“The Wrong Stuff”- new school redesign project should be “deep spaced”

David DorseyEducation

You have to hand it to Education Commissioner Randy Watson, he knows how to get people excited about something. His latest promotional venture is called the Kansans Can School Redesign project and the first seven school districts selected to participate were named at the August state board meeting.

Why seven? Because Commissioner Watson is making the redesign project analogous to the Mercury phase of sending a man to the moon. Project Mercury had the seven original astronauts and the state board selected seven of the 29 school districts that applied.  Each has been paired with one of those astronauts. Coffeyville is John Glenn, Liberal is Alan Shepard,…you get the idea. I’m not making this up. The picture tells the story.

What is this school redesign project? It is an extension of the Kansans Can initiative, another Commissioner Watson brainchild and the driving force behind the board’s vision that “Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.” The selected school districts must redesign one elementary and one middle/high school around the five spokes of the Kansans Can wheel: kindergarten readiness, individual plans of study, graduation rates, postsecondary completion/attendance and social/emotional growth. There is no additional funding and there are no waivers of state laws involved. And, as Commissioner Watson said, “we’re doing all of this with existing resources, no new buildings and the same educators.”

Like most marketing campaigns, and this is most certainly in that category, slick promotion is a key component in “selling the product.” And like most products that incorporate facile marketing, this one sounds like a good buy until given a closer look.  Consider these and ask, why all the hoopla?

  • If there is no additional funding, no waivers in the laws, no new “educators,” why can’t the 22 districts NOT selected do a “redesign” project without the state board? In fact, if Kansans Can is so universally adored, as we are often reminded, why aren’t more districts doing a redesign on their own around those principles? Do they really need their own astronaut? Could it be that since only 29 districts applied, districts aren’t as enamored with Kansans Can as we are led to believe?
  • Why create a new initiative? The same thing could be undertaken through the existing Innovative School District program, one in which Mr. Watson is keenly aware, having been a past chairman of the Coalition of Innovative School Districts.
  • How will this help achievement gaps along with the underperforming 25% as identified by the Supreme Court in the on-going Gannon case? Attention to achievement gaps is conspicuously missing from Kansans Can. Hardly known as hardcore education reformers, even the Kansas City Star and Topeka Capital-Journal published an op-eds that questioned whether it will help better prepare students.
  • One of the pillars of Kansans Can, social/emotional development, has come under recent fire. This Education Week article describes it as rooted in faux psychology and is nothing more than a rehash of the self-esteem movement that started in the 1980s. Even Dena Simmons, a self-described educator, trainer and researcher in social/emotional learning (SEL) has reservations. In her Education Week article that focuses on SEL as it pertains to students of color, Simmons writes that SEL “positions the students as the problem.” She goes on to say that without “also changing the teaching behaviors, curricula, and school policies that can be assaultive to our students, particularly students of color, incorporating social-emotional learning into teaching will not be enough.” Kansans Can does not address any of Simmons’s concerns.

But the biggest head-scratcher is that Commissioner Watson has somehow identified this initiative as school choice. He claims, “we’re going to deconstruct the traditional school system and build what Kansans believe meets the needs of today’s students – choice.” (emphasis added) Does he really believe that this little demo program constitutes school choice? As if a reminder is necessary, school choice is when parents get to choose where and/or how their children get educated, not how a school districts chooses to operate.

Now I believe Mr. Watson has a full and complete understanding of what school choice really is. But the redesign project has nothing at all to do with school choice – it’s nothing more than another educational fad, see below, masquerading as choice. It is curious he uses the word “choice” for another reason. I attended a roundtable discussion last summer when Mr. Watson rolled out Kansans Can to a group of KANAAE (Kansas – American Association of Educators) members. I asked him why school choice is not part of Kansans Can. His response was “choice won’t work in Kansas. We’re too rural.”

When I began teaching in the mid-90s, something called ITI (integrated thematic instruction) was all the rage. Simply put, ITI consisted of picking a theme students would likely be interested in (e.g., dinosaurs, Egypt, fruits and vegetables) and build a year-long curriculum around that theme. It didn’t last long (like most education crazes) because keeping student interest in the theme became more important than curriculum and instruction. I see striking parallels between ITI and the Kansas Can School Redesign Project.

When I first heard of this thematic approach to redesigning schools, I recalled my understanding of the infancy of space exploration (and probably that of most of us) – the outstanding movie The Right Stuff. Alas, as with all other education fads, the Kansans Can School Redesign project is the wrong stuff and will end up being nothing more than a scrubbed mission.

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