Friday, June 29, 2012

A Discussion on Telecommuting

I read an interesting article this week from the Phi Kappa Phi Forum. The article was titled “Working through Telecommuting” and discussed the rising interest among employees and employers to “telecommute” for work.

Over the last few years, I have conducted focus group meetings with randomly selected employees at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). Usually the focus group numbers five to six employees, and they are free to discuss working conditions at the department and what we can do to value our employees and improve the working conditions. One of the key topics that comes up at every focus group meeting is telecommuting. The article from Forum gave me some more information to use as we push for more telecommuting options in state government.

According to the Forum article, almost 3 million Americans telecommute for work. While this is a small number compared to the 140 million in the workforce, 85 of the 100 best companies to work for in the nation allow telecommuting as an option.

According to the article, some of concerns about telecommuting are the requirements of self-discipline when working from home. Temptations to get off-task are huge in the home environment. Also, the workplace requires lots of social interaction – meetings, face-to-face time with supervisor and individuals, impromptu meetings at lunch and more – that may not always be possible with telecommuting. Also, the isolation stemming from telecommuting has been documented as a concern.

However, there are many positives to telecommuting. Several studies have shown increases in productivity. Also, employees benefit due to reduction in commuting costs. Families benefit, since the cost of child care may be lowered, and employers benefit when an employee does not have to take a sick day to stay home with a sick child.

The technology will eventually drive the decisions on telecommuting. At KDE, we are poised to continue our migration to cloud-based technology. Employees will be able to have their home phones connected to their cell phones so they do not miss calls. Employees will be able to link through video conference capacity with fellow workers and school district staff. Employees can share documents and work products through our technology rather than shuffle e-mails with attachments.

There will be much discussion over the coming months about the pros and cons of telecommuting within state government; however, I do see unlimited possibilities for KDE employees. Certainly, if we can overcome the barriers for telecommuting for teachers and students, we can figure this out for state government.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Painting Pictures on Silence: Why Music and Art Education Matter

I began my education career as a teacher of music and band in 1972 in Gaffney, South Carolina, and I taught music and band until 1987. My heart will always be in the classroom, with kids, and my decisions as a leader will always be impacted by my experience in the classroom and my support of teachers.

This week, I was reminded of my teaching career during a meeting with the president of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM, the International Music Products Association) and other Kentucky educators. We were discussing ways in which we could partner to support the visual and performing arts in schools and districts in Kentucky.

As readers know, Kentucky has supported a major change in school and district accountability with the addition of Program Reviews required by 2009’s Senate Bill 1. The Program Reviews require schools and districts to analyze the components of a program (standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, evidences of learning, opportunities and more) against a common scoring rubric. As a result, schools and districts could identify areas of strength and improvement for programs in the arts/humanities, practical living and writing (K-3 and world language reviews will be added at a later date).

As commissioner, I am strongly committed to Program Reviews in non-tested areas to ensure that we have a balanced system of education in Kentucky. As a former music teacher, I am particularly interested in ensuring that the visual and performing arts are well-represented in every child’s educational experience in Kentucky.

In our meeting this week, my visitors left two brochures that highlight the need for music in our schools. If you are interested in these resources, please visit and

1) Why Learn to Play Music?
·         Research tells us children who play music do better in school and in life.
·         Music education helps young people feel inspired and motivated.
·         Playing music builds motivation and self-esteem.
·         Music lessons boost thinking skills.
·         School music fosters well-being.
·         Learning music builds skills for the future.

2) Can Music Really Make Your Child Smarter?
·         Music makes the brain grow.
·         Rhythm students learn fractions better.
·         Music students score higher on the SAT.
·         Piano raises conceptual math scores.
·         Substance abuse is lowest in music students.

Let me be clear. I support a balanced approach to education. Our challenge as educators is to equally address the minds, hearts, bodies and characters of our most precious resource – the children of Kentucky. As I watch my two adult children every day, I am so thankful that music was an important part of their lives. They are better humans because of those experiences.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Education Reform: What is a Chief to Do?

This week I had the opportunity to welcome participants to the International Symposium on Education Reform (ISER) that was hosted by Lars Bjork, Ph.D. and the University of Kentucky. It was great to see representatives from across the globe coming to Kentucky to discuss education reform. I offered a “chief’s” perspective on education reform. I divide the education reform issue into basically two camps – the reformers and the defenders.

Education reformers across the U.S. seem to have a few commonalities. The key tenet of the reformers is that public schools are failing as evidenced by national and international ranks in testing. The reformers claim that in order to “fix” public schools, we must have greater emphasis on assessment and accountability; choice options (charters and vouchers); improving teacher and principal evaluation systems; improving teacher preparation programs; addressing contract issues such as LIFO (last in, first out), tenure, pension and health care; data-driven decision making; and standardized teaching and learning.

The defenders blame poverty and changing demographics for the low performance of our public schools on national and international assessments. They say our top-performing schools are as good as any in the world, and most of these top-performing U.S. schools have very low poverty rates. In order to “fix” our public schools, they look to Finland for the answer. Finland focuses on elevating teaching as a profession and does not have annual standardized tests; teachers focus on assessment to improve instruction and learning; teacher preparation was reformed; teachers are seen as action researchers; and the social welfare system helps alleviate problems around poverty and demographics.

As a chief state school officer, my job is to balance the reformers and the defenders as we seek to help more students graduate college- and career-ready. The key strategies I use are to honor the terrific work that our educators have done in Kentucky for the last 20 years. Focus the conversation on the challenges of increased poverty and changing demographics, do not blame any group. Encourage collaboration and professional dialogue with all stakeholders about the education changes necessary to help more students succeed. Build relations with all stakeholder groups so there is some level of trust and mutual respect. And finally, communicating through as many channels as possible.

These are indeed difficult times in our nation as the need to improve education and improve the economy are inextricably linked; however, I know that Kentucky educators and key policy makers will continue to lead the way in making the right decisions about education reform as we ensure a brighter future for children.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Setting Standards and Moving Past Basic Skills

This week, the Kentucky Board of Education reviewed the steps for the standard-setting of the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) system of assessments. (See background on this item and the related presentation for more details.) Many readers may think of this as a rather boring statistical process; however, the standard-setting process has significant long-term effects on students, parents, teachers, schools, school districts and the state.

The standard-setting process is necessary due to the implementation of the Kentucky Core Academic Standards (KCAS) that are based on the Common Core State Standards that were adopted as required by 2009’s Senate Bill 1 (SB 1). The implementation of these standards required new assessments (also a requirement of SB 1). With new assessments, states have to go through a standard-setting process to determine cut points for classifications of student results. In Kentucky, we have historically used the terms novice, apprentice, proficient and distinguished (NAPD) as the classifications for students.

In determining the cut points for NAPD for the new assessments, Kentucky is changing from our historical focus on proficiency to a focus on college and career readiness. We will compare 8th-grade students’ performance on the college readiness benchmarks for the EXPLORE test to student performance on the K-PREP 8th-grade reading and math. In other words, the proficiency cut score on the 8th-grade K-PREP will be set at a similar level to the percentage of students meeting the EXPLORE benchmarks.

What does this mean for students and parents? For the last 20 years, proficiency scores in Kentucky have steadily improved to the point where, in most grade levels (3-8), 70-80 percent of students receive proficient/distinguished scores. With the new tests, this will change dramatically. For grades 3-8, the percentage proficient/distinguished will drop to between 35 and 50 percent.

Why the big change? The expectation has changed from simply proficient on basic skills to college/career-ready. The analogy I use is one from golf. I enjoy playing golf on occasion, and sometimes I play from the senior tees. My score is usually pretty good, since the course is shorter. However, I have a few friends who like to play from the professional tees, which make the course much longer, and since I do not hit the ball that far, the course is much tougher. So my score gets worse.

That is what we are doing in Kentucky. We are asking teachers and students to raise performance from basic skills proficiency to college/career readiness. We are fully expecting our scores to look worse for a few years; however, we have full confidence that if we provide our teachers and students with the supports they will need, then we will see more students rise to the challenge.

Every parent wants their child to graduate from high school ready to succeed at college/career opportunities. Every teacher, school and community wants more children to graduate from high school ready to succeed. I encourage all readers to not panic when the new assessment results are announced. I hope everyone will rally to support our students and teachers as they work to meet this new challenge, which in turn will improve employment opportunities and have a positive impact on the economy of the Commonwealth and ensure a brighter future for every high school graduate.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Volunteers in Schools

According to our Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) Kentucky working conditions survey data, one of the most important components for successful schools is the engagement of parents and volunteers in supporting teachers and their schools. As we analyzed the data from low-performing schools and correlated student learning outcomes with parent and volunteer engagement, we found strong correlations between those outcomes and parent/volunteer engagement.

As I visit schools across Kentucky, I see volunteers working with students on reading and math skills. I see volunteers working with students and teachers on service projects. I see volunteers supporting classroom teachers with routine tasks. I see volunteer projects that save funds for school systems. During Operation Preparation in the spring of 2012, thousands of volunteers across Kentucky met with individual students to advise the students on what it takes to be on track for college and career readiness. Indeed, Kentucky has a culture of volunteerism in our schools that is second to none.

While volunteers are extremely important to improve learning outcomes for our schools, there is always a safety concern. There have been too many stories both in and out of education that reveal wrongdoing on the part of volunteers. That is why state law (KRS 161.148) requires local school boards to have policies in place that all volunteers who have contact with students should have a background check completed.

For many years, the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has provided background checks at no cost for schools and districts. Recently, due to state budget cuts, the AOC has informed school districts that each background check will carry a $10 cost, which is less than the normal $20 cost.

School districts across Kentucky are very concerned about how to handle the costs, since in previous years there was no charge for background checks. Should the districts pass on the costs to parents and volunteers or absorb the costs in the school districts’ budgets? Should the costs be handled by parent organizations? These are very difficult questions, and in most of the cases, I fear that volunteer and parent engagement will drop. This is exactly the wrong thing to happen when we are trying to help every child reach college and career readiness, which in turn will have a strong impact on the employment and economy of Kentucky.

I hope that our General Assembly is able to figure out the budget issues so this situation is a short-term problem. I know that the Governor’s Commission on Tax Reform has started meeting, and the recommendations from this group could help improve the economy and funding for education.