Editorials

Editorial: Will redesigning Kansas schools prepare students for life?

Kansas school districts are being held to a new standard. How well do districts prepare students for their careers is the crucial question being measured by looking at where students go during the two years after graduating from high school.
Kansas school districts are being held to a new standard. How well do districts prepare students for their careers is the crucial question being measured by looking at where students go during the two years after graduating from high school. File photo

By 2020, nearly three-quarters of all jobs in Kansas will require training or classwork beyond a high school diploma.

So why are we still measuring school success rates by how well students perform on standardized tests? Or by whether they simply graduate from high school?

Kansas education officials asked those questions of parents and business leaders and came up with some answers.

The result was announced Tuesday. Two schools in Olathe are among 14 statewide that will be part of a new initiative, the Kansans Can School Redesign project.

It’s an ambitious effort. No new funding is involved. But education officials are aiming to eventually reimagine schools across the state.

The vision calls for an individual plan of study for all middle and high school students. The tailor-made road maps would help students align career interests with coursework and plan for two years beyond high school graduation. That could entail working, joining the military, completing a certification program or attending a two- or four-year college.

The redesign project addresses realities in the workforce. In 2020, 35 percent of new jobs in Kansas will require an associate’s degree. These are considered “middle skilled” jobs, requiring more than a high school diploma but not a four-year degree. Already, many such jobs in Kansas go unfilled.

Wisely, the state Department of Education has worked to mitigate potential opposition to the first phase of the initiative. Districts that applied to be demonstration sites had to show support from their school board, local union and 80 percent of the faculty. The buy-in had to be upfront and documented.

This isn’t an abandonment of traditional markers of school success. Districts will also be measured by their students’ kindergarten readiness, graduation rates, and social and emotional growth as it relates to skills such as teamwork, perseverance and critical thinking.

In July, the Kansas Department of Education released the backbone of this project online. It compiled data on districts and added a new marker: where students are two years after high school.

That benchmark represents a new level of accountability for districts. Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson said the data landed with a thud in April when superintendents were confronted with the reality that many of their students were not faring well two years after graduation.

Now, clear benchmarks must be set to assess whether the redesign project is moving Kansas schools in the right direction. And education officials should continue to ask Kansas schools: How well did kindergarten through 12th grade really prepare students for life?

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