An ambitious effort, the Kansas school redesign, is underway to reinvent the way public schools prepare students to prosper in an increasingly competitive world. Its booster-in-chief, State Education Commissioner Randy Watson, compares the redesign to the U.S. space program’s quest to reach the moon. The effort, just a year into launch at the earliest adopters, has invigorated and challenged teachers while at times confounding older students and their parents.
What is school?
For many of the Kansans who’ve been through it, it’s a settled system in which students enter around age 5, proceed through grade levels and receive appropriate instruction from kind teachers, experience increasing academic rigor as they move into upper grades and high school, and graduate as informed, prepared members of society. It’s sharing lessons in kindergarten, reading in circles and memorizing multiplication tables in elementary school, writing papers and taking exams in high school.
But the memories Kansans have of their own experiences may obscure reality: Schools have always been experimental, and they have also been expected to accomplish weighty goals. After the American Revolution, schools mixed people of different backgrounds to unite 13 colonies and establish democracy. In the early 20th century, schools ensured that the growing labor force would have foundational knowledge and skills. The middle of the 20th century found education trying to help America unravel a legacy of racial inequality.
An ambitious project currently underway in Kansas is an effort to ensure that education adapts again to meet the needs of 21st-century students and employers. The Kansans Can School Redesign Project, spearheaded by Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson, is encouraging schools to think big. “The analogy we’re using is going to the moon,” Watson says.
When Watson looks back to 2014, the year he was named education commissioner after a more than 30-year career as a history teacher, coach and school administrator in several Kansas districts, he remembers a depressing time. Educators were being bashed in the media, and legislators were pointing out that student performance was “not where it should be.”
Watson toured Kansas, conducting focus groups in 20 locations. More than 2,000 people offered opinions about students’ skill sets and characteristics as well as the role of K-12 and higher education. Watson also sought input from business leaders. People said Kansas students were missing skills that couldn’t be measured on standardized tests: curiosity, perseverance, showing up on time, passing a drug test. They said schools were overemphasizing test scores and suggested adding more real-world projects, personalized experiences and job shadowing so students would be better prepared for careers and post-secondary education.
In response, Watson pictured an education moonshot to address less-than-stellar graduation rates and to ensure that students get prepared to drive economic success in Kansas. “I said, ‘Let’s have a compelling vision that drives hope and drives hard. We’re going to the moon: Every kid graduates high school – 95% – and 75% are going to have a plan to go on to post-secondary.’”
Based on the data they gathered, Watson and the State Board of Education adopted a vision: Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.
In 2016, the board approved a definition of success: “Every Kansas high school graduate should have the academic preparation, cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills and civic engagement to be successful in postsecondary education, in the attainment of an industry recognized certification or in the workforce, without the need for remediation.”
The board also identified five outcomes for measuring progress: social-emotional growth measured locally, kindergarten readiness, individual plan of study focused on career interest, high school graduation rates and postsecondary completion/attendance.
Then Watson and the board stepped aside and gave the work back to teachers working in their districts. And it is teachers who have accepted the mantle of driving changes in how schools operate that cut against tradition and sometimes even the expectations of students, parents and their colleagues.
ACTING LOCALLY: RISING TO THE OCCASION
Stockton and Olathe were early Kansas school redesign adopters, two of the so-called Mercury 7 announced in August 2017, a group chosen from among 29 applicants. (Mercury 7 is a reference to the first phase of the U.S. manned space program.)
They received coaching from the education department, established their teams and approach, then launched their redesigns in the 2018-19 school year. Changes were not forced on schools or teachers, and standards did not change. Instead, individual schools decided how to change their schools to meet the board’s definition of a successful high school graduate.
Most of the key decisions are being made by teams of teachers.
More schools have since joined the Kansas school redesign, which now covers 66 districts and 150 schools in all. The plan is for all districts to embark on the redesign journey by 2026.
Stockton and Olathe are about as different as two locations in Kansas can be. Stockton is a farming and ranching town of about 1,400 in north-central Kansas where the school of 335 students is the center of civic life. Unlike some rural districts, Stockton USD 271 has grown in the last few years. Most students are white, and fewer children live in poverty than in other parts of Kansas.
Olathe is a Kansas City suburb of 140,000 that now ranks as the state’s fourth-largest city. In USD 233, Santa Fe Trail Middle School and Westview Elementary are Olathe’s redesign schools. Both serve significant numbers of students who are learning English or who come from lower-income households.
In both school systems, the Kansas school redesign is sparking local changes to meet goals that stand in contrast to the status quo definition of a school and how it operates. Changes include shifts toward building resilience in students and developing other social qualities that will help them succeed in life.
Stacey Green, principal of Stockton Grade School, which encompasses pre-K through seventh grade, says teachers and administrators now have an enhanced understanding of what students bring with them to school and how going deeper into responding to needs and trauma can help.
Teachers try to respond to situations rather than just react – seeking why a student is experiencing difficulties rather than just taking disciplinary action. In addition to ensuring that students have trusted adults in their lives, changes to the school day encourage positive relationships among students. Stockton schools now have multiage communities that meet each morning and get to know one another.
The groups contain two or three adults who help lead activities related to character and habits of mind. Groups set goals, reflect on what they feel grateful about in journals, and they are free to discuss and choose new topics.
One group talked about meals and found that most students don’t sit down and have a family meal time, so they decided to host a meal and learn to set a table and pass food. “This was not scripted,” Green says, noting that a paraeducator “rose to the occasion” for the group. “Our staff members are so plugged in. This is how we help students where they are and take them into the future.”
Improved understanding of the need to teach students how to collaborate and build relationships results in new approaches to academic subjects, too. Andrea Dix, a fourth- and fifth-grade math and science teacher who has been at Stockton for 13 of her 14 years in education, says the Kansas school redesign transformed how she teaches.
In math, “they may be getting four different lessons or two lessons taught in different ways. I’ve taken time to get to know my students and where their frustration point is, how they think about and relate to numbers, and I’ve put them in groups and thought about how to relate to them,” she says. Dix no longer provides whole-group instruction but divides students into four groups.
Understanding students as individuals is crucial. Dix says one student might be having a rough week because she hasn’t seen her mom or a gifted student may know the material but be unable to collaborate well with others, so the groups are fluid. Dix may sit down with individual students to discuss goals or to review and think about the lesson in a different way.
Helping students understand themselves is also key to Andrea Graham’s kindergarten class, where students enter at vastly different levels. Instead of teaching to the middle, Graham, who has taught kindergarten for 11 years in Stockton, now works to understand students’ home lives and interests and begins a conversation about self-regulation and what it means to set goals and work in groups to complete projects. The students learn to manage distractions and help others be successful.
Graham says students have a “playlist” with tasks for the week, and they know their needs in a flexible environment in which they have choices, which builds independence. She also makes sure her class builds in time for fun. “We had been so academic-driven that we had taken out a lot of play. We didn’t always take time for those little things. We have a school garden. We’ve brought puppies in. The Cosmosphere came. We jumped into leaves when they fell off the trees.”
In Olathe, teachers noticed that students didn’t have much knowledge of the world outside a 10-mile radius. Pinky McMillian, a seventh-grade science teacher who has been at Santa Fe Trail for nine out of her 10 years in teaching, says teachers designed Exploration Days five times over the school year. Students choose from a menu of possible activities and learn more about, for example: first aid, stop-motion animation, biological sciences, art, cheerleading and drill team, crafting paracord bracelets or community service. It’s a delightfully abnormal school day. Some students might be bused off site to volunteer or visit a museum while others are in classrooms dissecting owl pellets or building Lego bridges that meet specific criteria.
Aside from creating special events, blowing up the daily schedule at Santa Fe Trail also helped institute changes to serve students better.
A block schedule with longer classes that meet fewer times in a week allows for more hands-on and project-based activities. WIN time, which stands for What I Need, is another addition.
“Our students don’t have the opportunity to stay after school for extracurricular activities or stay and get help, so we built academic intervention in the middle of the day as WIN time,” McMillian says. Students can receive extra help in math or other classes, use the time to tackle homework or pursue enrichment or even movement time to “get wiggles out.”
The Olathe middle school’s redesign team is collecting and analyzing data on redesign efforts. Scoreboards in the teacher’s lounge show weekly updates in social-emotional learning across the school. Students are filling out surveys after Exploration Days and WIN time, and those results are also displayed. Teachers are communicating their successes and frustrations. When the data show that something isn’t working, the group changes it; for example, a wrap-up time at the end of the day proved unproductive, so a schedule change in the fourth quarter of the school year moved that 10 minutes of each day into WIN time.
CHALLENGES: ‘IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME’
Redesigning a school is neither easy nor simple. Teachers, administrators, students and parents have different ideas of how school should work. Changing a deeply entrenched status quo can be disorienting and create conflicts as people lose a sense of certainty or fear they’ll lose something of value in the process.
In at least two of the early adopting districts, some parents and students have complained about the use of an online platform adopted as part of the Kansas school redesign. Summit Learning allows students to learn at their own pace, but critics complain that students have been left to fend for themselves far too often and that their grades have suffered. (Learn more details in a Journal story focused on the situation in Wellington.)
Most districts, though, have had little drama spill out into the public eye.
In Stockton, Graham says all conversations seek to hold to a clear purpose: doing what is best for kids. She offers a perspective that is often repeated across factions. “It’s critical that we shift. The world kids go into is going to be far different. Eighty-five percent of the graduating class will have jobs that don’t exist yet,” she says. Agreement on that point doesn’t make changing the system simple. Graham says younger kids don’t have entrenched ideas of how school should be, but persuading older students and parents to change is a challenge.
Jessica Iwanski is president of the school site council and has three kids in the district who will be a senior, a sophomore, and a seventh-grader in the 2019-2020 school year. She and her husband are both veterinarians and own Central Veterinary Services, which treats farm animals and pets. Iwanski grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, but her husband is a Stockton native. She says many parents, including her husband, reacted to the Kansas school redesign with a version of “If it isn’t broken, why fix it?”
“My husband kept saying, ‘I did fine. It was good enough for me.’ I can argue both sides, but I agree that the jobs my kids are looking at, they didn’t exist when I was a kid,” she says.
Iwanski says her daughter “fought the redesign tooth and nail” last year because it changed her idea of school – she even attended a redesign meeting to explain what she thought wasn’t working for students.
One area of consternation for many students and parents has been adoption of standards-based grades instead of conventional letter grades. Standards-based grades narrate how students demonstrate understanding of specific concepts rather than assigning an A-through-F grade.
The changes make sense to Green, who says Stockton had a problem with rigor before the redesign. Students were attaining GPAs that didn’t align with results on state assessments and ACT scores. The Kansas school redesign offered a chance to “go deeper with curriculum resources and state standards.”
From Green’s perspective, the letter grades and GPA were not good indicators of student performance. “They say, ‘We don’t know how students are doing,’” Green says of parents. “But I say, ‘Did you know how they were doing before?’”
Even though lecture-style instruction and letter grades have shortcomings, abandoning comfortable, long-established routines is difficult. Although the district offers frequent communication opportunities, most meetings have been small. Discontent, as a recent critical post by a high school student illustrates, surfaces instead on social media rather than, say, at the school’s lightly attended parent-teacher conferences.
But if the Kansas school redesign has at times vexed students and parents, it has invigorated and challenged many of the teachers charged with leading it. If working as a school-wide team to meet redesign goals, abandoning traditional classroom structure, evaluating everything you do and responding to students more as individuals sounds like more work, it’s because it is.
At Westview Elementary in Olathe, John McCormick just finished his seventh year of teaching. He switched to a blended second- and third-grade classroom this year after spending most of his career teaching kindergarten. Meeting redesign goals required much more collaboration among teachers, and he says making the shift from planning as an individual classroom teacher to working as a cohesive unit was tricky because it required accommodating different personalities and the ideas of veteran as well as novice teachers.
Changing approaches is also tough. One area of emphasis has been building students’ stamina, grit and perseverance. “It sounds really simple. We can build grit, but you have kids who have learned that when something doesn’t go their way to just raise a hand and say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ It’s hard as a teacher not to say, ‘Let me help you.’ … I want to dive in there and hold their hand and walk them through it. (Teachers) want to help kids, but we want to guide them in a way that helps them become better learners, and that’s hard.”
Westview teachers Angie Gustin and Meghan Bartek co-teach a kindergarten and first-grade class. Because they work in such a large system, they say one of their central challenges is balancing the redesign plan with district expectations. Bartek says a lack of time is a constant headache. She and Gustin spend many hours meeting, discussing data and planning instruction during school as well as outside of school.
Gustin and Bartek say teachers on the redesign team are good at supporting one another, but they have concerns about retaining staff because some are uncomfortable with the changes and about maintaining the small class sizes that allow them to meet redesign goals. “What we ask ourselves is, ‘Is this sustainable?’ What we’re doing now, can we continue to implement this for years to come, and could other schools use this model? That’s a big challenge moving forward,” Bartek says.
The redesign can be disorienting for both administrators and staff. J.J. Libal, Santa Fe Trail Middle School principal, says the district has been generous in supporting the redesign effort, but everyone feels like a first-year teacher or administrator. “Everything is different. We knew how to do school before. But this flips everything around. It puts everyone on an even playing field. You’re all new!”
As an administrator, Libal says the effort has been both empowering and scary. Flexibility has been important, and he has had to give up some control and learn to take new qualities into consideration when hiring staff. “The things we’re looking for are different than before. We always want people who are strong in content and build great relationships, but now we need more flexibility. Can you mentor students and provide social-emotional support for students? Are you not afraid to fail?”
TEACHING: ‘NOW IT’S A PASSION, NOT JUST AN OCCUPATION’
Despite the difficulties, teachers are clearly energized by the Kansas school redesign. McMillian says Santa Fe Trail teachers feel empowered to “do everything with full force” and collaborate more with students and parents. She likes offering more in-depth lessons in her classes as a result of the longer class periods, and she loves seeing the students’ reactions to what they learn on Exploration Day. Enthusiasm has spread.
McCormick’s reaction is similar.
“It’s been a real win a couple of times, and it’s definitely been a change in our school.” McCormick says. “It is rewarding, because we’re doing it for kids. That’s why I’m a teacher. My purpose in life, my meaning in life, is to help kids.”
He says that efforts to communicate with parents are ongoing, but when they learn about the ideas behind the redesign, they are receptive. “They recognize that education needs to evolve,” he says.
In Stockton, Graham and Dix are also excited by what they are seeing. Graham says before the redesign, she was going through the motions. “I was confident in what I was doing. I was comfortable. I know so much better who I am now – it has energized me in supporting the adults around me in supporting change and implementing change and doing it well,” Graham says.
Dix also feels changed. She says she was at a burnout point before redesign took hold. “I was a math and science teacher before. Now I’m a child teacher that teaches math and science. I can check on a student that’s not having a good day – have relationships with those students. I was doing what I needed to do to be a teacher, but now it’s a passion, not just an occupation.”
Parents such as Iwanski are also seeing their children reap benefits, even if the shifts have been disconcerting for older students. Despite her daughter’s initial resistance, she has learned well during self-guided projects in Advanced Placement biology. “As frustrated as she was that she wasn’t in a lecture every day, she learned a ton. And she didn’t know she was learning it.”
It’s too early in the Kansas school redesign process to discuss broader results, but Watson says the process of identifying needs and areas of agreement, validating with research, setting bold goals and giving the work back to energized teachers has created a new culture in education.
“What I hear (from teachers) is an enthusiasm of hope, of ‘someone trusts us to do the work. For a long time, no one trusted us to do the work.’” Unleashing that “deep desire to do great work” requires holding everyone accountable to an ambitious goal – to lead the world. “There’s really no one in opposition that this is something we should do,” Watson says, noting that everyone from conservative business leaders to liberal Democrats support the effort to make the education system work for everyone.
But Watson acknowledges that using the analogy of the space race for the redesign implies that schools will face at least some significant challenges and setbacks over the course of the Kansas school redesign.
The U.S. space program, after all, suffered a number of failures, detours and setbacks on the path to reaching the moon, one of which, the Apollo I mission, was fatal for three astronauts. It took billions of dollars, the efforts of 400,000-some engineers to make the feat happen, as the news website Quartz reported in 2018, and even as the effort unfolded, large chunks of the U.S. public didn’t buy in, preferring more spending on national defense, education and anti-poverty programs rather than space exploration. It helped, of course, that the U.S. wasn’t the only country racing toward the moon. The epic Cold War competition for space flight supremacy with the Soviet Union helped the U.S. keep its eyes on the prize.
We weren’t sure we could make it, Watson says, but the bold goal energized the nation. Kansas educators, students and parents should be energized by the chance to reinvigorate the state they call home.
“We’re in competition right now. Our best kids are leaving the state. We have a brain drain. We have jobs going unfilled because we don’t have enough people to take those positions.”
Perhaps more important, according to Watson, the redesign adopts the kind of foresight it took to go to the moon and that education has been missing. President John F. Kennedy provided the will and set an audacious goal that, even if he had not been assassinated, would not have been reached while he was in office. Watson says a central challenge is whether Kansas can sustain the redesign through political cycles that will “try to take us off target.”
The scale the effort will have to reach to succeed is daunting. There are 286 unified school districts in Kansas, and redesigns are unfolding in fewer than a quarter of the state’s districts right now. If some schools struggle, that could jeopardize statewide adoption of the redesign.
According to Watson, optimism is warranted because redesign schools are helping students, as evidenced by increased assessment scores and attendance and decreases in tardies and failing grades. A redesign conference in March attracted so many people that the department of education had to close registration two weeks early. Nearly 600 participants from schools already participating in the redesign and schools interested in exploring the possibilities gathered in Manhattan to share information.
In Stockton, Green wrestles with maintaining fidelity to redesign principles, making time for professional development so her district doesn’t regress into doing what’s comfortable and figuring out how to collect and analyze data with a small staff. In the meantime, she also ponders statewide implementation. As a model school, Stockton hosted a boot camp for other schools, and Green was disappointed that more schools from the immediate area didn’t attend.
“We are nervous about schools picking up parts and pieces and calling it redesign without going through the process,” she says. “Anytime something goes well, it’s because you have adhered to the fidelity of it. If you carry it out as intended, it withstands the test of time. Don’t water it down.”
Watson says he’s been pleased with the progress he’s seen in two years. It has provided insights about how hard the process is, especially the challenge of working through the nostalgia that adults often have about their school experiences.
“There’s something about schools, and colleges too, that attach to our youth. We have a heart pull. We don’t want that to change! It reminds us of a younger us. We have to engage parents in the why,” he says.
But it’s a shift that will take time, effort and practice.
“This is not a program – it’s a process. You can choose lots of programs to enhance the process. But this is a way of thinking and a process,” Watson says.
Schools have to learn how to teach real-world skills to boost employability and enhance social-emotional learning while embedding academics rather than designing around academics with the rest of the skills taught incidentally.
Watson says he can see the difference in Stockton. “Look at every measure: Students are academically getting better, socially-emotionally getting better and teachers are feeling better. They will tell you they have changed. It’s just refreshing to watch Kansans go to work and say, ‘We can do better for families.’”
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.