Dr. Randy Watson became Kansas Commissioner of Education, overseeing the Kansas State Department of Education that spends 51 percent of state tax revenues in our schools across the state. Commissioner Watson had been Superintendent of USD #418, the McPherson Public School district, one of the first districts to negotiate alternative assessments under U.S.D.E. Secretary Duncan’s “Race to the Top” program that was enforcing No Child Left Behind testing.
After a statewide tour, Commissioner Watson advocated for the importance of soft skills in addition to tested subjects. Exactly how these will be measured or promoted is yet to be seen. However, the outcomes for the “Kansans Can” vision and the hyperbole of “Kansas leads the world in the success of each student” reminds many teachers of the unrealistic platitudes of NCLB (100 percent proficient by 2014) and the just-passed bipartisan “Every Student Succeeds Act.”
Meanwhile, teachers had to look hard to find any positive state or federal legislative actions that halted the decline in K-12 education support in Kansas or across the nation. The Kansas Legislature moved to block-grant funding, bragging that this increased school funding. In truth, the alleged increase incorporated restoring KPERS funding. Some Kansas schools had to end their school year early. And Kansas courts found the new plan unconstitutional.
The 2014 Kansas Legislative action removing teacher due-process (tenure) continued to have an impact on Kansas student teacher production, especially in the sciences. For the first time, some rural Kansas school districts faced shortages in applicants for elementary and vo-ag teachers. The science and special education teacher shortage is now so severe that many superintendents have given up finding qualified candidates. In a few cases where local USD contracts permit it, Kansas science teachers are being hired at higher than pay scale—in effect, the first cases of differentiated teacher pay in the state.
While Kansas was the second state to eliminate tenure, pushed by ultra-conservatives, California eliminated teacher tenure a few months later due to efforts from liberals who are pushing the same effort in New York. Yet again, teachers have no political party on their side.
Six schools joined the Coalition of Innovative School Districts, an arrangement allowed by recent Kansas legislation that would allow up to 20 percent of Kansas USDs (up to 56 USDs) to hire individuals who lack the professional qualifications for teaching to be fully-paid teachers. The reward for the CISD is a pot of money set aside for being innovative. The Kansas City Kansas Superintendent explained how she wanted the money to buy college dual credits for her remaining poor high school students while Blue Valley wanted to continue a variety of innovations they already do. The other four districts reflect the plight of rural Kansas schools who want legitimacy for hiring local untrained folks without using the alternate routes to teaching credentials already available. Their real motivation lies in the fact that these would be locally-“licensed” teachers who could not teach elsewhere, essentially in servitude to the local district. Despite total opposition in public forums, the State Board of Education approved the CISD system. It would take but one small amendment in the Legislature to un-cap the CISD and make Kansas the first state to totally de-professionalize teaching.
The growing atmosphere of disrespect toward the teaching profession contributed to an increased migration of Kansas teachers to nearby states. Missouri took advantage of teacher dissatisfaction by erecting billboard advertising for teachers along the state boarder. The Kansas governor pointed out that both Oklahoma and Missouri have lower pay scales, an action again highlighting how many politicians fail to understand the teaching profession.
The number of schools abandoning print textbooks and adopting one-to-one computing in the form of personal digital devices accelerated across Kansas. There was often minimal-to-no teacher involvement in these top-down decisions. While parents no longer had a textbook rental fee, there was a far higher cost to the schools for these devices that rarely last more than three years. Teachers have extra work to develop digital materials to replace the textbooks and load them onto computers for those students who do not have broadband access at home. Student learning time is cut. And in many cases, the online materials provide students with unreviewed and erroneous content.
The ink is barely dry on the Every Student Succeeds Act just passed in Washington, DC. The NCLB testing regimes remain embedded in the laws of 43 states although many federal penalties were removed. But new ESSA actions promote alternate route programs. And those new rookie teachers are to be hired at masters-level pay—a whole new federal overreach into state education.
Finally, high school graduation rates for both Kansas and the nation are significantly higher than a decade ago. Unfortunately, the more genuine measures of academic attainment provided by NAEP scores and college graduation rates are down. While islands of quality teaching remain, overall it is becoming harder for a bad student to fail. And fewer of our graduating students are prepared to succeed in college-level work.