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‘Politics Does Not Belong in Education,’ Says a Departing State Schools Chief

Missouri’s commissioner of education, Margie Vandeven, is no stranger to politics in education—even if she’d prefer to be one.

In the 8 1/2 years she’s spent leading the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, she has survived a former governor’s ouster attempt, polarizing debates over the response to COVID-19, and a growing parents’ rights movement that has injected itself into debates on numerous topics, including social-emotional learning.

Vandeven has navigated these challenges all while trying to maintain a nonpartisan approach to her position—which is officially nonpartisan and appointed by a state board of education designed to maintain partisan balance.

Now, Vandeven is preparing to step down from her position on July 1 after announcing her resignation last October.

Vandeven started in her role in 2015 but later became a political target of Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, who took office in January 2017 and appointed State Board of Education members who would vote to fire her—even removing one of his appointees who changed her position to oppose firing Vandeven.

The board voted to fire Vandeven in December 2017 but rehired her less than a year later. By that point, Greitens himself had been ousted after a scandal over an extramarital affair.

Since her return, Vandeven has worked to expand competency-based education in Missouri, help teachers adopt evidence-based reading instruction, and led schools through the pandemic.

Vandeven is also active in education circles nationally. She is the board president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the national nonprofit that represents state education chiefs. When she steps down, she will hand over that position to another long-serving state chief, North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler, who will serve as president for the remainder of the year.

Vandeven said it is time for her to move on. This fall, she will be a visiting scholar with the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at Stanford University.

Prior to serving as commissioner, Vandeven was a high school English teacher and district administrator in Maryland and Missouri. As commissioner, she and the Missouri State Board of Education established a blue ribbon commission to study teacher recruitment and retention and worked with teachers to establish the Success-Ready Students Network, a competency-based learning initiative that aims to transition Missouri schools to measuring students based on their mastery of skills rather than seat time.

Throughout her time as commissioner, she has seen politics make the job of state chief more challenging, she said in a conversation with Education Week. Ultimately, if state policymakers want to improve student outcomes, they’ll have to find common ground, Vandeven said.

“When you start thinking in terms of what is best for kids and you bring every conversation back to that, you find out there’s more commonality than difference,” she said.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you most proud of from your time as commissioner?

What I’m most proud of is, despite a number of distractions that have occurred over this time period, namely the pandemic and others, we have been able to stay very focused on some of the priorities that our state board of education has established, and worked very hard to implement those—the priorities being early learning and early literacy, working with Success-Ready Students, making sure we have safe and healthy schools, and then our educator workforce recruitment and retention efforts. [I’m] really pleased with some of the progress that we’ve made in those areas.

How has the politics surrounding education and education policy changed over your time as commissioner?

In the state of Missouri, we have a state board of education that appoints the commissioner. If you look at our constitution, it was intended to make this a nonpartisan, non-political position. We have eight members on the State Board of Education, one from each of our eight congressional districts, and no more than four of those eight can be of any one political party. They are eight-year terms, and they are staggered. So that in itself appears to be designed to maintain some stability in what is occurring.

When I came into the position it was very clear that that is how our constitution was intended.

That said, we certainly haven’t been spared a lot of the political attention that has certainly surfaced. If anyone asked me what I think [have] been the greatest changes in this role over the past decade, I would certainly say the addition of politics into the role. I certainly have seen that.

I certainly have worked really hard in my role to maintain a nonpartisan stance. Our board has worked very hard to remain nonpartisan as they were called to do. [Board members] have to identify as particular parties when they join the board, but if we can get to a place where no one can remember which party they’re representing, we think we’ve been successful.

Politics does not belong in education. It should be a very nonpartisan issue when we’re talking about making sure every child has access to a high-quality education and we’re educating our children.

You faced a tense political moment early on in your tenure as commissioner when former Gov. Eric Greitens tried to oust you from the role. What was that like?

That was certainly a memorable experience for me. That was when it became really clear that politics was beginning to infiltrate into our system here in the state.

As hard of a time as that was for us, it also became very clear at that time that Missourians weren’t interested in having politics being involved in education. We had a number of people from all different walks of life come together to say, “Let’s not do it this way.”

The big resounding message was people wanted to let our constitution speak. The Missouri Constitution was very clear that it was a state board of education in a nonpartisan fashion [that] would be selecting the commissioner of education.

How have you gone about maintaining that nonpartisan approach to your position?

All of these things that I’m going to say to you are going to sound very simple, but so important. And that is maintaining trust in the board. You can be successful in these roles if you maintain the trust of your board and the confidence of your people. You maintain the trust of your board by building these relationships.

For at least the past 20 years, the night before any board meeting [our board] always had an informal dinner where they were not allowed to speak about work because you cannot in an informal environment [under Missouri’s open government law]. They just got to know each other as people and really built great relationships as people.

When we get to know the people, then you start to really establish the priorities, and that’s our children. When you start thinking in terms of what is best for kids, and you bring every conversation back to that, you find out there’s more commonality than difference there.

I think one of the challenges we’re having today is our ability to just walk into our own little echo chamber. We follow the same people we want to follow. We see things in a very partisan manner instead of taking the time to really get to know and understand where different viewpoints are coming from. I’d like to see some correction in that area if we could.

Some major candidates for state chief in recent years don’t have education backgrounds. How might those state chiefs who aren’t as familiar with education influence or impact education policy?

There can be real value in bringing somebody with an outside perspective into a profession. Very, very successful leaders come in from different environments and have the various leadership skills that are necessary to take direction.

But what I think would be very important for somebody coming into these roles is that they do take time to go in and visit with your classroom teachers, watch what’s happening in classrooms before making some really quick judgements on things.

I was a teacher for 15 years and I always say that I still think of myself as a teacher. After COVID, some of these teachers, who are very, very upfront with me, they say if you haven’t been in the classroom, you don’t know what it’s like to be a teacher today.

I think we’re all trying to learn and understand the terrain that we’re working in. Sometimes outsiders can be good for that, but I think it’s always wise for them to acknowledge where their blind spots are.

What do you wish teachers, principals, and district leaders understood about the state chief position and how state education policy works?

When I first was named the commissioner, I remember one of the first reporters said to me, “Well, you were a classroom teacher. What do you want the commissioner to do?”

And I said, “When I was a classroom teacher, I had no idea what the commissioner did.”

I do think there’s some real value in [educators] following what’s happening at the state level, what’s happening at the national level on some of these education issues. There was a time in my life when we said it’s the superintendent’s job to somewhat shield teachers from the external pressures of politics, shield the teachers from even getting communications directly from the state education agency. But I think those days are gone.

It’s really important for everyone to stay alert to what is happening. Communication is so prevalent that they’re getting information somewhere. If we can just get information from the source, I think that’s really helpful.

What do you think are the top challenges that state ed. chiefs are facing right now or might face in the future?

If you’re going to take on this role, you really need to have pretty tough skin. The balancing act is very real. You want to be able to listen to your constituents. You want to understand what the needs are, and you also have to recognize that no matter what decision you make you’ll probably get quite a bit of criticism.

There seems to be a really good understanding of what’s happening in the literacy world—a lot of good work happening around the “science of reading” and making sure that our teachers are understanding and know how to teach reading. There’s been a lot of questions about how to teach math, and so chiefs are working on those issues.

Another big area that we’re talking more and more about is on, what is the appropriate use of technology? For example, embracing all of the wonderful gifts that technology can bring to us, understanding the strengths of artificial intelligence, but also being mindful of, where do we need to understand its limitations? Or how do we deal with making sure that’s being used in the classroom appropriately?

We’re talking more and more about the mental health needs of our students and the role of schools in helping address those mental health needs. An area that seems to continue to surface now is, what is the impact of various social media platforms and that sort of thing? How are we dealing with some of these resources that are available for students and looking at how they correlate to some of the high anxiety that our students might be feeling?

Overall, I think it’s a really exciting time in education. It’s a great time to be a chief, and I think we have a great opportunity ahead of us as we exit out of the pandemic, and looking and reflecting on what worked with the financial influx that was provided and making decisions going forward of, what are those things that need to be maintained and what are those things that we can move away from?

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