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Column: Getting to the heart of education reform

Joe Knodell

If you are among the tens of thousands of Missourians who are concerned about the mediocre – at best – performance of our state’s public schools, then you are likely familiar with recent debate in Jefferson City about education reform, as well as the swirl of news stories and editorials on the subject.  And even if the state of public education isn’t typically on your radar, I’d like to encourage you to start paying attention to education reform efforts here in Missouri regardless of whether you have school-age children or not – because, quite simply, all of our futures depend upon it.

Education reform is not new.  Various efforts have been in motion for decades.  At the heart of today’s reform effort is a belief that in order for American schools to prepare students to be able to compete in a global economy, there must be changes in the way schools conduct their business.  Commonly held tenets among reform groups include a call for school choice, restructuring or repeal of teacher tenure, implementation of merit pay systems, better teacher evaluation procedures and employment practices that reward performance rather than career longevity.  The powerful education establishment opposes most of these initiatives and employs teams of lobbyists to push back and defend current practices, effectively shutting parents and other concerned citizens out of the process and denying student advocates a seat at any decision-making table.

Nationwide, states such as Indiana, Florida, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Jersey and Louisiana have enacted bold education reforms.  Commendably, these states have been able to take these steps due to bipartisan work in their legislatures and strong Governors who were willing to take a stand, lead the charge and ultimately sign the legislation into law.  New laws have been passed by folks who, like me, believe that our children’s education should not be a partisan issue, but an American issue.

Louisiana stands proud as an undeniable beacon of education reform success, where a reform package was passed seven years ago that included bills to grade individual public schools on an A-to-F scale, and to allow the state to take over chronically failing schools.  Governor Bobby Jindal recently shared his exuberance that in the years since, the percentage of failing schools in New Orleans has been cut from 77 percent to 29 percent.

Today’s reformers refuse to turn a blind eye to rapidly increasing high school dropout rates, or to the urban education crisis.  And we are propelled by such basic principles as ensuring every classroom should have a high quality teacher.  We refuse to accept mediocrity.

Here in Missouri, test scores reveal that our schools rank in the “middle of the pack,” so-to-speak, in many measures.  According to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Missouri fourth-graders ranked 27th in math and 31st in reading.  Likewise, Missouri eight-graders ranked 32nd in math and 24th in reading.  No, we’re not last.  But we’re a long way from first, or even just respectability.  Missouri kids deserve better.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has expressed a goal to have our state reach across-the-board top-10 status in education among the 50 states by 2020.  Certainly, we support the “Top 10 by 20” effort.  To that end, we are calling upon Missouri lawmakers to work across the aisle and enact reforms that will help our state achieve this lofty goal.  And we’re calling on all Missourians to reach out to their state representatives and senators and make sure this effort is a priority in the Statehouse.

Joseph Knodell, a retired superintendent for the Twin Rivers School District, is a lobbyist for the Missouri Education Reform Council. Knodell has been a lobbyist for five years, and said he enjoys pursuing anything that involves the betterment of education across Missouri.

“I’ve been involved in education all of my life, and when they wanted to get me involved in improving the education system, that’s when I started [lobbying],” he said. “Our schools, state and nation need to raise the standards in preparing kids for the global economy we’re operating in now.”

Knodell said his favorite parts of his job are the times when bills that move education reform forward are passed. 

“That is rewarding because it helps kids” he said.

Knodell is from Poplar Bluff, Mo., and has been married to his wife, Donna, for 42 years. He has two children and two grandchildren, who he said she loves to take to sporting events any chance he gets.

A St. Louis Cardinals, Blues and Rams fan, Knodell has a Bachelors degree in history from Arkansas State University, and a specialist degree in school administration from Southeast Missouri State University.

For more information about Knodell or the Missouri Education Reform Council, visit