Fifty years after Apollo 11 made that giant leap to the moon, Kansas education leaders are seeking an equally audacious goal: transforming public schools to dramatically boost student success.
Two years after the Kansas State Board of Education began the Kansans Can “Moonshot” school redesign program, over 250 educators from 19 districts and 41 schools met at the KASB office in Topeka this week as part of the “Apollo” group. The mission is to design new ways of operating schools, so Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.
The message from KASB Leadership Services Field Representative Dr. Doug Moeckel: a lofty goal isn’t enough. Change, no matter how important, is never easy, and will not happen without the right leadership.
The phrase “giant leap” is as appropriate for school redesign as it was for the space race.
- The challenge is immense and urgent.
Three reasons are driving the school redesign push. First, Kansas citizens, educators, employers, parents and students all raised concerns that too many students aren’t learning the skills they will need to be successful as adults, although many of those skills have not been traditionally the responsibility of schools. Schools, teachers and students have traditionally been organized and measured around a set of academic subjects, but most Kansans seem to place a much higher value on character values and social skills, previously expected to be produced by family, churches and social organizations.
Second, dramatic changes in the economy mean an estimated 71 percent of future Kansas jobs will require education beyond high school. Only about 49 percent of Kansas students earn a technical certificate, degree or are enrolled in a postsecondary program two years after their class graduates.
Third, Kansans are deeply concerned about the mental, social and emotional health of students: depression suicide, bullying and serious behavior problems for students as young as preschool.
- The goal has never been achieved.
When President Kennedy set the goal of landing a man on the moon, no one knew how to do it and the Soviet Union led in every accomplishment to that point.
Today, the State Board’s goal is raising the state’s graduation from 86.5 percent to 95 percent; the highest state currently is 92 percent (Iowa).
The Board wants 75 percent of Kansas students to score at the “effective” level on state reading and math tests, up from the current 35 percent. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 38.2 percent of Kansas students scored at “proficient;” the highest state is 47.3 percent (New Jersey).
In 2018, about 71 percent of Kansas high school graduates took the ACT tests and 29 percent scored “college ready” in all four subject areas. This year, a higher percentage of students took the ACT when the state paid the full cost. Among states where nearly all students took the test, the highest was Minnesota, where 30 percent scored college ready in all four areas.
The State Board wants over 70 percent of Kansas students to have some postsecondary credential. Currently, 58.9 of Kansas 18- 24-year-olds have “some” postsecondary education and 10.6 percent have a four-year degree. The top achieving state is Massachusetts, with 62.6 percent and 18.1 percent, respectively.
Kansas is chasing four different states, none of which is close to the Kansas goal, and each provide more total funding than Kansas. And, these measures are academic only; they don’t address how to support happier, healthier, economically successful adults who give back to their community.
In most cases, Kansas achievement levels are higher than they have even been or dropped only after funding fell behind inflation from 2009 to 2017. Kansas educational attainment has been improving for decades, but educational needs are rising even faster.
- The goal can’t be achieved without big changes.
It’s clear it will take more small, incremental changes to achieve the ambitious and unprecedented goals the Kansans Can vision embraces. Even after many changes in recent years, the school system is still not designed to help all students succeed; in most cases, the schools are standardized by time, place and subject, rather than the accommodating the different individual needs of students. That works well for most students, but too many still start and stay behind.
The big differences in student outcomes to a great extent result from differences in not what the school does for the student, but what the student brings to school. For example, students from families whose incomes do not qualify for free meals already have a 95 percent graduation rate, and percentage of higher income student scoring at higher levels on state assessments is double the rate of lower income students. The current system is simply not equipped to overcome the challenges of poverty, disability, language barriers, and mental illness.
Finally, high schools remain largely focused on the minority of students who will pursue a four-year academic degree at a traditional college or university, although the biggest workforce needs are in technical credentials and workplace skills. High achieving, college-focused students generally do very well; too many other students leave high school without either the preparation for a four-year degree OR technical training, although Kansas has made strides in this area.
These are reasons why the redesign effort stresses four core principles: raising academic expectations, but balanced with social emotional support; family, business and community partnerships because schools can’t solve all these issues alone; personalized learning that gives students more choices in what, how, when and where they learn based on their career interests; and real world application so students see the relevance of what they learn as part of their future career and community.
- Change is really, really, hard, especially for those who are happy with current results.
The Apollo team members presumably have already bought into the urgency of change: that is why they were there. So have their school board and administrators, who have approved the process. The focus of the training led by Dr. Moeckel with support from State Department of Education redesign specialists Jay Scott and Tammy Mitchell, and Deputy Commissioner for Learning Services Brad Neuenswander, is that change is always difficult but can be led and managed.
One problem is we still really don’t know how to “go to the moon” in education, as defined by those lofty state goals. But even as school leaders begin to explore new strategies, they will likely face opposition.
First, research is clear that more people fear change than are excited by change. For many students, families, teachers and community members, the current system has worked pretty well. Changing the system for kids who aren’t very successful may seem like punishing kids who are successful.
Most people say they want change in education and many other areas, but most people don’t want TO change. Best example is the long-standing polling data that around 70 percent of parents give THEIR school an “A” or a “B,” less than half give the same grade to other schools in their community, and less than 25 percent to the nation’s schools. Teachers rated schools about the same way. In other words, public schools are failing, but not OUR school. WE don’t need to change (much).
The message from Dr. Moeckel to these school leaders is this: your school community – teachers and staff, parents and students, patrons – won’t change because someone tells them they must. They must be shown the “relative advantage” of a redesigned school for everyone. Why will it be better?
Change must also reflect the culture, values and needs of each community, not just state goals. There is no single blueprint for redesign. It must It must be led by local teachers, administrators and parents, supported by local school boards and the community.
That first means a process of allowing every voice to help define both the goals and plans to get. You literally cannot communicate too much or seek too much input. Second, you must bring leaders in your districts into the process to influence others. Third, understand that people will adopt change at different rates, so it will take time. Don’t be discouraged by people who are slowest to adjust; they aren’t bad people and may be great in some ways. But focus on finding those who will bring others along.
The redesign project remains in its early stages. With the Mercury and Gemini schools approved since 2017, 66 districts – nearly one quarter of the state total – and nearly 150 schools are participating in the formal process. (That doesn’t count many other districts working on improvements on their own.) The 14 Mercury schools “launched” last school year, with both success and controversy. The Gemini schools are launching this year, and the Apollo schools will spend this year designing the plans for next year.