Kansas education’s new vision focuses on nonacademic skills
Wichita Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson on Tuesday unveiled a new vision for schools that would create individualized education plans for each student, placing equal focus on academic and nonacademic skills to help graduates be successful in the workforce.
Watson, who took the state's top education job in July, shared the State Board of Education's vision during the Kansas Department of Education's conference in Wichita. The ideas presented stem from a series of community meetings held across the state this year to find out what people want from K-12 education.
"We are going to lead the world in the success of every one of our students," he told them. "The journey starts today, but it wouldn't be done tomorrow."
Carrying out the vision will mean having different graduation requirements and less emphasis on standardized tests, he said. School counselors will have new roles that include crafting individualized education plans tailored for each student — something Watson acknowledged does not happen now because schools have cut so many counselors that they typically have just one counselor for every 400 students.
"We may have to hire a lot of them," he said of school counselors.
Businesses will be asked to play a larger role through internships and job shadowing, and community service also should be involved more, Watson said.
"Academic skills are very important — no one is saying that they are not," he said. "But what we can't do is teach to a specific test that doesn't matter to that student about anything else in their life."
When reporters asked Watson about the cost of the vision after his talk, he quipped that legislators were invited to the education conference "to figure that out for us."
"We have to determine where we are going to go first before we can determine cost," he said.
Meanwhile, the state Board of Education is still wrestling with what it needs to mandate to implement the new vision. It hopes to leave as many of the details as possible to local schools on how to best carry out the ideas within the broad outlines of the vision.
Mary Jo Taylor, superintendent of schools in Stafford, said after hearing Watson's talk that it is an ambitious vision, but the right one to take.
"We can't wring our hands," Taylor said. "We have to have hope, we have to have a vision or we will stay status quo."
The conservative Kansas Policy Institute issued a statement congratulating the state education department on its new student-focused prioritization of public education, calling it a positive step toward refocusing an education system that placed institutional priorities ahead of students. It said it was especially pleased to see the recognition that too many graduates need remedial training upon entering college.
KPI President Dave Trabert also noted in the statement that the 2015 ACT showed only 32 percent of the graduating class was college-ready in English, reading, math and science.
"Kansas must be honest about student achievements, our lack of accountability in the finance formula, the great disparity in at-risk student progress, and travesty of remedial courses for high school graduates," Trabert said.
Karen Fraley, a special education teacher from Paola, was excited by the new direction.
"We are creating a future for all kids," she said. "I think that is very important."