By a narrow, but predictable, vote the State Board of Education fired Commissioner Margie Vandeven Friday.  This is the first time a sitting Commissioner has been fired which may be unprecedented but not disallowed procedurally. According to the state Constitution, the governor gets to appoint members of the State Board of Education with the advice and counsel of the Senate. The Board, in turn gets to approve the Commissioner of Education and may, according to RsMO 161.112 “remove the commissioner at its discretion.”

There was much gnashing of teeth by superintendents around the state and the board members who voted against her dismissal. Letters like this from Superintendent of Rockwood Knost came out in support of Vandeven.  I cannot resist pointing out to Knost that if he himself was able to practice close reading and citing examples from the text as our students are required under Common Core, which he also supported, he would note that nowhere in the state constitution Article IX does it say that the Board is “supposed to be independent and non-political.”  All it says is that at no time may there be more members of one political party than the other. That is balanced, not non-political or independent.

With regard to Vandeven’s firing, board member Mike Jones was quoted in the Missouri Times as saying , “The goose was cooked before we ever sat down. We have forfeited our legitimacy as a board.”

“There was an opportunity to take advantage of everyone heading in the right direction, and we missed that opportunity today,” said Board President Charlie Shields.

Odd comments from both when you consider recent board history. Two years ago the Board was wrangling over what our goal of being “Top 10 by 20” meant. Shields asked at a meeting how we  would know if we had achieved that goal. He could not get an answer from Vandeven or her staff. Two recent attempts to replace the 10×20 slogan failed. The first effort in August, undertaken by the “Department of Branding” under Vandeven came up with “Successful Students. Better Missouri.” That failed completely to generate any enthusiasm. The second effort in September of this year “Show Me Success” was a similar failure as board members pointed out that Success means different things to different people. These failures show that the Department has no idea how to set a goal a goal based on select criteria and the state board is unwilling to take on this assignment themselves. If Shields thought they were heading in the right direction, he may have been the only one who knew what that direction was.

As for Jones’s  concern that they have forfeited their legitimacy, how would he describe that legitimacy given that the department, under Vandeven’s direction, was granting teacher certification based on a test that was still being reviewed and revised by professional work groups and that had not yet officially been approved by the board. The Commissioner certainly didn’t need the board’s legitimacy to operate.

It might be useful to consider the competition when the board was looking to replace retiring Commissioner Chris Nicastro in 2014. Then Governor Nixon made it clear to the board that he expected whoever was selected to support everything in our NCLB waiver agreement which he had already promised to the USED when he agreed to accept stimulus money in 2009. No one seemed to have a problem then with the Governor dictating what he wanted from the State Board of Education at that time. There were several Superintendents in southern Missouri who expressed their concern about the choice of Vandeven back then so she was not universally supported by Superintendents around the state.

Consider these other failures under Vandeven’s leadership.

  1. The Department is required by statute to provide the Speaker of the House and Pro Tem of the Senate with reports on the validity and reliability of a new test any time one is being considered for statewide implementation. There was no such submission from DESE under Vandeven when the Common Core aligned SBAC was implemented.
  2. Board member Peter Herschend requested the department to provide the board with a list of issues the department faced which would require legislative action to address so that the Board members could begin discussions with legislators about how best to go about addressing these concerns. Four months later, when such a list should have been delivered to allow the Board time to have those issues addressed in the next legislative session, there was nothing, much the the surprise and consternation of Herschend, from DESE.
  3. As Assistant Commissioner, Vandeven was intimately involved in rigging the selection of CEE trust for an overhaul of the Kansas City School District. These actions should have made her choice for Commissioner even less likely in the first place.
  4. The Consolidated Education Plan states were supposed to submit to the US  Department of Education for “acceptance” was required to received public review and 30 day review by the Governor prior to submission. DESE did not alter their plan to submit it by the first deadline in April without either of these two review mechanisms until MCACC brought this gross oversight to the Governor’s attention.
  5. Most recently, the department contracted with test supplier Questar to produce and score End of Course exams, aligned to Common Core standards, for math and language arts. That contract itself violates prohibitions placed in the state budget since 2014 against using state funds to implement any portion of Common Core. In addition, the vendor had written into its contract a warning that the newly calibrated test would would negatively affect the percentage of students scores classified as Proficient+Advanced and would render the results unusable in comparative analysis to previous year’s results. That information was never made publicly available and it seems doubtful the Board was even informed. Instead Vandeven chose to hide those results from the public.
  6. In addition, technical problems with the administration of the Algebra I EOC exam caused 176 students across the state to have results that were unusable for scoring. DESE, under Vandeven, chose to have the vendor “estimate” those student’s scores based on their answers in a different portion of the exam. This falsification of results is bad enough, but is made even worse by two additional points.

The first gets back to Superintendent’s support for Vandeven. Fingers are pointing both ways on this but it seems pretty obvious from statements made by DESE staff at the September 2017 Board meeting that Superintendents, who stand to draw money to the district and/or retain their accreditation based on test scores, were looking for a mechanism to make kids put more effort into exams which previously had not counted towards their grades because they were meant to be an assessment of the district’s curriculum and teaching programs.

As a result of this pressure by Superintendents, DESE approved the use of EOC test scores for final grades. Imagine being one of those 176 students who didn’t even get their actual score, getting an estimated score for a completely different part of the test and that score being used in a final grade which may impact their eligibility for Missouri’s A+ program!

The second point is that there was never a disclosure to the district or the students themselves that their scores were not really their scores. This was all hidden by the department.

Read more about these last three points in a very detailed report prepared by Dr. Byrne for MCACC and presented to the Governor and State Board members here.

Points 1-5 show a repeated failure to follow procedure, one of the paramount responsibilities of a bureaucrat. The other point shows either ineptitude or willful deceit. These are good reasons for the state to find a new Commissioner of Education. Is the Governor’s choice the right person?

Yes, Grietens was ham handed in his tactic to oust Vandeven, but it will be better for the state if we can have a Commissioner who sticks to the law and is more transparent.  It is clear that Greitens  intends to fill the role with someone who is very charter friendly, as one would expect from anyone who formerly sat on the Aspen Institute’s board. The State Board still has the power to reject the Governor’s recommendations to fill the empty spot so expect the political wrangling to continue for some time.

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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