tim Lloyd for a wide-ranging discussion.

Normandy represents a major and ongoing concern. 

  • Vandeven believes that the situation with Normandy is "fixable." Not only are Normandy schools working hard to improve, Vandeven credits the legislature and governor with working hard to come up with a legislative solution.
  • The key to a legislative solution, for Vandeven, is balance: "When we're talking about solutions, we do very much so respect the receiving district wanting to not put undue hardship on them, but we also want to provide the opportunity for a transfer situation that does not leave the sending district in a situation where they are facing potential fiscal insolvency."
  • While she couldn't talk much about the recent judge's decision ruling that Normandy is unaccredited, she said, "It is important to know that we did change our transfer guidance to allow the Normandy students an additional time frame to register, enroll, or make note of the fact that they do intend or wish to transfer in the upcoming school year."

Here are other excerpts and highlights from the interview, edited for length and clarity.

This year state assessment tests are moving online. Will that be a problem for districts with fewer resources?

I'm excited about the opportunity to move from a paper and pencil to the online version just because I think our kids are much more equipped to work with the computer than they are paper and pencil, even right now.

Margie Vandeven elementary and secondary education
Credit Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Margie Vandeven

The feedback that we've gotten from children is that it's awesome. They actually like the ability to drag and click and listen. Some of them are using audiovisual capabilities that provide questions in a different format than they would typically see. It allows them to bookmark and go back and check where they were before and flag questions they're having trouble with and go back and answer them later. 

One example that one student shared is that she changed her background to yellow. Now I know that sounds kind of funny to us, but children are so accustomed to personalizing everything that they do, so it gives them a format that they're much more engaged in, much more accustomed to doing.

We would be doing a great disservice to the children if we did not provide them with the technology skills they would need to be successful when they enter into a career.

This year the tests will be based on Common Core standards. How will that make a difference?

Those tests are written in a way that they employ more critical thinking, problem-solving skills. Students may show their work a little bit more if it's not just your basic multiple-choice questions. They're designed to go to a much deeper level of thinking for children. They're going to have to combine information from multiple sources.

So I do think they're aligned to the more rigorous expectations for our children across the state. So if we're really serious about ensuring that they meet those standards, then these assessments will be very helpful in helping us monitor where our kids are.

So I don't expect huge declines, but if you do see a change in test scores this year, the new test, the new delivery system, all of that needs to be taken into account. It's not just that students did worse on tests this year. It's that the whole system is changing and we're going to see some growing pains.

How about using student test scores as the basis for teacher salaries or jobs?

Teachers are very very collaborative in nature. So when we talk about doing performance pay, I think why not recognize the entire building from this point forward. Let's not pit one group against another, but let's recognize the bus driver and the cooks and the front office staff and everybody that makes that climate. 

One of the highest indicators of success, and one of the highest inputs for success, is high expectations for our kids. So how can we create that climate and culture that holds everyone accountable in that school for every kid? I would be much more inclined to recognize high performance in working together. I have no problem in thinking about some incentives, but how do we do that so it really promotes teaching and learning?  

With different districts having different levels of resources, like Clayton and Normandy, which are just 10 minutes apart, how can they reach equal success?

We have school districts searching for a computer for a child to take a test on, and we have others that have kids carrying their own notebooks with them. We have two different situations. But at the end of the day, that's why it's really important for the state to establish standards for high expectations for all kids and establish the expectation our kids do have to exist in our K-12 systems with the same amount of skills. That's what we remain very focused on. 

What would happen if kids in Normandy and kids in Clayton changed schools for a semester?

That's an excellent question. If you look at the research, you will see the school level effect is about 18 percent. The external factors have a much greater effect on student performance than anything that happens in the schools. But what we do know is what we make of the time we do have them in school; there's research that will show one of the greater school level effects is having an effective teacher in every classroom. Making sure that we do have high expectations for all kids. Making sure that we do have a rigorous curriculum in place.

I think your point is that it's the non-school factors that also play such a key role in how children perform in school. That's where you hear much more conversation around the wraparound services.

That brings up the question of wraparound services, the non-academic role schools are often asked to play. What can DESE do to help there?

Teachers cannot do it all. They want to because they love their kids and want to provide them with the best opportunities possible. But our second goal of the top 10 by 20 plan talks about all kids coming to school ready to learn. And that's primarily about providing early learning opportunities for kids. Schools cannot do it all. But they are the place that can help facilitate what needs to happen.

What are our specific needs that our children have? And then turning to our communities and saying this is what we think we really need to make a difference in our schools. 

We hear about school districts putting in washers and dryers. You don't think about your kids coming to school needing clean clothes, but what a difference that makes for a child when they're able to participate throughout the day with clean clothes.

Missouri has a goal to be in the top 10 states in education by the year 2020. Can that be accomplished without better funding for schools?

It's not just money, but money certainly helps. We still have the potential of making it into the top 10 by 2020, but it will take the commitment of a lot of people, and that does include the financial support. It does include the community support that we were just discussing.

When I talk to people across the state about what they want out of public education, remarkably, most people want the same thing. They want their children to have the opportunity to be successful when they rate our schools. They want our children to love learning. They want our teachers to love teaching. They want them to be able to move from their high school graduation to following their passion.

What has DESE learned from its experience in districts like Normandy to not only improve situations there but maybe prevent other districts from sliding down so far?

The first part of what we've learned is that there is no one answer. The part that makes this work so very complex is that it is a combination of a lot of very significant things. So when we talk about rigorous standards and curriculum, high expectations for all kids, an effective teacher in every classroom, an effective leader in every school, parent and community involvement in the school, a culture of high expectations and learning — how do you get all of those components working together to produce the best learning environment for kids? That's one thing. 

The other thing we’ve learned is that you need to intervene early. So let's not wait until a district is unaccredited to intervene. Let's really monitor the situation across the state. That's why we moved to an annual process for MSIP now. A turnaround is a lot more challenging than an intervention. 

How has Ferguson affected education?

If we frame it all around what does it mean for children of poverty, the part that I have the hardest time hearing is that sometimes children in these situations lack hope. If they lack hope about tomorrow, it is really, really hard to engage them in learning today for something they might use tomorrow. 

Why did you move from teaching to administration?

I actually loved teaching very much, loved being in the classroom, loved interacting with kids. I have this expression: once a teacher, always a teacher. Then I found myself wanting to teach teachers because that's really the role of the principal, how to be the instructional leader and work with teachers so that they can be more effective with children. 

And then I went into the state department and really in full disclosure did not expect to stay nine years. I thought that would be a temporary stay for me. And I loved that work too.

What do I miss? The kids. Of course, I miss the kids. I can't remember a day as a teacher where I didn't come home with some kind of story, because there's something new or something funny or something that happened every single day in the classroom.

A lot of times you hear people say education is horrible, but my school is great. Why do you think that is the case?

A lot of the stories that we hear about are the ones that aren't quite as successful, but they don't see that in their own situation. They love their schools. Most of the time, they love their teachers. They have a real understanding of people who are there to take care of their kids and trying to do the best for them. 

The first month and a half of being the commissioner of education, I've run into a considerable amount of support for what we're trying to do. But the stories we continue to hear about aren't as favorable.

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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.
Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.