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How Education Policymakers Can Engage With Their Community (And Why They Should)

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In education, effecting real change at the state level can be halting and slow. But in just a few years, the Kansas State Board of Education has overhauled its approach to school accreditation and turned its focus to the whole child, based on input from communities across the state. We spoke with Jim Porter, chair of the KSBOE, about how the state turned things around and how he would advise other state and local policymakers. This conversation (part 1 of 2) has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Learning Is Social And Emotional: You were among the first states in the country to develop standards for social and emotional learning and character development; what made Kansans decide this was what the state's schools and students needed?

PORTER: My predecessors on the board knew for years that although academics are obviously important—in fact under No Child Left Behind it seemed like academics were one of the only priorities—there's a whole lot more to a child than just academics. Our students' social and emotional health was affecting their ability to learn. We also recognized that we didn't have a strong character education component to our curriculum. So we got to work to change that.

LISAE: How did the state's education policy leaders engage community members in this decision and do you see them as supportive of this work?

PORTER: Around the time I joined the board [Jan 2015], we had also hired a new commissioner [Randy Watson]. Under his leadership we went across the state to hold about 20 community meetings with stakeholders, asking one simple question: "What does a successful 24-year-old Kansan look like?" We talked to local school board members, parents, educators, business owners—anyone and everyone who has a stake in our children's development. In the end we spoke to a few thousand people.

We got a whole range of answers from those initial conversations. The four big things people identified as necessary for young Kansans were academic prep, cognitive skills, technical skills, and employability skills—some people call those soft skills. But on reflection we realized that we didn't have enough representation from the business community. So we went back and met with seven chambers of commerce, who added something intriguing: they want the people who work for them to be involved in their communities, giving back. So we added a fifth component that we called civic engagement.

LISAE: Can you say more about the distinction between what you heard from the first round of meetings and what you heard from business leaders?

PORTER: Their answers were similar but different in important ways. When we went to the general public, they ranked academic prep as about 23 percent of what young Kansans need. When we talked to the business community, they put academic prep at about 15 percent. Rather than interpreting that as "employers don't think academics are important," we see it as: that's our job. They expect us to do that. But they recognize that there are other things necessary for success. The question wasn't "what does a successful test-taker look like?" By the way—these were mom-and-pops all the way up to big corporations that employ hundreds. Across all those different types of employers, giving back to the community was a major expectation of their future employees.

This really was a bottom-up process. And the results are now a direct part of our school accreditation system. 

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