Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Kansas schools face monumental changes in coming year

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

Over the course of the next year, the Kansas State Board of Education will face a series of policy decisions that will affect daily life in classrooms throughout the state, touching everything from the content that students are taught to the way teachers and administrators go about their jobs.

Furthermore, at least four of the 10 state board members will be new to their jobs starting in January, and they'll be working with a Legislature where a large percentage of members will be incoming freshmen.

All of that adds up to what Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker predicts will be "a busy year" for education officials in Kansas — possibly the busiest year since Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind law in 2001.

"We had the same type of frenzy of everything happening at one time," DeBacker said of that year. "We've actually looked at how we can maybe slow some of that down, what's under our control and what's under somebody else's control."

In her monthly report to the state board Tuesday, DeBacker outlined some of the decisions coming up in 2013.

They include:

• Deciding on whether to adopt new science standards, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, which are currently being developed by a consortium of states, including Kansas, and the National Research Council. That raises the possibility of another contentious debate over the teaching of evolution, but there are also concerns about the depth and breadth of the new standards and whether they will provide students with a thorough understanding of certain disciplines.

• Consideration of new history and government standards — another curriculum area that is often subject to highly charged political debate.

• Implementing the new Common Core State Standards for English/language arts and math, and deciding what type of assessments will be used with them. Kansas is one of several states helping develop a new set of tests called Smarter Balance, but private companies such as ACT have recently announced that they intend to compete for the testing business.

• Deciding how to tie teacher and principal evaluations to student achievement. That's a requirement under the waiver from No Child Left Behind that Kansas recently received. But it's also a highly contentious issue with teachers unions and local school boards.

• And finally, there's a possibility that the next board will consider revamping the way schools are accredited in Kansas, scrapping the Quality Performance Accreditation system, or QPA, that has been in place for 20 years and replacing it with a new system aligned to the way schools will be held accountable under the new federal waiver.

"The only one we can see (that doesn't have to be done next year) would be the accreditation model," DeBacker said. "We wouldn't have to change an accreditation model at this time. But our current accreditation model just doesn't match what we're moving to. And that's why we believe we need to change it all at the same time. It just makes sense."

Kansas adopted the QPA model in 1992 in response to a nationwide movement toward "outcomes based education." That's the idea of judging schools based on outcomes, such as student performance on standardized tests, instead of inputs like funding and other resources.

How the next state board responds to those issues could depend in large part on the outcome of next month's general elections.

Five of the 10 state board seats are up for election this year.

Democrat Carolyn Campbell of Topeka, whose district includes most of Lawrence and western Douglas County, is seeking re-election. She faces opposition in November from Republican Jack Wu.

Two incumbents, chairman David Dennis of Wichita and Kathy Martin of Clay Center, chose not to run for re-election. Dennis will be replaced by former Wichita school administrator Kathy Busch who won the Republican primary and does not face opposition in the general election. Martin will be replaced by either Republican Deena Horst or Democrat Carol Viar.

Board member Walt Chappell of Wichita was defeated in the Republican primary in August. He will be replaced by fellow-Republican Jim McNiece who does not have an opponent in the general election.

Board member Sue Storm, an Overland Park Democrat, was not able to run for re-election because the redistricting process moved her out of her district. She will be replaced by either fellow-Democrat Cindy Neighbor or Republican Steve Roberts.