“If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.” In his book ‘Brain Rules,’ author John Medina lays out the science and research to back up this statement — and he’s not the only one. A growing number of researchers, policymakers and educators, in Wyoming and across the nation, are speaking out about the need for change. Wyoming has responded in-kind in several ways:
- Boot-Up Wyoming is Wyoming’s computational thinking and computer science initiative. Since this key 2018 legislation, educators, business and industry have worked to ensure that K-12 students learn the ability to navigate, innovate and solve problems in today’s workplace and world.
- Early Literacy underpins everything in education and life. Knowing how to read is the most important skill a student learns in school and a driver for future economic well-being. Wyoming is embarking on systematic K-3 early literacy improvement that sets the bar high to teach and learn how to read.
- Career and Technical Education (CTE, formerly Vo-Tech) is front and center. Efforts in Wyoming have led to the expansion of the Hathaway Scholarship, funding for career training and industry partnerships. In 2018, U.S. Senator Enzi led the work on Perkins V, a federal grant program that helps fund CTE. Wyoming’s plan for Perkins V helps ensure that our school’s CTE programs are aligned to workforce needs.
- Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind four years ago. Under ESSA, the responsibility of education is in the hands of each state, not the federal government. Wyoming has responded with accountability requirements that include career, college and military readiness, a move further away from federal standards, and a new statewide assessment.
By and large, Wyoming is moving in the right direction with these efforts, recent statewide test scores, graduation rates, adequate school buildings and quality teachers. But if we scratch the surface, just barely, there’s another story.
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K-12 schools in Wyoming and across the nation are producing students who need remedial help in basic math and literacy in college. Four out of five employers say that high school graduates have serious gaps in how prepared they are to succeed in the workplace. Sixty-two percent of employers say schools are not doing an adequate job of preparing students. Wyoming was among the 31 states where eighth grade reading scores declined on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). How can this be?
Simply, key state education policies have failed to appropriately adapt to a changing society. The education “basket of goods” is a state law that consists of ten distinct, separate content areas plus a handful of skills that students should learn. The “basket” has driven education funding debates, lawsuits and decisions by the Wyoming legislature. Every five years (plus in 2017), the Wyoming Legislature has used the basket to adjust how much we spend on education. Yet, only once since 1997 has the content core of the basket been updated (computational thinking and computer science were added in 2018). It should not take us that long to innovate.
The challenge for local school districts is that a 21st century education is not fully aligned to the basket of goods. And as school boards endeavor to fund the basket with a block grant, their ability to implement a modern classroom is thwarted by an outdated basket. For example, teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in an integrated manner is not contemplated in the basket. Each subject, minus engineering, is funded separately. Other states have already met the modernization challenge and created more relevant expectations for student learning in state law.
Virginia and South Carolina have created new graduation requirements in their Profile of a Graduate state initiatives which specify the academic knowledge, skills, experiences and attributes students need to be successful in college and the workplace, and be “life ready.” Utah has launched a similar Talent MAP graduate profile, as the state redesigns standards and expectations. Alongside learning expectations, career exploration is emphasized.
2020 is a pivotal year. The Wyoming Legislature has already contracted services to refine, or recalibrate, education funding. For the past four years the legislature has transferred funds from the “rainy day” account to cover the cost of school operations and school construction. In other words, we can’t afford our current education system. Thus, most of the debates in the legislature will be about quantity — how much we spend. But recalibrating funding for a system that we can neither afford nor guarantee is the best for students, is not a path to prosperity for Wyoming. We have taken important steps to offer students a 21st century education but that will only take us so far without an update to the basket of goods.
Jillian Balow is Wyoming’s state superintendent of public instruction, an office she has held since 2015.