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Governor Gordon’s education advisory group comes out with its final report

Desks sit in rows in front of a whiteboard and blackboard.

Earlier this week, Governor Mark Gordon’s Reimagining and Innovating the Delivery of Education Advisory, group (RIDE), released its final report. It provides recommendations on how to improve the state’s education system. Wyoming Public Radio’s Hugh Cook spoke with John Masters, the group’s chairman.

Hugh Cook: What are some of those main points that the report addresses?

John Masters: The educational model largely in use around the country essentially developed, I don't know, many decades ago, perhaps 150 years ago. The students are given a lot of information. They're expected to assimilate that information into their own mind, and then be able to do something with it. That model, which has worked pretty well but is now being replaced in many local and statewide educational programs with one that says not all children are the same and they don't learn the skills or the subjects in the same sequence that maybe we think they should. And they don't learn in the same method. Some learn because they hear the information, some learn because they read it somewhere, because they have hands-on experience. There are a lot of different ways that children approach and learn in the educational system. And we need to start understanding, I think educators do already understand this, but we, as a community, need to understand that children are different, and they need to be educated in a way that's appropriate for that child.

So that's why we're talking about mastery of a skill. Now, mastery doesn't mean they become experts, [it] just means they have a good understanding [and] are capable of using that skill as they move forward. I like to use the example of math. Math is a sequential learning process. And if you miss out on subtraction, it's going to be very hard to understand division, so we want to make sure that all students progress, and they master each level before they move on to the next.

The other element that also somewhat excites me is that a child that catches on quickly, maybe in math, can progress maybe at a faster pace. Now, we don't want to allow that child to ignore other skills that they need to acquire but we don't want them to be twiddling their thumbs and bored in class. This is my hope at least, is that children will love education, they won't look at it as something to be dreaded and so as they get older, and as they become the true consumer, we want to be able to provide them with opportunities to focus in areas of interest and to do a deeper dive in those areas.

And sometimes that's a career focus, and so you'll see that our second recommendation is that we do what we can to provide career technical type opportunities and that we not disparage students that choose to go that way. A lot of students may feel they are quite happy with their high school diploma and enabled to go into the workforce, maybe they need a certification from a junior college, maybe they need an associate's degree, but maybe they don't need a bachelor's or an advanced degree. And so we don't want to sidetrack kids into feeling like if they didn't go to college that they are somehow less of a person or incapable of things, all of this with the hope that everybody will become a lifelong learner, that they will understand that as technology advances and as information sources continue to mushroom, they'll be capable of applying that information with new technology in whatever path they've chosen, whether it's a professional or whether it's a skill.

HC: The report also addresses additional "priority issues" as it's called, and that includes mental health. Talk a little bit more about what some of those impacts or some of those additional priority issues are and how they might be addressed.

JM: So mental health in this state is perhaps an issue that's never been discussed adequately on a statewide basis. There are districts that take this issue very seriously and have adopted methods to address the mental health of students and sometimes faculty and teachers. I think COVID brought or highlighted some of the mental health challenges that are present. We saw that with kids staying home and not interacting with other children, but that created some stresses not just among the children, but with parents and children. And we saw the pressures that were put on the faculty to do things in a different way caused a lot of deep concerns for them. So we have mental health challenges. Some districts are doing a great job of addressing it, some are struggling, and so we thought that was an issue worth surfacing and mentioning that perhaps a more cohesive approach needed to be taken. Now, keep in mind, the Wyoming Department of Education is in fact working on this issue as well. And we want to promote their efforts, but we did want to include it in our report as being something we observed as well.

HC: The report also addresses education pre-kindergarten.

JM: So, our charge was looking at K through 12, but pretty quickly, it became apparent to us, and I think to most people who are actively involved with education, that a child who is not reading by the third grade will struggle not just in school, but perhaps for his or her entire lifetime. And one indicator of whether a child will be successful in reading in third grade is how well prepared that child is when they enter kindergarten. Now, we do not suggest that there'll be a statewide preschool system established but we do think that resources need to be available if a parent or parents are struggling in preparing their child. The observation that was made both in the responses to our survey, but also in the literature and the people we spoke with was there's a vast disparity between how well prepared children are as they enter the kindergarten door. And somehow, if we can elevate the children who are otherwise going to struggle, everyone will benefit. Kindergarten will be more fulfilling for all students and they'll be better prepared as they move forward with the educational experience. So even though it wasn't in our charge, we heard from the legislature when we were before the Joint Education Committee that they were concerned about this, [and] we heard from numerous sources in response to our survey that they were also concerned. So we felt it needed to be mentioned as well. Now, that being said, we also heard that we don't want the state to become the parent or fulfill or replace the parent. So there's a little tension here between parents who are doing a great job and want to be actively engaged, preparing their children, and parents who can't, for whatever reason, because they are working multiple jobs, because they're not themselves particularly well skilled, to understand what their children need, whatever the reason, but that doesn't mean we want to give up on those children who need some assistance.

HC: When might some of these proposals find their way into Wyoming schools or in the curriculums of said schools?

JM: Well, as we traveled about the state, we encountered some schools that are attempting to accomplish this. Now, they don't necessarily call it this. So, there are some that are really attempting to address student individual needs rather than treating all students the same. And the challenges I think will be, first getting the community support necessary so that the community, which includes parents and includes future employers, includes everybody, understands that the educational experience for this particular child may vary from what that person experienced when they went to school, and nevertheless understand that it's important and it's valuable, [and] will accomplish the goals that were established. So community support, parental support, but I think the big challenge is going to be having the educational professionals, the teachers, the administrators understand and receive the proper support as they transition. Because many of them did not have a lot of training in this area, and may not understand the need for the ongoing individual assessment of each child to see that the child has in fact adopted and developed the skill necessary to move on to the next phase of education. So, it's a heavy lift, I think it's going to involve all aspects of education and I hope that what we'll see is that some districts will choose to go down this path and the successes that they experience will encourage other districts to follow them. Now, I suppose it's possible the legislature might step in and mandate it. But we're not at this point suggesting that, so we're hoping it'll be more voluntary and that it will have broad support.

HC: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

JM: I guess I would kind of conclude with what I just said, this is going to be a huge lift. This is going to require everybody engaged in education to dig in, help, [and] understand that it's not instantaneous. That they can't just try it for six months and then abandon it if they don't see instantaneous results, that they need to understand the long term nature of this type of shift. And we have models out there in the rest of the United States that are, in fact, being introduced, and I think many of them are successful and I think we can learn from those. We're not going to be the trailblazers here, but we don't want to be the laggards either.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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