Kansas education chief: It’s time to redesign public schools

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson says it's time for major changes in the way public schools approach their jobs and in how the state funds public education.

? Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson is telling public school officials it’s time for them to rethink the way they approach their jobs in light of what the general public, and the business community in particular, now expect of them.

Specifically, Watson told about 50 local educators in Topeka Wednesday, schools need to tailor educational programs toward the needs of each individual student.

And he said they need to focus as much on nonacademic skills such as communication, critical thinking and interpersonal skills as they do on traditional academic skills, such as reading and math.

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson says it's time for major changes in the way public schools approach their jobs and in how the state funds public education.

“Schools may need to be redesigned to get to this new outcome,” Watson said.

Watson, who officially took over as the state’s chief education officer in July, said those kinds of changes reflect what the Kansas State Department of Education heard from more than 1,800 community members and business leaders during a statewide listening tour conducted earlier this year.

He said the agency convened focus group meetings in 20 locations throughout the state, asking people what kind of skills they think a young adult needs in order to be successful, and what role public schools should play in developing those skills.

The results, he said, were surprising.

Although people generally agreed that basic academic skills were important, the vast majority of skills people listed as important were nonacademic skills, such as communication, interpersonal skills, citizenship and ethics, and the ability to work in teams with other people.

“This really rocked us,” Watson said, “because we thought we would hear, ‘They don’t know how to read a tape measure; they don’t know how to count back change.’ And we got some of that. But only 15 percent of responses were in that realm.”

Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander said the focus on nonacademic skills was even more prevalent among business leaders. Just within that group, he said the skills most frequently mentioned as important were personal characteristics such as conscientiousness, agreeableness and emotional stability.

“And I found this interesting,” Neuenswander said. “Even business and industry said, ‘We want our employees to be able to give back to others, to be good citizens. That makes them good employees.'”

Watson said for much of the last 20 years, the state of Kansas has focused almost exclusively on improving basic academic skills, and measuring those skills using a single statewide test for reading and math.

That was largely in response to the federal No Child Left Behind law that required states to work toward getting all students up to proficiency in reading and math, and to close achievement gaps between different ethnic groups and economic classes, as a condition for receiving federal education funding.

Under No Child Left Behind, Watson said, Kansas has made significant improvement in raising student achievement, and to some extent in closing some of the achievement gaps between groups of students.

But the overall percentage of high school graduates who go on to college has remained unchanged, as has the number of students needing remedial courses in college, while the number of students who stay in college for two or more years has declined.

“That’s not anyone’s fault,” Watson said. “We’re focused on different things.”

But Watson said the general public, and the business community in particular, expect much more from their schools, and he cited a massive focus group survey the Department of Education conducted earlier this year involving more than 1,800 people in 20 locations throughout the state.

Watson and Neuenswander are now touring the state again, sharing the results of that survey, and asking for feedback about how schools can change to respond to those priorities, and how the Kansas State Board of Education should incorporate those findings into a new accreditation system that will hold schools accountable for meeting those expectations.

Watson said schools will probably be asked to put more emphasis on career planning by identifying students’ passions and interests at an earlier stage, and making individual plans of instruction for each student.

He also said they should work more closely with local businesses to give students more exposure to real-world work environments.

The discussion comes at the same time the Kansas Legislature is preparing to craft a new funding formula.

Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, who was recently named to chair an interim committee that will soon start working on a new funding formula, attended Wednesday’s presentation and said the survey information will be useful in helping design that new formula.

“I’ve been visiting with these folks all along,” he said. “But we’re all saying the same thing. It has to be for the student.”