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.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Exciting Time of the Year

Many eager parents, teachers, school administrators and community members are looking forward to the new school year. Parents who take their kindergarten or first grade child to school for the first day will shed a few tears as they hand off their precious treasure to dedicated teachers and staff. Many parents will be very happy to return to a normal routine where the children are engaged in meaningful activities under the supervision of dedicated teachers and staff. 

School administrators are nervous! They are checking to make certain that they have enough staff to meet the needs of all children. Do they have all the supplies and textbooks on hand to meet the needs of children and teachers? Does the school look clean and inviting? Has the grass been mowed? Are procedures in place to make certain schools are safe? Do the bus routes meet the transportation needs? Will the school cafeteria be ready for the first breakfast and lunch? Have we provided all the required and necessary training to all staff?

Teachers are nervous also but very excited to see children return to classrooms. Teachers are in their classrooms setting up materials to make certain the classroom is inviting and conducive to learning. Teachers have been working over the summer months to develop new curriculum and finding materials aligned to the curriculum. Teachers have been engaged in professional learning to either get an advanced degree and/or prepare for new state initiatives such as the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System or new science standards.

Many coaches and band directors have been working hard for several weeks. They have been getting fields ready for practice and equipment and uniforms ready for the students. Schedules have been planned. Buses have been ordered for transportation to games and events. Meals have been planned. Booster clubs are in full operating mode to raise funds to support students.

Students are excited to return to school. They are excited to see old friends and make new ones. They are excited to see which teacher(s) they have and what they will learn. They are excited about the first football game or band competition. For some, they are nervous as they begin to realize that this is their last year as a high school student and they have not finalized plans for what happens after high school. For others, they are nervous as they make the transition from the confines of an elementary school to the confusion of a middle school or a high school.

For community members, many are excited to see activities at schools. For most of our schools in Kentucky, the school is the center for community activities. Schools are a huge source of pride for communities. Community members are always prone to brag about the academic ranking of their local schools, the sports teams, and other student groups.

This will be my 43rd year as a teacher, principal, superintendent, or commissioner. This time of year continues to bring goose bumps as I think about the tremendous potential that our children in Kentucky have. I get excited thinking about the buzz that happens in more than 1,400 schools in Kentucky. I get excited to think about the many conversations among parents, teachers, administrator, and community members that will be focused on making certain all of our children have a bright future. 

As school buses begin to roll and school zone signals start blinking, I hope everyone in the Commonwealth will slow down when driving through a school zone, take a moment to silently wish all of our students and educators a successful start to a school year, and whisper a wish that every student will achieve the promise of an excellent education to ensure a brighter future. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Partnerships are critical

This week, I wanted to give a “shout out” to one of our university partners.  On Monday, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of K-12 and higher education educators at the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Education P20 Innovation Lab meeting.

UK College of Education Dean Mary John O’Hair started the P20 Innovation Lab several years ago when she came to Kentucky from Oklahoma where she started a similar program with much success. When Dr. O’Hair first approached me about a possible partnership and sharing a position, I thought it was a great idea since, at the time, Kentucky was working with the Council of Chief State School Officers through the Innovation Lab Network of states and we were developing digital guidelines for schools.

The Kentucky P20 Innovation Lab, hosted by the UK College of Education, is leading the way to help schools in Kentucky transform education to deliver next generation learning and, ultimately, increase the number of students who are ready to succeed in college and career.

After four years of work, the P20 Lab has worked with more than 25 percent of the school districts in Kentucky. The P20 Lab provides training for school administrators and school teams to stretch their thinking in designing teaching and learning experiences.  The results have been pretty amazing. Not only has the lab served more than a quarter of our school districts, the vast majority of our Districts of Innovation proposals have come from districts who have gone through the P20 training.

At the meeting this week, it was exciting to see an agenda that shows Kentucky is leading the nation with innovation.

Former Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Gene Wilhoit talked about the exciting work going on at the National Center for Innovation in Education (another shout out to Dean O’Hair for bringing that center to Kentucky).

Professor John Nash, who Dean O’Hair added to the team from Stanford University, gave a talk on design thinking. Design thinking is utilized in many major corporations and is certainly cutting edge stuff in the business and non-profit worlds.

While we have numerous districts who are implementing innovation, we have seen Danville Independent featured on PBS and NPR and Eminence Independent featured in numerous state and national contexts and it was great to see them working with other districts to present their best practices at the meeting this week.

In addition, Taylor County has received many visitors from other states to look at its competency-based model and Jefferson County made news with its community proposals to design a new school for the District of Innovation model.

Kentucky is committed to leading innovation in education. This partnership between higher education and the K-12 system is producing exciting results for students. In addition to the UK P20 Lab, we have many other innovative efforts underway in Kentucky.

We started the Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky to financially support those innovative ideas coming from schools and districts. In the coming weeks, the Fund will announce awards to teachers, schools and districts in its first round of innovation funding

What I am most excited about is that we are all working together in innovative ways to help more students reach college- and career-readiness and prepare for a successful life.

Should readers want to know more about our innovation and partnership strategy, please contact David Cook by e-mail or by phone at (502) 564-4201, ext. 4832.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Stemming the tide of teacher turnover

Several weeks ago in this blog I told you about the United States Department of Education's (USED)  new requirement for states to develop an educator equity plan to ensure every child has access to a quality education and quality educators.

Last week, it was my honor to represent Kentucky in a webinar sponsored by The Alliance for Excellence in Education and the New Teacher Center. The webinar focused on a recently released report, On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers. The report examines research on teacher turnover and performance, especially at  high-poverty schools. This reality seriously compromises the nation’s capacity to ensure that all students have access to skilled teaching. The report  makes five recommendations to stem the high rate of teacher turnover.  I suggest schools and districts review this report and perhaps view the video of the webcast available here.  Certainly improving the effectiveness of beginning teachers is an issue for us all. 

Equitable distribution of teachers will be a significant issue in the upcoming  school year due to a recent court case in California and the new USED requirement. This is an issue that we must address in a thoughtful and responsible manner for all concerned.   

Friday, July 18, 2014

Make It Real

While most of the country seems embroiled in a political fight around Common Core State Standards and their implementation, too many of our students are graduating from high school unprepared for the current workforce. An upcoming special report, No College = Low Wages, from the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics (KCEWS) brings this issue to the forefront. The report is due out on July 25, so be sure to check the KCEWS website for the full report once it is released.

The following highlights are based on the third of the total high school graduates from 2009-10 and 2011-12 who did not enroll in postsecondary programs. Of the third, 60 percent went directly into the workforce

     • On average, Kentucky’s public high school graduates from
        2011-12 earned $7,567 the year following graduation. After
         three years the 2009-10 graduates’ wages rose to $11,511.

     • Three years after high school, more than three out of four
        graduates from 2009-10 who did not attend postsecondary
        were earning less than full-time minimum wage.

     • Female graduates who did not attend postsecondary are earning
        30 percent less than male graduates.

     • African American highs school graduates who did not attend
        postsecondary were earning 30 percent less than their white

     • Graduates with 20 or more unexcused absences in their senior
        year earned up to 55 percent less than those with five or fewer

     • About 60 percent of the high school graduates, who did not
        attend postsecondary, work in three industry groups that have
        three of the four lowest average wages.

These facts should be a wakeup call to high school students and their parents. This is clear evidence that high schools must do a better job in preparing all graduates to enter postsecondary programs (one year, two year, or four year diploma or certification) prepared for credit bearing work and with the skills necessary to succeed in careers that pay a living wage.

We certainly can continue to discuss the right wording for standards and the right assessments to measure the standards, however, we need to make the discussion REAL! Too many of our high school students are leaving high school unprepared for postsecondary and unprepared for careers. We have made excellent progress in the last four years in addressing this situation; however, we have much more work to do. Let’s not get sidetracked with the political debates around standards and assessments, let’s stay focused on the getting ALL students prepared for THEIR FUTURE and not our past.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Closing the opportunity gap

Equal educational opportunity for all -- it was the basis of the lawsuit that triggered the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 and remains a basic tenent of the Kentucky Board of Education and Kentucky Department of Education today. A student's race, ethnic background, family income, unique challenge or zip code should not determine whether the child has access to a quality education. The sad reality is that in too many places it does.

This week I received a letter from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlining a new requirement for states to develop an educator equity plan to ensure every child has access to a quality education and quality educators. Here is an excerpt:

Equality of opportunity is a core American value.  Equal educational opportunity means ensuring schools have the resources they need to provide real and meaningful opportunities for all students to succeed, regardless of family income or race.  To accomplish this goal, students must have access to a safe and healthy place to learn, quality instructional materials and supports, rigorous expectations and course work, and, most critically, excellent educators to guide learning.  Yet family income and race still too often predict how likely a child is to attend a school staffed by great educators.  This inequity is unacceptable, and the time is now for us to work together to ensure all children have access to the high-quality education they deserve, and that all educators (including teachers, staff, principals, and superintendents) have the resources and support necessary to provide that education.

Over the past several months, the U.S. Department of Education (Department) has conducted outreach to Chief State School Officers, school districts, civil rights groups, teachers, principals, and other stakeholders to explore ways to tackle and resolve the disparities in access to great teachers that we know continue to exist.  Through this outreach, we heard that there is no single solution to this problem; we need a broad and systemic focus on supporting and improving teaching and learning, especially in our highest-need schools and for our highest-need students, including students with disabilities and English learners.  We heard that the best efforts will not only include recruiting, developing, and retaining great educators with the skills to teach all students, but will also build strong school leaders, create supportive working conditions, and address inequities in resources and supports for teachers.

Many of you have told me that you are ready for a renewed and deeper commitment to ensuring every student in every public school has equal access to great educators who set and maintain high expectations for every student.

To move us closer to this goal, the Department is embarking on a multifaceted strategy:

New State Educator Equity Plans:  The Department will ask that, in April 2015, each State educational agency (SEA) submit to the Department a new State Educator Equity Plan in accordance with the requirements of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA).  As required by ESEA, in its plan, each SEA must, among other things, describe the steps it will take to ensure that “poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.”  To prepare a strong plan, each SEA will analyze what its stakeholders and data have to say about the root causes of inequities and will craft its own solutions.

The Department will issue guidance this fall to support SEAs in plan development and implementation.  I look forward to working with you to ensure that these plans translate to meaningful and comprehensive change for students.

Secretary Duncan's letter goes on to say that USED will support the development of these plans by releasing data on current conditions. This will include:
(1) comprehensive school and district level data reported directly by districts to the Department on metrics such as teacher experience; teacher absenteeism; teacher certification; access to preschool and rigorous course work, including science, mathematics, and Advanced Placement courses; and school expenditures
(2) state-specific teacher equity profiles, which will also be available to the public on the Department’s Web site.

In addition, USED will fund a new technical assistance network that will provide information, tools, and supports to all states as they develop and implement new State Educator Equity Plans.   

In reality, Kentucky has developed similar state plans since 2006 for Title I and Title II. As the secretary acknowledges..."this is not the first time that states, districts, and the federal government have tried to grapple with the complex challenge of ensuring equitable access to excellent educators, but previous efforts have not fully addressed the challenge."  

Certainly as we develop a new state plan in preparation for the April 2015 deadline, we will seek feedback from all stakeholders involved.   With the dedication to doing what's best for children that our educators and other stakeholders regularly exhibit, I have no doubt that Kentucky will once again be a shining example for other states of equal educational opportunity for all.  

Friday, June 27, 2014

Changing preschool delivery could be a win for all

This week, I welcome Kentucky Department of Education Chief of Staff Tommy Floyd as a guest blogger. Dr. Floyd weighs in on some new ways of thinking about delivering quality preschool experiences and how they can lead to an increase in kindergarten readiness and greater school success for students.
Many school systems across the country and several in Kentucky are seeing success by using some non-traditional, mixed models for delivering pre-K learning experiences for children.

The model typically involves combining half-day pre-K and quality childcare in a single location to provide full day learning experiences for children. The result is a better continuity of care and learning for children, often leading to higher kindergarten readiness rates.  

While the exact model can vary depending on local needs and capacity, it almost always involves collaboration among a school system, private childcare and Head Start to leverage existing resources. Partnerships can be tailored to maximize the capacity of the local school system and childcare providers to meet the needs of the children and parents in the community.

Often a district provides space in a school for private childcare to serve preschoolers before or after class. Children, Inc. partners with schools in northern Kentucky to use this model. Depending on enrollment, these in-school centers can also serve children who otherwise would not qualify for preschool.   

Another example places the school’s preschool teachers in private childcare centers. For instance, Christian County Public Schools partners with Let’s Go Play Academy in Hopkinsville to send teachers into the private child care center to teach preschool part of the day.

Mixed delivery has many benefits. Parents avoid the difficulty of arranging childcare before or after preschool classes. It eliminates the need to transport kids from one place to another which allows for more quality instructional time. In addition, it saves money that otherwise would be spent constructing new classrooms (approximately. $250,000 per classroom) or retrofitting space (approximately $80,000 per classroom).

In addition to the benefits of co-locating preschool and childcare in the same space, mixed delivery also has the benefit of increasing continuity and quality of care and instruction. It provides easier transitions from childcare to preschool to kindergarten. In addition, preschool teachers and childcare teachers learn from each other and bring their different strengths to the classroom.

Childcare is an important part of the education continuum. Most parents of children under age 5 work and depend on private childcare, which strives to provide children with high quality learning experiences in safe surroundings.

Many private child care providers participate in Kentucky’s quality rating system called STARS that measures the quality of instruction, teacher quality and parent engagement.  In fact, Kentucky intends to enhance the quality rating system and apply it to all childcare centers, Head Start, and school-based preschool. This would establish a common, shared measure of quality that would lead to greater kindergarten readiness.  Currently, state kindergarten readiness scores indicate that 71 percent of children in private childcare enter kindergarten ready to learn.

When schools operate their own preschool program, they typically take 4 year olds from private childcare centers. That tends to create a financial hardship for the centers because 4-year-olds help defray the higher costs of caring for infants and toddlers.  This, in turn, causes centers to cut back or close, leaving parents with fewer or no childcare options. Children then lose the learning experiences that the centers offered and that can lead to lower impact kindergarten readiness scores.

Carefully considering a mixed model for delivering preschool in Kentucky could result in a win for everyone involved – parents, districts and child care providers – but especially for the children who will soon be headed to kindergarten.