By Alex Stuckey, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Ten minutes before a work group tasked with developing elementary school social studies standards began its Thursday meeting, members ran through the list of absentees.
Heavy rain across the state likely played a role in their absences, as did a lack of contact information for some.
A person listed as Tonya Watkins was one of the missing members.
Members were all a little surprised when Tony Watkins, superintendent at the Charleston School District and obviously a man, walked into the Truman Building conference room.
Watkins’ first name had been misspelled on the group’s list. Plus, he wasn’t informed of his appointment, by state House Speaker Tim Jones, in time for the September meetings.
Unfortunately, this confusion isn’t uncommon among the eight work groups tasked with creating state education standards to replace the controversial Common Core. So many problems arose during the two days of meetings in September that GOP state Rep. Kurt Bahr will convene a meeting Friday with appointees to discuss their purpose under the statute.
“This process is jacked up,” said Craig Carson, assistant superintendent of Ozark School District, who is also a member of the elementary social studies work group with Watkins.
In July, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill — sponsored by Bahr — that creates work groups consisting of education professionals, parents and business leaders who must meet and recommend new educational standards to take the place of the Common Core. These groups must make recommendations by Oct. 1, 2015, and the state Board of Education must adopt and implement new standards for the 2016-17 school year.
The Common Core standards — which have been adopted by 45 states, including Missouri — are meant to ensure students across the U.S. learn the same skills. Critics, especially some conservatives, have attacked the standards as an intrusion on local control of schools. The Missouri Board of Education adopted the standards in 2009. Now, Missouri joins several states in starting to rewrite them.
The eight groups in Missouri — a K-5 group and a 6-12 group each for math, science, social studies and English — first met in September. The meetings were wrought with arguments, from when to meet to who should take notes to the presence of department officials.
One meeting got so heated that Bahr requested a group member be removed because he was being “combative” and “belligerent” to anyone who opposed that members view. A decision on that removal has not yet been made.
Work group meetings Thursday were less combative than in September, but no less confusing.
First, it was unclear how many members each work group could expect to show up. Each group is supposed to have about 16 members, but few do, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website.
Some work groups still could not reach some of their members and it appeared more members were being added Thursday. Additionally, several groups still are waiting for members to be appointed, according to the website.
The elementary social studies group spent the start of its meeting sorting out how many members it actually had. It settled on 13 but as Pam Conway, a facilitator named by the education department for the group, passed out lunch vouchers, she came across a name she didn’t recognize.
The elementary math group was supposed to meet at noon, but didn’t have enough members to start discussions until after 1:15 p.m.
When attendance was somewhat sorted out, groups began tackling the large task in front them: trying to determine where to start and what they would and would not like to see in standards. The elementary math group spent time discussing how copyright laws might fit into its revisions.
Bahr hopes the meeting he has planned for all eight groups Friday will alleviate confusion about their role and the role of Missouri’s education department.
“Once we get everyone on the same page and understanding what their powers … are, we will be able to move forward,” Bahr said.
But in an email Thursday, education department spokesman Sarah Potter said Bahr was “once again interrupting their work with his interpretation of the law.”
Bahr asserts that the department is going beyond its authority by setting specific meeting times for the work groups. Moreover, he said, attendance likely is low among educators on the panels because the department is picking meetings times during school days.
Bahr said members opposed to Common Core are concerned about the department’s involvement in the meetings, for fear of “being watched.” The department initially provided facilitators for each group to assist with the first meetings.
Potter said groups could ask facilitators to leave. As of Thursday morning, only one group had done so, Potter added.
“The facilitators will not serve in future sessions unless requested to do so by the work group itself,” she said.
After Friday’s sessions, the next round of meetings will be Oct. 22-23.
Photo: alamosbasement via Flickr