“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Those are the words of former South African President Nelson Mandela. They are also the words that Margie Vandeven has held near and dear to her heart to carry out her vision over her eight-year journey as Missouri’s education commissioner.

After 19 total years with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), she will close a thick chapter on July 1.

Last October, Vandeven announced her resignation – to give the Missouri Board of Education ample time to find her replacement.

In an exit interview with Missourinet, the commissioner said that she feels at peace with her decision.

“Anytime you go through a big life change like this, there’s a number of mixed emotions. I felt even better about the decision when the Board (of Education) announced that they would be hiring Dr. Eslinger. I feel very confident that she’s going to do a wonderful job as the commissioner. Our leadership team is solid,” said Vandeven.

What was originally intended to be a quick pitstop in Vandeven’s career, has ended up being her life’s work. What has kept her going back to DESE for nearly two decades? She found her calling in policy work that affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of Missouri children – not to mention her love for visiting schools around the state.

“It’s just really been a gift,” she told Missourinet.

State Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven pictured with Missouri military-connected children

State Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven pictured with Missouri military-connected children

With Vandeven in the driver’s seat, she steers a team of about 1,700 workers. She oversees the instruction provided within Missouri’s K-12 public schools, along with the state’s 34 schools for the severely disabled, one school for the deaf, and one school for the blind. She issues teaching certificates, is in charge of the Missouri Office of Childhood, and accredits school districts.

The commissioner said one of her top goals that she is most proud of accomplishing is elevating the voice of teachers in the discussion. She was a teacher for 15 years before leaving the classroom for greener pastures at the school and state department levels.

“Being able to develop a teacher advisory council for the commissioner of education has been just critical for me, personally, having teachers at the table and really sharing with me the various policies that we’ve been discussing, how that impacts them, how that impacts the classroom. They truly are the experts,” said Vandeven.

She is pleased with the plans developed over the past two years to improve teacher recruitment and retention, such as pay increases and efforts to enhance the classroom environment. Vandeven said teachers still need greater flexibility within their daily routine.

“So that they can have opportunity to work individually with students. We hear a lot of people talking about the necessity of going to a four-day (school) week to give teachers that break time that they need in order to prepare for lessons in the future and giving kids proper feedback. Can we build some of that time into the day-to-day operations of a school so that teachers have greater flexibility to again, better serve their students when they’re there? I think that would be an exciting, transformative practice that we haven’t moved all the way towards,” she said.

Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven helps to present the Milken Educator Award to Leah Lawrence, a teacher at St. Charles School District

Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven helps to present the Milken Educator Award to Leah Lawrence, a teacher at St. Charles School District

In conjunction with the state Board of Education, her other priorities have been to boost access to preschool, overhaul Missouri’s K-12 accountability system, and better prepare students for success after high school.

“I feel like we have really moved the needle in each of those areas,” said Vandeven. “And I’m very proud about the fact that despite lots of distractions over the last eight years, we were able to stay focused on those goals and continue to move them forward.”

Other major priorities the commissioner has accomplished during her tenure have been to work to boost reading comprehension and to educate teachers on the science of reading. In 2022, the Missouri Legislature passed Senate Bill 681, which includes several ways to improve reading skills among students. She said the law allows intervention to happen earlier on.

“Prior to Senate Bill 681, we relied on third grade reading scores to tell us where we are as a state. Now, we’re able to go in and assess as early as like kindergarten through third grade. And then if a student isn’t where they need to be in order to be on track for reading, a reading success plan is created in collaboration with parents at the table. It’s making a world of difference right now. I can tell you that those are the things that change outcomes for kids, is when you get a lot of people working together with that same mission of doing so.”

The law also includes testing the waters on competency-based learning in schools, another priority of Vandeven’s. She likes to explain this type of learning as students playing a video game.

“For example, because they know exactly what they need to do to get to the next level,” she said. “Not necessarily just because they’re eight years old, they need to fit here. But really, where are they in their own learning trajectory?”

Another focus for her has been to have safe and healthy schools. The agency has partnered in a variety of ways with the Missouri Department of Public Safety and the Missouri School Boards’ Association’s Center for Education Safety.

“I never thought I would see a day where we’d have to make sure our schools had locks on the front doors, but they are definitely doing that. People are trained on exactly what to do to make sure that those intruders can’t easily walk into your classrooms. And I think they’ve done as much as they possibly can do,” she said.

Commissioner Margie Vandeven pictured with Paris R-II Elementary School kindergarten and first grade students to celebrate Missouri School Read-In Day

Commissioner Margie Vandeven pictured with Paris R-II Elementary School kindergarten and first grade students to celebrate Missouri School Read-In Day

Vandeven is also proud of helping to get Missouri a seat at the national table to discuss education issues, including about the state’s system to develop school leaders. She credits Dr. Paul Katnik for his work on the Missouri Leadership Development System.

“We know that great teachers work for great leaders,” she said. “If you look at our retention rates for principals today, it’s much higher than it is across the country.”

Part of Vandeven’s vision originally focused on closing the achievement gap, but it later evolved into closing the opportunity gap.

“During the pandemic, for example, we talked about what families have access to broadband, what students have access to alternate pathways for learning. And that’s really how I tried to lead, was by making decisions on how do we provide the greatest number of students access to opportunity, no matter where they live in our state,” she said.

The commissioner’s time at the helm has involved a variety of drama. There was previous governor, Eric Greitens, engineering a plan to get her fired. After a list of scandals led him to resign from office, the Missouri Board of Education rehired Vandeven about a year later.

There was the coronavirus pandemic turning the world upside down. Then there was the political noise as a result of the pandemic that continues today in different forms. A few of the divisive education uproars that have occurred center around proposed learning standards to promote empathy and regulate emotions, the teaching of African-American history, and school library book banning.

According to Vandeven, her greatest challenge has been dealing with the pandemic. She said her primary focus during that time was making sure that kids were safe, that they had access to education, and they were fed.

“We were trying to solve, you know, problems or policy decisions without any form of a playbook. We were all working around the clock and trying to think about the best choices to make. And at the same time, at the state education agency, we had our own staff to take care of, making sure we could get payment out the door so that schools could continue to function. It certainly did strengthen us in a number of ways. I’ve never seen a state cabinet operate together the way that we did through covid,” she said.

When the federal government funneled billions of pandemic dollars to Missouri, much of that was for schools. Back when the state learned about the amount of federal aid it was receiving, Vandeven said the funding could be transformative for Missouri schools.

From left: Karla Eslinger and Margie Vandeven

From left: Karla Eslinger and Margie Vandeven

Has the funding transformed them?

“I think it has been in some areas. I think we still have a ways to go,” she said.

In addition to teacher pay increases, Vandeven thinks the initiatives to improve reading skills will be transformative, as well as the ongoing push to expand access to preschool.

During Tuesday’s Missouri Board of Education meeting, Vandeven will pass the torch to her successor – Karla Eslinger. Eslinger is not a stranger to the education world. She was a school administrator for several years. Once upon a time, Eslinger and Vandeven worked together at DESE. Eslinger was an assistant commissioner at the state agency. She then worked for the U.S. Department of Education. Eslinger, of Wasola, most recently served in the Missouri Senate from 2021 until the end of May.

For Vandeven’s next chapter, she plans to spend the fall semester at Stanford University researching education policy and the trends in education over the past decade. As for her long-term plans, she is still figuring out what will go in that chapter.

When Vandeven exits the Jefferson State Office Building on July 1, she hopes that people will remember her for keeping Missouri’s 900,000 students in the front of her mind while she’s made decisions that impact them.

“It has been a journey and one that I will treasure forever,” Vandeven said.

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