Statewide tours by Kansas Education Commissioner Watson and State Board members drew widespread enthusiasm at the (moderate) reduction in testing under the new federal ESSA that replaces No Child Left Behind. Nevertheless, most of the punitive measures introduced fifteen years ago remain embedded in the state laws modified to be compliant with NCLB.
In contrast to the prior emphasis on external assessment of language and math, the new Kansas CAN initiative shifts emphasis to developing students’ “soft skills.” However, the Commissioner has had to emphasize that academics are not being abandoned.
Definition of “success” now shifts to kindergarten readiness and other factors. The Kansas high school graduate is considered successful if he/she completes postsecondary education, gains an industry recognized certification, or enters the military. (Unfortunately, a high school graduate who returns to work on the family farm is not considered “successful.”)
In 2010, 45 states had adopted the “Common Core” with the anticipation of using common core tests for across-state comparisons. The federal Department of Education gave two consortia, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment in Readiness for Colleges and Careers over one-third of a billion dollars in 2010 to develop the common core tests. Today, only 21 states are now using these tests. Instead, many states are using the ACT or SAT college entrance exams.
Over half of states are now allowing a computer science course to count as a science or math credit for graduation, a trend that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics warns could undermine American students’ math. Taking a course in coding may sound state-of-the-art, but the U.S. still has to hire 200,000 foreign born and educated coders and is outsourcing more coding jobs.
The National Physical Activity Plan Alliance survey found that 3/4ths of U.S. children are not getting the recommended physical activity per week.
On November 14, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of Citizens for Objective Public Education. COPE, a group representing Kansas parents, challenged the Kansas use of the Next Generation Science Standards on its heavy emphasis on evolution. COPE claimed the NGSS constituted a government establishment of a non-theistic religion and violated parents free exercise of their own religion. Both the federal district court and the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had rejected COPE’s argument, finding that the alleged harm was abstract and that the standards did not condemn or endorse any religion. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear any further appeal.
In a special investigation, the November 3 issue of Education Week provided a scathing report on the dramatic failure of virtual high schools in “Rewarding Failure: An Education Week Investigation of the Cyber Charter Industry.” The Walton Family Foundation, the largest private funder of charter schools, commissioned three separate studies of online charters and found “...over the course of a school year, the students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading than their peers in traditional charter schools, on average.... As states think about the future of online education, they should rethink their expectations and policies.... Funders, educators, policymakers, and parents cannot in good conscience ignore the fact that students are falling a full year behind their peers in math and nearly half a school year in reading, annually.”
Nevertheless, most Kansas schools made a major investment in one-to-one computing, often replacing textbooks with tablets without faculty input. Despite overwhelming student preferences for print, the much higher costs of the media, and lack of bonafide evidence of student effectiveness, administrators do like to have their schools appear state-of-the-art despite flat or declining scores on reliable academic measures such as the SAT, ACT and NAEP.
High school graduations rates in both Kansas and the U.S. hit a record high—figures too good to be true because they are. Education experts and national media immediately pointed out the many ways that graduation rates were inflated. In many schools in Kansas and across the nation, it is becoming impossible for a student to not graduate—short of dying.
The Coalition of Independent Schools that are no longer required to hire state licensed teachers expanded to seven districts. The Kansas City Kansas district hired about two dozen teachers, half who are pursuing Pittsburg State University alternate licensure which will provide content training. The other portion merely attended a summer workshop, confirming the argument that there is nothing to prevent a welder from teaching English. However, these locally “licensed” teachers will not be able to transfer to other districts—for now.
Many Kansas superintendents were alarmed that the Higher Learning Commission was moving toward enforcing a masters degree with 18-credit-hours-in-the-field-taught requirement for those high school teachers teaching courses for college credit. Despite these dual credit courses having been originally designed for a few advanced “Doogie Howsers,” many high schools are using the goal of having most or all of their high school students achieve a year of college credit before they graduate as a symbol of supposed quality. Enforcement of the HLC requirements begins in Fall of 2017.
The State Board heard a report on the Kansas teacher shortage that showed a drop in veteran teachers and regions with greater shortages, but failed to examine new licensure data or provide any solutions of substance beyond more recruitment efforts or diluting Kansas science teacher requirements.
Meanwhile, everyone in Kansas education is holding their breath awaiting the Kansas Supreme Court decision on the adequacy of K–12 education funding.