Depending on whose opinion you get, this week’s initial meetings to draw up new school standards for Missouri students were a “Common Core cheerleading session” or a strong-arm attempt that was “hijacked by political extremists” on the right.
Either way, the eight committees impaneled under a law passed earlier this year appear to have a long way to go to meet a deadline of having the new standards ready for approval a year from now.
The law signed by Gov. Jay Nixon in July is designed to move Missouri away from the Common Core state standards approved by more than 40 states nationwide and replace them with home-grown expectations of what the state’s students should learn. Though the new standards will set out what schools should teach, how they teach will remain up to local districts.
Under the law, eight committees will study four subjects – English, math, science, and history and governments – with one group for the lower grades and another for higher grades. Members were named by legislative leaders, the governor and lieutenant governor, and education officials and groups.
The sessions included facilitators brought in by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to help organize the groups and move them through their duties. But their presence didn’t sit well with everyone who was pushing for the move away from Common Core.
Paul Ellison of Chilhowee, who was named to the K-5 history and government group by House Speaker Tim Jones, called the effort “a coup that was performed by DESE.”
Saying that he didn’t want to take part in a process that didn’t follow the law, he added: “Too much is riding on what comes out of these work groups. To begin a process under the pretense that we are following the path laid out by HB 1490, would be to participate in a sham. I cannot, and will not, lend my name as validation for a process that is flawed from inception.
“I cannot and will not participate in the hijacking of our children’s future. To do so, gives the charade the pretense of validity and there was nothing valid, legal or legitimate about the coup I witnessed in today’s meeting.”
On the other side, from the same work group, Alden Craddock, an education professor at Maryville University who heads its Center for Civic Engagement and Democracy, sent this message to colleagues and others:
“For the last two days, every standards review committee has had to deal with disruptive, obstructionist, ultra conservative factions who are coordinating their message and tactics to seemingly undermine the state standards - in ALL core subjects….
“Needless to say -- this is not a positive situation and many of us are concerned that our education system is under threat of being hijacked by political extremists.
“So please do check with your colleagues and see if they know about what is happening. We need all eyes and ears open on this issue.”
DESE’s role, pro and con
Those were hardly the only messages being circulated about the two days of meetings.
A group of elected officials, including Jones, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, issued a statement Tuesday complaining that DESE was taking a stronger role in the process than the law calls for.
“HB1490 was designed to vest in the education work groups the power to shape recommendations for academic standards absent influence from bureaucrats and politicians,” their statement said. “Under the law, after DESE convened the initial meeting, the power shifts to the groups alone to guide themselves each month with the goal of delivering their best academic standards recommendations by Oct. 1, 2015.
“There exists no authority in the statute for DESE to dictate the deliberations of these work groups, nor even to guide their deliberations after the initial organizing meetings held yesterday, unless invited to do so by individual work groups.”
In response, DESE issued its own statement Wednesday morning, trying to clarify its role in the process:
“The department has convened the work groups as charged under the provisions of HB 1490. We provided individual group facilitators and note takers to each group to assist in conducting the first meeting and allowing the work groups to convene. The facilitators will not serve in future sessions unless requested to do so by the work group itself. As of late Tuesday, 6 of the 8 groups have requested that the department continue to provide this resource. Arrangements have been made for the times, dates and locations suggested. We will work to provide this assistance on additional or other dates to the extent possible.
“In addition, the department provided lunch for the past two days for all participants and arranged for meeting space. Both of these services are also available for future meetings upon request by the group on the days earlier suggested. All meetings are public and all records are subject to the Sunshine Law as the groups were convened by the department in compliance with state law. The work groups are responsible for meeting all requirements for compliance. Again, the department will assist as requested by the groups.
“We are particularly interested in ensuring that the educators involved in this process have ample notice of meetings to facilitate their participation and adequate preparation for a substitute if necessary. We believe that the active involvement of professionals is critical to the quality of the final product.”
In an interview, Commissioner Chris Nicastro said that DESE often will try to convene work groups and tackle the logistics of meetings in a city without a lot of meeting space, as well as with teachers who need to know in advance when they will be out of the classroom.
“To us,” she said, “ convening something means you identify a location for the meeting, you make logistical arrangements, you order lunch, you have somebody there to take notes, you have somebody there to facilitate discussion. Those were the things we did.
“We put them in place. And we told those groups Monday, if they don’t want those services, that’s fine.”
For teachers, she added, “they have to have lots of notice to be out of their classrooms that much. They have to have substitutes. Their principals and superintendents need to know they will be gone. They don’t have a lot of flexibility.”
Nicastro expressed hope that the rancor will give way to cooperation and a productive result.
“I just think it’s going to be a process,” she said. “It’s going to be something people are going to have to work through, so the groups can kind of jell and figure out who their leaders are. Maybe they don’t want leaders.
“I have to hope it will work itself out.”
Speaker Jones shares her wish. He said that after the divisiveness of the first day and the statement he and his Republican colleagues put out, the groups seemed to be more willing to get down to business.
“Our biggest concern,” he said, “was that we wanted to make sure everybody understood this was supposed to be driven by the people on the groups and not by any bureaucrats.”
Behemoth, bloodbath and bullies
The dueling messages caught the spirit of the actual meetings, according to people who attended and videos that were posted by DESE. Questions were raised about the facilitators brought in by DESE, some from out of town, at state expense. At times, members of the various panels would take their own videos with cell phones or step out of the meeting to confer by phone with others, then come in and argue points that appeared to be common among several groups, even though they were meeting separately.
One problem that cropped up several times was the fact that the full membership of individual panels was not present. In some cases, not all members have been named yet; in others, members didn’t get the official word of their nomination until Friday.
In any case, those who took part weren’t shy about sharing their opinions.
On Ellison’s online show Wednesday, he spoke with Stacy Shore of Camdenton, who has been active in her opposition to Common Core. She was the one who characterized the meetings as a “Common Core cheerleading session,” throwing in the description “a bloodbath” and calling DESE a “huge bureaucratic behemoth.” Ellison said members of his group felt “bullied and intimidated from the get-go.”
Out of frustration, he said he walked out of the meeting and drove to his hometown, which is near Warrensburg.
In an interview, he said he hoped the effort to replace the Common Core with Missouri-based standards can succeed, adding:
“However, I would say that the process itself is certainly hindered in some respects simply by the incredible influence DESE had in our particular work group and in other work groups that I got from other parents who were involved in those groups as well.”
Craddock, the Maryville professor, who was on the same panel as a representative from higher education, said the presence of the DESE facilitators was not an effort to take over the discussion, but others did not see it that way.
“It became quite hostile, in terms of their being in the room at all,” he said in an interview. “The fundamental process from the very beginning was attacked.”
He said he had taken part in a similar effort on Ohio 10 or 12 years ago, and it was much more civil.
Will the contentious atmosphere in Missouri eventually work itself out?
“There are lot of well-intentioned people in the room who are deeply involved in education and feel committed to doing everything we can for our children,” Craddock said. “But there are significant challenges in terms of actually even conducting the work at this point.”
James Shuls, who was named to the K-5 math standards group by Dempsey, said that given the mix of people involved in the panels, clashes were inevitable.
But Shuls – an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute – questions what effect new standards will have at all.
“My position all along is that I really don’t think that these standards are going to make that big of a difference one way or the other,” he said. “Standards are largely irrelevant, in terms of student achievement, and they invite conflict. Any time you take something important like this to local schools and you centrally impose it, you’re inviting conflict.
“You’re asking for it, because you’re asking people to make decisions that impact everybody, and we have a very diverse group of opinions within these groups, but across the state we probably have even more divergent ideas on what makes a quality education. So the very act of centrally imposing anything invites discord.”
Still, he added, it’s possible that the groups will be able to come up with something usable in the end.
“If we start to operate with that mindset,” Shuls said, “and say OK, we have significant differences, but how can we work together and come to something that we’re going to be in agreement on, we might be able to come together at the end of the day with something.”