As Missouri’s state board of education gets ready to hold the first of three mandated hearings on new standards for public schools, members of the groups charged with writing the standards say politics is starting to take a back seat to education.
The initial meetings of the work groups, which began in September, were marked by disputes over everything from broad philosophical questions to details over how the meetings would be run and what role would be played by representatives of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Now the first round of meetings has ended, and the first hearing before the state board is set for Monday in Jefferson City -- and acrimony may have given way to a more harmonious attitude.
“They were completely different,” Alex Cuenca, an education professor at Saint Louis University, said of the two meetings held by his group, which is putting together standards for social studies in secondary schools. “We finally have a good grasp of where we’re going and where we’re headed in terms of standards creation.
“Once we got past the politics of the issue, and what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re now getting to what the standards should be, what should they say. I think we’re making really good progress.”
Mary Byrne, a retired educator who is active in the Missouri Coalition Against Common Core, is in the same work group as Cuenca. She agreed that the discussions have moved past what she termed a “rocky start.” She thinks Monday’s hearing will be another step toward making sure the new standards are written properly.
“It is one of those cautionary measures,” she said, “that says, ‘You know, state board, we’re not going through this whole process and then having you reject it at the end and say this isn’t what we wanted.’
“We are going to have formative discussions, so that you get public input all along the way, at least at three points, and hear what has been going on, what the frustrations of people are, what it is they are looking for, and can respond to that during the process. I think that’s very, very helpful.”
Legislation signed by Gov. Jay Nixon earlier this year requires that Missouri replace the Common Core State Standards, which had been adopted by more than 40 states nationwide, and replace them with a homegrown set of standards for what every student in the state should know.
While those new standards are being devised, with a deadline of next October, the state may go ahead with tests based on Common Core. But the law made clear that while the standards should set out what Missouri students should learn, local school districts will retain the right and the responsibility for how those subjects should be taught.
The law also spelled out in detail who would name members of the work groups for the four subjects involved – English, math, science, and history and governments, with groups in each subjects set up for grades kindergarten through five and grades six through 12.
What is DESE’s role?
One of the flashpoints that arose during the groups’ first meetings last month was what the role of the state department of education should be. It is coordinating the meeting schedule and helped arrange for rooms that the groups could use, but it also provided facilitators and note takers whose presence upset Common Core critics.
“Having a facilitator lead a group is actually the voice of DESE is interfering with the group,” Byrne said. “That’s the source of the discontent in the original meetings. It was having an unauthorized work group member there.”
Rebecca Langrall, a curriculum coordinator for the Parkway School District, who is a note taker for the group that includes Byrne and Cuenca, said that at first, coordinators of the meetings were even blocked from showing a presentation on logistics like where the bathrooms were.
Eventually, she said, the atmosphere became more positive, and that movement appears to have carried through to the latest set of meetings, last week.
One thing that helped, says Byrne, was a meeting of all members of all of the groups that was convened by legislators who were instrumental in getting the new law passed. That session helped clarify the job that the groups had before them and the process they should use to get it done.
Now, Byrne says, the discussions are more philosophical, though practical considerations remain. One area that still concerns her is who owns the copyright to the Common Core standards, and who will have the same control over whatever new standards are adopted in Missouri.
She said private organizations based in Washington, D.C., hold too much sway over Common Core, which gives them inordinate influence over what children are taught.
“From my perspective,” Byrne said, “the level of expertise and knowledge that is in our group is evidence that superior state standards can be developed within our state. And we can make the case for more local control rather than copyrighted standards to non-governmental organizations in Washington, D.C.”
She said the standards can also help teachers in parts of Missouri where they may not have the support they need.
“What I particularly appreciated in my group was the understanding that the people with expertise that their role was to support first-year teachers in rural settings. Those first-year teachers need mentoring support, and in rural settings, you don’t typically have an entire department. You are the department in many cases.
“So if we can write standards with such clarity and such organization of structure that they’re well understood, even by that first-year teacher, then we know we have done an excellent job.”
Less friction, more cooperation
Cuenca said that people have been able to get past their initial resentment toward DESE, and the department in turn has been able to play a more supportive role that lessens friction in the group.
“They’re doing a good job of staying in the background and letting us do our work,” he said, “so I think that’s dissipating at this point.”
He appreciates the different perspectives that various members of the work group bring to their task.
“You have to hear everyone out,” he said, “and that takes time. But because we’re hearing everyone out, it’s an education for all of us in terms of different perspectives and where different people are coming from. And that’s going to be really good at the end of the day.
“All of those perspectives are coming into play and it’s going to make a really strong document. Once the personalities in the room start to mesh and trust each other, I think over time we’ll come into a really good rhythm.”
At Monday’s hearing, anyone who wants to comment will be asked to limit their remarks to three minutes. Anyone who does not get a chance to speak will be able to submit comments in writing.
After the hearing, the groups will continue meeting, with a deadline of submitting a final version of the new standards to the state board by Oct. 1 of next year. If they are approved, DESE will devise new standardized tests aligned with the new standards, to be used in the 2016-17 school year.
The law requires two more hearings to be held after the initial session, one within six months of when the work groups began to meet and the final one when the finished standards are presented to the state board.
Byrne said she is looking forward to seeing how the state board will run Monday’s hearing, which is scheduled to last for nearly two hours in the board’s regular meeting room. Board members are expected to listen to testimony, not ask questions.
“Is the state board really going to be welcoming and considerate of the intent of the law?” Byrne asked. “Or is this going to be another strategy for promoting an agenda that is outside of what the public has said is their agenda? That remains to be seen.”