Now that she has announced her retirement at the end of the year, how should Chris Nicastro’s tenure as Missouri’s commissioner of education be graded?
Using the guarded tone of academia, Alex Cuenca, an assistant professor of education at Saint Louis University, gave this assessment Tuesday:
“I think she did the best she could with the circumstances she was given and the cards she was dealt.”
The response from state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, who himself is about to leave public service after a long career in the General Assembly, was pithier.
“It’s hard to clear the swamp,” he said, “when you’re up to your waist with alligators.”
Both judgments address chronic problems in Missouri’s schools, ones that have hardly improved since Nicastro took over at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2009.
She set lofty goals, like moving Missouri into the top 10 of states in education by the year 2020, and stringent procedures, like mandating state intervention teams for school districts showing subpar performance in their annual evaluations. But tight budgets and political wrangling over issues like Common Core standards have often hampered the ability of schools to respond to those challenges as well as they might have.
Coming from a career that included being a superintendent in two districts in north St. Louis County, Nicastro brought a background in urban education that seemed to fit well with the issues facing Missouri. But the solutions she chose didn’t always work, observers said.
“Chris Nicastro inherited a lot of problems that were getting more and more intense and critical,” said Kathleen Sullivan Brown, a professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “I think it was a mistake to look at charter school and choice options instead of intensively supporting district that are really struggling…..
“We knew that railroad train was coming toward us and was going to hit us, and we just did not get ourselves ready for that. Part of that was intense lobbying in Jefferson City. I think we’re in a really difficult place right now.”
The average tenure for people who head a state’s education program is about three years, according to Carissa Miller, deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington. She said Nicastro was one of 14 chief who have served five years or more.
“These chiefs don’t come in thinking it will be an easy job,” Miller said. “They are committed to public service. I think Chris has done a tremendous job in keeping the focus on kids.
“She has been a real leader in caring passionately about kids and making their lives better. She worked hard to make sure kids had high standards. We would consider her a real leader.”
And Kelly, whose two stints in the legislature paid a lot of attention to education, said of Nicastro:
“I’ve always thought highly of her. I’ve always found her to be straightforward and hard-working.”
Urban education background
When Nicastro became the fifth person and the first woman to lead DESE, her experience as superintendent in Hazelwood and Riverview Gardens was cited as one of the key qualifications she would bring to the job.
She moved quickly and aggressively to try to reshape and restore education in districts that have long struggled academically. First, Wellston was merged into Normandy. Then Riverview Gardens was taken over by a state-appointed board and essentially started over as a new district.
When the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the student transfer law that was passed in 1993 but never taken effect, the unaccredited status of Normandy and Riverview Gardens led to more than 2,000 students choosing to attend class in accredited schools.
The tuition and transportation costs of the transfers brought Normandy to the brink of bankruptcy and led the state board of education to dissolve it at the end of June, replacing it with the state-run Normandy Schools Collaborative. The budget in Riverview Gardens wasn’t hit quite as hard, but the effects of the transfer program are likely to be felt, if not this school year then the next.
And DESE created a detailed blueprint for intervention in struggling districts designed to make sure they don’t slide further behind.
The transfers’ effect on educational achievement is hard to measure. Don Senti, who heads EducationPlus, the cooperative of local school districts, said rather than moving students out of unaccredited districts, shoring those districts up makes more sense. He said Nicastro understood that ensuring Normandy’s survival was a key to that approach.
“A lot of people believe that somehow school choice, transferring kids out of unaccredited districts, will make the unaccredited districts better because of competition in the public school marketplace,” Senti said. “But the very idea that kids need to be able to leave unaccredited districts ignores the question of what was going to happen to the kids who don’t leave. It just doesn’t work.
“The Normandy Schools Collaborative is an attempt to deal with the issue of an unaccredited district and trying to make it better, rather than just saying if you don’t think think the district is good enough, just leave. Twenty percent left, 80 percent stayed, the district went bankrupt and the district got worse.”
Brown noted that Nicastro’s experience did not appear to give her the edge needed to solve the problem.
“I’m a little bit disappointed that we had a superintendent who was from an urban area, coming out of St. Louis, having been a superintendent in Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood, and yet she didn’t seem to be able to handle some of the big problems that were coming down the pike,” she said.
Part of the problem, Brown added, was that Nicastro did not seem to want to take advantage of assets already available in Missouri and instead went to outside sources.
“She was moving away from traditional education supports, almost as though they were the problem,” she said. “When you’re looking at state education policy, the first task you have is to define the problem.
“If you define the problem as teachers and teachers unions, then obviously you’re going to go away from them. If you define the problem more narrowly as the consequences of intense and concentrated poverty in a handful of school districts in the whole state, then I think you approach that very differently.”
William Rebore, a professor of educational leadership at Saint Louis University who supervised Nicastro’s dissertation when she earned her doctorate there, said that as commissioner, she has tackled the kinds of problems that are likely to bring opposition, educational and political.
“Whenever you take issues like urban education, teacher preparation, the testing of students, even Common Core, you are going to have those who support you and those who disagree with you,” Rebore said. “All commissioners who I have dealt with in the state of Missouri have had that kind of tenure. They are dealing with 500 independently governed school districts.
“Every commissioner has clashed with either the governor’s office or the state legislature, simply because they have different priorities. The way it is set up in Missouri, the commissioner works for the state board, which sets priorities for the state…. You cannot be a leader, whether you lead a school or a department, without creating some controversy. If you don’t, change never really takes place.”
The state board, which is appointed by the governor, will be choosing Nicastro’s successor. What qualities should they be looking for?
Gov. Jay Nixon, who appoints members of the state board, noted that his father-in-law, Hubert Wheeler, was Missouri’s first education commissioner, serving for 25 years, so he knows a lot about what the position needs.
“It’s a hard job,” he said Tuesday after visiting a school in St. Louis. “I thank Dr. Nicastro for the hard work that she did, both as a superintendent and as commissioner.”
Her successor, Nixon added, will have to deal with a variety of issues, including state funding, higher standards and additional pre-school.
“I really think that giving more young kids an opportunity to socialize and start education sooner is a great tool for the future,” he said. “ Those are three areas where I think the next commissioner will spend a tremendous amount of his or her time.”
In Senti’s view, the next commissioner needs to be someone “that understands deeply what needs to happen in the classroom for kids in poverty and kids everywhere. A lot of people, including me, are pretty good at organizing and running organizations. But we don’t know the details of what should happen when teachers teach the kids in the classroom. That’s what we need in our next commissioner, someone who deeply knows teaching and instruction and not just to run an organization.”
Rebore said a lot of the initiatives that have begun under Nicastro need to continue, particularly those in the urban areas.
“You have many of those districts in the St. Louis area and some in Kansas City that are right on the brink of losing accreditation,” he said. “That’s where your focus has to be, on the achievement of those children. Whoever they bring in is going to have to be someone who is going to take on those challenges.”
Brown said that one of Nicastro’s main goals – having Missouri in the top 10 by 2020 – will be “a stretch,” given the state’s chronic failure to fund the state’s foundation formula for schools fully.
“That particularly hurts districts like Normandy and Riverview,” she said, “who rely so heavily on their state funding. So they were doubly hurt when the formula itself was pro-rated and they got less and less state funds.”
As the process for finding a new commissioner begins, Brown added, various constituencies throughout the state have to get together to set priorities and make sure they are followed.
“Let’s sit down and talk about what the real issues are,” she said. “The real issues are race and poverty. We’ve been dancing around that for 25 years, and it’s not working, obviously. It’s not working for the kids in Normandy and the kids in Riverview, but it’s not working for the state of Missouri. That’s our future. They are the workforce that we have to prepare, and we’ve been ignoring that.”