The state’s top education official set a high bar for Kansas schools Tuesday, announcing a new vision statement that says Kansas “leads the world in the success of each student.”
Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson told a crowd of more than 1,000 educators in Wichita that the state needs to redesign its public school system, emphasizing non-academic skills such as persistence, communication and work ethic as much as or more than test scores.
“ ‘Lead the world.’ I hope you gasped just a little bit,” Watson said. “We’re talking about a cultural shift. … Collectively, we can change the next generation.”
Included in the new vision for Kansas education, announced during the State Department of Education’s annual conference at the Hyatt Regency, will be a new focus on individual students’ passions and interests, Watson said.
The vision statement is the product of community conversations held across the state earlier this year, in which parents, teachers, students, business leaders and others told officials what they want from their education system.
Asked “What makes a successful 24-year-old Kansan?” a majority of participants – including 81 percent of business leaders – said non-academic skills are more important than academic ones.
Other directives noted in the new blueprint for education:
▪ Kansas must increase graduation rates, raise the percentage of students pursuing a credential or degree, and decrease the number who need remedial coursework after high school.
▪ Students need high-quality preschool and all-day kindergarten.
▪ School counselors and social workers should focus on helping students explore career paths and develop individual plans of study.
▪ Internships, job shadowing and other real-world experiences should be a bigger part of K-12 education.
▪ Students who choose to pursue technical degrees should be valued and supported as much as students pursuing a four-year degree.
“We’ve treated them like second-class citizens,” Watson said. “That has to change.”
▪ Community service should play a larger role in education.
▪ And tests shouldn’t trump all the other work schools do – or should do.
The new vision opts for the term “success” over “achievement” because the two don’t always equate, Watson said.
“We need to move from a culture that says to third-grade teachers, ‘After Christmas, you better go into test-prep mode,’ ” he said.
Watson criticized No Child Left Behind, the federal law that emphasized annual testing and mandated that every student read and do math at grade level.
“Academic skills are important, but not to the exclusion of other things. … You don’t do test prep for four months for one test that doesn’t matter” to some students, he said.
Experiences such as field trips and job shadowing are more important than standardized tests, Watson said, because, “How do you choose a career when you don’t know what you don’t know?”
The new vision for education does not include a price tag – at least not yet. Many Kansas schools have reduced or eliminated counselors to cut costs. If they are charged with developing individual education plans for every student, like ones required for special-needs and gifted students, that could raise costs significantly, Watson said.
“I know this: When a student says, ‘I want to be the first in my family to graduate high school and go on to post-secondary, and I’d like to be an LPN,’ we ought to move mountains to make that happen,” he said.
“That may be a different program than another person who wants to be a neurosurgeon or another person that wants to be a mechanic. All those are important, and right now we’re trying to funnel them into the same system.”