As Kansans focus on how to fund education, the state’s top educator has been trying to figure out what students should be learning to prepare for the workaday world.
On Tuesday, Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson stopped in Olathe to share his classroom visions at a community forum. More specifically, he talked about the research and feedback he’s been getting this year from nearly 2,000 teachers, parents, students, business and higher education leaders about what they want from their education system.
“What we know Kansans are telling us is that, yes, students have to have good academic skills, but they also have to be able to apply those skills,” Watson said. “It is about not being out of balance.”
For the most part, Watson said, he learned that schools will need to turn out graduates that are critical and independent thinkers, risk takers, more creative, more personable, able to work well with others and have a better work ethic.
Watson said community and business leaders also told him that students need to be better communicators, volunteer more and be better citizens — skills that Watson referred to as “employability skills.”
And the state has to figure out how to measure those soft skills, which are not easily assessed using the traditional fill-in-the-dot test. It will be up to the local districts, Watson said, to figure out how to teach these skills.
The questions Watson asked in the 20 communities he visited around the state were: What are the qualities, characteristics and skills of a successful 24-year-old? What role should Kansas education play in developing those skills and characteristics?
He also wanted to know what Kansas businesses say are their greatest needs. The consensus from business leaders was that the need to teach non-academic skills was far greater than the need to improve the academics schools already deliver.
That message, he said, is far from the No Child Left Behind model that schools have operated under for the last decade, where states set academic benchmarks related to reading levels and math scores and teachers taught to those standards.
What’s different now is that schools must figure out how to get more students to seek some postsecondary credentials, obtain a degree and land a job in that field.
“We realize this means we may have to redesign school,” Watson said. “Maybe education needs to focus on the individual student and not the system. That is a radical change.”
What Watson didn’t discuss was how this new education would be paid for.
“We can’t have conversations about money until we know where it is we want to go,” Watson said.
Questions about the adequacy of Kansas school funding are playing out in the courts. Meanwhile, schools are funded through block grants that have basically frozen funding levels for two years until a new funding formula can be developed.
For now, what to teach is what the state’s educators are talking about.
The information collected on Watson’s Kansas education tour now goes to the Kansas State Board of Education, which will use these results to help guide the development of its strategic vision for Kansas K-12 education. That plan is to be released by Oct. 27.