Kansas Leadership Center spotlights promise and perils of school redesign

Kansas Leadership Center spotlights promise and perils of school redesign

It is the most ambitious attempt to change Kansas public education –a system that serves 90 percent of school-aged children in Kansas and their families and touches every Kansas community – in decades, maybe ever. It could give Kansas educators a renewed sense of passion or burn them out. It could energize and personalize learning for Kansas students or turn them off and tune them out. It could engage parents or infuriate them. It could make local school leaders heroes or boot them out of their positions.

In fact, all of these things are or may be happening, and it is still little known and understood outside of public education circles.

“It” is Kansas school redesign, what the Kansas State Board of Education calls its “moonshot” to make Kansas the world leader by rethinking how public schools operate. It was the focus of a “launch event” Aug. 22 by the Kansas Leadership Center for the cover story of its summer Journal, which drew over 100 educators, board members, business and community leaders to the KCL Headquarters in Wichita – the largest such event in the center’s history.

The Center’s CEO, Ed O’Malley, explained the center was focusing on school redesign as part of its mission to “shine a light on leadership,” especially at the local level. Redesign is intensely local. Although the State Board of Education set up the basic framework and approves the schools and districts in groups named after the U.S. spaceflight missions (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo), the effort must be approved by local school boards, 80 percent of teachers and the local NEA, and the specific changes in operations are developed locally during a planning year before “launching.”

The first “Mercury Seven” group launched last fall; the Gemini group is implementing changes this year and Apollo schools are in the pre-launch planning stage. According to Commissioner of Education Randy Watson, the journalists who wrote the magazine articles, and teachers, parents and students who served as panelists at the event, some important themes are emerging.

Commissioner Watson says two big conclusions emerged from dozens of focus groups and listening sessions with educators, parents and employers. First, teachers believe students and families need more than academics measured by test scores. Second, businesses believe schools are not turning out students with the skills they need.

In both cases, the gaps are in areas schools have not traditionally been expected to fill: mental health, nutrition, social services, and teaching “nonacademic” skills like integrity, perseverance and empathy. These were once assumed to be the role of families, churches and other organizations. For whatever reasons, this isn’t happening for all students.

In addition, experts say Kansas will need far more people with education beyond high school, both technical training and academic degrees, than schools and colleges are currently producing. In response, the State Board has created a unique “postsecondary effective rate” that measures both high school graduation and the percent of graduates who are enrolled in or have completed a postsecondary program two years after graduation.

The board’s target graduation rate is 95 percent; last year’s statewide average was 86 percent. The target effective rate is 70-75 percent; the statewide average over the past five years is 46 percent. Asked if is possible to hit those goals, the Commissioner said he thinks so – but only if schools fundamentally change. “Schools are not set up for the success of each child,” he said. “They were designed to sort and select kids when only a minority were going to go to college, and most would go straight to a workforce where many jobs didn’t even need a high school diploma. That has changed.”

Based on the early experience of redesign schools, there are several major challenges to the effort.

First, many teachers reporting being energized by the process. If not, they leave, because it is much harder work, demanding high knowledge and doing more for students and families. This raises questions about sustainability, resources, time and mental capacity for expanding roles.

Second, without strong communication about why and how changes are being implemented, students, families and communities will be surprised, frustrated and possibly opposed. One comment: “It is easy to change for younger students – they don’t know what school is supposed to be. It’s much harder for older students and parents who expect things to be a certain way and want school to be the way they remember it.” Another comment: “It’s hard to engage parents until there is a problem – and then it is too late.” That’s especially true for families where the child is already fairly successful in the current system.

That is reflected in polls like the PDK survey, which for years has found most people think other schools are doing poorly but grade their own schools highly. This implies some people will feel, “We need to fix other people’s schools and kids – but not mine.” One community member addressed that attitude, “Our schools are not broken – but they can be better.”

Third, the push to provide more social services for students in schools is driven by unmet needs, but it can also place schools in competition with other providers over scarce professional staff and limited funding.

Fourth, the redesign effort has allowed schools to try, fail and make corrections. There is no model for achieving the kinds of goals set by the State Board. One example discussed in the Journal articles was the Wellington school district’s experience with the on-line Summit Learning platform, which prompted student frustration, parental opposition and a profile in the New York Times.

In response, the district has made changes this year, having teachers give more help to students in navigating the system and allowing families to opt out.

If there was a star of the launch event, it may have been Wellington high school student Michaela Washington-Adkins, who explained how Summit is a different way to learn. “It was hard for students at first, because we were used to teachers lecturing us on what we were supposed to learn. We had to figure out to how to learn to lecture ourselves. By the end of the year, most students got used to it.” She also noted the self-directed program allow her to skip her junior year, moving from sophomore to senior at her own pace.

“The world is constantly changing, and our education system has to keep up in some way,” Washington-Adkins said in the Journal article. “Can I completely say that Summit Learning program may be our best way of learning in today’s world? Maybe not. Yet I believe it’s a step towards what we’re aiming for in our school system today.”