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Missouri education commissioner discusses long-standing issues as she preps to leave job

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Missouri education commissioner discusses long-standing issues as she preps to leave job

Jun 21, 2024 | 6:55 am ET
By Annelise Hanshaw
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Missouri education commissioner discusses long standing issues as she preps to leave job
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Margie Vandeven, who is leaving her position as the Commissioner of Education, spends one of her final days in her office Commissioner Karla Eslinger will serve solo at the helm of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven will leave her position with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at the end of the month, ending her 19 years of work in the department.

She announced her departure in October, saying it was the “right time to move on personally and professionally.”

An educator since 1990, Vandeven was appointed commissioner in 2015. She was ousted briefly between December 2017 and November 2018 when then-Gov. Eric Greitens stacked the board to force her out. After Greitens was forced to resign a few months later in order to avoid impeachment, the board voted to reinstate Vandeven

Missouri education commissioner discusses long-standing issues as she preps to leave job
Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven announces her resignation during a State Board of Education meeting in October (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

“Margie went through something that I never thought I’d see in my political life — with the Greitens administration,” State Board of Education president Charlie Shields, of St. Joseph, said during the state board’s June 11 meeting. “The idea that you had a governor that tried to influence the State Board of Education, tried to influence the selection of a commissioner, that wanted change for no other reason than political expediency.”

He said Vandeven “never, ever cracked during that,” applauding her for “grace under pressure.”

Next, Vandeven will work as an education chief with the Missouri Department of Conservation and help with education research at Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at Stanford University.

She has been working alongside incoming commissioner Karla Eslinger, who will be serving solo beginning July 1. Eslinger, who recently resigned from the state senate, has served as a teacher, assistant commissioner and an advisor to federal education officials.

In her last days in her office, Vandeven spoke to The Independent about the issues that will persist long after her tenure.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: A big problem for a lot of districts, both in Missouri and nationwide, is attendance. What’s Missouri doing to work on this?

A: The thing with attendance is that the issues are very different depending upon where you are. Local context matters on attendance. It is a national issue right now, and we certainly saw an increase post-pandemic.

We are really focusing on getting a highly trained teacher in every classroom, which helps attendance rates because we know that that relationship between the student and the teacher is key. If they have a different substitute teacher in front of them every single day… it can be intimidating.

We are looking at learning just a little bit differently and talking about more competency based learning, project based learning, keeping our students very engaged and putting our career counselors in place to say, “You need to know this and understand this because it will help you go on this particular pathway that you’re choosing.”

We are meeting with parents and helping them understand that school is a little bit different today than it might have been when they were in school. People depend on you being there. We do a lot of group projects. We do a lot of collaborative teaming… It is making sure parents are aware of the disruption that occurs when students are out and helping educate on what is considered an illness that is severe enough that students should stay home and when is it appropriate to send them back to school. 

There are a lot of different efforts that are taking place. I had a meeting today with the Department of Mental Health to really talk about how we better address some of these mental health issues that our students are feeling.

Q: I always hear that Missouri students can’t read at grade level. Can you tell me about this problem?

Missouri education commissioner discusses long-standing issues as she preps to leave job
Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven listens to board member comments about commissioner appointee Karla Eslinger (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

A: I think what they’re referring to are the National Assessment for Educational Progress scores, and those have been relatively stagnant across the nation for the past decades. So that’s what they’re referring to when they talk about reading scores.

The main shift that we’re seeing is that the science of reading has been just so studied and better understood now. We know better how to teach reading.

We’ve been working with our educator-preparation programs. We’ve been working with our teachers who are in the classroom today, and we’ve been looking at high-quality instructional materials. We have been looking at measuring students earlier.

If we say we need students to be proficient in reading by grade three, because if you look again at the data, it will tell you that students who are proficient in reading by grade three then read to learn. So, waiting until grade three to get a statewide temperature check on that doesn’t make as much sense.

We have kindergarten through third-grade reading assessments, but we’re really focusing on getting that statewide metric for grade two so that they’re assessed early and then interventions are provided early.

Early intervention is key. So working with that, I think we’re gonna see the big, big shifts in the future.

Q: Has the state done an inventory of which districts have science-based reading curriculum?

A: We have not done a complete inventory as a state but that is because curriculum is a local decision. However, our school districts are all, to my knowledge, really working on the science of reading.

It would be hard to do the state assessments and plans in today’s environment with a curriculum that does not support the science of reading.

Q: As Gov. Mike Parson leaves office, what should people know about working with him, especially with the budget process?

A: I feel very fortunate to have worked with Gov. Parson. He has made it clear from the start that his emphasis was on workforce development and infrastructure, and education falls right into that.

He believes that investing in our children is investing in the future of the state of Missouri. And so working with the budget process, the State Board of Education approves (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) budget. Then, we take it to the governor’s budget, we see what they’re going to put in, and then it goes through the legislative process. It’s a pretty lengthy process. But I do think you can really get a sense of where people’s priorities are when you look at where they’re putting their funding. We’ve seen significant increases in funding for education, and for our students, which genuinely is an investment in the state’s future.

Q: What are your hopes for the next governor?

A: I hope that we can stay united and committed to educating our kids. We can get a lot more done when we’re focusing on the same things together.

I always say this, “Great teachers matter.” And you need great teachers in public schools; you need them in private schools; you need them in charter schools, and you need them in virtual schools. Great teachers matter. 

Early learning matters, no matter your ZIP code. Making sure families have access to that opportunity matters. So, I really hope that the next governor can find some of those areas that are genuinely common ground and focus more on bringing people together and moving towards those goals.

Q: Have you seen a trend of politicization of K-12 education?

Missouri education commissioner discusses long-standing issues as she preps to leave job
Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven speaks at the Mattie Rhodes Center in Kansas City, Missouri, during the U.S. Department of Education “Raise the Bar” tour (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

A: I’ve absolutely seen an increase in the politicization of education throughout my tenure, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when that occurred. But we certainly have seen it. And that’s not just in Missouri, that is across the nation.

People do realize how important education is for our students and how important it is for this country, so that has garnered quite a bit of attention from both sides of the aisle. I still believe that we can get much more accomplished when we focus on the big issues.

We need politicians, and we need them to be involved in education. But we don’t want it to be a politicized football, where you’re just battling back and forth. We need to be focusing on what it is that we want to accomplish as a state and move those initiatives forward.

Q: Do you have any tips for focusing on the big issues?

A: Both sides of the aisle should be at the table together. I always say that’s one of the greatest things about our State Board of Education. It was written in the constitution that there can’t be more than four (of eight) of any party. Then they develop these personal relationships with one another.

If you’ve only talked to like minded people, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to fully understand solutions to issues. When you do that, you find out there are more commonalities than differences. I just truly believe that.

Q: Missouri is the only state that I know of with the schools for the disabled model. Do you think this will continue to be the state’s model for high intervention?

A: We’re doing a study right now. We are the only state that does it this way. We’re studying to make sure that it is the best way to serve the students and their families, and that’ll be coming out shortly.

It really requires change over time. This has been in place for over 50 years. So I think it is time to really look at the model. And if it’s working in some places, that’s great. If it can be improved in others, let’s take a look at that. But what we want to really do is make sure that we’re serving the students and their families well.

Q: Some lawmakers have proposed different methods of accreditation and accountability. What arguments would you make in favor of the current model, the Missouri School Improvement Plan 6 (MSIP6)?

A:  There is a place for statewide state standards. You have to have something in place.

When we develop our state standards, we get input from people from all across the state to say: this is what every third grader should know, this is what every fifth grader should know. We really do it for backwards design to say this is what every graduate should know, and be able to do in the state of Missouri. And then you go back, what do they need to know here all the way down to kindergarten, right? It shouldn’t matter where you live in our state, the expectation should be that they’ve acquired these particular skills, and how you go about doing that should be at the local level.

MSIP gives that great flexibility where it says, “These are your standards.” And it gives local districts flexibility on how to get there.

The general public and taxpayers do want to know how students are performing against those standards, so I do think there is certainly a place for a third-party provider to come in and provide that information. The state board has been given that authority and has used it consistently from the first MSIP to MSIP6 to focus on ways to provide improvement.

If they choose to go to a different accrediting model, I would not go for multiple models because you can’t compare apples to apples, then. And there’s got to be a base understanding of where we are in these measures.

Q: In MSIP6, the distribution of districts among scores seems to be more of a bell curve with fewer high achievers compared to MSIP5.

A: What happened in MSIP5 is there were a number of changes in assessments, a number of things that were passing legislation that said you can’t penalize districts. S we had a lot of districts at the very top of the chart.

MSIP6 provides a reset. So often you will see a bell curve at the start of any kind of a reset. That’s sometimes what happens. It is just a much more even distribution of where districts really fall within measurement against those standards.

Q: Do you think the scores needed for accreditation might change because of this different distribution?

A: It could change some. They have multiple years to make sure that they’re showing some improvement. The first year that you run these systems, you’re typically going to see a number of districts that say, “Okay, what do we need to move forward,” and then they are able to do that.

One of the big things with MSIP 6 is that we have a growth model that’s in place. Now, that gives equal credit for both individual student growth and their status. That has been a significant shift.

Q: What do you think Commissioner Eslinger will bring to the table?

A: She has so much wisdom, and she’s got a strong drive about doing the right things for kids. With her background of being an educator, of having experience in the state capitol, she is a people person. She is committed to doing the right things for our students.

I really couldn’t be happier with the choice. I think she’s gonna do a great job.

Q: Is there anything else we should know?

A: It has been an honor working here. I really, really have found this to be the opportunity of a lifetime.