Posted March 28, 2018
Two years ago, leaders from the Kansas State Department of Education went on a road tour. It was time to set a new vision for the state’s education system and they wanted Kansans to inform it. In town hall meetings, parents, educators, and community members listed the skills and attributes of successful young adults and reflected on the role of the education system in preparing students for later success in work and life.
What KSDE leaders heard surprised them. Nearly 70 percent of the skills and attributes cited by stakeholders fell into a “non-academic” category – communications, critical thinking, perseverance, responsibility, etc. – skills deemphasized by traditional education approaches. In subsequent conversations with Chambers of Commerce across the state, business leaders echoed these same attributes, often referencing a gap between skills and credentials required for available jobs and those held by young workers. Data reinforced this gap, with projections showing that by 2026, 75 percent of the jobs available in Kansas will require some certification beyond high school (technical certification, associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree). An estimated 36 percent of today’s Kansas high school graduates are earning credentials that would make them eligible for these jobs.
Statewide meetings left KSDE leaders with many questions: How do we make social emotional and employability skill development part of teaching and learning in schools? How can we help middle and high school students explore their passions and connect them with postsecondary options that make sense for them? How can we better connect students with internships and experiential learning opportunities while they are in high school? How can we help make sure our youngest students enter school ready to learn, and that they building social-emotional skills from a young age? How can we measure our success?
Creating a Flight Plan
KSDE leaders knew that tinkering around the edges of the existing education system wasn’t going to get them to their goal of preparing all students for careers and life. They needed dramatic reform – likening the charge to President Kennedy’s challenge to get American astronauts to the moon. They also knew that a top-down reform wasn’t the answer. For this to work, they needed district leaders, educators and school leaders to be in charge, setting a course that made sense for their communities, students and schools.
In May 2017, KSDE invited districts to participate in Kansans CAN – a statewide school redesign project. Proposals had to include redesign plans for at least one elementary school and one high school in the district, have 80 percent approval from each school’s staff, a letter of recommendation from the school board and teacher’s association, be grounded in a set of “bedrock principles” that reflected Kansans’ vision for schools, and include a set of success measures tied to these non-negotiables.Seven of the 29 proposals received were selected to be part of the Mercury program – an initial cohort of redesigners who would be part of a statewide network and receive coaching and support from two KSDE staff in a newly created role. Another 21 districts became part of a Gemini I group, which received foundational resources from KSDE and were able to share and learn from one another in monthly virtual meetings.
Recalibrating for Scale
KSDE leaders will soon be accepting applications for a new Gemini II cohort. As they gear up to welcome a new group of redesigners, they are also reflecting on their progress and considering potential improvements to their approach. What they are learning is instructive for other redesigners – especially those interested in spurring innovation from the state level.
- Foundational resources help create a common language and process for redesign. KSDE has provided Mercury 7 and Gemini I redesigners with a set of foundational resources that they can use to put their plans into action, including FourPoint’s Playbook for Redesigning Schools for the 21st Century, which has influenced the framework, order, and pacing of redesign projects at the state level and within individual schools. Each Mercury 7 school has adopted the change process articulated in the Playbook – establishing a redesign team, creating a shared vision, and establishing and managing against goals, strategies and action plans. Many schools are also using the Playbook’s leadership activities to troubleshoot challenges along the way. According to state education leaders, adopting resources that lay out a process for managing and leading redesign prevents each school from having to start from scratch and helps to guide coaching and support to schools. “We’re building a flight manual – a comprehensive package of resources that schools can immediately use to help put their plans into action,” explains Tamra Mitchell, elementary school redesign specialist in KSDE’s division of learning services.
- SEA leaders help to remove implementation roadblocks. KSDE has dedicated two staff members – both experienced school improvement coaches – to support redesign projects. Over the past year, these two have worked to establish and refine their approach for supporting school and district leaders. They see their role as helping to remove implementation roadblocks, being a thought partner, and helping to do the leg work to identify and provide redesigners with resources and best practices related to their individual projects.
- The level of coaching and support matters. Mercury redesigners have received the bulk of support from SEA staff, with the Gemini cohort getting lighter touch technical assistance. As the state ramps up the number of districts working on redesign – with a goal of all districts being redesigned by 2026 – they are considering how they can create a support model that falls somewhere in the middle, perhaps by developing regional implementation and coaching networks.
- Starting small helps to build momentumfor large-scale change. Starting with a small cohort of early adopters has allowed the state to create a buzz and momentum for reform. Having proof points and established redesign expertise in the state will help to inspire similar efforts and allow Kansas districts to share best practices from their own experiences with one another.
- Local ownership is key. KSDE leaders maintain that for redesign to be meaningful, it must be locally driven. “When those who are closest to the students have the most voice and choice over how they meet learning needs, there’s excitement, passion, and willingness to do the hard work of redesign,” Mitchell explains. Because this is an opt-in program – redesign districts don’t receive additional financial resources – it must be something that the school and community are ready for and committed to taking on.
- Focusing on the future helps to inspire change today.
Through Kansans CAN, KSDE is supporting significant changes in schools today to meet the future needs of students and the state. “Adding in a postsecondary measure has rocked our world,” says Mitchell. “We’ve been so focused on getting kids across the stage with their diploma, now we’re asking – where are they two years out?”
To learn more about Kansans CAN, visit the KSDE website.