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.