Friday, June 18, 2010

Focus on Kids’ Futures, Not Adult Comfort

During my testimony to the Interim Joint Committee on Education (IJCE) this week, a recurring theme surfaced. In Kentucky and across this nation, we have been struggling with helping students from poverty and from diverse backgrounds reach success in school for many years. Now, we come with a new model called “District 180: Turnaround Schools” that is being funded through significant dollars from federal School Improvement Grants within Title I funding.

The question that continues to haunt me is this – “Nothing has worked before, so how can we ensure that this approach will work?” During the IJCE meeting, several legislators brought up some issues that have been around for 30 years. These issues included:
  • You can’t teach kids if there is no discipline.
  • Unless you change the demographics of the community, engage parents, find people jobs, provide health care, provide nutrition and other services, you cannot possibly expect to make a difference with these students.
  • Teachers who are not successful in these schools could be moved to other schools with higher socio-economic conditions, and they would then be successful teachers.
  • We should not blame teachers and principals for the lack of parenting and support of children in the community. Schools cannot do it alone.

For more than 38 years in education, I have heard these same concerns. However, my purpose in Kentucky is to overcome these barriers and meet the vision of EVERY child proficient and prepared for success. I was reminded of a great resource of Kati Haycock and the Ed Trust ( I was also reminded of the key question we need to ask all of our schools and the adults who either work in the schools, support the schools and/or lead the schools – “How many schools would I have to show you that have closed achievement gaps and proven that EVERY child can learn to high levels before you would believe and commit to the goal of EVERY child in YOUR school reaching success?”

If the answer is “more than one,” then we do not have a child problem, we have an adult problem.

For those of you interested in reading more, I have copied information about Ed Trust’s “Success Stories” below so that Kentucky leaders and adults who work with children can see places just like theirs that are being successful and overcoming the barriers. KDE and the Kentucky Board of Education are committed to the vision of EVERY child proficient and prepared for success. We do not accept that this cannot be done. In the next three to five years, we will have a laser focus on this work. We will certainly not make every adult happy; however, we have to believe that we will help more children learn.

Success Stories from Ed Trust
Some schools have beaten the odds. They’ve made significant strides in narrowing the achievement gaps, attained proficiency levels that significantly exceeded the averages in their states, or improved student performance at an especially rapid pace. Follow the links below to read about the teachers, principals, and others who have made this possible.

Some of these schools are truly exceptional. To inspire and encourage other educators in the gap-closing movement, The Education Trust each year at our national conference honors these high-performing schools with Dispelling the Myth Awards.

These schools don’t offer simple answers or easy solutions, but several common strategies emerge from their practices. They provide a rich curriculum coupled with strong, focused instruction. They have high expectations for all students. They use data to track student progress and individual student needs. And they employ purposeful professional development to improve teachers’ skills.

These stories and more have been collected in book form in It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (2007) and How It’s Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools (2009). Contact for prices for single books and bulk orders. You can read about Dispelling the Myth Award-winning schools and others by following the links contained in the web site at

We have many success stories in Kentucky that also need to be shared. I encourage readers to send me those success stories. We have attempted to identify those schools that are closing achievement gaps and then share their best practices. We will continue to identify those schools and elevate their status through recognition and rewards.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Parent Engagement matters. That is why the PTA has been advocating for children for the last 114 years. We know that we are our children's first teacher. We know that supporting our schools, our teachers, and our children is crucial. But far too often we (as parents) are not asked to sit on committees where these discussions take place. Far too often our voices for our children are not heard. I am thankful that these concerns are finally being addressed. Just like America's Promise has recognized that students can be part of the solution to solve the drop out crisis (My Idea grant cycle), we too have to recognize that, as Sect. Duncan states, we must care about the education of our children from cradle to career. When parents are involved in a positive pro-active and not re-active way, there are amazing achievements on the part of all the children in a community.

  3. I am reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and a few passages jumped out at me after our last CRAGC meeting discussions about culture. In the chapter about David Greenberg's work to retrain Korean Air pilots to fix their horrendous record of plane crashes, 1. "They were offered an opportunity to transform their relationship to their work.”, 2. "We took them out of their culture and re-normed them.” and 3. "We have a way to make success out of the unsuccessful, but first we have to be frank about a subject we would all too often rather ignore. Who we are cannot be separated from where we're from- and when we ignore that fact, planes crash."

    Another interesting passage is about the Terman study results regarding the geniuses from the lowest social and economic class and how they would have been successful except "they lacked something that could have been given to them if we'd only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world."

    So the challenge is how do we apply these principles to education and take adult comfort out the equation.

  4. Wonderful post! Inspired by it, I've gone hunting and found the 2009 schools who were in the top quartile for student performance and the top quartile for student poverty, and shared the full list at

  5. Commissioner Holliday, I salute your candor. We do need to make some really serious changes, and not everyone, legislators included, seems to understand that.

    As far as schools that perform well despite challenges like poverty, we indeed do have some. However, Susan Weston’s list may not offer the best examples.

    I additionally looked at how her top quartile middle and high schools performed on EXPLORE and PLAN, including the trends over time. See what I found at:

    Some of Ms. Weston’s schools didn’t make the cut, but a number did and clearly warrant a closer look to see why they are succeeding.