Public schools in Kansas are about to undergo one of the most significant transformations of any state education system in the country. On Tuesday, representatives from the Kansas State Department of Education announced that seven school districts have been selected as demonstration sites for the Kansans CAN School Redesign project — an effort to restructure K-12 education around five outcomes “identified as defining a successful Kansas high school graduate.” The redesign will be launched at these districts in the 2018-2019 school year.
There will be two participating schools at each of the districts — one elementary school and one middle or high school. Before being considered as pilots, districts had to submit applications and demonstrate that at least 80 percent of their faculty supported the initiative. School boards and teachers’ unions also had to approve. KSDE deserves credit for requiring such a high threshold of support, as well as for its efforts to engage with Kansans and determine what they want out of their education system. Moreover, the state is clearly responding to the large number of Kansas teachers and administrators who see the need for reform: 29 districts applied for the seven available slots.
KSDE named each of the districts after one of the Mercury 7 astronauts. In a news release, Education Commissioner Randy Watson explained this metaphor: “For the past two years, we’ve referred to the board’s vision for education as our ‘moon shot.’ Well, today, with these seven districts representing the original seven Mercury astronauts, we’re going to work on putting a man on the moon.”
These are the five outcomes emphasized by Kansans CAN: Social-emotional growth, kindergarten readiness, Individual Plan of Study, high school graduation rates and postsecondary completion/attendance. By making education more individualized and oriented around practical outcomes, KSDE is working to ensure that Kansas high school graduates will be ready for today’s economic realities. One of the most vital elements of the redesign project will be the process of connecting students with local businesses and organizations that can give them opportunities to work on real-world projects. This is a critical part of developing individual plans of study that will encourage students to pursue specific career goals.
Hopefully, this focus on post-graduation objectives will inspire students to take school more seriously, which may improve graduation rates, postsecondary achievement, etc. However, the outcomes of Kansans CAN remain to be seen, and some of them will be unclear for a long time. For example, even though the state’s transition to the Kansans CAN vision is already underway, we won’t know what impact it will have on postsecondary achievement for several years. This is why such indicators as ACT scores will remain important — although colleges and universities judge applications holistically, solid standardized test scores still give students a major advantage over their peers (particularly at larger and better-ranked institutions).
While a four-year degree is unnecessary for plenty of careers, 71 percent of Kansas jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2020. The Kansans CAN vision is an attempt to prepare our students for this more competitive, skill-based economy. Whether it will actually do so remains an open question, and we’re eagerly awaiting the data.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.