New school year brings hopeful signs, but big challenges remain for Kansas students (Part 1 of 3)

New school year brings hopeful signs, but big challenges remain for Kansas students (Part 1 of 3)

As another school year begins, there are reasons for real concerns about how Kansas students are being prepared for the future, but also important reasons for optimism.

Start with the good news: more resources and school redesign.

For the second year in a row, Kansas school districts received an increase in per pupil funding greater than inflation. Last year, that led to the largest increase in teacher salaries since 2009 and allowed districts to begin replacing positions cut during nearly a decade of stagnant funding. Districts should be in a position to do the same this year in budgets adopted this month.

The Legislature has adopted a plan to continue raising base aid per pupil for four more years, and the Kansas Supreme Court has tentatively signed off on that plan, contingent on inflationary adjustments over that period.

The Kansas State Board of Education has implemented a new accreditation system based on preparing students for successful adulthood in postsecondary education, employment, and citizenship.

Districts across the state are signing up for the Board’s “Mercury” and “Gemini” school redesign program, named after the U.S. space program’s successful race for the moon. Many more districts across the state are adopting their own efforts to individualize and personalize education, narrow achievement gaps to provide more equity in educational outcomes, improve student mental and physical health and safety, and prepare more students for postsecondary success.

This year, Kansas will offer students the opportunity to take the ACT college preparation test and WorkKeys workplace readiness test at no charge.

Finally, a new State Department of Education measure of school district success, the Postsecondary Progress report, indicates Kansas made some gains between 2012 and 2016. That measure reflects studies showing that 70-75 percent of Kansas jobs in the future are likely to require some type of postsecondary credential. About half of those jobs are expected to require technical certificates or two-year associate degrees, and about half will require four-year academic degrees or graduate and professional degrees. Ninety percent of jobs will require a high school diploma.

Kansas – like all states – is currently far short of that benchmark. That means employers will struggle to find higher skill employees needed to operate and expand, and many high school graduates or drop-outs will struggle to find employment at all, or jobs that pay a wage to support a family.

The updated Postsecondary Progress report released this summer shows that from 2012 to 2016, the state high school graduation rate increased from 85.2 to 86.1 percent. The percent of those graduates completing a degree or certificate or enrolled in a postsecondary institution within two years of graduation, called the “success rate,” rose from 52.2 to 56.7 percent. Multiplying those two numbers gives the “effective rate” – the percent each “grade cohort” completing or enrolled for two years in a postsecondary program. That number increased from 44.5 to 48.9 percent.

Despite progress, concerns Kansas is falling behind

Despite these positives, there are reasons for school leaders to be remain deeply concerned about Kansas education trends and be committed to the hard work that lies ahead. Although improvements have been made, there is evidence Kansas is falling behind other states in preparing students for success in their adult lives.

The Postsecondary Progress Report is not the only data that shows Kansas has made progress in getting more students successfully into postsecondary programs. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey tracks the percentage of young adults (aged 18-24) who have completed high school; who have “some college,” which means participation in postsecondary academic or technical programs, whether they have earned a degree or certificate; and who have completed a four-year degree or higher.

The good news is that since 2005, Kansas has improved in each of these categories. High school completion increased from 84.3 percent to 87.5 percent; some college participation from 51.9 percent to 58.8 percent; and four-year degree completion or higher from 9.7 percent to 10.3 percent.

The bad news is that most other states have improved even more, even though Kansas continues to lead the nation in two of the three areas. The U.S. average for high school completion rose from 81.1 percent to 87.0 percent, just one-half percent below Kansas. U.S. “some college” participation rose from 46.6 percent to 55.2 percent, cutting Kansas’s lead from 5.5 percent to 3.4 percent. The national average for four-year college completion rose from 9.0 percent to 10.3 percent, the same level as Kansas.

Overall, Kansas dropped from 8th in high school completion in 2005 to 24th in 2016; in postsecondary participation from 6th to 13th and in four-year degree completion or higher from 18th to 19th.

Why have other states been improving faster than Kansas?

One critical difference is funding. As previously reported, Kansas ranked 40th out of the 50 states in the change in per pupil funding between 2008 and 2016. Kansas total revenue per pupil actually declined 4.9 percent after adjusting for inflation, while the U.S. average increase 2.5 percent.

Among the Plains states (Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, North and South Dakota and Minnesota) and other adjoining states (Colorado and Oklahoma), there are similar patterns. Every state except Oklahoma had a larger increase in per pupil funding than Kansas, and every state except Oklahoma improved more than Kansas in 18-24-year-old educational in at least two of the three categories.
Oklahoma was the only state to fall farther behind Kansas in funding and had less improvement than Kansas in two of the three areas.

In addition, the four states in the region that still spend less per pupil than Kansas (Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Dakota) still perform below Kansas on at least two of the three measures, while the states that spend more (Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota) each top Kansas on all three measures.

What do these facts mean?

First, money matters in student achievement, because it allows schools to add the resources for more personalized education, to help students struggling because of poverty, mental and physical health issues and disabilities, and to provide richer, more relevant programs and course offerings to prepare students for postsecondary success.

Second, with adequate resources, some states are getting better results than Kansas. Higher achievement IS possible, and it is critical to both meeting the employment needs of the state’s economy and allowing students to lift or keep themselves out of poverty by having the skills for higher paying jobs.

Third, thanks to a boost in funding, Kansas school leaders for the first time in years have the resources to make these improvements. But it won’t happen automatically. School boards and administrative leadership must make the right strategic changes and investments to get better results. Spending more money to do exactly the same thing is unlikely to produce different results.

The path to success will be different from district to district to district, and it is crucial to involve the whole community in the on-going process. But there are likely to be common components, based on the State Board’s five outcomes and discussions KASB held across the state this summer.

  • Continue to expand and improve early childhood programs, from Parents As Teachers to preschool. There is growing evidence these programs improve success later in life.
  • Strengthen community partnerships and programs to help students with social, emotional and mental health issues.
  • Commit to meaningful individual plans of study for all students. Take advantage of the state-funded ACT and WorkKeys testing programs to help prepare and assess students’ readiness for college and employment.
  • Expand the opportunity for students to get real world experience in their areas of interest, in the workplace and in higher education. Be flexible in how students can gain credit for learning.
  • Review programs and policies to address student attendance, including quicker response to students with chronic absences.

One of the “Rose standards” for constitutionally adequate funding is to prepare students to successfully compete with students from surrounding states in academics and employment. A decade ago, Kansas was a leader the region and nation. The decision is whether Kansas is content to be average.