As the Seneca native noted, he spent his entire educational career, up until his three years with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in this area and has seen these trends develop first hand.
The difference breaks down to one simple fact- Carl Junction and Webb City have grown; Joplin hasn't.
Except that it is not that simple.
At the beginning of the century, Carl Junction and Webb City were ahead of Joplin, but that gap was narrowed considerably over an eight-year period. While the tax base was growing in the neighboring communities, including Carthage, and decreasing in Joplin, the test score gap was almost non-existent and during a four-year period coinciding with the final four years of Jim Simpson's tenure as R-8 superintendent, the district was accredited with distinction.
Since then, the difference between Joplin, Webb City, and Carl Junction has widened every year.
It would be easy to blame the tornado. That has been used as a scapegoat for every area in which the school district has fallen short,
The easy answer would be that a misguided board of education hired a superintendent, C. J. Huff, who was not up to the challenges of guiding a larger school district, but leaving it at that would be taking the easy way out.
The rapid decline of Joplin Schools began, not with C. J. Huff, but with Jim Simpson.
When Simpson signed off on the hiring of former Reeds Spring Superintendent Angie Besendorfer as assistant superintendent, he planted the seed for everything that has happened in the district,since that time.
For one year, Simpson was in charge of Besendorfer. After he left for Lindbergh, she was in charge.
Her decisions damaged the school district and led to the departure of more than 50 percent of the district's faculty and nearly all of the principals who were in charge when she was hired.
When C. J. Huff was brought in as Simpson's replacement, he was content to allow Besendorfer to run the school district, while he took the bows and spent most of his time working on what the board had told him was its top priority- increasing the graduation rate.
Besendorfer took all decisions out of the hands of building principals and teachers and put them squarely in her office.
No longer did building principals and teachers make decisions on professional development. That was centralized with a one size fits all approach that was based on the false assumption that teachers in one building would have the same needs as the teachers in another. Professional development needs to be based on the strengths and weaknesses in one school, the mixture of experienced and inexperienced teachers, and the needs of the students.
By placing all decisions in her office, Besendorfer also took the one essential thing that is necessary for professional development to succeed- teacher buy-in.
Many times teachers were forced to endure professional training that was nowhere close to what their students needed.
Another key to successful professional development of teachers is the concept that teachers teach teachers. A handful of teachers attend seminars and conferences, come back and pass along what they have learned, or (and this works even better), you take the strengths of the teachers who work in your building and you have them conduct the training.
For instance, f you have a teacher who is an expert on using a certain kind of technology in assignments and you have teachers who want to learn that technology, then take advantage of your built-in expert.
Under Besendorfer, that kind of training, the kind that earns teacher buy-in, was almost non-existent.
Instead, the district invested in one initiative after another, some of them conflicting with each other.
And, as anyone who taught in Joplin during Besendorfer's reign of terror can attest, teachers were out of class constantly. Teachers, including those teaching in areas that were tested on MAP, were often gone for weeks during a school year for various training sessions, conferences, and seminars. The quality of education falls sharply when a substitute teacher is in the classroom.
The teachers' chances at success were also damaged by Besendorfer's lack of faith in them. Not only did she take every decision on professional development out of their hands, but she also spent approximately $50,000 in taxpayer money each year for practice standardized tests, eight of them per year, so she could keep a closer eye on what students were learning in each building.
The Acuity tests took another two weeks out of the school year and once schools learned they were being compared to each other, many started adding practice tests to practice for the practice tests.
We teachers had to sit through curriculum planning sessions, (again with substitutes teaching the students) in which curriculum was built around Acuity.
It was a nightmare and became one of the factors that started driving teachers away from Joplin.
The creation of teaching/learning coach positions also hastened the departure of veteran teachers. Many of those who were placed in those positions served as spies for Besendorfer, though they were ostensibly situated to help teachers, especially more inexperienced ones, who were having problems. Teachers who expressed concerns about the amount of time they were spending out of the classroom or who questioned the one size fits all professional development and the ever-changing initiatives soon found themselves on the wrong end of increased scrutiny from their building principals. Many received job targets, a first step toward removing them from the district. For most of these veteran teachers, it was the first time they had ever had any problems. Some of these teachers were removed; many more left on their own.
With the hiring of Huff and Besendorfer, all decisions for the district were placed in the hands of two people who between them had only about five years of classroom teaching experience, all of it in elementary classes.
High school and middle school teachers became frustrated with professional training that was geared toward elementary teachers.
Meanwhile, Besendorfer treated all of the teachers as if they were elementary students. When it became clear that she was going to be around for a while, even more teachers began looking at neighboring school districts.
It was not long before Webb City, Carl Junction, Neosho, and Carthage, began to benefit from the experience and skills of some of Joplin's top teachers.
Soon, building principals were replaced by people close to Besendorfer and many new assistant principals and eventually principals came from the ranks of the teaching/learning coaches.
And then the tornado hit.
A weakened school district was weakened further.
At a time when teachers and students would have benefited from a re-examination of her priorities, Besendofer doubled down on them. Instead of keeping teachers in the classroom to provide a sense of stability to students who desperately needed it, Besendorfer kept sending them for more one size fits all professional training and even more new initiatives were added.
It was great for Besendorfer's resume, but it did nothing for the Joplin R-8 School District.
Meanwhile, a clueless Board of Education continued to rubber stamp all of this, probably because it had no idea what was going on.
During Simpson's time, Joplin teachers' pay had improved to where it was not far behind the area leader Webb City.
Under Huff and Besendorfer, the gulf widened and other school districts passed Joplin.
Contrary to what some believe, money is almost never the number one thing for teachers. That would be respect and the ability to have a say in what happens in their classroom and in their schools. After Besendorfer and Huff took that away from them, it made it much easier to look at other school districts that were offering not only a measure of dignity and respect, but also more money.
By the time Besendorfer left to take the job as chancellor at Western Governors University, Joplin had already lost more than 300 teachers in a three-year period- more than half of the entire faculty.
Nothing changed as long as Huff was still here. He never replaced Besendorfer and her network continued to run the district as if nothing had changed.
The changes did not begin in earnest until Jeff Koch and Jennifer Martucci joined Debbie Fort on the board in April 2015.
As the halfway point of the 2016-2017 school year approaches, more than half of the teachers in the district have five years or less of experience.
It is still uncertain if the migration of teachers from the R-8 District has ended. In each of the past two years, more than 70 teachers have left.
By removing experienced, capable administrators and teachers Besendorfer, in a few short years, tore down all of the work many of those same administrators and teachers had put in to enable the district to overcome the cruelty of poor demographics to be one of the top school districts in southwest Missouri.
Now, as Lankford explained Thursday night, demographics have caught up to Joplin and the framework that helped overcome them is no longer in place.
It is the biggest challenge facing Melinda Moss as she takes over the superintendent position.