••• Education •••

“Kansans Can” –rearranging deck chairs in the name of reform – Part 1

The Kansas State Board of Education (BOE) in conjunction with the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) has a new direction for Kansas public schools, complete with a catchy moniker called Kansans Can. It is summarized in print in the form of Kansans Can Talking Points, which provides a capsulized overview of the initiative. It appears to be a bold undertaking; their vision is that “Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.

Leading the world?

Considering that Kansas performs about average in a country that doesn’t perform very well, that is indeed a lofty goal.

So what is the pathway to being tops in the world? A complete overhaul of public education, making fundamental systemic changes that will rock the very core of what put us in the throes of mediocrity?

No. Here are the Kansans Can forces that will supposedly blaze the path to the educational summit.

  • Flexibility: more focus is needed on non-academic skills to make students more successful in the workforce and more students need some postsecondary education.
  • Working together: another bite at the non-academic skills apple. Skills such as conscientiousness, perseverance, communication and collaboration are necessary for success. Somehow, Kansans Can translated that into schools, parents, communities and businesses must work together to ensure preparedness.
  • Perspective: in other words, being reflective to see whether the system is supporting or impeding each child’s development toward post-education success.
  • New direction: a new direction requires new outcomes. Kansans Can landed on these five:
  1. Kindergarten readiness – this is education code for universal pre-K, which sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Recent research from across the political spectrum, from the Brookings Institute to the Heritage Foundation, shows that universal pre-K has no long-term impacts on student learning. Oh sure, kids may learn sooner the difference between green and blue, a 2 and a 3, or a cow and a horse, they may even be better prepared for Kindergarten (remember when Kindergarten was there to prepare for 1st grade?), but evidence points to those in pre-K lose whatever gains by third grade. (See this blog for more in-depth analysis.)
  2. Individual Plan of Study Focused on Career Interest: conceptually, this has great potential. It would seem a good thing that students get focused on a post-secondary and/or career interest as they are getting close to finishing high school. However, this is another one of those “devil in the details” ideas. Who is going to administer such an undertaking? Imagine a 1,000 student high school in which someone or some several will have to develop, maintain and update those plans. (See this blog for a more in-depth look.) Could that really happen? Those of us who have been involved directly in the special education process know how difficult it is to keep up with an IEP (Individual Education Plan). Think of this individual plan as an IEP for every student.
  3. High school graduation rates: Kansans Can says “we need to make sure every student graduates with the skills needed to be successful as they enter college or the workforce.” Kinda sounds like a take on No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Sure, a 100% graduation rate is a noble goal, but seriously, do you think it is incumbent on the schools to make sure everyone graduates? It wasn’t long ago that we were rolling our collective eyes at the prospect of making sure “no child is left behind.” Now those who were critical of NCLB have come up with their own 100%, no exceptions version – ironic, to be sure. KSDE says the graduation rate is already 85.7%, but we know from ACT scores and anecdotes from employers that most of those who graduate aren’t ready for the next step in life. How about making sure that a diploma means something? Maybe it’s time Kansas does as some other states do and offer differentiated diplomas. Indiana is a good example. They offer three different diploma programs: a basic, one with academic honors and one with technical honors. Students who are going on to postsecondary education might be better prepared and enjoy more success if they earned a more stringent high school diploma that reflects a course of study aligned with future plans.
  4. Post-secondary Completion/Attendance: This is another admirable goal, but it also underscores a fundamental problem with the education system, from Kindergarten through post-secondary. K-12 education is still organizationally separate from post-secondary education. If more students are going to be successful educationally beyond high school, there needs to be better coordination with those in post-secondary education. There has to be a seamless transition from one to another, but unfortunately that is not the case. How does K-12 address the issue of higher education getting more and more expensive leaving students with the prospect of taking on more and more debt as they leave higher education? Couple that with the fact that those leaving college have a more difficult time finding employment after graduation; how could K-12 on their own possibly change that?
  5. Social/Emotional Growth Measured Locally: Who could argue with the importance of having social and emotional skills? But what is confusing is that Kansans Can wants these skills to be “measured locally.” What does that mean? Does it mean the state thinks they are very important, but again doesn’t want to tell school districts that they must teach them? Is it just window dressing, meaning Kansans Can recognizes the importance of those factors but they have no way to teach them (curriculum)? But those questions aside, it brings up yet another, one that is more fundamental to the role of the education system: Is it appropriate for schools to be spending precious time taking on another set of skills to be taught when the schools struggle with the academic curriculum? And furthermore, aren’t many of those skills developed within the household?  Of course those are important skills to have, but how much of the entire “student package” is the responsibility of the school? Is the school system really going to teach empathy and other emotional “skills”? Where does it stop? At what opportunity cost? How are the local districts to measure those skills? A different set of assessments? All those questions should be explored before being thrust upon a system that doesn’t do a very good job of performing the tasks currently at hand.

No one could argue that a new direction is needed for Kansas K-12 and beyond to achieve new and better outcomes for our students. But could Kansans Can be the vehicle to deliver?

deck chairs rearrangedI think not. Although it looks good on paper and has an enthusiastic cheerleader in Education Commissioner Randy Watson, it’s not the answer. In the next blog I will discuss what is obviously missing and offer concrete approaches to improving the educational system that is truly student-centered.

Not one that is akin to rearranging deck chairs.