Friday, July 27, 2012

Student, Parent and Teacher Engagement

Summer vacation is coming to a close, and Kentucky students are heading back to school, refreshed and ready to learn new skills and challenge themselves to achieve at higher levels in the 2012-13 school year.

Rigorous curriculum, data-driven instruction, high-quality teachers and strong school leadership all play a role in increasing student achievement. But student engagement, as research has shown, is also critical in improving student outcomes.

Quite simply, engaged students are more likely to perform well academically. They invest in their learning, devote time to their studies and persist despite challenges and obstacles. They participate and care about the quality of their work beyond grades. They are committed because they see their studies have significance beyond the classroom.

Achieving positive engagement and positive learning results in Kentucky schools, however, does not just fall to students. It is a collaborative effort that hinges on the involvement of school leaders, teachers, parents and community members.

Teachers are key players in fostering student engagement. They work directly with students and typically are the most influential persons in a student’s educational experience. Creating a culture of high expectations and excellence, developing and delivering challenging, interactive and relevant lessons and activities, and being encouraging and supportive to students are all ways in which teachers can foster student engagement in the classroom.

Parents and guardians also play a pivotal role in student success through engagement. Schools must break down any barriers that impede family involvement in a child’s education and work diligently to increase interaction between adults and students at school and at home. Schools and teachers can do this by creating a welcoming and inviting environment at the school for parents, providing opportunities for parents to collaborate with the school and/or teachers to identify and support student needs, and keeping the lines of communication open. If done thoughtfully and intentionally, cultivating solid family engagement is well worth the time invested.

Parents should realize that they do not have to be present in the classroom during the school day to be involved in their child’s learning; they can offer substantial support from home by reinforcing the importance of taking school seriously, attending classes and completing homework. They also can work with the school or their child’s teacher to identify tasks they could complete at home after work hours that would be helpful. In addition, parents can and should monitor their child’s Individual Learning Plan (ILP) and use it to engage in conversations with their child about school work, goal-setting and college and career aspirations. 
According to our Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) Kentucky working conditions survey, educators say one of the most important components for successful schools is parent and volunteer engagement in support of teachers and their schools. As we analyzed the data from low-performing schools, in particular, and compared student learning outcomes with parent and volunteer engagement, we found strong correlations -- the greater the engagement, the greater the student success.

So my message this week is simple: Get involved in our schools. It makes a difference. In fact, it is critical to the change we are working for in our schools here in Kentucky.

Certainly, we appreciate everything our communities have and are doing to support Kentucky schools. But there is always room for more. As we begin the 2012-13 school year, I call on everyone – school leaders, teachers, parents and community members – to find ways to increase engagement in our schools. Doing so will not only ensure our students are ready for college and careers, but also help transform our schools and keep Kentucky competitive in the global marketplace.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Teacher Preparation Improvement

This week, Kentucky received some good news about our progress in educating students. Indeed, Kentucky has made significant progress in education results since 1992. However, the report also showed that the U.S. is in the middle of the pack with regard to pace of education improvement.

My takeaway from the report is that yes, Kentucky has made great improvements, but we have much work to do to ensure our students are competitive in today’s global environment. To accelerate the pace of improvement in Kentucky and the nation, a key strategy will be to improve teacher preparation programs.

Currently, there are three major initiatives being conducted that will address teacher preparation programs. The U.S. Department of Education will soon announce new rules and guidelines for Title II that will impact teacher preparation. These guidelines will require states to evaluate teacher programs based on levels of performance and also will require states to report on teacher preparation programs based on the student learning results of the programs’ graduates. Also, the guidelines will require either state or national accreditation of programs.

The second initiative relates to the accreditation process for teacher preparation programs. The former National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC) accreditation groups have merged into the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). Currently, I am serving on a commission to develop the new accreditation standards for teacher preparation programs for CAEP.

Finally, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is working to define classroom-ready and leadership-ready standards for teachers and principals. This work is very similar to the work that CCSSO did on the Common Core Standards and principles for accountability that were the basis for the No Child Left Behind waivers that 26 states have now received.

While these initiatives represent three distinct approaches to improving teacher preparation programs, they are being informed by each other, and the outcomes from the work will be very similar. Because Kentucky and the nation must improve student learning outcomes so that our students are college- and career-ready, it is a given that the most important strategy to accomplish this vision is to ensure we have teachers in every classroom that are prepared to meet the challenge.

Our teacher preparation programs have done excellent work for many generations, but the challenges that today’s teachers are facing are much more difficult than ever before. We are asking teachers to not only provide equity of access, but to also provide equity of outcomes. These outcomes are much higher than at any point in the history of our nation.

Friday, July 13, 2012

How to Attract and Retain Volunteers for Schools

This week, I’m pleased to present a guest blog from Erin Palmer, a writer and editor for Bisk Education. Her subject is school volunteers, and she offers valuable tips and advice for bringing these resources into your schools – and making them feel welcome and useful.

Now that the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is charging school districts a $10 fee for volunteer background checks, schools could find it more difficult to recruit volunteers – especially if the cost is passed on to parents or to the individual volunteers. Therefore, it is more important than ever to restate the case for school volunteerism and reinvigorate recruitment efforts, despite the new $10 fee. Here are a few tips on finding, retaining and engaging volunteers for your school.

How to Find School Volunteers
Potential volunteers are everywhere. However, convincing them to commit isn’t always easy. Even the most committed parents might hesitate when it comes time to actually fit volunteering into their busy schedules. These ideas will help to convince those who are “on the fence” about volunteering at your school.

·         Explain the Need: Reach out to groups of parents and explain exactly what is needed and how they can help. Giving specifics (what is needed, why it is important, how they can help) will increase the chances of getting them to commit. Be prepared to offer choices, like selling raffle tickets, coaching a team, helping in the classroom or leading extracurricular activities. Make sure to ask families to commit to a set number of volunteer hours.
·         Ask For Help: Let people know you need help – it’s the easiest way to recruit volunteers. If parents are unaware of the need, they probably won’t volunteer. Make introductions to parents, and simply ask if they can lend a hand. Hold a volunteer recruitment event to explain the need, and inform people how they can help. Ask current volunteers to share their positive experiences with interested prospective volunteers. Not all parents are going to volunteer, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
·         Go Social: Boost recruitment by communicating with parents and community members through online social media websites. A lot of parents are already using these sites, so it can be an effective way to get their attention. Set up a Facebook page and Twitter account to keep followers informed about volunteer activities and opportunities. Let everyone know how much fun your volunteers have by sharing photos and stories. Showing the volunteers how much their work is helping can improve retention rates and help attract new people to the cause.
·         Promote Career Development: Let prospective volunteers know that volunteering is great for career development. It provides opportunities to showcase their talents and build relationships with people who could be helpful to their careers. Volunteering can be a great networking opportunity. It also looks great on a resume. In fact, a recent survey by LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional social networking site, revealed that 20 percent of hiring managers will make hiring decisions based on volunteer activities.
·         Reach Out to New Families: New families are often looking for ways to meet people and feel more comfortable in a new community – and many will jump at the chance to volunteer. When a new family comes to town, make them feel welcome and offer them the chance to get involved right away.

Once new volunteers have been recruited, the next job is to keep them motivated so they stay with you as long as possible.

How to Retain Volunteers
Keeping volunteers is much easier than finding and training new ones. Here are some tips to help keep current volunteers onboard, energized and dedicated.

·         Share the Mission: Help volunteers see the bigger picture. Sharing the school’s mission, short- and long-term objectives, and goals of each project helps volunteers know that even their small efforts are worthwhile. When possible, show them exactly where their contributions have helped.
·         Keep Things Interesting: Introduce volunteers to new tasks and ask them what else they may be interested in. Cross training can help them develop new skills and avoid burnout. Check to see how volunteers are enjoying their work, and be on the lookout for new ways to engage them. A classroom volunteer might be the perfect person to organize the school’s spring fair.
·         Don’t Waste Their Time: People are busy, so it is important to respect their time. Keeping volunteers busy and engaged helps them stick around longer. They don’t want to stand around waiting to be told what to do. It only takes one bad experience to ruin someone’s chances of returning, so don’t let it happen. Be organized and ready to put volunteers to work. Keep e-mails to a minimum, meetings short and procedures as simple as possible. Don’t make it difficult to volunteer.
·         Plan for the Future: As volunteers finish a project, ask if they’re willing to help in the future, and make a note to follow up. This is much easier if the volunteer database is up to date. If not, perhaps a volunteer can be assigned to work on it. Having a plan makes it much easier to organize who does what.
·         Recognize Their Contributions: Don’t forget to say “thank you.” Send cards or personalized e-mails to thank volunteers for their service. Consider a volunteer appreciation event at the end of the year. If they helped with a show or presentation, make sure to include their names on the program and make sure to give them a copy. People who feel appreciated are far more likely to keep helping than those who feel undervalued.

How to Best Use Your School’s Volunteers
Recruitment efforts will fall flat if volunteers are not being used to their best potential. Being smart with how volunteers are used helps you get the most out of each person available. Try these tips to enhance volunteer performance:

·         Define Positions: Organize job assignments according to time and skills required, and be ready to match volunteers accordingly. Clear definitions and reasonable tasks make it easier for people to say, “yes” when asked if they can help.
·         Find a Job That Fits: Volunteers perform better when assignments match their skills and interests. They don’t want to be bored; nor do they want to feel ill-equipped to handle a job. For example, if you recruit a marketing expert, assign him or her tasks such as managing the school’s Facebook page or promoting fundraisers. Giving this task to someone who is completely new to technology could cause that person to become overwhelmed and quit.
·         Keep Volunteers’ Needs In Mind: Be flexible when assigning tasks. Some volunteers may be limited to certain hours or only helping from home, while others can’t organize an entire event, but are happy to help with smaller tasks.

The Keys to Successful Volunteer Recruitment
Recruiting, retaining and engaging volunteers can be a daunting task, but when you employ these simple tips, you may find that it’s actually easier than you thought. People are often eager and happy to help out when they are well matched to a task, know the goals they’re contributing to and feel their time is well spent.

Erin Palmer writes about topics like Master of Public Administration degrees. Nonprofits and other volunteer-based organizations are often run by graduates of an MPA program. She can be reached at