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stateboard1Tuesday April 19th the State Board of Education completed the next phase in the process of adopting new K-12 education standards for Missouri. They voted to approve the standards that DESE gave them. It must be noted that these were not the standards that the work groups, established by HB1490, gave them. Whether or not those standards are materially different from what DESE ultimately submitted is not the issue. The issue is that DESE created a process not included in the statutory language in HB1490 that places them in direct control, using a consensus of one, to develop new standards for the state. It sets the precedent for DESE to continue to tweak/change the standards in the future unilaterally, by-passing the process proscribed by law.

The rhetoric generated by those opposed to the process outlined in HB1490 placed a daunting strawman before the public. That argument said we don’t want to keep changing the standards every couple of years because that is too hard on the teachers and the school districts. This argument was meant to influence the work groups to not make too many changes to the standards.

If those putting forth this argument were really concerned about frequent radical change, they would have opposed the adoption of Common Core in the first place as it did make radical changes to our standards almost overnight and would have left the state vulnerable to such sweeping changes in the future as there was no promise from CCSSI that they would leave their standards in place for any length of time. To change a full set of standards from kindergarten all the way through high school is a major task. It is jarring, work intensive and potentially expensive for teachers and school districts, yet that is exactly what was done with Common Core. That is why it took 2-3 years and countless hours of professional development/training to bring teachers up to speed on how to teach to the new standards. During this implementation phase, where were the writers of these standards if there were questions about what the standards were directing them to get the children to do? They were gone. Dispersed to the four winds and states were left to make their own interpretations. For a set of standards that 46 states were supposed to simultaneously be using, so everyone got the same education,  this was almost a guarantee of disparate implementation and outcomes.

In industry, when standards are set, experts in the field are assembled to write, edit, review, receive comment and critique, and revise the standards. Then as the standards are rolled out into wide use, these experts are available to provide explanation and clarification. They can even revise the standards, or sections of them, if the field has experienced consistent problems with any part of them. Ancillary businesses who also access the standards may have questions or problems with them and provide another avenue of input to the standards writers. In the case of education, this would be the support material providers and those providing professional development/training for teachers. Beyond that, if tests are developed based on the standards, testing companies may have questions about how best to get test takers to demonstrate the desired skill based on a complete understanding of what skill is described by the standard. This is yet another place for dialogue with standards developers.

The process of developing standards, as you should now be seeing, is not a static one. Standards are not something you plunk down on a desk and walk away from.  Changes don’t have to only occur on a massive content wide scale. They could be small but critical clarifications. The process laid out in HB1490 allows for this kind of interactive incremental process.

The work groups convened in September 2014 were given no instruction by the State Board of Education but they were provided instruction by the law.

160.526. 1. In establishing, evaluating, modifying, and revising the academic performance standards and learning standards authorized by section 160.514*  the state board [and the work groups established by extension in section 160.514] shall consider the work that has been done by other states, recognized regional and national experts, professional education discipline-based associations, other professional education associations, the work product from the department of higher education’s curriculum alignment initiative, or any other work in the public domain.

*160.514.2.  Whenever the state board of education develops, evaluates, modifies, or revises academic performance standards or learning standards, it shall convene work groups composed of education professionals to develop and recommend such academic performance standards or learning standards.

Section 160.526, designed to protect Missouri from potentially steep future licensing fees associated with copyrighted standards, meant that the work groups could not recommend that the Board adopt the Common Core standards. With those off the table, the work groups were looking at a complete re-write of Missouri Learning standards for math and language arts. This was admittedly a jarring move after the implementation of Common Core. However, if future work groups stick to the law, complete massive rewrites will not necessarily be required.

The law specified several elements of timing as well as points in the process for public input.

4. The state board of education shall hold at least three public hearings whenever it develops, evaluates, modifies, or revises academic performance standards or learning standards. The hearings shall provide an opportunity to receive public testimony, including but not limited to testimony from educators at all levels in the state, local school boards, parents, representatives from business and industry, labor and community leaders, members of the general assembly, and the general public

Note that these hearings were an opportunity for the board to hear from educators around the state. In addition to these three opportunities, many of the individual work groups distributed surveys on their draft standards to teachers around the state in the affected content areas or grade levels and spent hours discussing the merits of the comments received. There was plenty of opportunity for comments to be submitted and considered.

Once the work groups handed their recommendations to the Board in October, the law proscribed the next phase of the process.

(160.526.4. cont.) The state board of education shall also solicit comments and feedback on the academic performance standards or learning standards from the joint committee on education and from academic researchers. All comments shall be made publicly available.

This was an opportunity to get feedback from places like Fordham, the Massachusetts Department of Education, and Stanford. What DESE did at this point, however, was solicit more comments from random teachers around the state, not academic researchers. They received 3600+ comments. Then, instead of referring those comments to the work groups to consider, an individual in each content area within DESE made changes to the documents submitted by the work groups. This person had the sole discretion for which comments to incorporate and which to reject. Though revised drafts were sent to the work group chairs, those drafts were not universally shared with all the work group members. It was up to the chair whether or not to share them. In addition, DESE was asking the work groups to approve their changes, not to consider the comments received.

This precedent means that DESE very much stays in the driver’s seat with regards to standards. In the future, the normal standards setting process, which should be on-going, could be handled by these in-house individuals. There might never be another need to convene work groups. DESE can just tweak the standards as time goes on since the Board has allowed them to do so this time.

To recap, the law sets out that whenever content area standards are to be developed or revised, a group of 34 individuals from around the state representing 17 stakeholders with expertise spanning from pre-school to college shall be convened to provide broad based consideration of changes and to reach consensus on those changes. Their proceedings shall be videotaped in their entirety for the official record, should there be any question about their process or individual decisions.

In DESE’s view, a single individual, selected by the department, shall have sole discretion to alter state standards in a manner developed neither through legislative nor regulatory process. The public shall not be able to review their process as these individuals were not videotaped nor required to provide rationale for any comments they accepted or rejected.

The State Board of Education had concerns about the standards but felt compelled to act because of the timeline set in HB1490. They should have asked for more time. They should have paid attention to process. They, and the individuals within DESE who made changes to the standards, should be held accountable for any problems encountered in the field when the standards are adopted, not the work groups.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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