Thursday, October 23, 2014

To listen or not to listen: That is the question facing the State Board of Education in selection of a new commissioner to lead the charge of educating the students in the public schools of Missouri

Since increasing my presence on Twitter at @DrDavidMcGehee, I have found myself neglecting my blog.  Much can be communicated 140 characters at a time, and I enjoy tweeting insights into our operations, views into the classrooms and updates about the people who make us great as well as an occasional bit of sarcasm. At times, I also realize my obligation to you goes beyond what I can communicate in this manner. So, what to do…write a blog and link it to Twitter!

There has been much buzz around Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro’s announcement that she would be stepping down from her post at the end of December. No doubt the relationship between our commissioner and the practitioners in our local school districts has been rocky during the course of her tenure. The strain on this relationship, in my opinion, is related as much to the lack of value placed on the voices of superintendents and others in important decisions affecting our schools by our commissioner as it has been to the differences in opinion as to what is best for the children in our public schools.

Regardless of one’s belief about how to move forward, we had reached a pivotal point in our state at which it was impossible to get better without a change in leadership. Dr. Nicastro’s resignation was initially received as an opportunity for us to do just that, work together to identify and select a new leader who could first repair the relationships needed to move forward and take a more collaborative approach to leadership and decision-making impacting our local schools. 

The enthusiasm for this opportunity has quickly been extinguished by comments from State Board of Education President Peter Herschend. Mr. Herschend is insistent on a “closed process” that will likely provide our public schools with a new leader, internally selected and willing to continue to work hand-in-hand with him, taking us down the same path we’ve been on for several years now.  While I agree, just as it is with local school boards, it is the state board’s primary role to select a leader who can successfully serve the public school community and help us foster a mission of learning for each child, each day. 

But Mr. Herschend could learn a thing or two from local school boards in how best to go about ensuring we find the right person, the right fit, the individual who can focus on the needs of the stakeholders rather than implement a preconceived agenda that at times has seemed politically motivated. There is no room for politics in the decisions involving the education of the children of Missouri. It has to be about what is best for students, based upon data and stakeholder involvement in decision making, not agendas. 

Mr. Herschend, I implore upon you on behalf of the public school children of our state and the educators who work so hard in our local schools to accomplish a mighty mission: SLOW DOWN, listen to them, take a path that ensures collective input into what our state needs in a new commissioner. More of the same is simply not acceptable and would represent a great opportunity lost. You and the members of the state board do have a great responsibility. Why not seek the assistance of experts and stakeholders in meeting this responsibility?

And while you are at it I encourage you to ask any candidate a couple of really good questions.  Things like what they think of the state’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver and the federal mandates that come along with it. Or maybe their views on the immediate future of state assessments. You didn’t ask me for my opinion, and I have certainly burned enough bridges to never be considered, but I will give you a brief answer to these two questions anyway. 

The use of waivers to push the agenda of the current administration on the federal level is not the answer to No Child Left Behind’s unrealistic mandates. I’m not sure we wouldn’t be better off with NCLB in comparison to selling ourselves down the river when it comes to the covenants of our state’s waiver. There is simply a misalignment between what our state values and the demands of the waiver process. A “this-for-that” approach is no way to lead our public schools from your offices in Jefferson City. 

Finally, teachers and administrators across the state are in the midst of a new school year with undefined state standards and undeveloped state assessments. With the latest legislative session essentially sending us back to the starting line with regard to standards as a result of the politics surrounding Common Core, it is not feasible to think that we can adequately implement a state assessment program in the 2014-15 school year -- and maybe not even 2015-16 depending upon progress of the committees formed to tackle the task of standards development.  With this in mind, any new commissioner should consider a state assessment moratorium for two years in order allow the standards to not just be fully vetted, but to give practitioners time to make any necessary adjustments to curriculum and practice to ensure our students can go into the testing period with the confidence that comes with knowing the expectation and then striving to meet it. 

Mr. Herschend and members of the state board, I hope that you will hear the plea of educators from all areas of the state to simply participate in some way in the process to identify the individual who will lead us in our efforts to prepare students for successful futures, however they may define their own successes. This is our opportunity, that critical moment in time, at which public educators in our state can rally behind a new leader, one who was selected in an open and collaborative way, one that has experienced multiple facets of work life as a public educator in our state, someone all of us can work with and appreciate. To listen or not to listen, what will it be?