Teacher's desk
Susan Pendergrass

The holidays are upon us, and now that we have a quorum on the state board of education and a commissioner it’s time to think about what Missouri students and parents should expect from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). This isn’t so much a wish list as a set of objectives that should be met if we are going to improve public education in Missouri.

There are four primary areas that DESE needs to address.

  1. Implementing the Missouri Course Access Program (MOCAP)  Last year the Missouri legislature passed, and the Governor signed, a state law granting all Missouri students access to classes in the MOCAP online program. MOCAP is a step toward providing students with expanded opportunities. Through MOCAP, students can take courses online that their own schools may not offer, such as advanced placement or foreign language classes. The law also allows a student to choose to take their full course load through MOCAP. DESE is responsible for implementing MOCAP. This entails (1) making sure that districts notify parents that they can access the program; (2) ensuring that each district has a link to the program on the home page of its website; and (3) maintaining a fully functional MOCAP website a complete approved course catalog and registration information.
  2. Providing accurate, timely and user-friendly information on school performance  Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), DESE is required to prepare and widely disseminate an annual report card for each school. The law requires that the report cards be developed with parent input and be easily accessible and understandable by parents. DESE continues to use the Annual Performance Report (APR) to determine accreditation status, but the APR is difficult to interpret and is a poor gauge of student learning. Under the APR system, nearly 99 percent of Missouri school districts were fully accredited by DESE in 2017, making it impossible to determine which schools are doing well and which are doing poorly. Individual school reports are available on DESE’s website, but they are difficult to locate and they don’t contain the full suite of information required. I hope that by December 31 DESE posts accurate, user-friendly report cards that include school-level performance data for 2017–18—as required by law—and I’m curious to find out how they will put these in the hands of every parent.
  3. Making school finance data transparent and accessible  House Bill 1606, passed and signed last year, requires Missouri school districts to post their financial data online in a searchable format. Additionally, federal legislation requires DESE to submit school-level finance data to the U.S. Department of Education. DESE needs to make sure that these obligations are met in good faith and to the full extent of the law. Taxpayers should be able to easily determine how schools spend their money.
  4. Adopting a high-quality accountability system that can be used for a longer time period  DESE should adopt a high-quality tool for assessing student progress, use it consistently, and return results in a timely manner. It has been difficult to see how schools are performing over time because DESE has changed the standardized tests every few years, making it nearly impossible to see whether schools are improving or regressing. Missouri’s most recently adopted accountability plan, submitted to the U.S. Department of Education under ESSA, was given low to mediocre marks by an independent review panel. DESE has an opportunity to get this right.

I have recently expressed my concerns over the State Board’s decision to rehire the former commissioner of education rather than embark on a national search for one who could launch us in a new direction.  Under the commissioner’s prior tenure, DESE was hardly an innovator for real reform. That could certainly change, and I hope it does.

This list is not an ambitious one. One of DESE’s most basic jobs is to generate, collect, and provide data to parents, students, teachers, administrators, policymakers and taxpayers. I simply expect DESE to do that job well.

About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.