Will Kansas Lead the World in Student Success?

Kansas School Board officials were asked to provide feedback on the State’s proposed vision for K-12 education at Webster Conference Center on Thursday. State Commissioner of Education Randy Watson identified one vision “where Kansas leads the world in student success”, where Kansas schools have “done well under traditional measures”.

In an alternative vision, Kansas could lead the world in the success of each student. This was explained by Watson and Deputy Commissioner Brad Neuenswander in a 75 minute presentation, filled with data collected from 27 locations and 2,000 participants earlier this year. Copies of the power point slides will be made available on the KSDE website, once Commissioners complete their regional presentations. The Kansas State Board of Education is determining how to measure “results” of this alternative vision. The new vision will be unveiled at KSDE’s Annual Conference on October 27, 2015 in Wichita.

Attending the session was Deena Horst, who serves on the Kansas State Board of Education and Diana Dierks, State Representative. The room was filled to capacity, with perhaps 100+ attending.

New State Measurements of Local Education Outcomes

Instead of relying on NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and other forms of standardizing testing to measure local education outcomes, Watson suggested that the State measure:
• High school graduation rates.
• Post-secondary education completion or persistence rates. According to a Georgetown Public Policy Institute, 71% of future Kansas jobs will require some kind of additional education. For some students, this may mean college or technical schools; Watson suggested alternative measures—such as when a student enrolled in the military completes basic training. Neuenswander said this would be measured at age 24.
• Remediation rates of students attending post-secondary educational institutes. Watson identified the ability to complete college algebra as being the gatekeeper for distinguishing whether an individual is able to get a certificate from a trade school or a college degree.

Schools May Need to Be Redesigned

In order to achieve this new vision, Watson said schools may need to be redesigned:
• Changes may need to be made to address school culture. Every spring, newspapers carry pictures of happy graduates who identify career goals. Watson envisions that in 2016, local districts will put as much emphasis on celebrating those who plan to go on to trade schools and other non-academic paths as on students who plan to go on to college.
• There will be new, dynamic roles for counselors and social workers, to help students plan their post-graduation career paths. Currently, this time does not count as instructional time.
• Schools may need to be reorganized around the student and not the system.
• Schools will work in collaboration with business and industry.
• Internships and job shadowing will play a role in students’ high school experiences.

Under this approach, talented students won’t graduate with a plan “to do something” that evolves over trial and error. They’ll graduate with a plan for a career tailored to their individual interests and aptitudes, and will know what training will be needed, where to get that training, what it will cost and what they might earn.
KSDE Will Change Its Focus

With this new vision, Watson said that the state’s Department of Education will need to focus on helping districts with skill training and strategic activities to help develop and emphasize:
• Maintaining/enhancing academic readiness, related to students’ college and career readiness.
• Character education, as it relates to future success.
• Matching career choices with the passion of each student.
• Having students involved in activities (typically from 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm).
• Involving students in volunteerism.
• Insuring every student has an individual plan of study, which may include community collaboration.
• Making preschool available to every student throughout the state.

When asked how this new vision aligns with the present school district accreditation model, Neuenswander said the vision aligns with four of the five “R’s”—rigor, relevance, relationships and responsible culture. He said the State Board of Education will take part in a retreat to define the “results” piece.

Watson warned that if school officials “don’t make these changes, it will be done for us”. USD 305 Superintendent Bill Hall asked about the role of the State Legislature in both approving the new vision as well as funding schools to achieve the new goals.

Watson asked the audience of local school board members and superintendents if they wanted KSDE to develop measures for school climate or if they wanted to develop those locally.

Background on the 27 Focus Groups

Early in the process, KSDE officials met with local school officials, students and parents in 20 sites to identify:
• 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 of that success?
• What is the role of higher education in achieving this future?

With assistance from K-State in research methodologies, KSDE identified that representatives of business and industry were only present at a very small fraction of those 20 focus groups. So, KSDE scheduled seven additional meetings and asked local Chambers of Commerce to participate. Results from the business/industry groups were similar to those initial groups, in that:
• Success in academic skills was considered to be about 23% of the equation. This includes knowledge of facts, critical thinking, and applying academics to the real world.
• Success in non-academic interpersonal skills was another 23% of the equation. This includes strong oral/written communication skills, multiple language skills, teamwork and citizenship. Citizenship was defined as being “our duty to others” and is often currently demonstrated when students provide a predetermined number of hours of community service in order to graduate. Business and industry groups emphasized the importance of citizenship.
• Success in non-academic intrapersonal skills was 45% of the equation. This includes agreeableness (which is part of customer service), conscientiousness (setting goals, self-discipline, and work ethic), extroversion (assertiveness), emotional stability, and openness (adaptability, creativity, and ability to work independently).


Watson was offered the Commissioner position in November 2014 and officially assumed responsibilities in July 2015. For the ten years prior, he was Superintendent of McPherson’s schools. There, he developed a C3- Citizenship, College and Career program that included the first federal waiver from No Child Left Behind granted to a school district.

Instead of NCLB’s focus on curriculum content and testing as well as the “all means all” rigor in meeting standards, the new vision focuses on “individual planning” and workforce readiness. The pendulum seems to be swinging in a different direction.

Watson was appointed by Governor Sam Brownback. The Kansas Legislature’s Speaker Ray Merrick and Senator Susan Wagle serve on the Board of Directors of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which strives to help State Legislatures create and adopt laws aligned with conservative principles. ALEC is linked with the Koch brothers (Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries in Wichita, KS) who seek to influence elections and public policy. They have long been involved in shaping secondary education and have been thought to be turning toward K-12 education.

Is it accurate to see “KSDE’s new vision” as an effort for the Koch Brothers to bring their values to local Kansas schools? Or, perhaps Watson is simply implementing the vision he has acquired over 37 years in education and raising a son with special needs.

Currently, the State of Kansas is struggling with Governor Brownback’s vision for business and wealth creation. It has created fiscal challenges for the State. Can we trust that his vision for our schools will bring success or doom? The process is very far along. The devil is in the details, and those aren’t currently available. We need to be vigilant.

Story by: Karen Shade for KSAL News