Doing More by Doing Less

Shot of a student struggling with schoolwork in a classroom
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It is perhaps not surprising that our responses to systemic crises in public education sometimes appear to be working at cross purposes. As state boards of education, we confront educator shortages, underwhelming academic achievement, gaps across groups in achievement and opportunities, and conundrums of how we can set students up for success in a fast-paced world where we cannot wholly predict what they will need to know and be able to do after they graduate.

In the face of teacher shortages, we as state education leaders may, for example, remove previous licensure and certification requirements to make it easier for new teachers to transition into classrooms. We may launch campaigns to communicate how rewarding teaching can be, and we may tout the promise of grow-your-own campaigns.

With reports of flagging academic achievement, which is only slowly recovering to pre-pandemic levels, we may also approve learning standards that pile on a burgeoning set of facts and content areas we believe students need to know for the test, even though teachers say they already struggled to cover the previous set during a given school year. We may corral or cajole districts and teachers into a narrow set of curriculum options in hopes of increasing the quality of instruction and the alignment with content standards in a futile chase of better scores the next time around.

Given the frequency with which experienced teachers report their frustrations with a lack of autonomy, how will these efforts to attract new teachers deal with the root causes of this dissatisfaction? State boards ought to be reckoning with how to value and support teaching as a profession and an art. Yet Christmas-tree content standards and rigid curriculum prescriptions would suggest something else—that the profession is really more science than art, more procedural than contextual, and more akin to attending to a standard checklist for all students rather than rooted in addressing students’ individual needs, interests, aspirations, and future trajectories. We as state boards leaders can and must better communicate to teachers that we value their creativity and skills in creating rich learning environments and that we trust them as professionals and leaders.

State boards ought to be reckoning with how to value and support teaching as a profession and an art.

We can strike a better balance to how we approach curriculum. We should not leave teachers on their own to build a scope and sequence of standards-aligned materials in each content area from disparate internet sources, as many are attempting to do. But nor should we constrain, prescribe, or prevent them from exercising the most fulfilling, creative aspects of the profession. Certainly, teachers should receive the coaching and mentoring they need to recognize high-quality materials and leverage them to address content standards in their instruction. But teachers can and should design units and instruction and identify materials in response to specific needs they see in their individual students—and that only they are in a position to see and address.

We can strike a better balance on content standards. Some states, like Indiana, have opted to reduce their number of standards to a more manageable set that state leaders, in consultation with stakeholders, deem essential. Having fewer standards is not meant to communicate that content knowledge is unimportant. Quite the contrary. Rather, it acknowledges that knowledge is growing at an exponential rate, and there is literally no way that schools and teachers can keep up with the “what” of content standards when we attempt to prescribe what every learner should know and be able to do when they leave preK-12.

We can adopt a better approach to setting students up for success in postsecondary life. In Kentucky, we adopted a Portrait of a Learner in October 2022, which focuses on a set of top-level skills that all students need to be competent learners throughout their lifetimes and careers. Many states have adopted such portraits, with processes similar to ours, by engaging families, educators, business leaders, and students in conversations about what they want out of the preK-12 experience and what skills they see as essential for the workforce of the future.

Our process was rooted in a vision for public education in Kentucky that seeks to create a vibrant learning experience for each student, encourages innovation in schools, and values deep and authentic collaboration with communities. Everyone wants that! The Kentucky board and our communities just do not believe that attempting to standardize the learner experience, further standardizing curriculum, or swelling our content standards will get us there.

In Kentucky, we hope and believe that communicating the importance of a few high-level priorities for preK-12 at the state level will achieve more than would happen if we were to double down on prescriptive standards and curriculum. We expect it will facilitate better system alignment—ensuring that content standards, assessments, accountability, and professional development work hand in glove with the Portrait. I invite you all to join us on a similar journey toward doing more by doing less.

Dr. Lu Young is chair of the Kentucky State Board of Education, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies in the University of Kentucky College of Education, and executive director of the university’s Center for Next Generation Leadership.

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