dese-sept-28I attended the DESE Regional Listening meeting in St. Louis last week. Below are my observations of that meeting.

These sessions were required by the new ESSA as a means to receive public input to the state’s education plan (to ultimately be approved by the Secretary of Education). No specific method for receiving such input was proscribed in ESSA, but the familiar Delphi technique was applied at this meeting. Tables were spread around the room for small group discussions. There were four prompts and a facilitator. After 15 minutes of group discussion on each question, each table reported a single answer to the larger group. Participants were not to provide their opinion of each other’s comments, nor were they there to convince their tablemates of a particular point of view. This was a collective mental dump. DESE also collected individual comments on post-it notes and promised to publish all table responses and the post-its on its website. DESE provided no feedback and did not take questions at the meeting.

In attendance from the state board of education were Vic Lenz, Mike Jones and Joe Driscoll.  Commissioner Vandeven from DESE provided opening remarks which included statistics from our state which can be viewed in more detail on the DESE Data Dashboard (900,000 students enrolled in 518 districts, 38 charter schools, 1/8 of students have IEPs, top ten in growth of English Language Learners etc.)

DESE has three goals in its 10×20 Plan.

  • Ensure K-12 graduates are college and career ready
  • Ensure that early childhood education is available in all districts
  • Ensure that our schools have effective teachers and leaders

The four questions we were to answer were:

  1. What does student success look like to you?
  2. What do school communities need to do to prepare students for success after graduation?
  3. How will you know Missouri schools have been effective in preparing students for success after graduation?
  4. From our discussion tonight, what matters most to you in public education? Please share your thoughts on next steps.

What DESE heard from the public. These themes were common among the many tables around the room.

“We Want Equity!” The definition of equity was not universal but clearly involved distributing money and resources so that every child could reasonably be expected to have the same outcome. It was not necessarily defined as equal distribution.

More Money For Education. There was a general perception that the state did not spend enough money on education. How much is enough was not defined. What more money would accomplish was not defined. Where this money was to come from was not proposed.

Educate the Whole Child. The challenges some individual children face in trying to receive an education were noted. The general consensus was that it was the mission of the public school system to overcome those challenges (most stemming from poverty, some in the form of physical or mental limitations.) This led to many comments about producing children with positive attitudes, curiosity, critical thinking and a readiness to work. Someone at my table even wanted to demand that DESE and the department of social services be officially and permanently connected.

Of note – What DESE did not hear, especially in response to question 3, was anyone calling for tests or scores to determine if the child was prepared or the school was doing a good job. There was general consensus that there was too much testing and it was not useful to anyone. It cannot be said that here was no room-wide consensus on what was needed at schools or how such goals should be achieved. There was not a specific call for the state to define success or hold schools to a single standard. This bodes well for local control.

If you disagree with any of these general comments, you may want to send your own thoughts in to DESE. You can use this link to provide them. I noted at my table if we were not getting to one of these themes, our facilitator asked a very directed question to lead the discussion that way. There are pitfalls in all three of these major themes, but my tablemates generally did not see them.

What is obvious from the discussion is that many people no longer believe K-12 education is about just providing the individual with the basic tools one can use to educate oneself in the future. It is about creating the complete fully functioning adult who will be a net positive to their community and the state. What is also becoming obvious is that such a grand goal cannot be achieved with funding designed to accomplish the previous goal.

Striking Comments Made

  • We should have full time social workers in every school.
  • We need free mandatory pre-school.
  • Classes should have no more than 10 students in them.
  • Schools should provide more job shadowing and career exploration opportunities.
  • We will never achieve equity until we dismantle: racism, sexism, homophobia, (and other social justice isms). This comment was one of the few to receive applause but notably it came mostly from African American participants.
  • Graduates who show pride in their community are a sign of a successful school district.
  • We need teacher education programs that focus on mastery learning.
  • Low unemployment and crime rates, along with high voter turn out is a sign of a successful school district.
  • Children need a love of learning to be successful.
  • The state should just tell us what they are looking for and then leave us alone to accomplish that, and stop changing the “what” so frequently.


New terms I learned. There were many well informed or heavily involved individuals present. The “average” parent was not the majority at this meeting.

Trauma Informed Training – Becoming “trauma-informed” means recognizing that people often have many different types of trauma in their lives. People who have been traumatized need support and understanding from those around them. Often, trauma survivors can be re-traumatized by well-meaning caregivers and community service providers.

STEAM – a new variant on STEM with A standing for the arts.

Collective Impact – While there have been improvements in individual schools and classrooms, system-wide progress has remained elusive. Fixing one point on the educational continuum—such as better after-school programs—doesn’t make much difference unless all parts of the continuum improved at the same time. Collective Impact seeks to coordinate improvements at every stage of a young person’s life, from “cradle to career.”

Much like the economically unrealistic goal of making everyone pay for each other’s ideal health outcome, as the new healthcare insurance system tries to do, the public will eventually have to come to terms with the fact that we also cannot fund, individually or collectively, the ideal education outcome for every child. We will have to choose priorities that are in line with the reasonably available funds. This listening session was a dump of everyone’s dream list for public education. If DESE takes that wish list and attempts to make it a public call for action, we can be assured of continued demands for more funding, more DESE personnel to manage, and more boxes to check with the state in our local districts. The State Board of Education should be the ones taking the first stab at the difficult job of setting the priorities to be in line with available funding. Thus would begin a long but meaningful discussion about public education policy.

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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