Friday, March 30, 2012

Education is a National Defense Concern

Last week the Council on International Relations released a report called U.S. Education Reform and National Security, which you can view here. The report makes a startling statement – “America’s failure to educate is affecting its national security.”

The findings show that employers are finding it difficult to hire workers with the necessary skills (especially in defense and aerospace industries). Also, almost 75 percent of U.S. citizens between the ages of 17 and 24 are not qualified to join the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records or have inadequate levels of education. Finally, the U.S. State Department and intelligence agencies are facing critical language shortfalls in areas of strategic interest.

The report made three major recommendations:
·         Expand common core to science, technology and foreign language.
·         Engage parents and communities in education reform through more choice of education programs.
·         Develop a national security audit report for schools and districts that is transparent to parents and communities.

This report is the most recent in a long line of reports documenting the concerns with education in our nation. While no one likes to read reports that document our failure to educate children for their future, it is good news that Kentucky is leading the way in addressing the recommendations from this report and others.

Kentucky is certainly leading the nation in the deployment of Common Core Standards in English/language arts and math. Also, Kentucky is working closely with 26 other states to develop science standards. Kentucky is implementing an assessment and accountability system that will meet the requirements of the national security audit recommendation. Kentucky is implementing strategies such as a Program Review to address foreign language (we prefer the term “world language”). The key recommendation we are missing is the choice recommendation.

The foreign language recommendation is one that I hope readers will review. We have struggled with implementing our world language Program Review in Kentucky. We had support for this Program Review in the House; however, Senate members were very concerned that the Kentucky Board of Education had exceeded its authority with the implementation of that Program Review.

The board approved regulations to implement the world language Program Review starting in 2014. We submitted our No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver with the world language Program Review as a component of our accountability model. We thought we were well on our way with implementation; however, the Senate budget included language that would prohibit the Kentucky Board of Education from implementing the world language Program Review.

Given the recommendations from the report from the Council on International Relations, it would seem that implementing the world language Program Review in Kentucky and similar programs in other states would be in the best interest of our national security. Additionally, failure to implement the world language Program Review in Kentucky means we would have to amend our NCLB waiver, which could cause problems with our timeline of allowing schools and districts to waive NCLB’s rigid guidelines.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Operation Preparation

The latest count of districts participating in Operation Preparation is 119. I know several more districts have plans to implement college- and career-ready advising strategies later this spring.

As a reminder, Operation Preparation is part of our Commonwealth Commitment to College and Career Readiness. This commitment was signed by every higher education institution, school superintendent and school board chair in Kentucky. This commitment has the potential to be the most important strategy for economic development that we could put in place for Kentucky.

College and career readiness for all students who graduate from Kentucky high schools is part of our vision of the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Board of Education. This vision was heightened by the passage of 2009’s Senate Bill 1, which required a focus on improving the percentage of students who graduate from high school college- and career-ready. As a matter of fact, the college/career-ready concept has caught the attention of the entire nation through the Common Core Standards initiative, Race to the Top grants and the No Child Left Behind waiver process.

As we were developing strategies to improve college and career readiness rates, advising students came to the forefront. In Kentucky, our students are provided with college/career-ready measures through the EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT assessments. Also, many of our students get additional information through ASVAB, COMPASS, KYOTE, Work Keys and Kentucky Occupational Skills Assessments. Also, every student in Kentucky has to complete an Individual Learning Plan (ILP) beginning in 6th grade that helps plan for college and career.

However, quite often the students and parents are not fully aware of how to use the college/career-ready measures and the ILP. Operation Preparation asked schools and districts to provide advice to every 8th and 10th grader in the state. The advice was driven by the students’ college/career-readiness measures and the students’ ILPs. Governor Steve Beshear proclaimed March 12-16 as Operation Preparation week, and thousands of volunteers worked in our schools to advise students on how to reach college/career-ready status.

During Operation Preparation week, I had the honor of working with several students at Gallatin County High School. I also had the opportunity to visit with Wayne County as that district kicked off the week. I went to Dayton Independent, which had a “signing day” to highlight each senior who had made a commitment to attend a postsecondary institution. The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) and Green River Regional Educational Cooperative (GRREC) collaborated with Forward in the Fifth to create career guidance videos that can be distributed to all schools and districts. These are just a few of the events in which I participated; however, I have heard from many school districts about the great activities that happened in their schools.

I encourage readers to visit the Operation Preparation page to see many of these great activities. If your school district did not participate this year, I hope you will encourage leaders to participate in Operation Preparation for 2012-13. Our students’ future and the future of Kentucky depend on our collaboration and focus on college/career readiness.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Metlife Survey Provides Reinforcement for Teacher Support

This past week, Metlife released the latest report for the Metlife Survey of The American Teacher. Readers can find the full report at This survey has been conducted since 1984 to give a voice to students, teachers and parents. The survey looks at views concerning the teaching profession, parent and community engagement and effects of the current economy on families and schools. There were some very interesting findings in this year’s survey.

According to the survey, there was a dramatic drop in teacher satisfaction this year. Those indicating they were “very satisfied” fell from 59 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2011. This is the lowest satisfaction rating in the history of the survey. The percentage of teachers who say they are fairly likely to leave the profession has increased by 12 points since 2009, from 17 percent to 29 percent.

To understand the drop in satisfaction and increase in likelihood of leaving the teaching profession, we can look at the impact of the economic downturn. Three-quarters (76 percent) of teachers reported declines in school budgets. Two-thirds (66 percent) of teachers reported layoffs in their schools. A majority (70 percent) of teachers reported increases in class sizes. Teachers also reported increases in poverty among students and families they serve, which has led to increased demands for health and social support services.

On a positive note, parents and teachers report an increase in parent and community engagement with schools. However, parent engagement is not universal among all schools. Parent and community engagement also have an impact on teacher satisfaction. In schools with high parent engagement, teachers are twice as likely to be very satisfied as compared to schools with low parent engagement (57 percent vs. 25 percent). Critical parent-school involvement activities include communication, volunteer opportunities, involving families in curriculum activities and decisions, involving parents in school decisions, coordinating school and community resources, and assisting families with parenting skills.

As I travel Kentucky, I see wonderful teachers and administrators who are excited about our focus on college and career readiness. However, I also see teachers who are frustrated with the continued decline of education dollars. The decline in education funding has led to increased class size, reduction of arts and practical living programs, reductions in planning time, reductions in materials and textbooks, and reductions in professional development. Additionally, teachers across the nation feel under attack due to the focus on using standardized test data as the most important component of evaluation.

First and foremost, I am a teacher, and I identify with the struggles and concerns of teachers. It is my hope that the key decision makers for the state budget are listening to the concerns of teachers. While we all know that we are in a difficult spot at the present time, I do hope that the positive signals from the economy will translate into support for our teachers.

Support for teachers leads to satisfied teachers, which leads to low turnover, which leads to positive impacts on the future of Kentucky – our children!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Student Suspensions and Expulsions

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a news conference this past week to highlight civil rights issues related to student suspensions and expulsions. Duncan released new data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that reveal unfortunate truths about our nation’s schools. You can see a summary of his presentation here.

In a New York Times article, reporter Tamar Lewin highlighted some of the data.

Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests
Published: March 6, 2012
Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students. The data covered students from kindergarten age through high school.

One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

And in districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.

I would encourage readers to visit the U.S. Department of Education’s Web page to find data for your local schools and districts. State comparison data are also available.

We have been working for over a year with several partners to address these issues in Kentucky. The Kentucky Center for School Safety has developed annual data reports that provide information about student disciplinary actions, including data broken out by race/ethnicity.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Poverty: Helping to Succeed vs. Believing in Success

Last week I was struck by the title of a blog entry that I saw on my Twitter account – “The Poverty Myth Persists.” That blog can be found at What really caught my interest were the first few lines of the blog.

Every time I see a “poverty and education” story I think of the famous line from the New Testament in which Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.”
So, with education. Want a convenient scapegoat for our problems? Poverty. It’s there, it’s handy.

The author, Peter Meyer, makes the case that quite often, educators and politicians blame poverty as the reason why schools in large urban and rural settings are failing to educate children. The achievement gap between students who don’t receive free and reduced-price meals and those who do receive free and reduced-price meals has widened in the last decade. Historically, education has always been seen as the path to the “American Dream.” Education is the great equalizer. However, our ability to provide an education to children in poverty is going in the wrong direction.

As Commissioner of Education, I believe there are two reasons for our inability to close achievement gaps based on poverty. It is either we do not know HOW to help children in poverty achieve at high levels or we do not BELIEVE that children in poverty can achieve at high levels.

If we do not know how, then that is something we can work hard to address. We can engage parents and communities in developing social capital that will help the community to value education and support educators. We can provide professional development to help teachers and administrators understand the challenges of homelessness and poverty. We can provide professional development on how to be more culturally responsive to the needs of students. We can provide resources needed to help children reach success. We know the HOW, and there are many examples of schools all across the nation and world that are helping children in poverty achieve at high levels. If educators make excuses for poverty and do not BELIEVE that children in poverty can achieve at high levels, then there is really nothing we can do other than coach these educators into other professions.

While I do not always agree with the positions of the Fordham Institute or the author of the blog, I thought the blog and articles cited were very thought-provoking. I also was reminded of the wonderful work that organizations like our own Prichard Committee, the Education Trust and the Children’s Defense Fund do in showing the HOW of helping children in poverty achieve to high levels.

The final sentence in the blog was perhaps the most thought-provoking – “Let’s resolve to quit blaming the poor for the poor education they receive.” Indeed, in Kentucky, let’s commit to never blame the poor, but commit to work with parents, communities, educators and government to collaborate on closing the achievement gaps and ensuring that education is the pathway to a brighter future for our children and the Commonwealth.