Editorial: School overhaul is the right call

An ambitious new model for K-12 education is risky, but it’s also the right thing to do for Kansas students.

The state of Kansas’ ambitious project to overhaul public education is fraught with risks and no doubt will face ample criticism.

But it absolutely is the right thing to do.

On Wednesday, state Board of Education members were given a briefing on the new initiative, called Kansans Can. The goal is to overhaul the way education is delivered in the state over the next 10 years. The project got underway this fall with pilot programs at seven school districts — Wellington, Olathe, Coffeyville, Twin Valley, Liberal, McPherson and Stockton. The district’s are being called the Mercury Seven.

“We have likened this to when (President John F.) Kennedy issued a challenge to land a man on the moon,” State Education Commissioner Randy Watson said. “We have a 10-year journey… It’s a serious journey. We’re trying by 2026 to totally redesign K-12 education for all 286 school districts.”

The overhaul was born out of a statewide listening tour that Kansas Board of Education officials undertook in 2015, meeting with community leaders, business leaders and parents in dozens of communities. What they heard was a revelation. While academic achievement was emphasized, Kansans also stressed that they want their schools to teach character development, citizenship and work ethic.

They want Kansas schools to better prepare students for the state’s emerging workforce needs. And they want schools to provide more individualized education, focusing on the needs of each student rather than forcing children to adjust to an education system that is, for the most part, still operating on a system designed more than a century ago.

Systems that could go by the wayside include the traditional K-12 grade structure, which is predicated on a student’s age and the school system’s structure rather than the student’s skills, interests and abilities. The schools chosen for the pilot project had to commit to overhauling an elementary school, middle school and high school to create a system in which a child could proceed from kindergarten through graduation in a more individualized environment.

“I would speculate that if you walked into one of (the pilot) districts, you’re not going to see a traditional setting,” said Brad Neuenswander, the deputy commissioner in charge of learning services. “I think you’re going to walk in there and maybe see a group of kids not based on age, but based on experience and where they’re at. You may see 30 kids in a room with three adults supporting that. The whole structure of it, it’s hard to define.”

The challenge for those pushing the project will be persevering. Change is never easy, especially within a system as complex as the state’s public schools. There are many constituencies — start with students, teachers and parents — whose opposition could derail such an ambitious project.

But ultimately, Kansans owe the state’s children an education system that is tailored to their needs and both challenges and engages them. The current system falls short of that goal. Here’s hoping Kansans Can will reach it.