By Suzanne Perez Kansas News Service
A group assessing Kansas graduation requirements says time spent in class is a poor yardstick for measuring learning. He advocates for ways to keep local school districts underwater in real-world experiences and other measures more calibrated for the 21st century.
WICHITA, Kansas — For more than a century, Kansas students have been earning credit — and, after a number of them, a high school diploma — based on the time they spend in class.
The age-old “Carnegie Unity” approach to education became the academic law of the land in 1906. And it has remained: one credit equals approximately 120 hours of instruction in a subject. Kansas requires students to complete at least 21 credits to graduate from high school.
But a group charged with evaluating state graduation requirements says time spent in the classroom is a poor yardstick for measuring learning. So he argues for ways to leave local school districts under other more calibrated parameters for the 21st century.
“Districts can already award . . . class credits based on student skills and demonstrations rather than simply seat time,” said Kansas Board of Education member and former high school principal Jim McNiece. “We set the number (of credits required to obtain the diploma). But how to get there really depends on the local districts.
That could mean counting other types of learning toward graduation, he said. Examples could include apprenticeships, industry-certified certificates, work experience, or an Eagle Scout project.
But few principals or superintendents go that route, said the chairman of the state board’s task force on graduation requirements. That’s because, McNiece said, traditional schedules and class time credits are easier to measure.
McNiece and Jarred Fuhrman, principal of Basehor-Linwood High School, recently briefed the state board on the task force’s work and said the group needed more time to develop specific recommendations.
A preliminary proposal would consolidate secondary school classes into a new classification system that focuses on skills rather than subjects.
For example, instead of requiring three units of math and three of science, a new STEM category would encompass courses in math, science, engineering, or computer science. Similarly, a “society and humanities” category could allow students to choose from history, government, and fine arts courses for credit.
“Does everyone need math? Yes,” said school board chairman Jim Porter. “Does everyone need the same mathematics? … I think the answer is no.”
Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson also discussed adding real-world experiences to the list of requirements for a high school diploma. The task force proposed requiring two such “post-secondary assets,” which could include community service projects, JROTC experience, or completion of the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program.
“It’s our job to prepare them for life after high school,” said board member Melanie Haas. “They shouldn’t have to be in a classroom. They shouldn’t need to have their butts in the seats to learn.
The Kansas Board of Education last changed graduation requirements more than 20 years ago when it added a fine arts credit. Any future changes would go into effect with eighth-graders in the current year.
Board member Janet Waugh said she was willing to move graduation requirements away from traditional coursework and into real-life learning.
“It’s exciting. We just have to look at it a little differently,” she said. “It’s not sitting at a desk for nine months and going from chapter one to chapter 20.”
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration between KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health, and how they relate to public policy.