ST. LOUIS — Missouri education leaders unveiled a blueprint to dramatically overhaul the state's supervision of its schools, heeding a call from the federal government to revamp everything from teacher training and pay to the subjects taught in class.
The plan, released Wednesday, is outlined in the state's application to Race to the Top, the $4.35 billion federal grant competition. Missouri is asking for $750 million to make sweeping changes:
- Adopting new national standards for what's taught in the classroom.
- Developing teacher evaluations that consider student test scores.
- Paying teachers better if they work in tough schools.
- Rating teacher prep programs by their graduates' success in class.
The 300-page plan also reveals a more hands-on, aggressive approach to failing schools than ever before. And, in that, it marks a philosophical sea change in Missouri.
"This would be the most significant change in education that I've seen in the past 40 years," said William Rebore, a former school superintendent and current chairman of the department of educational leadership at Saint Louis University.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees the state's 523 public school districts, has been known for its hands-off approach. For years, the mantra of local control has guided state education policy.
While that has changed some in recent years, the department says this application — regardless of the result — lays out the most aggressive reform model the state has seen.
"We do intend, with or without this grant, to use the work we've put in as a framework for redesigning the department itself and for driving educational reform in Missouri for the next decade," Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro told state legislators on Wednesday. She first presented the plan to the State Board of Education, and then, in the afternoon, to legislators.
It is unclear how many states will be awarded part of the $4.35 billion, carved out of federal stimulus money a year ago. But the possibility of winning has already caused more than 40 states to scramble together plans — due this week — that conform to goals set under President Barack Obama.
Missouri has begun work on its goals. The state's student-tracking data system is up and running. The education department helps some schools use those data to drive instruction. And it is working to get computers and Internet access to every Missouri district.
Nicastro, in office just six months, is the first commissioner to come with experience in urban districts. The plan reflects Nicastro's urgency and focus on fixing failing schools.
Missouri's application identifies how the state aims to:
- Work with other states to adopt national standards for math, reading and writing — in place of current Missouri standards.
- Replace annual standardized exams with tests administered throughout the year to allow teachers to customize and adjust instruction based on results.
- Base teacher evaluations on student performance, including test scores.
- Offer higher pay, flexible schedules and other incentives to attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools.
- Rate teacher preparation programs by the academic achievement of their graduates' students.
- Reconfigure the state's education department, sending some of the 300 Jefferson City staffers to regional centers, thus allowing them to intervene quickly in struggling schools.
- Increase accountability for failing charter schools, even allowing the state board of education to close them.
The Missouri State Teachers Association has come out against the plan, opposing pay based on standardized test scores and arguing that the application was crafted with little teacher input.
And, Wednesday, some state lawmakers challenged the feasibility of the proposals if Missouri loses the federal competition.
But more than 500 Missouri districts have agreed to participate. And St. Louis educators contacted Wednesday said they supported the measures, even helping to create them.
"It is very much a sea change," said Maureen Clancy-May, superintendent of Bayless schools in south St. Louis County. "But we've long recognized it's time for some changes."
St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the new plan is needed "to support student achievement."