Friday, September 26, 2014

Apology to teachers

This week, we sent out an apology to Kentucky teachers. We apologized for the software glitches that teachers were confronted with when they tried to complete the components of the new evaluation system. What happened that warrants an apology?

Kentucky has worked closely with teacher, principal, superintendent, school board and parent organizations to develop a system called the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES). This system is in response to federal and state requirements to develop evaluation systems that use student growth as a significant factor. The work has been ongoing for almost 5 years now. In collaboration with teachers, principals, and superintendents, KDE designed software to support the new PGES.

For teachers, the new software system provides them with access to content standards, standards rewritten into “I can” statements, lesson planning tools, assessment design tools, student performance, professional development, and the components of the new Teacher Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (TPGES). The effectiveness system components in the software are self-reflection, professional growth plan, peer and supervisor observation data, student growth data, and student voice data. The components are grouped together in our state software system within the Educator Development Suite (EDS). By using the software, principals can keep up with the components of the effectiveness system for each teacher they supervise and teachers are able to manage the evidences of the system without having to keep a paper portfolio (paperwork reduction).

The system was designed by teachers for teachers; however, the last few weeks have been very difficult for teachers and principals. The first component of the EDS was the teacher self-reflection. Teachers are asked to utilize the Charlotte Danielson framework for Effective Teaching and identify areas of strength and areas of improvement. This should have been very easy to use and not require too much teacher time. The reality is that the software had a number of problems. Teachers had difficulty logging in. Teachers, who did not save their work often, lost it. The software did not have an auto-save capacity and the time out restrictions were too tight. All in all, many teachers struggled with the software during the early part of the school year when they had little time to spare.

KDE and the software provider have been working overtime to correct the problems. As of this week, we now have more than 32,000 teachers who have successfully started or completed their self-reflection. Many teachers have now moved on to the professional growth plan, observations, and student growth goals. The data are showing that most of the software problems have been addressed and repaired.

As commissioner, I wanted to offer my sincere apology to the many teachers and principals who experienced frustration with the software that was supposed to make their job easier – not more difficult. I wanted to thank teachers and principals for their patience and persistence in dealing with the software problems.

We have worked almost five years together to develop a system that elevates the teaching profession and focuses on professional growth of teachers and principals. We will continue to monitor the software and the teacher experience with the software very closely. As teachers discover problems or concerns with the software, please let the Help Desk know of the problems so that we can quickly address the issues.

It is my hope that the rest of the year and the required components of the new system go very smoothly and that teachers feel they are supported in their efforts to grow professionally.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Putting aside micromanagement for the sake of students

Last week, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) held the second annual Superintendent Summit; almost all 173 school districts were represented either by the superintendent or their designee. The summit is designed so that superintendents can provide feedback on KDE initiatives and they can hear from each other about best practices happening in each district.

We asked for superintendents to respond to three basic questions about KDE/Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) initiatives: What is working well? What needs to be improved? What specific suggestions do you have for improvement? We then compile the superintendent responses and provide a summary of the feedback. Throughout the school year, KDE reacts to concerns and suggestions and provides a summary at the next summit on specific actions KDE/KBE took to address the superintendent’s feedback.

During this year’s summit, I was reminded that every level of an organization believes the level above is micromanaging. Superintendents were certainly clear that they had concerns about KDE micromanagement of local districts and KDE oversight of data and evidences for specific state programs. Of course, principals usually express similar concerns about superintendents and teachers express similar concerns about principals and district office. This reminder was significant because as a state chief, I have expressed similar concerns with the United States Department of Education (USED). Many of my fellow state chiefs also have expressed similar concerns.

Readers may remember several recent posts related to my concerns with USED over the No Child Left Behind waiver process (USED action contrary to state, federal law; The good news and bad news on NCLB waivers; Congressional inaction leaving education behind). As a result of my blogs and expressions of concerns by other state chiefs, Education Secretary Arne Duncan asked for a meeting with the board of directors of the Council of Chief State School Officers. That meeting was held on September 12.

The meeting was a very productive. Secretary Duncan and his team wanted to hear our specific concerns about the waiver process. The concerns expressed by my fellow chiefs were very much the same that I had written about. Secretary Duncan and his team had already prepared some possible solutions to our concerns. Secretary Duncan apologized for the breakdown in communication with regard to Kentucky’s waiver request around science assessments. All in all, the chiefs felt they had been listened to and USED was responding to our concerns. Just like my meeting with local superintendents, a leader should listen to concerns from the field and respond with improvements where possible and explain why certain concerns cannot be addressed.

While the chiefs certainly appreciate Sec. Duncan listening and responding to our concerns, the entire basis for the conversation needs to change. Congress needs to do its job. Education must not fall victim to micromanagement by political interests on either side of the aisle – if it does, our children are the ones who lose. Congress needs to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) and allow states the flexibility to manage K-12 education as long as there is a focus on improving teaching and learning.

With upcoming mid-term elections, the electorate has an opportunity to send our elected officials a message – do your job!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Feedback is critical to success

Kentucky began implementing a new state accountability system in 2011-12. The system is called Unbridled Learning. It was built on the requirements of Senate Bill 1 (2009) and is used to meet both state accountability requirements as well as the federal requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education/No Child Left Behind Act.

The system has been very successful in pushing improvements in the percentage of students who graduate from high school ready for college and career. The system has also been successful in increasing high school graduation rates and the percentage of students who are ready for school when they enter kindergarten. We have also started to see significant improvement in areas such as ACT, grades 3-6 reading and math and closing of achievement gaps for several of our student groups.

While we have seen success in some areas, we have not improved in 7th- and 8th-grade math and language arts achievement and we have not improved as quickly as needed to close the achievement gap and boost student performance on high school end-of-course tests.

We originally committed to a three-year window for implementation of the Unbridled Learning model before we made any significant changes. School year 2013-14 completed that three year cycle and we are tentatively scheduled to share results publicly on October 2.

This summer, we began gathering feedback from our stakeholders so that, at the October Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) meeting, we could provide recommendations for any changes to the Unbridled Learning system. We have met with advisory groups representing students, parents, business, teachers, principals, school boards and numerous advocacy groups. We had an online tool for the public to provide feedback also. This week we gathered superintendents from all of our 173 school districts and provided them with the results of the feedback and polled the superintendents on their support for the numerous recommendations we had received.

What happens now? Next month, the KBE will review all of the feedback and the results of the superintendent survey on recommendations. Kentucky Department of Education staff will take direction from KBE on what changes need to be made to the accountability system and will modify existing regulatory language to reflect those changes.  In December, staff will present proposed revisions of the regulatory language for a first reading. Second reading of regulatory changes will occur in February and, if approved, the regulatory changes will start moving through the legislative review process. There are many opportunities for public comment along the way. If the revised regulation becomes law, the changes will not take effect until the 2015-16 school year. School districts will continue to operate under the existing Unbridled Learning accountability model for the 2014-15 school year.

This process sounds complicated and, at times, it can be confusing to teachers, parents, and administrators. However, it is critical to engage all stakeholders in gaining feedback. The strength of our Kentucky education improvements has been and will continue to be collaboration and communication with all stakeholders.

Kentucky education results will continue to improve as long as we listen to concerns from all groups and make improvements. Feedback and action on the feedback are critical to the success of our students, schools and districts, and meeting our goal of college/career-readiness of all students.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Examining dual credit inequities

Dual credit is one of several strategies that has proven effective in helping more students reach college- and career-readiness and achieve success at the postsecondary level. So, it makes sense to fully utilize this strategy to help us reach our goal of college/career-readiness for all students and our ultimate goal of a better prepared workforce.

However, in June, Council on Postsecondary Education President Robert King, Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority Executive Director Carl Rollins and I received a letter from House Education Chair Derrick Graham and Senate Education Chair Mike Wilson. The letter expressed concerns that members of the General Assembly were hearing from constituents about consistency in implementation of dual credit policies across the Commonwealth. The letter asked President King, Dr. Rollins and me to pull together a task force to look at the concerns with dual credit policy implementation and bring back recommendations around access, finance, quality, and transfer of credit.

This week, the dual credit task force had the first of its three planned meetings; the agenda focused on a national perspective and how Kentucky compares. Dr. Jennifer Zinth, from the Education Commission of the States, provided the group with an excellent review of current state policies and best practices for dual credit. The next presenter, Dr. Amy Loyd, shared information from the Harvard Pathways to Prosperity Project, Jobs for the Future dual enrollment strategies and data from a national review of early college programs.  I encourage you to click on the links above to view their presentations.

The task force agenda for the Sept. 26 meeting at the Council for Postsecondary Education will focus on Kentucky-specific issues. The group will hear updates from CPE, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities on how higher education institutions are implementing current dual credit policies in our state. The presentation will focus on access, finance, course quality and transfer of credits. 

Also, KDE will be updating the dual credit survey – first completed in 2013. We will be providing superintendents with survey access at the September 11 Superintendent Summit and ask for a quick response so that we can provide a state perspective at the Sept. 26 task force meeting. 

Finally, at the next meeting we will be inviting a number of best practice sites from across Kentucky to provide examples of the high performing dual credit programs in Kentucky.

Should readers have questions or comments about the dual credit task force, please contact Marissa Hancock in our Office of Career and Technical Education.  We expect to issue a final task force report and recommendations in December.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Standards on trial in the court of public opinion

Abraham Lincoln once said, "Public opinion in this country is everything." And whether you subscribe to that notion or not, the recent release of two national polls on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) would seem, at least on the surface, to be a blow to standards supporters.

The first results came from the Education Next (EdNext) poll that has been given annually for about 14 years. When asked the question about support for the Common Core State Standards the following groups responded.

Support for CCSS

In another poll released last week, we saw similar results.  The PDK/Gallup poll, which has been around for more than 50 years and is one of the most respected of the polls, indicated 60 percent of respondents oppose using CCSS in their local schools to guide what teachers teach; 18 percent of respondents said the standards were too challenging; 40 percent said the standards were not challenging enough; and 36 percent said the standards were just right.

Both polls showed an erosion in support for the CCSS from the previous year. In 2012, hardly anyone in the general public had even heard of the CCSS. Why such a steep drop in such a short time and why do we see such a steep drop in teacher support?

In a pre-release media call for the PDK/Gallup poll last week, I made the following points.
     1) There has been a significant increase in media reporting about CCSS. Depending on your media source, the public has been confronted with a barrage of information, some factual, some not, that has led to a polarization of opinions with regard to the Common Core State Standards.
     2) With the rush to implement No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver requirements for standards, assessments and teacher evaluations, the general public and especially teachers have connected CCSS with federal overreach.
     3) With the rush to implement NCLB waiver requirements in some states, teachers feel they have not been provided adequate support in training or resources to implement the standards. With the rush to assess the standards and utilize the results from testing in waiver-required teacher evaluation systems, again, teachers feel they are being held accountable for implementing standards, assessments, and teacher evaluation systems without adequate support and time.

When we dig deep and go back to the PDK poll in the late 1980’s, we find tremendous support for the concept of more rigorous standards that all states would adhere to in order for more students to reach college- and career-readiness. Even in the current polling, when the term Common Core was removed, there was a majority of support for more rigorous state standards across all states.

Several positive things happened last week as the polls were being released. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that the United States Department of Education (USED) would relax the timeline for states that need more time to implement teacher evaluation systems that use test scores as part of the evaluation. Also, Sec. Duncan announced his concerns about “too much testing” in our schools. The PDK/Gallup poll indicated that the general public would support Sec. Duncan’s concerns about too much testing. More than 50 percent of those polled said standardized tests are not helpful; however, in excess of 80 percent support college placement tests, grade placement tests, and exit exams. It appears the public supports testing as long as the purpose of testing is clear.

A few other items of note from the recent polls:
     • Charter Schools – the PDK poll shows 70 percent support, EdNext shows 54 percent support
      • Vouchers – the PDK poll shows 63 percent oppose with EdNext showing 51 percent support

While the department's own anonymous survey of nearly 7,000 Kentucky teachers earlier this year showed stronger support for the standards than is evidenced nationwide, Kentucky is being proactive with regard to CCSS. This week, I announced the Kentucky Core Academic Standards Challenge, which will inform our regular review of the standards taught in our classrooms. I urge all readers, regardless of your opinion on the standards, to take the challenge.  It will be open until April 30, 2015.

Friday, August 22, 2014

USED action contrary to state, federal law

For readers who missed my blog last week, you may want to review the good news and bad news about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers. In the blog I said, “I believe the current waiver process represents a major federal intrusion into the rights of each state to develop, implement, and manage the public education of the state.” This created quite a stir in certain circles.

Let me explain my thinking on that by first giving a little background on NCLB waivers. In the original No Child Left Behind Act (2001) language, Section 9401 (b) provides the following guidance:

(1) IN GENERAL – A State educational agency, local educational agency, or Indian tribe that desires a waiver shall submit a waiver request to the Secretary that –
(A) identifies the Federal programs affected by the requested

(B) describes which Federal statutory or regulatory requirements 
             are to be waived and how the waiving of those requirements
             will –

            (i) increase the quality of instruction for students; and
            (ii) improve the academic achievement of students;
(C) describes, for each school year, specific, measurable
             educational goals, in accordance with section 1111(b),
             for the State educational agency and for each local
             educational agency, Indian tribe, or school that would 

             be affected by the waiver and the methods to be 
             used to measure annually progress for meeting such
             goals and outcomes;

(D) explains how the waiver will assist the State educational
             agency and each affected local educational agency, Indian
             tribe, or school in reaching those goals; and

(E) describes how schools will continue to provide assistance
             to the same populations served by programs for which
             waivers are requested.

What this language describes is a state-led waiver process to encourage innovation to improve instruction and student achievement outcomes for the students served by the NCLB law. The current waiver process being implemented by the U. S. Department of Education (USED) is a conditional waiver process. States must submit waiver plans that meet three basic conditions:
     • standards/assessments
     • accountability systems
     • teacher/leader effectiveness 
In exchange for meeting these conditions, states are granted 11-13 waivers from the original requirements of NCLB.

Originally, this was a great deal for Kentucky since we had a state law (Senate Bill 1 – 2009) that required the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) to implement new standards/assessments, accountability systems, and teacher/principal evaluations. As Commissioner, I was fully supportive of Secretary Duncan's waiver process since the reform efforts were a great match for Kentucky. However, the waiver process has now started to stifle innovation and have a negative impact on improving instruction and student achievement. 

Here is one case in point. Kentucky adopted new science standards as required by Senate Bill 1. Our teachers began to implement these standards this school year. We have learned from teachers that they need at least two years of implementing standards prior to assessing them. Additionally, Kentucky teachers and national science assessment experts told us that new science assessments will need to be very different than typical multiple choice tests. Students will actually need to do science and exhibit scientific thinking. Our National Assessment of Educational Progress has given us an early look at this type of assessment through the Technology and Engineering Literacy assessment. Kentucky wanted to develop a model of science assessment using Kentucky teachers and national experts that would provide innovative ways to measure student achievement in science and provide teachers with much more meaningful feedback on student performance throughout the school year so that teachers could improve instruction and student achievement. 

Kentucky requested a one-year waiver from science assessment from the USED. We needed the waiver in order to provide time for our teachers to actually implement standards and develop new assessment items for field testing in spring of 2015. We committed to having an assessment of student achievement in science by 2016. 

Despite having set a precedent for this type of waiver by granting the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment consortia states a waiver from accountability and reporting math and language arts assessments for the 2014 year, USED rejected our request. Obviously we were stretching the limits of USED staff to provide a state-led waiver request that meets the original requirements of Sec 9401 of NCLB. 

This is only one example of how the current waiver process is stifling innovation and intruding on a state's ability to implement state requirements contained in state legislation. There are other Kentucky examples and, in a recent meeting with other state chiefs, I heard many similar stories from other states.

What now? USED expects Kentucky to give a science assessment that measures our previous science standards in spring 2015. This expectation not only violates our state law, but, also violates NCLB that requires states to assess science (once in elementary and middle school) based on current state standards.

Kentucky and many other states supported the waiver process since we had state laws matching the conditional requirements. Kentucky will be able to sustain our efforts for years to come; however, I do have concerns about other states that used the leverage of the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant and waiver process to implement reforms without state law. What happens when the current administration departs? What happens as the waiver process continues to become even more prescriptive and time consuming?

States are responsible for education. Local school districts have tremendous flexibility and control in implementing state expectations. The federal role is and should continue to be limited to support for disadvantaged children. Hopefully, Congress will reauthorize NCLB soon and build in the flexibility for states and local school districts to be innovative in meeting the needs of all children by improving teaching and learning.

Next week, I will review recent results from national polls showing the impact of RTTT and NCLB waivers on public opinion related to Common Core standards, standardized tests, and teacher evaluation.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The good news and bad news on NCLB waivers

First, the good news: this week the U.S. Department of Education (USED) notified us that it approved Kentucky's application for a one-year extension of our Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver flexibility. The extension will run through the 2014-15 school year.

The bad news is that we are still operating under an NCLB waiver, as we have been since the 2012-13 school year. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan offered the waivers to states due to the inability of Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (which was due for reauthorization in 2007). State chiefs and local school superintendents were very excited about the waivers as an opportunity to move public education forward; while the number one priority was and always has been for Congress to reauthorize NCLB.

There are several pros to the NCLB waiver, especially for Kentucky.  The federal waiver requirements were an excellent match to our Senate Bill 1 (2009) requirements for new standards, new assessments, a new accountability system, and professional development and support for educators to implement these new requirements. When Sec. Duncan announced the waiver requirements, Kentucky moved quickly to apply. With the waiver in hand we were able to implement new standards, assessments, and a single accountability system for reporting school results, rather than having two systems – one for federal accountability, one for state – as we had in the past. Also, the federal waiver provided tremendous flexibility to our school districts on how to spend federal funds. All in all, we felt that the waiver was an excellent idea in the short term; however, no one thought waivers were a good idea in the long run.

As election seasons started to roll around, as if on cue, there was a lot of criticism of Sec. Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education. I for one found it hypocritical that Congress would complain about the waiver process when it was Congress' failure to reauthorize No Child Left Behind that led to the process.

While the initial waiver process was something we supported in Kentucky, it has become problematic. When the state chiefs talked with Sec. Duncan about what would happen at the end of the initial waiver period, we recommended a "streamlined and expedited" process for one-year extensions. It remained our hope as state chiefs that, in the meantime, Congress would reauthorize NCLB. That has not happened.

There is significant evidence from many states that the waiver extension process has not been streamlined. State chiefs have reported to me and our Kentucky experience has shown that our staffs spent hundreds of hours in preparing what was supposed to have been a streamlined application (our initial waiver extension request was almost 200 pages). Also, our staff spent many hours in conference calls and rewriting our waiver application based on questions raised from USED staff.  Click here if you’d like to read it.

Nor has the waiver extension process been expedited, as we were promised.  We submitted our extension request May 1 and it was mid-August before we got word on its status.  Our initial waiver took less time to approve.  In fact, of the 42 states that originally obtained waivers and the 31 that have submitted waiver extensions, to date, 13 are still waiting for word from USED on their status. In many cases, school has already started and school districts are not certain of which set of rules they will be governed by for the school year - NCLB or the waiver.

Now, USED is asking us to give feedback on the process for a two-year waiver extension for school years 2015-16 and 2016-17.

As one state chief, speaking only for Kentucky, it is time to end this process. It is time for Congress to act. We need a stable long range plan, not a series of cobbled together waivers that take away staff time from the work of improving education for all children.

Next week, I will provide more insight as to why I believe the current waiver process represents a major federal intrusion into the rights of each state to develop, implement, and manage the public education of the state.