Friday, December 18, 2009

Budget Facts and Effects

At a recent Kentucky Board of Education meeting, we had a presentation from Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Rather than take a position concerning the presentation, I thought some of the facts were very interesting and should be part of any future budget discussions.

Corrections Spending in Kentucky
· Spending has seen 44 percent increase since 2000, as compared to 33 percent increase in General Fund.
· It costs $19,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner and only $9,200 a year to educate a child in P-12.
· Could we not save money on corrections by reducing our dropout rates and investing in early childhood education?

Medicaid Spending in Kentucky
· Medicaid budget is growing twice as fast as the General Fund budget.
· Medicaid enrollment increase is three times the predicted and budgeted amount.
· There will be a significant decrease in federal funding support for Medicaid in FY11.
· Medicaid moved from 6.5 percent of the state budget to the current 13.7 percent.
· Is there not a correlation that better-educated citizenry has better health?

Public Employee Health Care
· Increasing five times faster than General Fund budget (174 percent increase, compared to 33 percent General Fund increase since 2000).
· Health care for public employees currently comprises 12 percent of the state budget and 16 percent of the P-12 education budget.
· Health care costs are 17.2 percent of salary for public employees, compared to 10.8 percent for private companies’ employees.

I don’t envy the General Assembly as the members reconvene to deal with budget issues. These are difficult times that will require lots of collaboration and consideration of many ideas for improving efficiency and effectiveness of all programs.

I asked today if we thought Santa would drop a sack of dollars for Kentucky into the General Fund, and I am afraid that the answer will probably be “no.” However, no matter the funding, we must educate our children and ensure their future.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A New Direction for the Kentucky Board of Education

The Kentucky Board of Education meeting this week signaled a new direction for the board’s meetings. The agenda items at the meeting were a comprehensive set of strategies that will eventually lead to regulatory and possibly statutory changes to implement Senate Bill 1.

The board acted on major recommendations from a recent Office of Education Accountability study of mathematics programs in schools in the Commonwealth. A key requirement will be common course codes for core subjects. This is related to Senate Bill 1, since the Common Core Standards (an initiative of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association) will drive the need to have common course codes at the high school level. Algebra I in Paducah must be the same as Algebra I in Pikeville. While we would certainly want local teachers to set instructional materials, pacing and length of course and define instruction, we must assure parents and students that our mathematics courses and standards will adequately prepare all high school graduates to be successful in college and career.

Another key strategy is changing the definition for measuring high school graduation rates. The board approved regulatory changes that will allow use of a more standard graduation rate, which allows districts to disaggregate rates by ethnicity and gender. Kentucky will not be able to implement the national graduation rate, called a cohort graduation rate, which follows individual students from the 9th grade to graduation, until 2013-14; however, until that time, we must focus on preparing ALL children to graduate with the skills needed for college and career.

These are very exciting times in Kentucky. With the Race to the Top application and Senate Bill 1 deployment, the Kentucky Board of Education is very focused on a comprehensive system of improvement. Also, with Governor Steve Beshear’s Transforming Education in Kentucky Task Force set to begin work in January, 2010 should be a very interesting year for education. What excites me more than anything are the great teachers, principals and school staff that I see during visits to schools each week. In spite of budget cuts and challenging local situations, these folks are dedicated to helping every child be successful.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Kentucky's budget situation

In most of my speeches, I frequently make a comment about the current budget situation. The comment is usually this – “We adults made this mess, and we should not balance the budget on the backs of our children.” Sounds good on the podium; however, in reality, we are having a very difficult time making the statement one of fact.

In my 38 years of education and over 20 years as an administrator in charge of budgets, the past two years have been the most difficult budget situations I have ever encountered. As I travel across the state, I am hearing from local superintendents that they, too, are encountering very difficult budget situations. While the national economy has shown some signs of recovery, state and local revenues have not shown similar signs. Even more difficult are the budgets of families where one or more of the parents is out of work. In my travels, I see closed-up store fronts, vacant mills and signs of a struggling economy. Every night on the news, you hear more and more stories of families struggling due to the current economic crisis.

However, when I visit schools, I see signs of hope. I see teachers and communities who are working to ensure that the children have what they need in the classroom. I am seeing innovative methods of local superintendents and principals in dealing with budget shortfalls. I am seeing local boards of education who have voted to provide funding for schools in face of difficult local economic situations.

As Commissioner of Education, I have been asked to prepare a plan to deal with a projected state shortfall. The share of the budget shortfall that education has been asked to reduce is $20 million. This is the latest reduction of six that have happened in the past two years. We have made the easy reductions. We have reduced the travel, the professional development, the textbooks, the costs that are not closely associated with the classroom. We have frozen all hiring at the Kentucky Department of Education. We have not filled vacant positions. We have eliminated every discretionary dollar that we can find.

Now, we have run out of options. We must begin to reduce some program dollars. There are no easy choices. Every program that we are reviewing has a strong constituent base that truly believes any budget cut would decimate the program.

We have established a few priorities for this next round of reductions. We are attempting to save positions in schools and districts. We are trying not to further reduce school safety or extended school funds, which have already been greatly reduced. We are looking at dollars that have not yet been expended in programs so the reductions will not require districts to make up the difference. A mid-year 6 percent reduction is really a 12 percent reduction, so we know that whatever we do will have a negative impact on programs.

As commissioner, I will continue to work to find other ways to come up with $20 million. I also will continue to look for funding sources to replace these budget reductions. We are working hard to obtain federal Race to the Top grant funding and funding from philanthropic sources.

While we are in difficult times, I have every belief that our great nation can recover and our state and national leaders will find ways to ignite new growth in our economy. During these times, we must listen and work with each other rather than blame each other. As always, we are open to suggestions on how to reduce operating costs. Final decisions will not be made until early January. Thanks for reading!!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Assessments and Common Core Standards

This week’s blog begins a conversation on development of assessments to support the national common core standards.

The conversation about common core standards developed due to states coming together to address the concerns of many parents, legislators and business leaders about the wide variability in the academic standards across the states. The common comparison tool was the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The results of this assessment were used to correlate the level of proficiency on state tests compared to the NAEP level of proficiency. States that had large gaps were said to have lower standards.

In order to remove this debate, the states and National Governors Association (NGA) collaborated on the common core standards movement. If the debate on standards is valid, then it would seem to follow that states develop common core assessments. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has set aside $350 million for this work. The timeline for states to access this funding will probably include a March application deadline and funding availability in June 2010. Kentucky will certainly apply for this funding and be involved in this process. Our position is strong, since we will adopt the common core standards in February, and Senate Bill 1 requires our development of new assessments.

A couple of issues are coming up for discussion. One issue deals with consortia of states who might apply for funding to develop assessments. Why would we have five to ten consortia competing against each other when the final product should be a common core assessment available to each state? Why would we develop a national assessment and then continue to have NAEP administered? Is this not a waste of time and money? I would think that NAEP would need to be revised to match the expectations from the common core standards. Should the new assessment not be benchmarked against international competition? Should the assessments not include levels of formative assessment to help inform instruction?

The answers to these questions will drive the final product. The U.S. Department of Education is currently holding national feedback sessions prior to developing guidance for the application process for assessment dollars. As with any organization, it is what is measured that eventually gains the most attention.

Education is a national defense, moral, civil rights and economic issue. We must make certain that this assessment process has strong support from every stakeholder and that we can ensure the results are valid and reliable predictors of success for individual students, schools, school districts, states and our education system.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Future Educators Association: A “Grow Your Own” Program

The Future Educators Association (FEA) went statewide in Kentucky as result of House Joint Resolution 188 in 2002. The FEA has a long history in Kentucky in many school districts. Since the mid-1980s, Jefferson County has used this creative solution to teacher preparation. While working in South Carolina in the 1980s, I remember that the state used the Jefferson County model to create the Teacher Cadet program, which became a national model for getting students interested in becoming educators while in high school.

As I spoke to the group this week (there were over 1,000 students present), I was very impressed with their enthusiasm and team spirit. Many of the groups had special t-shirts and promotional materials for their schools. The students engaged in competitions, and the universities were present to recruit this outstanding group of young people.

Many research studies have shown that a school system will only be as successful as the quality of teachers in the classroom. The great school systems in the world recruit the brightest and the best to become teachers. If the group I saw this week at the FEA conference is any indication, we will have a terrific group of teachers in Kentucky in the coming years.

Through its support of FEA, Kentucky now holds the distinction of having the most chartered FEA chapters in the nation. This “Grow Your Own” program is very important to our future as a commonwealth. Thanks to all the sponsors, teachers, administrators, parents and students who support these terrific programs at middle and high schools in Kentucky.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Kentucky’s Educational Cooperatives

Kentucky has a great network of regional education cooperatives. I have visited seven of the eight within the first few months of my new job and have the final visit scheduled for early December.

These cooperatives are established with the support of local superintendents to address purchasing, professional development, special education, business operations and other school district functions in a cooperative manner, which ends up being more effective and efficient than individual districts could manage. Many of the cooperatives also partner with colleges and universities to provide support for schools and districts. Also, a number of the cooperatives have federal grants that are substantial methods to help districts implement special programs for students.

I met this week with the directors of the cooperatives to discuss how we could partner to roll out Senate Bill 1 and federal Race to the Top initiatives. Our collaborative efforts would focus on cooperatives bringing teacher teams together to help the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) with key processes around standards and assessments required by Senate Bill 1 and Race to the Top. Also, cooperatives could assist KDE by partnering with regional universities to provide support for teacher, principal and superintendent effectiveness. In other words, cooperatives, through regional collaboration, could help provide professional development and support for teachers, principals and superintendents as we deploy the initiatives for Senate Bill 1 and Race to the Top. Finally, the cooperatives would be of great assistance in helping KDE address the number of schools and districts that may need assistance in improving student learning.

Our conversation ended with cooperative directors going back to their local superintendents and discussing the proposal that we find effective and efficient ways to partner to get the work done. Last week, I highlighted what a terrific partnership we have with the colleges and universities across Kentucky. I feel equally positive about the terrific leadership of our cooperatives. Given the challenging budget years we are facing, it is essential that we look to delivery models that reduce travel and provide support to build local district and school capacity. Frankfort cannot be the location for the solutions. The solutions happen when Frankfort collaborates with the great partners across the commonwealth.

P.S. -- In my blog last week, I neglected to include the University of Louisville (UofL) as one of our great partners. During a recent visit to Atkinson Elementary in the Jefferson County school district, I saw first-hand what a commitment UofL President Jim Ramsey, Dean Blake Haselton and the School of Education are making to support learning not only for children in the school, but also those students in the teacher preparation program.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Collaboration is the Key

During these difficult budget times, it is apparent that we will not be able to continue doing everything we previously have done at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). As a result, I am asking staff to look closely at revising our mission statement and to review the work they are doing to ensure we are aligning the work and the budget to the key strategic goals of high student performance, high-quality teachers and administrators, supportive environments, and high-performing schools and districts.

As a result, we will be abandoning some work that we have done in the past due to budget constraints and decisions made based on priorities. The simple fact is that we have about 60 percent of staff we had in the ‘90s, and we have seen significant budget reductions in operations. As we make these decisions, we are working closely with key partners throughout the state to ensure we do not completely abandon important support for existing programs. That is the theme of this blog – COLLABORATION.

I have been amazed at the level of collaboration in Kentucky. When we have called for representatives on key committees such as those for Race to the Top and Senate Bill 1, our partners have responded to the call. As I present to key committees of the General Assembly, I have been impressed with the level of knowledge of our legislators with regard to education reform. We have many legislators who are former principals, teachers and superintendents. Several teachers who are currently in the profession also serve in the legislature.

One area of collaboration that I have been very surprised to find is that of postsecondary education. I can assure you that this collaboration does not happen in all states. From his position as president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, Robert King has established a clear vision of a pipeline for early childhood, P-12 and postsecondary education that will ensure Kentucky has a bright economic future.

It has been a pleasure to work with Dr. King and to visit college campuses. I have visited with teams of educators at UK, NKU, WKU, EKU and Pikeville. I met with most of the deans, provosts and chief academic officers to discuss our vision for professional development and support for teachers and principals. I have seen firsthand how the colleges, through their outreach programs, are currently supporting P-12 education in Kentucky.

I truly believe that this collaboration will position Kentucky in a strong role as a leader in national education reform. However, the most important impact will eventually be on our children. As we work hand-in-hand with our colleges, we will improve the levels of support for children, teachers, administrators and our communities. I am proud to be a part of this work!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Transforming Education in Kentucky

It was my honor to accompany Governor Steve Beshear and Secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Helen Mountjoy on a ten-city tour across Kentucky this week. The governor utilized this time to conduct press conferences and town hall meetings. The content of the governor’s speech focused on several key areas:
· Kentucky is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Rose case, where Kentucky said that failure of our education system was not an option.
· Kentucky has made progress during the last 20 years as measured by numerous academic measures.
· We have many excellent initiatives going on in education in Kentucky (Early Childhood Task Force, Graduate Kentucky, Senate Bill 1 and Race to the Top, to name but a few examples).
· It is time to refocus our energy and align our work around what the citizens of Kentucky expect from their education system.

Gov. Beshear has appointed a task force comprised of 30-plus individuals representing all areas of the state and various stakeholder groups. I am honored to serve with the governor as co-chair of the task force. We hope to begin meetings in November or early December. The first several months will be focused on fact-finding about all the excellent programs that already exist and challenges that we are facing.

The governor was very clear that we are in a difficult period of budget for the next two years, and we should not expect new dollars for new initiatives. However, we should not let funding be a stumbling block. Now is the time to prepare for the future and be poised, ready with recommendations by November 2010 in time for the 2011 legislative session.

Several key agenda items were mentioned by Gov. Beshear during his speeches. Increasing early childhood education opportunities, increasing opportunities for students to get college credit while in high school, increasing the rigor of our career and technical programs so they are seen as options of first choice, and decreasing dropouts and increasing graduation rates were among those specific items that the governor requested the task force to review.

Of utmost importance will be listening to parents, teachers, administrators, students and community members. The task force will schedule additional town hall meetings to hear from all of these groups on how best to transform public education so that all of the children in Kentucky graduate and are prepared for success in the 21st century.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Success in High School (and After) Starts in Preschool

It was my pleasure to attend the Interim Joint Committee on Education meeting this week. University of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, Ph.D., presented excerpts from the Maryland report Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education. Kirwan is a Kentucky native and son of A.D. Kirwan, former president of the University of Kentucky.

The presentation began with some startling facts. In the 1960s, the U.S. led the world in percentage of students who graduated from high school and in the percentage of 24- to 32-year-olds with postsecondary degrees (two-year and four-year). Today, we rank 28th among industrialized nations in high school graduation and 10th in postsecondary degrees.

President Barack Obama has set a goal that the U.S. should once again lead the world in postsecondary degrees by 2020. While the U.S. has slightly increased the percentages in both areas, the rest of the world has caught us and passed us. The presentation provided several recommendations that have implications for Kentucky, and I hope that readers will join me in working with our legislators to implement the recommendations.

The number one recommendation is to increase the percentage of children who receive preschool education. This is crucial for success. Children come to school with the achievement gap already existing due to vocabulary development. The Kentucky Board of Education and many other organizations are calling for preschool for children from families up to 200 percent of the poverty level.

Another recommendation deals with the increase in counseling services at the middle school level. Any analysis of learning results in Kentucky reveals that we are losing ground in late elementary and middle school. The result is high school dropouts and low test scores at the high school level. We must address literacy issues at the secondary level in Kentucky and raise expectations of students and parents so that all children will at least have the opportunity to meet college preparedness levels.

A number of the recommendations aligned very well with Senate Bill 1. Kentucky and Texas are leading the nation with legislation to ensure more children are prepared for college and career. Our legislation matches the recommendations of alignment of standards between P-12 and college and improving teacher effectiveness through professional development.

More and more, we are realizing the economic impact of preparing all children for postsecondary success. While economics certainly get our attention, we can never forget that education is a social, moral and civil rights issue. We owe our children the best efforts we can make to provide the opportunities for them to be successful.

I am excited about the work we have in front of us and know that Kentucky students, educators, parents, and citizens will rise to the challenge.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Black Males Working ... A Model Program

At the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) meeting this week, there were several awards presented to groups and individuals.

I want to highlight one of the programs doing great work in raising achievement of students and in closing achievement gaps. Black Males Working, a collaborative program of First Bracktown Inc. and the Fayette County school district, received the Samuel Robinson award. This program is an outreach of First Baptist Bracktown and began in 2005 to address the needs of African-American males at Leestown Middle School. Since that time, the program has grown to serve more than 140 students from 11 middle schools and five high schools.

Students in the program must attend a Saturday Academy, maintain a 2.5 grade point average and show improvement in grades and behavior. Also, students must limit TV and video game usage to one hour per night and read 60 minutes per day. Students must turn in all homework and classroom assignments promptly, participate in community service and attend school regularly. They also must be well-groomed daily and maintain good conduct in home, school and community. Parent involvement also is a key component of the program. At the KBE meeting, I met four of the young men involved in this program. They all wore ties and were well groomed. The most impressive features of the young men were their handshakes and their ability to speak clearly and confidently to adults.

This program was developed by retired educator Roszalyn Akins and supported by Roger Cleveland, Ed.D., an assistant professor of educational leadership at Eastern Kentucky University. Rev. C.B. Akins and the members of First Baptist Bracktown play a critical role in supporting the program. Fayette County Superintendent Stu Silberman and the staff of the Fayette County school district have worked collaboratively with the program to provide support and encouragement.

The results of the program have been outstanding. Grades, behavior, test scores and college readiness statistics show the impact of the program. Students have received numerous college scholarship offers from Georgetown College, Morehead State University, Murray State University and Centre College. Recently, the University of Kentucky awarded 20 scholarships to the program.

Kentucky has made progress in improving graduation rates. However, we have much work to do. President Obama and Secretary Duncan have recently announced Innovation grant funds of $650 million available to school districts and non-profit organizations. I encourage local school systems to partner with non-profits similar to the partnership between Fayette County and First Bracktown Inc. and apply for these funds. When we have collaborative efforts such as these, not only do we improve the lives of students, but we also improve our community and state.

For more information on the Black Males Working Program, contact Roszalyn Akins at (859) 231-7042.

Friday, October 2, 2009

H1N1 and the Effect on Our Communities

While there are many great things happening in education in Kentucky, we do need to pause this week and discuss the impact of the H1N1 virus on our children, parents and communities in the state. The following link provides an update of the level of outbreak across all the states:

Over the past few days, I have spoken with several superintendents who are dealing with school and district closings. These are very difficult decisions and come during a period of time when we usually do not have to close schools. Superintendents are very concerned about the health and safety of children and staff, and we share their concerns. Our superintendents are doing a terrific job of coordinating efforts with local health departments. While speaking today with Superintendent Lonnie Anderson in Whitley County, I was able to hear the numerous efforts that he and other superintendents are making to ensure that they have the information they need to make decisions about school closings.

While health and safety are our top priority, local superintendents are rightfully concerned about the impact that missing school will eventually have on state funding and on student learning. The Kentucky Department for Public Health is currently gathering data on a daily basis concerning school closings. We also are planning on carefully reviewing the data by district and state with regard to month two average daily attendance (ADA). Our schedule is to have the data by November 1 and then allow districts to double-check the data. We plan on providing an update to the appropriate legislative committees in December so that they will be aware of the impact of H1N1 on schools and districts.

Several systems have fall break scheduled over the next week, and we hope that the flu vaccine will be delivered, so that upon return from fall break, student and staff vaccinations can be scheduled. We will continue to closely monitor the situation and provide information from superintendents who are dealing with district closings to all school leaders across the state. The KDE web site and site have valuable information for parents and school staff.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Education Finance

This week, I had the honor to meet with the Budget Review Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education, which is co-chaired by Sen. Vernie McGaha and Rep. Tommy Thompson. I was asked to present about three key issues, and this edition of my blog provides highlights of the meeting.

Issue 1 was impact of budget cuts on local school systems – For FY09, school districts saw significant reductions in Flexible Focus dollars. Flex Focus dollars provide monies for extended school services, preschool, professional development, textbooks and safe schools. In addition to budget cuts made through the enacted budget, there was a statewide 2 percent cut in late FY09 that impacted school districts. This budget cut amounted to about $6.1 million and was made to the textbook line item based on recommendations of superintendents. For FY10, the Flex Focus reductions and the textbook reduction were carried over, and, in July, we were asked to prepare an additional 4 percent budget reduction. This budget reduction also was made to the textbook line item, in the amount of $12.9 million. The bottom line to school districts is that Flex Focus dollars have been reduced by 36 percent, on average statewide. A document showing each district’s allocations for Flex Focus and other items is available here.

Issue 2 dealt with the funding streams from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – The information provided to the subcommittee can be accessed here. The key concern for everyone is that the State Fiscal Stabilization Funds that were used to maintain FY10 SEEK base of $3,866 per student and also will hopefully be used to maintain SEEK funding for FY11 will not be available in FY12. The General Assembly and Governor Beshear will be dealing directly with this issue as they develop the biennial budget for FY11 and FY12.

Issue 3 dealt with fiscal stability of school systems – The Kentucky Department of Education does monitor the fund balance statements of local school districts. The general fund balance and child nutrition fund balance are tracked separately. School systems are having to deal with state budget cuts and numerous obligations (sick leave pay outs, construction, unfunded mandates, school-based council carryover funds and more), and they are having to prepare for the future when federal dollars may not be as available as they are currently. I would encourage all local boards to take the advice of the Kentucky School Boards Association and hold at least one meeting per year where the local community is informed about the need for a fund balance and projected use of the funds. Also, local superintendents should keep their legislative delegations informed about the same.

We are working very hard at KDE to review all expenditures. KDE has seen an overall 28 percent reduction in funds since FY08. We are looking carefully at all programs to ensure they are effective and efficient. We also are looking at outside funding through competitive programs such as Race to the Top and monies from foundations. There are signals of economic recovery; however, prudent planners will continue to work to ensure expenditures are focused on the core mission of schools, which is learning.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Communication and Customer Service

As I prepared for the transition to the Commissioner of Education position in Kentucky, I called numerous stakeholders in the state. I asked about the key issues around education in Kentucky, and I specifically asked about issues with the Kentucky Department of Education.

Over the course of a few weeks, I was able to talk with more than 30 superintendents and another 25 key leaders of organizations that interact with KDE. While there were many positive comments about education initiatives in Kentucky, there were many challenges listed. While there were many positive comments about staff at KDE, there were also some concerns about communication and customer service.

For the first few months on the job, I have attempted to get to many parts of the Commonwealth. I have enjoyed meeting with superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, business leaders, legislators and students. I have utilized technology through Twitter, Facebook and this blog to communicate with stakeholders. I will continue this approach of visibility, communication and listening. I also will begin to utilize other technology to communicate with key stakeholders.

Over the next few weeks KDE staff will assist me in developing webinars that will target superintendents, principals and teachers. These webinars will focus on key strategies that are a part of Senate Bill 1 and the numerous federal initiatives that are funding education reform. We will look for two-way communication. We will present some information; however, we are more interested in gathering feedback from these key stakeholder groups. Through surveys and open-ended response questions, we will gain feedback on reform strategies from these key stakeholders.

I recently learned that the Commissioner’s Teacher Advisory Council was no longer meeting. I asked KDE staff to revitalize this important group. I have Superintendent, Parent, and Principal Advisory Councils; however, I need to hear from one of the most important groups -- classroom teachers. Another important group that we will be listening to is the students. At the recent Graduate Kentucky Summit, First Lady Jane Beshear conducted a focus group with students. What our students said that they needed from adults to ensure success was very revealing. KDE will be working to develop channels for student communication that will include focus groups, surveys and technology methods.

Finally, we will be launching an initiative to document customer service standards at KDE. Our standards are similar to what many organizations have. Customers should expect a response, within 24 hours, that is accurate and delivered in a professional manner. We will be surveying those “customers” who call, e-mail or write the department. We will then analyze the data by office to determine how well we are meeting customer service requirements. While KDE will always have a regulatory nature, we also must have a service standard for citizens, parents and schools who contact the department.

Public education is everyone’s business. Communication and suggestions are always welcome. Thank you for reading this blog and caring about the children of Kentucky.

Friday, September 11, 2009

While Numbers Are Important, Children Matter Most

As I was reviewing materials for my first interview with the Kentucky Board of Education, one of the things to impress me about Kentucky was the state graduation rate. Graduation rate is the ultimate measure of our success as a state education system. The school board and community in my previous position had made graduation rate the key strategic goal. The graduation rate in my previous position had improved from one of the lowest in the state (below 60 percent) to one of the top ten in the state (81 percent). Also, the gaps between different student groups had been reduced to single digits.

While I was impressed with the Kentucky graduation rate of more than 83 percent, I did learn that Kentucky had not yet reported the NCLB four-year graduation rate due to technical issues. We are scheduled to report this data with this year’s entering freshman class when that group graduates in 2013.

Upon digging into the data, I learned that Kentucky had more than 6,500 students drop out of school in the 2007-08 school year. These numbers reflect real children and reflect a real concern for the economic, social, moral and civil rights impact that high school dropouts will have on our Commonwealth.

Thanks to First Lady Jane Beshear, we are going to focus on this issue in Kentucky. While we have made good progress in improving the number of high school graduates, we cannot accept 6,500 students dropping out of school. Beginning with the Graduation Summit this weekend and the Graduate Kentucky efforts that will follow, I am certain local communities and schools will rally around the goal of reducing dropout numbers and increasing graduation rates.

There are some that will focus on the numbers and debate the accuracy of those numbers. We do need to ensure we are reporting accurately; however, we need to focus on the children and what we as adults can do to help more children graduate from high school and be prepared for postsecondary work.

The biggest challenge to overcome is the excuse that some children cannot learn due to their economic and social conditions. We must raise our expectations for all children to be successful, and we must focus our schools and classrooms on what the children need rather than what the adults may prefer. This is difficult work; however, it is work we must do to ensure a future for our community, our state and our nation.

There are schools all over Kentucky that are defying the odds and helping more children learn. I recently visited Calloway County High School, where the principal and staff make student involvement and success the number-one priority. The dropout rate there is well below state and national averages.

There are many other schools that are doing this kind of great work. Let’s share our best practices with each other, work together to lower the dropout rates in all of our schools and send forward high school graduates who are ready to lead and solve the problems that we have left behind.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Best Practice in Kentucky Schools

This week, I’m focusing on an example of best practice in Kentucky schools.

Readers are reminded of Senate Bill 1, which requires school systems and colleges to better prepare students for career and postsecondary work and to reduce the remediation rates at the postsecondary level. All juniors in Kentucky take the ACT and receive college readiness predictions for mathematics, reading, science and social studies. All school districts are required to implement plans to address those students who do not score college-ready. The goal is to reduce the funds that are being spent by parents and colleges for remediation work when students enter college not ready for college-level credit work.

A great example of how school districts and colleges are working together to address the readiness issue comes from Madison County this week. Randy Peffer, chief academic officer for the Madison County school district, provided the following description of the work.

“The initial meeting was in early summer between members of the Madison County Achievement Team and representatives of Eastern Kentucky University to discuss the possibility of developing a course using the curriculum from the EKU developmental courses, namely Math 090, Math 095, and Math 098. The course was to be taught on the high school campus by the high school teacher using the syllabi, textbooks, and assessments from EKU. By working through consensus at both the school and university level, the course was developed.

“The course is designed to assist college-bound high school seniors who did not meet the benchmark on the mathematics portion of the ACT taken at the end of the junior year for state accountability These students would typically have to enroll and pay for “developmental/remedial” mathematics courses as college freshman for which they would receive no college credit. The transitional mathematics course was developed to help strengthen the basic mathematics skills needed to enable high school graduates to enroll and successfully complete credit bearing mathematics course(s) during their freshman year of college.

“Students were recruited for this course based upon their performance on the mathematics portion of the ACT and their intention of pursuing a college education. Once placed in the course, students will be assessed on the KYOTE (Kentucky Online Testing), which is used by almost all Kentucky universities and colleges as a placement assessment for all incoming freshmen for students who did not meet the ACT benchmark. Note – the KYOTE test is free to all students. Since the assessment results are immediate, teachers are able to determine the appropriate instructional levels of the students.

“The teachers at both Madison Central High School and Madison Southern High School will teach the students the content and skills taught in Math 090, Math 095, and Math 098 during the students’ senior year. The students will also take the KYOTE test at mid-year and at the end of the year to measure growth and progress. It is the intent that the student score well enough on the KYOTE test to be able to enroll in College Algebra during the fall semester of the freshman year.”

Thanks to Madison County and EKU for sharing. I am certain there are many more examples of great collaboration among schools and colleges. Let me know, so I can highlight your great work in future blog postings!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Guidelines for School Improvement

School Improvement Grant proposed guidelines were recently posted on the Federal Register. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is using the federal Title I programs to focus on low-performing schools.

The administration is certainly putting the money behind the program -- a $125 million investment in FY 2007, an investment of $545 million in FY 2009, PLUS another $3 billion for efforts that focus on addressing low-performing schools. This infusion of funding and recent changes to Kentucky testing programs will require KDE to review our strategies for addressing low-performing schools. Let me share just a few highlights of the proposed guidelines.

Low-Performing School Identification – Kentucky will have to change its methods for identifying low-performing schools to a focus on the federal definitions. The proposed guidelines are as follows:
Tier 1 schools – this is the lowest-achieving five percent of Title I schools in improvement, corrective action or restructuring in the state. Funds must be utilized in this category first.
Tier 2 schools – these are low-achieving middle or high schools that qualify for Title I programs, but are not classified as Title I schools.
Tier 3 schools – those Title I schools in improvement, corrective action or restructuring that are not in the lowest five percent of Title I schools.

The dollars behind this effort to schools and districts range from a minimum of $50,000 to a maximum of $500,000 for three school years each. The funds must be spent within four options that are being proposed.
Option 1 – Turnaround model : includes replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of staff with a new governance structure and new instructional program.
Option 2 – Restart model: requires closing the school and reopening under a charter school management or other educational management organization.
Option 3 – Close school model: simply means that the school is closed and students sent to another school.
Option 4 – Transformation model: four very specific components with 11 non-negotiable standards.

This program, along with our Race to the Top application, can provide a new approach to supporting low-performing schools. The program requires academic goals that must be met within the three-year period and annual progress goals.

Over the coming months, I will be working with KDE staff, the Kentucky Board of Education, legislators and other interested parties to focus on our statewide strategy to address low-performing schools. A child’s opportunity to attend a high-performing school should not depend on the family’s zip code. We must work to continue to raise achievement and close academic performance gaps. Our children deserve no less.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Race to the Top and Charter Schools

During my first few weeks on the job, there have been many conversations and lots of action surrounding the Race to the Top funding. Kentucky has a consulting firm (the Bridgespan Group) that is helping with the application, and we have a number of advisory committees and lots of two-way communication planned to ensure we have the best possible application by the December deadline.

One of the “hot topics” is charter schools. Some think that since Kentucky does not have charter school legislation, we will automatically be eliminated from competition for funding. But, the guidelines only have two non-negotiable items. We must have applied for the stabilization funds, and we must show we do not block linking teacher data to student achievement data. We are okay with both these issues.

The application must address standards, data systems, teacher effectiveness and turnaround schools. The turnaround schools requirement is where the charter school issue arises. However, if you read U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remarks on the turnaround requirement, you see that President Barack Obama and Sec. Duncan focus on four options for turnaround schools. They are as follows:

Option 1 – Principal and staff start planning in the fall to turn around a low-performing school. Basically, the students stay, and many staff members leave or at least have to reapply.
Option 2 – Staff is replaced, and a charter organization or for-profit management organization is allowed take over the school.
Option 3 – Most of the staff stays, but the school makes major culture changes to the evaluation system, curriculum and instruction, time on learning, and flexibility for budgeting, staffing and calendar. This is the model that Kentucky is well-known for through school-based decision making councils.
Option 4 – Schools are closed, and students are sent to other schools.

The focus of the turnaround schools requirement is on improving student achievement outcomes. That is something everyone in Kentucky can support. We have had experience in Kentucky working with turnaround efforts that we need to build upon.

In my previous experience as a local superintendent, I have worked very well with charter schools. I think Kentucky should keep an open conversation going about the best possible solutions for raising achievement and closing achievement gaps. I feel certain the conversation will include all of the options espoused by Sec. Duncan.

Friday, August 14, 2009

My First Week on the Job

I have completed my first week as Commissioner of Education in Kentucky. It was very much a whirlwind week with the state Board of Education meeting, tours of the Kentucky Department of Education, meetings with the General Assembly Interim Education Committee, meetings with the steering committee for Senate Bill 1 and numerous visits and phone calls.

What I have found is a very dedicated and professional staff at the Department of Education. As with most agencies, there are a number of vacancies that we are not able to fill due to state budget cuts, which reflect the declining revenue picture from state sources. While our numbers have dwindled, we remain committed to providing top-quality service and guidance to our local school districts. I have asked staff to commit to providing responses to calls for service within 24 hours and to strive for accuracy and professionalism in the responses.

It is my intent to be out in the state a great deal. I also will strive to communicate through numerous sources. Interested parties can follow my daily highlights through Twitter (kycommissioner), and through my Facebook account, I will be posting highlights and pictures of school and district visits. We also will maintain the normal channels of communication (i.e., e-mail, letters, meetings, webinars, Web pages).

The early focus of our work is Senate Bill 1 and Race to the Top. These initiatives are very well-aligned and will guide us as we continue to focus on student success. While the next few years will be challenging due to the economic situation, these years also will be very exciting as Kentucky once again assumes a leadership role in education reform for the nation.

Please let me know of your concerns and questions through the various communication channels, and let’s work together for the children of Kentucky.