2014 KAECT Spring Conference Keynote

Technology Integrated Learning &
Kansas College Career Ready Standards


February 21, 2014
Visser Hall on the Emporia State University Campus
9 am – 3:30 pm

Douglas Christensen, Nebraska’s state commissioner of education, is gifted with a maverick streak of common sense that is not only changing public schools in the Midwestern state, it’s also getting the attention of educators throughout the country. An early critic of the high-stakes testing dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act, Christensen told Time magazine last year he had informed the U.S. Department of Education that “we had a better way.” Since 1999, he has been acting on that bold claim by implementing a very different approach to student assessment.

To assess their progress, Nebraska’s students in grades four, eight, and eleven complete a statewide exam that includes a written essay. In some school districts, that assessment might also include projects, demonstrations, and oral presentations. Nebraska’s teachers are free to design curriculum for their classes as long as it aligns with state standards. So, how has Nebraska’s approach to assessment worked out, and how does it compare to the results other states are getting?

“Eighty-five percent of our kids are proficient in reading, writing, and mathematics, which is very high,” says Christensen. According to the research, he adds, “you can use writing for an indicator that will just about predict any other literacy-based score — math literacy, science literacy, reading literacy.” The state supplements its writing tests with standardized exams, such as the ACT and the MAPE. “If our state proficiencies are going up, we expect those standardized scores to be going up, and they are,” the commissioner says.

Christensen feels strongly that schools must be classroom centric. He is committed to a bottom-up model with, he says, “teachers teaching, kids learning.” Teachers, he believes, should decide how they teach, and they are in the best position to assess how their students are doing and what they need. The teacher, not the principal, must be the instructional leader, he says. Teachers should always be assessing their students’ grasp of what they’re being taught, Christensen contends. “You shouldn’t have to wait until the end of the year to find out that a certain percentage, or an individual kid, didn’t get it,” he says.

A public education system, he adds, functions best not as “a hierarchy with the teacher at the bottom” but rather as what Christensen terms “a concentric-circle model.” The classroom and the teacher, he says, should be in the center, with the principal supporting the teacher and the superintendent and the school board supporting the principal. “And the state and federal governments ought to be supporting all of that,” he concludes.

It means that all the players take somewhat different roles, Christensen admits, but “they’re all leadership roles, and there isn’t a hierarchy.” It makes teaching and learning in the classroom “the core,” he says. So far, this approach to assessment has brought about what he calls “dramatic shifts” in Nebraska’s schools. And that, the iconoclastic commissioner concludes, is good for students.