PARSONS — It’s time to unhitch schools from the concept of “No Child Left Behind” and state assessment tests.
Dr. Randy Watson, incoming Kansas education commissioner, noted both had served their purpose, to mixed results.
Teachers were forced to spend an inordinate amount of time “teaching to the test,” Watson said, “which sent a mixed message.”
The Kansas Board of Education is in the midst of developing a new strategic plan for Kansas schools in order to meet the needs of today’s changing society.
And while educators of all stripes agree there are traits a high school graduate must possess in order to become a productive member of society, the conversation gets trickier when finding new strategies.
A group of more than 50 — almost all educators — gathered Wednesday evening at Parsons Middle School for a “Kansas Children, Kansas’ Future” summit, hosted by Watson and interim education commissioner Brad Neuenswander.
The session was the 10th of 18 scheduled across the state this winter, and focused on three basic questions:
— What are the characteristics, qualities, abilities and skills of a successful 24-year-old Kansan?
— What is the role of K-12 education in achieving this future, and how should K-12 measure indicators toward that success?
— What is the role of higher education in achieving this future and how should higher education measure indicators toward that success?
WATSON noted schools and educators have taken their lumps from media and politicians on several fronts in recent years.
“Have you ever worked harder?” he asked the teachers. “We’re all working hard. But is it the right work we’re doing?”
Watson noted in 1973, 72 percent of America’s jobs required a high school diploma or less.
That number has steadily dropped, to 44 percent in 1992, to 41 percent in 2010, and is projected to be at about 36 percent in 2020.
Seven of every 10 jobs in Kansas will require post-secondary education by 2020, a full 6 percentage points above the national average.
That’s good and bad, Watson said.
For one, it means Kansas has some good-paying jobs, he noted. But employers are finding it difficult to fill those jobs.
NEUENSWANDER compared a student’s educational journey to a 1600-meter relay team in track and field, or four full circuits around the track.
The first leg is the preschool days, an underrated leg because it sets up a huge discrepancy in how much kindergartners know and can learn.
Kindergarten, in fact, has the largest achievement gap of all grade levels in public schools. Some can arrive already able to read and write, Neuenswander said, while others may not be able to recite their full name and address.
The second leg is elementary school, the third is secondary or high school, and the fourth is through college or technical training.
The aim is to ensure all four legs are functioning in sequence, Neuenswander said.
Then comes the next hurdle: ensuring the state can pay for it.
“But I don’t have all the answers, and you don’t want someone from Topeka deciding it,” Watson said.