Imagine, teacher Shauna Hammett tells first-graders gathered around a small table, a train whistle.
“What sound is the long ‘A’ sound?” Hammett asks.
Hands shoot into the air, then tug downward as if pulling on a rope. Their sing-song answer mimics the sound of a passing train: “Aaaaaaaa. Aaaaaa.”
Hammett and her colleagues at Broken Arrow Elementary in Shawnee use techniques drawn from education research. Among them: the idea that children benefit from explicit instruction in phonics.
“We want every kid to get what they need to grow," Hammett says.
Starting next school year, districts will have to do more in return for the millions of state dollars they receive to help kids who struggle with math and reading. They’ll face demands to show they spent the money wisely — by pointing to the research that backs their methods.
The new state law requires districts to choose from best practices approved by the Kansas State Department of Education. It’s designed to build on the agency’s efforts to vet research, post it online and train educators.
Colleen Riley, a high-ranking department official, says that push began several years ago.
“We want to be sure that there’s progress being made for the students,” Riley says.
The agency launched that work in part because navigating the world of education resources can be tricky, says Crystal Davis, part of the agency’s team of specialists who help offer guidance. The field is teeming with vendors peddling eye-catching materials about how teachers should teach, she says, but not all that glitters is gold.
“We’re trying to do some of the legwork for our educators,” Davis says.
Lawmakers joined the education department’s push for research-based practices in their quest to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court.
The judiciary has repeatedly ruled against the state in a seven-year-old lawsuit that accuses Kansas of underfunding schools to the point that it violates the state's constitutional duty to provide adequate education.
Tens of thousands of students who score low on standardized math and reading tests or never finish high school are among the justices’ top concerns.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, who chairs her chamber’s education committee, says the new law could make progress on that front by tying state aid to “what we know through research, through empirical data.”
“I’m hopeful this will make a difference,” she says.
Michael Brewer, principal of Broken Arrow Elementary, says he hopes the new law will give schools some flexibility to show whether techniques they’re using work.
“There might be lots of strategies that may not be in that toolbox” lawmakers are focused on, he says.
Some schools could risk losing part of their state aid if they don’t spend it on best practices identified by the state education department. But if their students still make academic progress regardless, they’ll escape that fate.
Ultimately, Brewer says he understands why lawmakers want to tie funding to applying research in the classroom.
“If something’s not working and there’s a trend of it not working, we need to do something different right away,” he says. “There are no expendable kids. If they have a bad year, that’s unacceptable.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.