Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Kansas Bd. of Educ. Concerned as Eight School Districts Apply for Innovative District Status

Eight Kansas school districts have applied for innovative status under the state’s 2013 Coalition of Innovative Districts Act that would exempt them from most state education laws and from Kansas Department of Education regulations. The Innovative Districts Act allows ten percent of the state's school districts to opt out of most state laws if they can show how flexibility will improve student outcomes. The eight districts announced plans to use more college- and career-focused goals instead of state achievement assessments. Critics say that the Act clears the way for districts to replace veteran teachers with unlicensed (and less expensive) ones and are concerned that student outcomes would suffer without consistency in instructors. Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker told the Lawrence Journal World that allowing unlicensed teachers in innovative districts could also expose the state DOE to complaints that students are not being taught by legally-required “highly qualified teachers.” DeBacker says that her agency “might be on the hook for that” even though it will have little say in approving or monitoring the innovation districts’ plans. Second, the Act allows the innovative district to define what is student achievement for five years (until the renewal period), so it may be some time before anyone recognizes whether the innovation program is working. And some of the plans to improve student outcomes give pause. One district plans to offer multiple ways for students to get a high school diploma, including one that would require only two full years of classroom work in core subjects of English, math, science and social studies, followed by career training at community college or technical school, and “a year of on-the-job work experience that would involve only minimal supervision by the district to ensure the training program is meeting academic standards.” There may be nothing wrong with this proposal on its face, but it may be tricky in application when turning students over to unmonitored voc-tech programs and jobs to fulfill public education goals. Cutting out two years of high school instruction may also be troubling if low achieving students are steered into alternative job programs rather than education classes. One district leader indicated that its program may do just that—“we were trying to raise our test scores in the state more than what was best for the kids.” He told the Lawrence Journal World that “students can gain the additional skills and knowledge through job training and work experience as well as they can through classroom instruction.” The Kansas DOE has asked the state attorney general for an opinion of the statute’s constitutionality. State Attorney General Derek Schmidt declined to issue an opinion because the issue is part of pending school finance litigation. Read the story here.


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