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What This State's School Board Learned From Talking to the Community

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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 2 of 2) has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Click here to read part 1.

Learning Is Social And Emotional: How has Kansas turned these community conversations into action?

PORTER: Our first step was to raise our expectations. Our graduation rate is comparable to other states, so by that metric we may be meeting the needs of a lot of our students, but there are still 14 out of 100 that aren't graduating. So we came up with a vision that we called our "Moonshot": the state of Kansas leading the world in the success of each student. And that word "each" is critical. If I say "every" I mean all 20 people in the room. But if I say "each" I mean you, the individual. It's too easy to say "Kansas leads the world in the success of every student...except those in poverty. Except those with dyslexia. Except, except, except..."

So we developed a redesign plan, driven from the bottom up just like our community conversations. When we asked our 286 districts to participate, we were hoping that we'd get seven to apply. We got 29. We chose seven to lead the way and work with their communities to design their school the way they want to, to meet this vision.

These schools are doing things like job shadowing, career exploration, empowering student leadership, and developing students' passions early. They're creating individual plans of study well before 8th grade. For instance, we've got a lot of cattle and other animals in my district, and a lot of kids who say they want to become veterinarians. That's a great aspiration, but we want them to understand what that takes - we want to get them experience in that profession at 11, 12 years old, not after high school. That means getting kids out of the classroom and understanding the entirety of a profession, not just what's in their textbook.

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What has been the state's approach to measuring social and emotional skills, and how do you handle student data privacy concerns?

PORTER: That's a very good question. What we're not doing is having schools or districts send reports on social and emotional development to the state department of education. The reason for that is because anything we collect is public knowledge. And we don't want the Wichita Eagle or the Kansas City Star ranking schools on their social and emotional health. We don't think that's productive.

But, that said, social and emotional health is a big part of our accreditation system. So when accreditation teams go into schools and districts, they are going to take a hard look at the social and emotional learning processes and programs to see where more support is needed. We think our process avoids the pitfalls of data privacy at a statewide level.         

Based on the Kansas effort, what advice would you give other state leaders who want to broaden the vision of how learning happens to include these important, integrated skills? What obstacles did you encounter and what did you learn along the way?

PORTER: I've been in this business for 51 years as an administrator, teacher, BOE member, and parent, and I know this: change is hard. I was not expecting this to be easy. But I've seen less resistance than I anticipated and, frankly, than I've ever seen to any education movement - matter of fact, I've seen more enthusiasm for social and emotional learning than any other movement.

The whole conversation here has changed. Almost every place I go, I'm hearing people talk about the needs of individual students, instead of just saying "this is how we've done it before." And that all comes back to how we got here. We went out and asked questions of the community. Not only did people talk to us, but we developed a program based on what they said. What I expected was pushback; instead, what I'm getting is "what took you so long?

A critical issue is community involvement. Don't just sit in a room in the state capitol and develop your plan - listen to what your community members say and react accordingly. I bet that we are not unique in the enthusiasm here in Kansas. I bet people across the country realize there are things that are equally important to reading and math scores to develop healthy, successful people.

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