JEFFERSON CITY – Proposed school standards for Missouri are designed to make students more active learners, rather than just memorizing rote facts, writers of the standards told members of the state board of education Monday.
After representatives of the work groups that spent more than a year putting the new standards together – to replace the Common Core state standards, which legislators say can no longer be used in Missouri – other witnesses testified to problems with the process or shortcomings of the proposed standards.
After nearly two and a half hours, education Commissioner Margie Vandeven and board President Charlie Shields said there would be another period for public comment, for 30 days beginning Nov. 2, and academics and lawmakers would also review the proposals. The current timetable calls for the board to vote in March whether to adopt the new standards. They are supposed to be in place for the 2016-17 school year.
Much of the comment from those critical of the process said that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education controlled the work groups and their discussions, a claim that DESE has repeatedly denied. In an interview after the hearing, Vandeven said she does not want to take sides in the debate over what the new standards should look like.
“My mission is not to create X percentage for or against Common Core,” she said. “My mission is to really ensure that we’re putting the best standards in front of our kids and teachers.”
The work groups drew up new standards for English, math, science and social studies, for both primary and secondary grades. They began working after lawmakers passed a bill saying Missouri could no longer use Common Core state standards, which are being followed in more than 40 states nationwide, but had to come up with home-grown standards instead.
The final versions of the work groups’ proposals were submitted to the state board on Oct. 1. Representatives from all eight work groups presented their results to the board at Monday’s hearing; some gave a bare bones description, while others went into more detail about the rational and the results of their groups’ work.
In many cases, their message was that the new standards should help Missouri students have a deeper understanding of the subject matter involved instead of just engaging in rote memorization.
Clara Bennion, a teacher in Camdenton who led the science work group for the upper grades, said in an interview after the hearing that science education needs to be an active process.
“We just think that it’s very important that our students are doing science,” Bennion said, “that they are taking part in the inquiry, the design, the experimentation, of the science standards and what scientific thinking is.”
Like many other panels, Bennion noted that the science group not only worked on the standards but included outside groups in the field to get their thinking.
Kimberly Benz, a parent in the Ferguson-Florissant school district who also was on the science work group, said the emphasis on active learning should pay off.
“We do understand that this will require more professional development for our staff,” she said. “However, we feel it is important that the kids actually do these hands-on projects.”
Brian Schultz, a social studies coordinator for schools in Independence, said that his group tried to replace standards that he said were too old and too general with more specific questions and more targeted areas, to help both students and teachers.
“There are many competing perspectives today about history,” Schultz told the board, “its purpose and the message we should give to students. Our committee believes our standards should be above these arguments, not prescribing a set of beliefs but just presenting learning standards worthy of investigation. I hope the state board carefully considers the standards because it’s past time that Missouri should have standards that encourage critical thinking in our youth.”
During the presentation of English standards, board member Mike Jones said he wanted to make sure that the study of literature and history can be more closely aligned, to show how a certain time period influences what is written and vice versa. He used Charles Dickens as an example, as commentary on the 19th century British industrial economy.
“It seems to me that part of what gets lost in education is the inability to integrate literature with the social context that produced it,” Jones said. “Nobody sits down to say I want to write a great book. They really sit down to start to write a novel or a poem that is a reflection of what their observation is.”
When the math work groups presented their standards, the discussion turned to frequent criticism of the “new math” techniques in Common Core that have sometimes stymied students and parents.
Lori Reynolds of Blue Springs, who chaired the work group for math in the lower grades, said that topic and the political heat it has sometimes generated received a lot of discussion.
“Mathematics hasn’t changed,” she said. “It’s probably how we are using the mathematics that has changed, and how our students, to be college and career ready, would have to change…. We felt that some of those standards that had really gotten some heat from the public really was a misunderstanding of what was expected at a grade level.”
A majority of the 16 people who testified after the work group presentations were complete criticized the standards or the process. Many of the witnesses have been sharp critics of DESE, saying that the department played a much greater role in the work groups’ process than the law allowed.
“Standards aren’t the problem in our education,” said Toni Becker, a member of the secondary science standards group who abstained from approving its final product. “DESE is.”
Others criticized not the process but the result. Lisa Merideth, an assistant superintendent in Parkway, said she was concerned that too many standards were added, some good ones were omitted and in general many of the guidelines are not rigorous enough.
“Some standards are almost identical from grade level to grade level,” she said. “I worry about the risk of repeated learning as opposed to accelerated learning.”
And Bob Miller of St. Louis said he wanted Missouri to keep Common Core, so the state would be better able to tell how its students are doing compared with those in other states and even in other countries.
“Statewide collaboration is great,” he said. “But I like across-the-country collaboration.”