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Kansas’ New Vision for Education 

• Karla Phillips


Smack dab in the middle of the U.S., a new “space program” is underway that could impact the state of Kansas. 

The Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) is hosting a school redesign project, which includes cohorts named after NASA’s Mercury project and the Gemini program. This redesign project could liberate and support schools to reimagine learning and achieve the state’s new vision for education: leading the world in the success of each student. 

Forming a New Vision 

It all started in 2015 when Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson and the Kansas State Board of Education conducted a year-long listening tour. They visited more than 20 communities to find out what Kansans wanted from a K-12 education and how the education system could achieve those goals. The results formed Kansas’ new vision for education, which defines success as: 

A Kansas high school graduate with the academic preparation, cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills and civic engagement to be successful in postsecondary education, in the attainment of an industry recognized certification or in the workforce, without the need for remediation. 

Embedded in the vision is a clear understanding that serious change will be necessary to move away from a one-size-fits-all system to one that is focused on students. With clearly identified outcomes in mind, the KSDE invited districts to participate in a statewide school redesign project.  

Knowing that the vision is both grand in scope and critical in nature, the analogy of Project Mercury and the outrageous goal of putting a man in space took hold. 

The Mercury 7 

In August 2017, the KSDE announced the seven school districts that were chosen to participate in the redesign project’s initial cohort, Mercury 7. 

While 29 districts applied, only seven could be selected and supported due to limited resources. KSDE offered remaining districts the opportunity to take part in the project on a smaller scale by joining the Gemini I cohort. (These Gemini I schools didn’t receive onsite coaching from KSDE staff members like the Mercury 7 districts, but did receive resources and support.) 

Applicants had to have the support of their local board, staff and teachers’ association. And in order to participate, districts had to designate one elementary school and one secondary school to be redesigned around the five outcomes: 

  1. Social-emotional growth,measured locally; 
  2. Kindergarten readiness;
  3. Individual Plan of Study based on career interest;
  4. High school graduation; and
  5. Postsecondary success.

Journey to Personalized Learning 

While districts will be redesigning schools with the five state board outcomes in mind, personalized learning models are likely to emerge.  

KSDE Deputy Commissioner Brad Neuenswander explained that the department expects “to see more personalized learning environments with project-based learning that includes a greater focus on parent and community engagement.” Neuenswander also notes that it’s difficult for schools to achieve personalized learning environments in the current structure of the state’s educational system. 

Mercury 7’s four-phase school redesign timeline is still underway, but their experiences are already being chronicled to share with schools across the state. Tune in later this week, to find out what districts have learned and how the project is unfolding. 

About the author

Karla Phillips

Karla is Policy Director for Next Generation Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.