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The mixed message of national standards 

SmartBrief Education’s Path to Workforce content series brings you original content and events on the topic. Path to Workforce is our vision of college and career readiness, encompassing K-12, adult learners, career changers, non-traditional students and those who forgo a traditional four-year college experience.

Discussion surrounding national education standards has intensified in recent years, though little progress has been made in finding of any common ground regarding their importance. Everybody has an opinion, and we remain as partisan in our rhetoric as we have ever been on a subject that has become as political as it is educational.

It begs the question, where are we now, and why has there been such little progress?

The answer lies in the mixed messages that are sent to teachers all too frequently, and on a scale that has increased confusion to a point where widespread ‘buy-in’ is no longer a sensible option. Educational discourse changes weekly, producing only a handful of full-blown trends lasting more than a few years, and each wind of change brings with it a less defined path to follow. Such uncertainty can be overwhelming for even the most motivated of professionals.

A timely example of this can be seen in Kansas, where this past week, Randy Watson, Kansas Education Commissioner, told local educators that following a state-wide ‘listening’ tour of over 1800 community members and business leaders, and more than 20 focus groups, it was time to redesign public schools. “Although people generally agreed that basic academic skills were important, the vast majority of skills people listed as important were non-academic skills, such as communication, interpersonal skills, citizenship and ethics, and the ability to work in teams with other people.”

This is a viewpoint shared by many professional educators, and one where a robust curriculum can be taught to good effect. Soft skills are a critically important part of any good education system, and can be sadly lost in the daily struggle to meet the demands of a district pacing guide. It should be relatively simple therefore, for schools districts to embrace and rally to such a non-controversial call to action. Why then, would the message be received with skepticism and an almost dismissive air?

The reason is easily found, and in precisely the same location as the original story.

In the four weeks prior to the education chief’s article, the same newspaper also printed an article detailing how Kansas ACT scores measured up across school districts and compared to national averages. It also published a similar, in-depth analysis of how Kansas common core test scores illustrate how few students are on track for college and/or career readiness. And as if to emphasize the point beyond doubt, there was also an article outlining how Governor Sam Brownback is preparing new school financing legislation with merit pay for teachers as a central feature. Merit pay, undoubtedly linked to student performance.

Given this, it is not surprising that, for many teachers, the commissioner’s message is lost in the ‘noise’ of the real message – state and national standards, and the assessments that accompany them, are more important. Regardless of the original intent, comparisons will be made, they will be made public, and, in some states, they could be used to determine teacher salaries.

The soft skills will have to wait.

Adam Holden has been a school administrator in both the private and public education systems of Europe and the United States for more than 25 years. Adam is a two-time recipient of the National Blue Ribbon of Excellence, is a qualified IBO Head of School, an authorized Google Education Trainer and now heads the, nationally ranked, Department of Teacher Education at Fort Hays State University. Adam is a proponent of innovative, creative, culturally diverse, and blended educational experiences.

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