For more than a dozen years now, Kansas public schools have been laser-focused on one thing:
“We’ve met every mark that we were asked to meet,” Education Commissioner Randy Watson told a group of about 100 educators and others at a meeting Friday in Wichita.
“But the data that we’re going to share with you today shows we’ve got to move the mark again. … Kansans are telling us, it’s not good enough for where we have to go.”
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The future of education in Kansas may require an entire redesign of the public school system to meet the demands of the future workplace, Watson said. That could require changes in school culture, new roles for counselors and social workers, rethinking college algebra, focusing on soft skills and getting students more real-life work experience.
“It’s extremely hard to change who you are to what you want to be,” Watson said. “But Kansans are telling us … we’re going to have to shift to some new things.”
Earlier this year, Watson and Brad Neuenswander, deputy education commissioner, held community conversations across the state to find out what residents want from their education system. About 2,000 parents, teachers, students, business leaders and others participated in those events, and their responses were gathered and analyzed.
A majority of participants said students need non-academic skills such as conscientiousness, persistence, teamwork, communication, emotional stability, citizenship and work ethic.
“Kansans told us we’re not producing good enough citizens as they exit our schools, especially giving back to others and duties to others,” Watson said during Friday’s meeting at the Wichita School Service Center.
“We thought that would come out, just not to the extent that it came out.”
The desire for a greater focus on interpersonal skills was even stronger among business leaders than among parents and educators, he said. By a ratio of 7 to 2, business leaders who participated in the community conversations said personality traits and soft skills are more important for success than academic knowledge.
“Traditional academic skills and applied skills are important,” Neuenswander said. “But we’ve got to find a balance, so the academic doesn’t trump all of the other skills that Kansans said are important.”
The Kansas State Board of Education and the Kansas Department of Education plan to release a long-range education blueprint, including a new vision statement, next month during their annual conference in Wichita, Watson said.
Business leaders said they want students to come out of school with more real-life work experience, or at least exposure to workplaces through internships, job shadowing, work study and mentoring.
“Business said to us, ‘Look, we are sick and tired of you putting us on advisory committees that meet a couple times a year and do nothing,’” Watson said. “‘We want to help. We want to come in. …We want to partner with you, but you don’t ask us.’”
Rethinking education might mean dismantling the current system and rebuilding it to focus more on individual students’ needs, Watson said. He pointed to outdated school schedules and rules that don’t easily allow for work-study experiences.
School counselors and social workers, he said, should spend more time helping students plan and prepare for careers and less time on administrative tasks such as student schedules.
“If the student is the center of how we think about the future – if you focus on what the student and the family need to move forward – then that changes your whole system design,” Watson said.
“Compare that to ‘How are the fourth-graders doing (on the test)?’ and that kind of aggregate data. When you think about the student, that changes things.”