By some standards, Wyoming’s public education system is among the strongest in the country.
The state’s eighth graders test in the top 20 in math and reading, and its fourth graders lead the country in average math testing scores and place second in reading, according to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores.
But two initiatives – one appointed by Gov. Mark Gordon and another led by the Wyoming State Board of Education – have sought to reassess education in Wyoming, improve outcomes and pave the way forward for the state’s students.
As the two initiatives near their end, concrete policy recommendations remain elusive.
“Anything we put on paper, we need to verify it,” said Craig Dougherty, the former superintendent of Sheridan County School District 2 and a member of the governor’s advisory group. “We can all sit up here and say, ‘Yeah, this is a great idea,’ but how actually is that going to happen in Saratoga?”
RIDEGordon announced the creation of the Reimagining and Innovating the Delivery of Education advisory group in May 2021, following a legislative session consumed by questions about education funding. He charged the group’s nine appointees with taking a broad look at Wyoming’s education system with an eye toward two areas: enabling innovation to better prepare students and identifying any changes needed to support education if funding is changed.
“The governor launched this initiative on the heels of a legislative session that was really focused on funding, and he was hoping at that time to shift the focus from funding to really think about: Are we preparing our students currently for the future in our current education system? What are the current strengths within our system? And then what are the opportunities to build upon those strengths?” said Lachelle Brant, the governor’s education policy advisor, during a joint meeting Oct. 21 between RIDE and the SBE.
In the letter establishing the initiative, Gordon wrote that the purpose of RIDE would be to “study and develop recommendations for elevating our Wyoming primary and secondary education system into a position of national leadership, by preparing our students to engage in, contribute to, and achieve purpose in our rapidly changing world.”
Since its formation last year, the group has carried out a public input process focused on “consumers” – a category that includes students, parents, businesses, educators and other Wyoming residents.
A survey the initiative released in January and February asked Wyoming residents to share their views on the current state and future of education in the state, soliciting more than 7,700 responses.
The majority of those who completed the online survey were parents. School district employees made up 34.1% of respondents and “concerned citizens” 23.7%. Current and former students who graduated within the last decade accounted for roughly 8% of those surveyed.
RIDE also held 17 listening sessions in June and July aimed at identifying concerns and public recommendations for Wyoming’s education system, drawing more than 200 attendees across the state.
Beyond the input from state residents, the initiative turned to education departments in states such as Utah and Idaho, national experts working with states on educational reform, and Wyoming’s school districts to round out its research, Brant told WyoFile.
Wyoming’s Profile of a Graduate
The Wyoming SBE’s Profile of a Graduate has been years in the making after the Legislature’s 2018 bill requiring the addition of computer science for K-12 sparked questions about the role of the board in setting educational standards in the state.
An opinion issued by Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill in November 2019 found that the SBE must set graduation requirements to ensure student access to the “complete and uniform system of public instruction” required by Wyoming’s constitution.
With the directive to establish graduation standards, the SBE turned to Wyoming residents.
“Prior to just launching in and picking some standards and calling them graduation standards, we decided to step back and create a Profile of a Graduate by engaging people around the state [with] what a graduate should look like,” Ryan Fuhrman, SBE chair, told WyoFile.
From March to June 2021, the SBE organized 46 listening sessions, including community sessions and those requested by stakeholder groups.
More than 475 participants joined the listening sessions, offering their views on the skills, behaviors and experiences Wyoming’s graduates need to find success in higher education, the job market and their lives.
The SBE conducted a parallel survey that yielded more than 490 responses.
Parents again made up the majority of respondents, followed closely by educators, with employers a distant third. Those polled were overwhelmingly white, with Hispanic, Native American, Black and Asian American and Pacific Islander accounting for a combined 5% of the surveys.
With that input, a SBE “design team” constructed a draft Profile of a Graduate, which was then publicly reviewed during virtual vetting sessions, revised and approved by the board during its August retreat.
Though the SBE initiated the Profile of a Graduate to guide its graduation standards, it has also envisioned the initiative as a “North Star” to guide both its own work and state and local education policies.
“If you read the Profile, it’s far beyond the reach of any individual teacher or school. It really is calling together a commitment of communities and families, business and community organizations to come together and create these experiences for students,” said Diana Clapp, coordinator for the Wyoming SBE.
The SBE and RIDE advisory group convened in person for the first time Oct. 21 in Casper.
They met to share their progress and discuss parallels and points of cooperation between the two initiatives.
In its approved Wyoming Profile of a Graduate, the SBE established seven competencies that serve as its vision for the state’s graduates. They include mastering and applying foundational knowledge and skills, thinking critically and creatively to problem solve, and communicating effectively.
RIDE emerged with six key findings following its public outreach:
Expand competency-based learning and allow students to move through content based on mastery of the material and skills instead of classroom time
Develop opportunities for students to prepare for careers and life outside of college, such as technical education and work-based learning
Strengthen teacher preparation and support to retain and recruit teachers
Improve early childhood education before the third grade to prepare students for primary school and narrow gaps between students
Extend more support for student and teacher mental health, including greater access to mental health support
Encourage parent engagement and strengthen the relationships between schools and their communities
During the Oct. 21 meeting, members of the SBE expressed support for RIDE’s findings, especially those that called for more competency-based learning and expanded educational opportunities. That vision aligned with feedback the SBE received calling for more career preparation opportunities within Wyoming’s K-12 system, competency-based equivalency exams and fewer state standards to allow more flexibility for local school districts.
“Outside of the school day, education can happen in a very impactful way, and it’s time to let some of those experiences count for how we value and measure successes of a kid,” Robin Schamber, who represents Teton, Sublette, Lincoln and Uinta counties on the SBE, said during the meeting.
Members of the SBE and RIDE also found common ground on the importance of addressing mental health to support Wyoming’s students and teachers.
“Whether it’s COVID, social media, the nationalization of our dialogue, it’s all having an impact,” said Thea True-Wells, a former middle and high school science teacher who sits on RIDE. “I heard very distinctly [during listening sessions] that the time teachers are hauled away for kids in crisis is astronomical. And not only does it affect the kids who are in crisis, which need help. It also affects the rest of the classroom.”
Notably absent from the meeting was discussion of how the two initiatives meant to strengthen education in Wyoming might address inequities in the state’s K-12 education.
According to the most recent 2020-21 data from the Wyoming Department of Education, only about half of Native American students graduate high school, compared to 84.5% of white students.
Children in foster care (54.8%), homeless children (61.3%), English language learners (64.0%) and special education students (64.6%) also graduate at rates well below Wyoming’s average graduation rate of 82.5%.
RIDE did not target specific groups when conducting its listening sessions and surveys, but the group aimed to capture the geography and populations of the state and did reach out to the state’s tribal partners, according to Brant and Michael Pearlman, communications director for the governor’s office.
The SBE has also tried to be mindful of equity during its Profile of a Graduate process, Fuhrman said.
“At the end of the day, the most equitable thing we could do is ensure all students leave high school with a strong foundation … knowing that that’s going to radically change in terms of certain subsets and groups of Wyoming students,” he said.
Concrete steps with unclear results
Though the RIDE and Profile of a Graduate initiatives appear similar, they will have different outcomes.
“The Profile [of a Graduate] sets the vision for student success. The RIDE evaluates the system to identify policy changes needed to achieve that vision,” Brant said.
RIDE will submit a report in November with state education policy recommendations for Gordon and the Wyoming Legislature to consider. Even with RIDE’s six key findings, what those suggestions will look like remains unclear.
“So much of what we’ve learned could be described as changes that could be enacted locally, whether through the local board or perhaps even within the framework that exists in Wyoming’s educational system now,” John Masters, the chair of RIDE, told WyoFile. “Those are of interest to us, and we certainly feel like we need to comment on some of them, but those may not require any type of policy action by the state.”
The Profile of a Graduate has entered its third and final phase, but the SBE has yet to outline a timeline for when it will finalize and implement the graduation standards drawn from the process.
In September, the SBE convened an executive session in which it sought guidance on the legal requirements its graduation standards must align with, Fuhrman said.
“We’re trying to continually have forward motion, but just be deliberate about the decisions we’re making,” he said.
The Profile of a Graduate’s seven key competencies give a window into the graduation standards the SBE may put forward, yet their final composition is hazy. Whatever results, the members will likely avoid standards that are too prescriptive, as evidenced by a resolution that passed unanimously during Friday’s meeting.
“In anticipation of the establishment of Wyoming graduation standards and the implementation of the Profile of a Graduate, we recognize the need for schools to have greater flexibility and time to pursue innovation and community collaboration in response to the voices of Wyoming stakeholders,” the SBE wrote. “We resolve to reduce the standards load by adopting performance standards as the state standards and to embark on rule promulgation no later than February 2023.”
In the resolution, the SBE said it would also conduct an audit of state performance standards and identify those that should be priorities for the state’s school districts and students.
With the final outcomes of both RIDE and the Profile of a Graduate initiatives yet to be determined, the consequences for Wyoming’s K-12 education system, if any, remain obscure. Members of both RIDE and the SBE expressed concern during their joint meeting that their work would have little measurable impact for Wyoming’s students, educators and parents.
At the beginning of the meeting, Fuhrman outlined a vision for the Profile of a Graduate, one in which the initiative produces meaningful changes for Wyoming’s K-12 education.
“We have our Profile. It’s been vetted. It’s been approved. So what?” Fuhrman said. “Again, intent is not enough. We are well intended here to make a difference, but what decisions do we need to make with graduation standards to actually allow Wyoming to continue and go from strength to excellence?”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.