Illustration by Meg Wagler for the Springfield Daily Citizen.

This article is part of a series by Springfield Daily Citizen’s education reporter, Cory Matteson, comparing the school board candidates’ responses to topical questions.

Q: ACT and MAP assessment average scores have declined in recent years, and in many cases, SPS student scores fall below state averages. Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s Entry Plan released in December listed several steps to address both college testing (improving access to test prep skills for students) and MAP assessments (monthly math collaboratives for teachers and the use of MasteryConnect to analyze students’ areas of need in advance of testing). Is the school district taking steps in the right direction, and what else do you think should be done? 

Kelly Byrne: We’re in a hole after years of declining ACT and MAP scores, and it will take some time to work back in the right direction. There certainly is no “easy-fix” button, but we can start with a board that understands that all decisions should be made through the filter of academic excellence. I have hopes that Dr. Lathan understands this very serious issue and will work to turn it around. Most of her time so far has been spent assessing the district, so it’s a little too early to critique her performance. I’ve seen some very promising communication from her so far that she is recognizing the issues we face. 

We need a new strategic plan. One that focuses on “academic excellence.” Our current strategic plan really makes no mention of academics, performance or curriculum. By refocusing our Mission for SPS on “academic excellence” we can set the standard through which all decisions will be made. 

We really need to look at the role of technology in our classrooms and decide if it’s possible that we are leaning on it too early in a child’s education, or too often, or using it to replace what only a teacher can provide, because the downward trend in our performance lines up suspiciously closely with the timing of our big technology push into the classrooms. 

We need to look at discipline policy that has changed around the time our scores started falling and what impact that is having on our students’ ability to learn.

We need to assess the value of textbooks in the classroom and the value of written assignments and what that does for the student and for parental engagement. 

We need a quality curriculum that isn’t constantly changing so the teachers can be more effective with it. 

We’ve had record retirement rates among our teachers, so we need to figure out how to better retain them.

Chad Courtney: I think Dr. Lathan’s plan is the path to turning around these scores. I am also not a believer that standardized testing is the only way to assess student learning and achievement. Standardized testing and MAP testing specifically create a scenario and temptation to teach to the test. I understand that standardized testing is necessary to create a baseline evaluation of students and teachers, but it is one point of the process.

A bigger hurdle will be the deficits created by the learning environment over the last two years. COVID and virtual learning have created an even more uneven playing field with regard to the education of our kids. Those with parents who have the means to be more supportive of the education experience of their children have a significant advantage over those whose parents are unable to be present during the school day to ensure the children are engaged. Even then the disconnect created by attempting to learn virtually presents problems for educators and students alike that is difficult if not impossible to overcome.

Steve Makoski: Dr. Lathan’s entry plan is a move in the right direction; however, measuring the outcomes will be a true testimony of Dr. Lathan’s leadership! I am encouraged by Dr. Lathan’s skill sets and experiences she brings to our district. The Entry Plan is a plan. Now we engage to execute this plan and begin measuring and adjusting as the data and student academic performance reveals. I could write a book on how and what should be done in moving our school district in the right direction. The right direction is moving the needle upward for academic excellence. Academic achievement within our district has been in a downward spiral for the last 10 years! When does this stop? Like many plans, we need to consider other mitigating factors that impede our progress in achieving successful outcomes. Factors such as discipline, violence in the classrooms, drugs in our schools, poverty, busing, outside influences such as politics entering our classrooms, bringing back respect for our teachers, and balancing textbooks with technology. One can surmise that a plan is just a plan, and if we are to aid in addressing other factors to support Dr. Lathan’s Entry Plan, we need to make changes to our school board with new and fresh ideas. This is our opportunity to make that difference and move that needle to improve academic excellence through fostering change and breaking barriers for the future of our kids and community. 

Charles Taylor: Academic achievement is a crucial goal for the district, and it’s clear that we have work to do to meet our own expectations. While there are some easy explanations (e.g., fully funding ACT exams, hence increasing number of takers, impact of pandemic, etc.), we cannot simply explain the challenges away. We must explain why achievement has lagged and identify strategies for improvement. Dr. Lathan’s entry plan observations are astute, and the reorganization she announced on Feb. 16 is a concrete manifestation of her commitment to academic improvement. With the Board’s support, she is moving quickly to eliminate operational silos that previously created gaps between curriculum and professional development for our teachers. Similarly, she is moving to enhance the district’s mastery of assessment data in real-time, allowing teachers to provide learning opportunities that meet students where they are and help them get to where we (and they) want to go. Removing some of the less educational ‘administrivia’ from teachers’ daily duties will afford more hands-on time with students, allowing teachers to do what they do best. There are myriad pedagogical and curricular strategies that we can and will implement to enhance academic achievement. Perhaps the most important strategy, however, is to set high expectations and then provide each student the appropriate support to enable her/him to meet those expectations. One size does not fit all. Students bring very different “baggage” to school each day — and we must acknowledge and respond to those differences to close achievement gaps and to meet our responsibilities to educate every student, every day.

Brandi VanAntwerp: Dr. Lathan’s approach to improve test readiness through increased access to preparatory tests like the PSAT is a wonderful way to break down barriers that are presented to under-resourced and underrepresented students. Within her Entry Plan, the approach to provide new curriculum resources, providing intervention time with students during the school day, and the weekly D/F grade reports being reviewed by site administrators are all strong efforts to be agile, and quickly identify and intervene with students who are struggling. Test scores are important, but more important than the score is the student who sees possibility and hope in their educational future. These integrated steps show promise to help our kids receive interventions that will help them improve on test skills and grades to narrow the achievement gap. 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson