NASBE’s Annual Conference 2015 is behind us now: We are unpacking boxes, writing thank-you notes to our presenters, and brainstorming a long list of great ideas for future conferences and NASBE work. The consensus around here is “Gosh, what a fun, informative, and relevant conference that was!” And, that is just what we were hoping for.

While we hope that you were among the 200-plus individuals who joined us in Baltimore last week, we know many of our members did not. Here are five key takeaways from the conference that you are welcome to share with your boards.

1. Schools are in the midst of major demographic change.

Keynote speaker Dr. James Johnson pointed out that the Hispanic population in the U.S. increased by 43 percent and the Asian population by 42.9 percent from 2000 to 2010. In contrast, the non-Hispanic white population grew by just 1.2 percent. By 2050, whites will no longer represent a majority of the U.S. population (47 percent). In many communities, nonwhite students are already the majority of students.

These students come from increasingly diverse family arrangements (more grandparents are raising grandchildren, for example), and they are more likely to live in families with an income below the poverty line.

2. American employers will increasingly demand that students embarking on careers possess both higher academic skills and a wide variety of other skills.

About 80 percent of the jobs in today’s workforce are classified as “middle skills” or “high skills,” and it is estimated that 30 million of the 46.8 million job openings in 2018 (64 percent) will require some education and training beyond high school. This demand will require that schools hold higher expectations for all students. A solid foundation in mathematics and English language arts, as required by the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), will be a minimum requirement for each student.

But it will not be sufficient. Students will also need a strong background in science, social science, and the arts. They will need to develop skills like problem solving, communications, and collaboration. They will need to be prepared for a career.

Luckily, as Annie Murphy Paul noted, there is a growing body of evidence that intelligence is not a fixed quantity. The belief that only some students can reach the levels they will need to be successful in the society of tomorrow simply does not comport with science. It is, she says, possible to “teach smart.” State board members need to review all policy decisions with an eye to whether they are aligned with what neuroscience is telling them.

3. How, when, and where students learn is changing.

In discussing his book The End of College, Kevin Carey talked about how technology is already disrupting higher education—and suggested that these same changes are coming to K-12. It is already possible for students to take the online version of the human genetics course that is one of the foundation courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Students in the many high schools that do not offer upper-level math and science classes will still be able to take them. The US Department of Education found that a quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer algebra II; a third of these schools do not offer chemistry.

But not all online courses are of equal value. Schools will need to set clear standards about which courses will receive course credit and which will not. State boards of education will need to set guidelines to govern this process. While state board policy can never change as rapidly as technology, it is important to set up policies that will allow the best technology to flourish.

4. ESEA reauthorization is critical. (But unless those of us who care deeply about public education push vigorously, it might not happen.)

The current ESEA is 14 years old. How many people use 14-year-old phones? Computers? Cars? ESEA was passed with the best of intentions, but it is clear that changes are overdue.

For members of Congress who seek to rein in federal overreach, board members should underscore that the reauthorization bill now in conference committee returns great authority and responsibility to states and state boards of education—authority they will not get if the bill doesn’t make it to the president’s desk. For members of Congress who are concerned most about equity, board members should provide assurances that they will not relinquish ESEA’s traditional focus on ensuring that every student is given opportunities to succeed.

Georgia deserves particular credit for acting when the cut scores set for their state tests suggested that many more students were “proficient” than data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated. The state board set new cut scores and is working on a plan to help students reach higher achievement levels.

It’s important for members of state boards of education to contact their members of Congress to urge reauthorization. Next week, NASBE will send out a list of talking points that board members can use when contacting their members of Congress.

5. All these changes mean that the job of state board members just got harder. NASBE is here to help.

State board responsibilities will expand as a result of these shifts. Where will you get the information you need to craft the policies that will help students in your state thrive in a changing world?

We at NASBE have spent the last two years focusing on how to better support state board members:

  •  Improved publications. NASBE publications are more relevant, more readable, and more focused on how state boards carry out their responsibilities.
  • Improved conference program. The 2015 Annual Conference was nearly twice the size of the conference in 2013. Every session was geared to an issue facing state boards in 2015.
  • More policy information. NASBE staff can conduct policy audits for state boards on specific issues. NASBE’s forthcoming policy database will soon give members access to state policies from every state and territory.

~Kristen Amundson, NASBE Executive Director