JEFFERSON CITY -- Compared with the clamor and criticism that has accompanied the debate over Common Core State Standards in recent months and years, Monday’s hearing into the topic by the state board of education was positively tame.
The board’s meeting room was packed, with an overflow room set up for others who might want to watch the proceedings. But what had been scheduled to take one hour and 45 minutes ended 50 minutes early, when no one else stepped forward to testify despite several invitations to do so by Peter Herschend, president of the state board.
After the hearing, Herschend said in an interview that the session included better input and less controversy than he had expected.
“If I could put it into the right-hand camp and the left-hand camp,” he said, “neither camp being right, when I listened to those who were objecting, who were articulate on how education happens, they had some good input. I have 10 ideas I want to follow up on. I don’t know if they’re right, wrong or indifferent. But when they said something that made sense, let’s look into that.
“The people who were speaking in support of the higher, more rigorous standards, they weren’t saying that everything that DESE has put together is ordained by God above. They were saying that the standards that are being worked toward are good.”
After the morning hearing, the state board went into a lengthy closed session where it was expected to discuss the process for choosing a successor for Commissioner Chris Nicastro, who plans to retire at the end of December.
Herschend had expressed a desire to hire someone for the job this week, but after objections were raised to the speed of that timeline and the fact that no widespread search was going to be conducted, he backtracked. He said that an announcement Tuesday most likely would detail the search process, though he indicated he still does not want it to be prolonged.
“We’re still working with a Dec. 31, 2014, guideline that we hope to be able to meet,” he said.
Asked if he would like to be able to name a permanent successor without having an interim commissioner in place, he said, “That would be the ideal. That would be perfect.”
Will he be able to achieve it?
“We’re going to strive,” Herschend said, “but not very many baseball players hit 1,000.”
Common Core hearing
The board first heard from representatives of each of the eight work groups – English, math, science and social studies, one each for lower and upper grades -- now meeting to devise Missouri-based standards to replace the ones adopted by more than 40 states nationwide. The work groups began meeting last month in an atmosphere of confusion and sometimes hostility that has moved toward more collaboration and conciliation.
Most of the work group members said their work is proceeding well, sometimes after a rocky start, though most added that the full complement of members still has not been named. Some of the groups were further along than others. Some also were concerned about the costs that group members have incurred in their trips to Jefferson City – costs that Herschend said DESE has no money to pay for.
Then, 13 individuals testified – including some who had earlier represented their work group – on what the Missouri standards should be and how they should be different from Common Core, if at all. The groups are expected to meet regularly for the next 11 months, with the new standards to be presented to the state board by next Oct. 1.
According to the law that established the process, the board must have two more public hearings as the groups continue their work, including one on the final product. Until the new standards are accepted by the board, Common Core remains in place in Missouri. If the schedule established by the law holds, the new standards would be put into practice in the 2016-17 school year.
Some of the issues that came up have been debated for a long time, such as who owns the copyright for the standards and have they been pushed by groups that stand to profit, such as those companies that write and sell standardized tests.
But others had more personal concerns.
Ron Staggs of Paris, Mo., who said he had come to testify as a concerned citizen and grandparent, noted that he works in statistical analysis and computer programming. In his view, students coming out of high school today have skills that have deteriorated significantly from their predecessors of years past.
“You have students come to college level classes,” he said, “and they don’t even know how to take notes. They want to borrow yours. That’s a sad statement.”
Staggs said that he has observed the group working on new standards for English in the upper grades and members seem satisfied with preserving the status quo.
“It’s very apparent that the educational professionals in the meeting are merely reconstituting Common Core standards under the guise of new Missouri standards,” he said. “There’s no doubt that those same people who presided over our failing schools want to continue down the same path of dumbing down our students.
“Clearly, they are products of a failed education system themselves. Ask yourself: Why would they not want the best for our children? Missouri students deserve better. They deserve the best standards available, and the standards should not be bought and paid for by individuals and corporations whose only interest is a piece of the education expenditure pie.”
Using the phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” Staggs said teachers need to be better trained so they can do a better job in the classroom.
“I contend that those responsible in our universities and colleges for teaching our teachers are imparting methodology, techniques, ideology and subject matter that have proven to be ineffective and detrimental to achieving a sound body of knowledge,” he said. “It’s not a teacher’s fault that our students are falling behind. They’re just teaching what they’ve been taught in school. But that continues the downward spiral.”
Others were unhappy with the contentious atmosphere that has hampered some of the work groups. Pam Hedgpeth of Clever, Mo., who said she was a former school superintendent, said she was supposed to be a facilitator for one of the groups, but she wasn’t allowed to do her job and let various opinions be aired.
"We have a great opportunity right now to have lots of voices be heard. But it's really tough because a strong agenda is driving this force," said Hedgpeth, who added that that political agenda often is not representing the majority of teachers who think the current standards make sense.
“They’ve spent a lot of time creating curriculum and activities and assessments that work with that curriculum. So a lot of work is being put to the side as a result of this process.”
Hedgpeth also wondered what will happen to those schools that are happy with Common Core and what they have developed to go along with those standards.
“What if this is not the direction they want to go with their school?” she asked. “Then I say we’ve got to take a look at local control. Because if schools have developed curriculum around Common Core and that’s what they think is best for their kids, then they should have the option to maintain that and move forward with that.”
Herschend sounded a similar theme, saying that the hearings that the state board will conduct will have a definite impact on the final standards.
“What you have to listen for,” he said, “is people who have an understanding of how education happens. Education doesn’t just happen because a kid shows up in school. That’s why teachers have extensive training, why standards exist in the first place.
“There have always been standards. When you took Spanish in high school, you had standards that the teachers expected of you. The process that we’re talking about here is the codification of those standards into a standardized format. That’s where the objection also comes in because people don’t tend to like that.”