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Kansas May Be Leading the Way Back to the Future

October 26, 2017

An article by Peter Hancock in last weeks Lawrence Journal World described Mercury 7, an initiative launched by Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson that could change the factory paradigm in that state for once and for all. As Mr. Hancock reported, the project emerged from a listening tour Mr. Watson conducted two years ago… a tour that actually lived up to its name!

Watson said the project grew out of a statewide listening tour that officials from the State Department of Education and members of the Kansas State Board of Education conducted in 2015. They met with community leaders, business leaders and parents in communities across the state, asking them what they expected from their local schools.

What they heard, Watson has said repeatedly since then, was surprising to many. While people said academic achievement was important, it often was not the most important thing people wanted from their schools. People also said they wanted schools to teach character development, citizenship and work ethics.

And perhaps most importantly, Watson has said, people said they wanted schools to provide individualized education, focusing on the unique needs of each student.

And what would such a school look like? Something very different from what is in place today, which stems from an era that no longer exists:

(It) will involve tearing apart a structure that has existed for roughly a century or more, since the end of the one-room schoolhouse, in which public education is organized around grade levels that are generally determined by a student’s age.

Children enter kindergarten at age 5 or 6, and then each year progress to the next grade level, resulting in a system in which the content being delivered in a classroom is determined by a child’s age and grade level, and not necessarily his or her interest or readiness.

“It has worked for a long time, but it was predicated on two concepts,” Watson said. The first of those, he said, “is that most workers were either going to be on a farm or they were going to go to assembly line work. Employers in Kansas and across the nation are saying that’s not what work looks like today. We need different workers, we need higher skill workers. We don’t need low skilled workers.”

“It was also predicated on a home life that had very supportive parents that could see delayed gratification – you study this thing now, you don’t know if that makes any sense, but later on you’ll use it,” Watson continued. “And we had a more homogeneous clientele. So when you looked at a third grade, the (achievement) gap – there was a gap, but it wasn’t that wide. Now it’s pretty wide.”

To introduce this new concept for grouping students in affinity groups based on interest and academic development Mr. Watson is launching Mercury 7, which Mr. Hancock describes as follows:

Earlier this year, the agency put out a request, soliciting school districts that would volunteer to be part of a pilot project to turn that 100-year-old education system upside down and completely redesign it. Those that volunteered had to commit overhauling one elementary school and a middle school and high school to create a system in which a child could proceed from kindergarten through graduation in a completely different, more individualized kind of environment… Those seven are expected to have their new, individualized structures in place by August 2018.

And Mr. Hancock also flags the daunting challenge these districts will face:

An overhaul on the scale contemplated by the state is fraught with risks. One is the risk of alienating patrons of the district by launching a new kind of school system that parents and taxpayers in the district find foreign and unfamiliar. But Watson said the agency has done everything it can to mitigate that risk.

“Those districts are in a constant loop with their parents and their broader community,” he said of the Mercury Seven. “So there should be no surprise when we get to August that their parents haven’t said yes, we approve of what’s going to occur. Now, will there be someone who wasn’t paying attention? Maybe. But it’s a deep involvement of parents in the community.”

Based on the experience my colleagues and I have had introducing competency based report cards instead of the traditional A-F rating system, a concept that underpins the kind of overhaul Mr. Watson envisions, I predict there WILL be some surprised parents not only in August of 2018 when the Mercury 7 parents show up for class, but also in October or November when the first report cards are issued and at the end of the school year if standardized test scores are issued.

I wish Mr. Watson and the Mercury 7 teachers and administrators well… and hope that Mr. Watson will be able to bring this change to scale for it is exactly what is needed if we are to change the dominant paradigm that has sorted and selected students based on the rate of learning as opposed to their ability to learn. Kansas’ ideas about taxes were terrible: their ideas about transforming schools are wonderful! Maybe someday all US schools will be like the Mercury 7 schools. Here’s hoping the moonshot works!

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