This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2011 - When Missouri education officials try for a third time to come up with a new set of standards to judge the state's school districts, the changes will be more a shift in tactics than in goals.
That's the judgment of Peter Herschend of Branson, a longtime member of the state Board of Education and its current president. As expected, the board voted Wednesday to approve a surprise request from Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, to scrap a proposal put together earlier this year and send it back for further revisions.
But Herschend doesn't think the whole process will go all the way back to square one. Instead, he told the Beacon on Monday, it will refine how students and schools will reach the ultimate goal: having Missouri rank in the top 10 states in education by the year 2020.
"The changes will occur at the tactical level, not at the objective level," Herschend said.
"Everyone has agreed that the top 10 by 20 goal is one heck of a stretch, but it's the right direction. Where the disagreements have come are in what we are going to have to do to get there."
The latest version of the standards -- the fifth cycle of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, known by the shorthand of MSIP5 -- were set to go out for a 30-day public comment period last Friday. But as the Beacon reported late Thursday, Nicastro decided at the last minute to ask the state board to rescind the proposal in the face of objections from several education groups in the state.
The comment period actually did begin as planned on Friday, but if the board approves Nicastro's request at its meeting in Jefferson City on Wednesday, it would end while education officials try to refine the plan and answer the objections.
The questions came from groups belonging to the Education Roundtable, made up of teachers, parents, school boards, administrators and others involved in the state's schools. Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Board Association, said he was surprised but pleased that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education realized that the objections needed to be answered for MSIP5 to have the support it would need to succeed.
"For whatever reason," Ghan said, "they did not take into account many of the concerns and issues that a lot of people in education throughout the state were expressing. I just feel like most of the groups in the roundtable felt there was not adequate opportunity for providing input."
Ghan was particularly concerned about what he called the unintended consequences of some of the standards, like a lack of focus on career education that he said could wind up increasing the dropout rate, if too many students who want career or technical training can't find the courses they need.
He noted that his association is beginning a series of 17 regional meetings around the state, and the new opportunity for providing guidance on MSIP5 will be a major topic of conversation.
"We are encouraging our members to make positive suggestions," Ghan said. "We don't want them to simply complain about the shortcomings they may see in the proposed standards but to offer constructive thoughts on ways that schools can be held accountable for high standards and achievement.
"We need to do it in a way that allows more local flexibility and more local decision making."
To Herschend, that attitude is what the state board hopes to nurture as it tries once again to update standards. Two years ago, the process was short-circuited by the fact that Nicastro had just come on board and the federal government had given states the opportunity compete for money through the Race to the Top program, which took up a lot of time and effort at DESE.
Herschend, who has been on the state board since December 1991, said he didn't think anyone was trying to subvert efforts to update the accreditation process, and he said the debate about MSIP5 echoes ones that occurred during earlier revisions.
"There is merit to every one of those arguments," he said, "and let me be quick to point out that those arguments were made in good faith by good people when we did MSIP1 and MSIP2 and MSIP3 and MSIP4.
"I know this is the first time we have had clearly stated educational objectives, where all this is leading, because I've been there for all five MSIPs."
He understands concerns about testing and about reduced financial support for schools, but he said that anyone who really wants Missouri students to succeed needs to put aside some of those worries.
"When I hear objections like, 'Wait a minute, this is going to require more testing, and that's going to require more money,' I think that's a fair statement. But if you say that something is going to cost more money and therefore you can't set a higher standard for Missouri students, then you're talking about the financial side of your head and not worrying about what's best for students."
If things move along as they should, the new round of discussions should be complete by the end of July. Then DESE officials can put together a final version of the new MSIP5 for the board to approve and put out for public comment again.
Herschend said his experience with state rule making shows him the latest delay isn't all that unusual, and he isn't worried about a few more months added to the process.
"My urgency isn't the process," he said. "My urgency is the kids coming up through the Missouri school system, a million kids. I have a personal obligation to see to it that they get an education that will prepare them for college or that they will be doggone ready for the workforce, so they don't have to go out and sweep the streets for the rest of their lives."