The Steps Some States Are Taking to Redefine Student Success

By Libby Stanford — August 03, 2023 7 min read
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Since her appointment as Indiana’s first secretary of education in 2020, Katie Jenner has had to contend with a number of troubling statistics.

Indiana ranks 43rd in the country for the percentage of its population with at least a bachelor’s degree, and of the 73 percent of Indiana’s high school graduates who say they intend to go on to postsecondary learning only 53 percent actually do. And, as with the rest of the nation, Indiana students have lost ground in both reading and math since the pandemic, according to 2022 results from the Nation’s Report Card, even as they outperformed the national average.

That sobering reality has launched Jenner and her team at the state’s department of education onto a new path, one that she describes as a paradigm shift.

“We have to do everything we can to urgently shift that paradigm so that we’re ready as a state and as a country and that our kids are using their years in the K-12 system in a way that’s as valuable as possible,” Jenner said.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, the state has been at work redefining what it means to be a successful Indiana graduate, so there’s an agreed-upon vision of what the state’s schools should aim for. It started with the creation of a state portrait of a graduate in 2021 that led to a redesign of high school graduation requirements to include work-based learning and occupation-specific, professional credentials that set students up for further education or future employment.

The state is also establishing a career scholarship account program, through which it will provide high school students with up to $5,000 to pay for work-based learning opportunities, and financial incentives for schools to establish work-based learning opportunities and adopt more flexible graduation requirements.

Indiana’s work to re-envision high school is one example of actions state education agencies can take to transform student learning and modernize education that’s highlighted in a report released Thursday by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the organization that represents the nation’s state education chiefs.

The report is the product of an April summit where chief state school officers, teachers, college leaders, education organization heads, and school administrators gathered to identify what’s needed to transform K-12 schools. The group outlined four points of action for state leaders: articulate a clear student-centered learning vision, set conditions to redefine schools, cultivate state and district capacity to support local change, and accelerate and support the scaling up of new models of education.

The report comes as more states are investing in efforts to personalize student learning, especially as student achievement has fallen following the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, Wyoming became the final state to allow for competency-based learning, an education model in which students are measured based on their mastery of subjects and skills rather than seat time, and more state education leaders are embracing career and technical education, making it a top priority for schools to teach career and workplace skills.

“After the pandemic, and even when it was going on, the conversations among state chiefs were, we can’t go back to the way it’s always been done,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “So we started working toward, what does that actually mean? What does that mean specifically for state leaders? Because there’s a lot of work that has to be done at the school level.”

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Redefining public education

The council recommends that state leaders begin their work as Indiana did, by developing a state profile of a graduate. Seventeen states have already gotten on board, many of which developed their portraits over the past few years.

The idea behind the portrait is to develop a north star for the state’s education system. They often include a list of characteristics states identify as must-haves for successful graduates. For example, North Carolina’s profile lists adaptability, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, empathy, a learner’s mindset, and personal responsibility as skills each graduate should have.

States and local districts can begin developing portraits by establishing a process to engage with students, educators, families, legislators, gubernatorial staff, business leaders, religious organizations, and civil rights groups. From there, state agencies should ensure that there is adequate staff to oversee completion of the profile and the goals outlined within it and that staff have the training to understand the components of student-centered learning, the report said.

The portraits give states a clear framework so that new initiatives, curricula, and pedagogy are rooted in agreed-upon goals that everyone understands, the report said. The idea is that it can evolve over time as new technologies emerge, workforce demands change, and students are faced with new challenges while also giving students a more personalized education experience.

Portraits also help states break through political divisions, Moffat Miller said.

“This is the place where you bring people together around a common idea,” she said.

States need to also establish processes to continuously monitor progress, establish connections with local districts to set up pilot programs, and develop “a feedback loop” with districts so that everyone is on the same page throughout the process. The report highlighted Kentucky, North Dakota, and South Carolina as examples of states that have successfully developed portraits of a graduate.

The “vision” established by portraits should then lead states to create the capacity and develop the conditions to make that vision a reality, the report said. That means identifying areas for funding flexibility, advocating for legislation that supports innovation in schools, and reviewing graduation requirements to make sure they align with the state’s vision.

The report highlights a handful of states that have succeeded in this. For example, Colorado developed its Innovative Learning Opportunities Pilot Program, which offers work-based learning, competency-based learning, and capstone project opportunities to high schoolers.

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Supporting local school districts through changes

The work to redesign and innovate education systems isn’t easy and requires state leaders to support school districts through the changes, Moffat Miller said. Without that support, things can go awry. For example, Maine rolled back its proficiency-based high school graduation requirements after schools across the state struggled to implement them and the changes encountered local resistance, according to the Portland Press Herald.

“We have a system that’s been put into place that when you pull on one thread it touches so many other things,” she said. “The complexity of the system can sometimes make it difficult to make a change.”

That’s why it’s important for state education agencies to ensure the work they’re doing is scalable and be cognizant of districts’ capacity to make local changes.

The report recommends that states provide money and flexibility through waivers to local school districts to encourage innovation. Indiana has developed such incentives to help the state redesigns its graduation standards.

Last legislative session, the state’s General Assembly passed incentives in its state funding formula that provide districts with additional funding for adopting professional credentials that give students the ability to leave high school prepared for the career field of their choice.

The state is also working to help school districts through other barriers to establishing work-based learning. For example, Jenner has heard from district leaders in Indiana that transportation to work sites is a challenge for students and schools.

“With this paradigm shift there are a lot of barriers in the way,” Jenner said. “We’ve asked repeatedly, what are the barriers? We’re not going to admire the problem, let’s tackle the solution.”

The council also recommended that states reconsider how they approach professional learning for educators so that professional development opportunities allow educators “to tailor their own learning, just like they are doing for students.” That can also mean changing the way teacher preparation is done at the collegiate level and providing tools, guidance, and resources for district leaders.

Moffat Miller is hopeful that the report sparks action among state leaders and ultimately leads to better outcomes for students, especially as schools navigate the lasting impacts of the pandemic.

“There are definitely pockets of incredible innovation across this country, but how do we make it so that it can happen across an entire state in a systemic way?”


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