It Is Time to Restore Trust in Missouri’s Public Education System
A version of this commentary appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Trust is foundational to any healthy school learning community. This is because schooling is an inherently personal affair. It is the shaping of minds, the forming of character, and a form of job preparation. And at its heart, it is relational. This is why the results of the recent public comment session for Missouri’s proposed social-emotional learning (SEL) standards are so troubling. They make it clear that many Missourians have lost trust in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
The proposed SEL standards, which are divided into “Me,” “We,” and “Others” categories, attempt to get to the heart of student character and conduct. They include things like setting and achieving attainable goals, effective teamwork, and empathy for others. Generally, these are values that almost every parent wants for their children. Yet when DESE polled Missourians about the standards, the responses were deeply troubling.
When looking at the responses from parents and community members, little more than half (50.4%) were supportive of the “Me” standards. The other two standards areas failed to receive support from even half of those responding. In the “Others” category, which included “respect, kindness, and civility while treating others with dignity and respect,” just 46.2% of parents and community members expressed support for the standards.
Why would roughly half of Missourians not support standards that attempt to promote positive character traits? The only plausible answer is that many parents and community members simply don’t trust DESE.
Some may point to sensational social media posts or outlandish rhetoric as the culprit for the lack of trust. While it is true that issues may get blown out of proportion on these platforms, DESE and the State Board of Education bear much of the blame in this case. For too long, they have operated without any meaningful accountability. They have made promises and failed to deliver, have pushed policy proposals without the support of the people, and they have acted, at times, without statutory authority. Three examples, including the proposed SEL standards, make this clear.
Do you remember the “Top 10 by 2020” initiative? No? Well, that’s because DESE memory-holed that initiative. It was a lofty goal to move Missouri to the top of the national rankings. It was a colossal failure. Not only did we not move to the top, we moved down in most rankings. As we did, DESE acted as if the initiative had never existed.
Consider also the state’s adoption of Common Core State Standards. Without public support, DESE and the State Board jettisoned our standards and with them the state’s standardized exams. That shift launched Missouri schools into a tumultuous decade that has seen bitter fights over state academic standards and continuous changes to state testing regimes. In 2011, Missouri’s proficiency standards were rated the eighth most rigorous in the country by Education Next. By 2017, the same publication rated Missouri 48th in the country. In one of the few areas in which we actually were in the top 10, the rigor of our academic standards, DESE and the State Board of Education led us to the bottom of the barrel.
Recently DESE promoted social-emotional learning standards. As if their track record wasn’t bad enough, they did so without proper authority. When DESE began this process, they listed Section 161.1050 of the revised statutes of Missouri as justification for implementing the SEL standards. Then, after I noted this statute had nothing to do with SEL standards, DESE began listing new statutory authority on documents, specifically Section 161.092. This statute is about the “power and duties of the state board.” Once again, the statute has nothing to do with standards or social-emotional learning. In other words, they were grasping at straws to justify a proposal that they have no statutory authority to make or implement.
If many Missourians do not trust DESE to teach their children about good character or social-emotional learning, maybe it’s because DESE has failed to lead responsibly for far too long.
The State Board of Education rejected the SEL standards at their last board meeting, citing the negative feedback. This was the right move, and it could be seen as a first step toward regaining the trust of Missouri parents and community members. At that same board meeting, Commissioner of Education Margie Van Deven stated that she will be stepping down at the end of the school year. This provides the State Board with a terrific opportunity to take the next step: finding a commissioner of education who is able to restore the public’s confidence in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.