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State's school standards adding social, life skills

by Cynthia Howell | June 9, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.

Arkansas' academic standards -- which are the basis for teaching math, English/languages arts and other core subjects -- are being expanded to include what have become known as soft skills and social/emotional skills.

The new personal competency standards are intended to help students "get along with others, communicate well and make positive contributions to the workplace and beyond," according to the introduction to the newest of the state's standards.

Labeled "G.U.I.D.E for Life," the standards were introduced in May to the Arkansas Board of Education. They've since been sent to the superintendents, and will be presented later this month to teachers and education leaders at a Department of Education statewide education conference in Hot Springs.

G.U.I.D.E. stands for the overarching principles of growth, understanding, interaction, decisions and empathy, each of which encompasses several standards. Growth, for example, is about managing oneself, and it covers developing problem-solving skills, practicing mindfulness and persevering.

In kindergarten through second grade, that means children would learn to appropriately communicate their wants and needs to their peers and adults, as well as how to ask for help, identify their emotions and recognize the importance of telling the truth.

In middle school, the growth principle covers demonstrating the ability to present one's perspective, applying the steps of a decision-making model, and staying with a challenging task until its is completed. And in high school, growth is to be shown in multiple ways, including the daily use of personal management skills, controlling behavior in different settings, advocating for personal rights and the rights of others, and applying effective listening skills.

Stacy Smith, the Education Department's assistant commissioner for learning services, said the department has worked for about two years on what she she says are personal skills for success.

"These are skills we want kids showing in every classroom," Smith said in an interview. "These are skills and traits that even here at work we could all flip through this and find one that, 'Oh, I could really work on that!' or 'This is one of my strengths.'

"It gets into Internet safety," Smith continued, "talking to one another, working in collaborative groups, and planning life goals. Even grooming, you know, how you look and take care of yourself. Empathy -- being able to listen to others and look at something from someone else's view -- is also covered."

The G.U.I.D.E. for Life standards are among three sets of new or revised standards that are to be rolled out over the coming school year with the expectation that they will be implemented in the 2020-21 period.

The other new standards are revisions to previous ones set for health/physical education and for world languages.

The foreign-language standards have been revised in part to give schools the option of teaching languages in different ways or for different reasons to meet the needs of their students and communities, Thomas Coy, public school program manager in the Education Department, said.

The world-language acquisition standards cover eight languages including American Sign Language and Spanish for Heritage and Native Speakers. There are standards, as well, for classical languages such as Latin.

New are standards for content-based courses in which foreign language is taught in conjunction with academic subject matter such as biology or art history or physical education. There are also now foreign-language standards for specific purposes such as Spanish for careers in emergency response fields or French for those interested in culinary careers. And then there are standards for special interest/foreign language courses, such as Chinese cinema or German tabletop games.

The world language standards as well as the physical education and soft skills standards are formatted into "I can" or "How can I" statements, which call on students to be able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. It's a format that the Education Department is considering for all academic standards.

The Education Board this spring approved the health/physical education and world language standards. In contrast, an Education Board vote is not required for the personal competency standards since they are not technically academic, Smith said.

Over the coming school year, there will be training, resources and curriculum options provided to classroom teachers on the new or newly revised standards.

"Teachers will have feet in both worlds," Smith said about the 2019-20 school year as teachers continue to use existing standards while familiarizing themselves and incorporating the life skills and the revised foreign language and physical education standards into classroom work.

In all three fields, the emphasis will be shifting away from checklists of skills to asking students to demonstrate what they have learned and can do, Smith also said. That was planned.

Developing the personal competencies was something the Education Department leaders included a couple of years ago in its strategic plan for making Arkansas the national leader in student-focused education. That was in response at the time to businesses' widespread complaint that new graduates lacked skills such as good work attendance, punctuality, and interpersonal skills.

Smith said state educators drew on standards from other states, as well as from national organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, and from author/consultant Sam Reddy, as well as feedback from conversations with and surveys of Arkansas teachers and school counselors.

"We just saw that there wasn't one [existing approach] by itself that was right. As we got into it, we merged soft skills and social/emotional learning into our own standards for our state," Smith said. "This made sense for us."

Smith also said some school districts have already adopted various curriculums intended to instill personal competencies into the work of their students.

"They weren't waiting for us," Smith said of those districts. But this allows those districts to align what they are doing with the new state standards and it gives schools that haven't delved into the area something now with which to start, she said.

The traditional academic standards are the basis not only for curriculum, classroom instruction and testing of students to determine their knowledge. There probably won't be any traditional-type tests of students in regard to the G.U.I.D.E. standards, Smith said. But, school-climate surveys of students, faculty members and parents, which are measures of satisfaction with different components of school operations, could become an indicator of the success of the social/emotional skills, she said.

The Education Department's vision, Smith said, is to produce students who are actively literate, critical thinkers, and engaged in the community. The plan is to achieve that, she said, is using a combination of academic and G.U.I.D.E. for Life standards.

Metro on 06/09/2019

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