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There Might Be A Total Makeover Of Kansas Education

Sam Zeff

What should a successful 24-year-old know?

That’s the question top Kansas education officials are debating after a tour of the state this summer.

But asking is the easy part. The difficulty comes in figuring out how to actually teach some of the skills.

It's a discussion that could forever change education in Kansas and that conversation comes to Olathe Tuesday morning.

First, know this: the discussion in Kansas is far loftier than how to teach math or reading. It’s at the 50,000 foot level — maybe even 100,000.

The big question boils down to what’s the best mix of academics and soft skills — like agreeableness, team work and emotional stability?

“Think about what that does to our economy in Kansas. Think about what that does to drive the middle-class in Kansas,” says Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson.

Watson took the job in July and he spent his summer meeting with parents, teachers, administrators and business owners. In fact, Watson says, the department made an extra trip around Kansas to make sure business had a proper voice.

And this is what they heard: “If we can just get people to show up, give us a good work ethic, that’s what this is. And that’s what Kansans told us too.”

That's exactly what he heard from Larry McElwain, President of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. "They need to make sure education is more in tuned with making sure these kids coming out of high school are ready for the workforce," he says.

For 43 years, McElwain ran a funeral home in Lawrence and, he says, he hired a lot of people, including teenagers to cut the lawn and retired people to greet mourners.

Just before he sold the business, he says he noticed a change in his younger employees. "I could see things were slipping as far how to interview, how to put together a resume, how to know what to ask and what not to ask."

Education Commissioner Watson says when they sifted through the data they were floored to find that only 23 percent of business owners said academics were most important. Seventy percent, he says, zeroed in on those soft skills.  

Kansas business owners and other Kansans want schools to teach kids to be better problem solvers and to better communicate. They should, essentially, be workplace ready.

That's a change in the way school districts have operated, but something they already touch on in the Olathe School District.

"I would say we’re not moving away from academics at all but we also have that skill set that we want to have embedded in all of that," says Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Jessica Dain.

"We do professional development. It’s an art. It’s a craft and it’s important to have and we feel some of those strategies — keeping the kids talking each other, taking turns listening as well as speaking mind is a great start to meet those goals," she says.

But businesses say, it’s only a start.

Randy Watson says chores and part-time work have been replaced with extracurricular activities, whether that’s band or basketball.

McElwain from the Lawrence Chamber agrees. "You learn a lot of things in those first jobs — about how to communicate. How to be there. How to be there on time. How to get along with your fellow workers. How to look for something to do and not wait for somebody to tell you what to do."

There is one other survey result worth mentioning. And that’s how many Kansans, Commissioner Watson says, mentioned family skills and social tolerance.

“This is another one of those ah-has I think for us as we work with the state board, is how many times Kansans said you need to give back to others, we have to have better citizenship and that’s important to us for successful young people."

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of all of this is: how to measure agreeableness and teamwork.

Those who control the purse strings will certainly demand accountability.

That's something educators around the state will debate before the State Board of Education acts on these changes, probably by the end of the year.

Sam Zeffcovers education for KCUR. He's also host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. You can reach him on Twitter, @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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