Friday, August 29, 2014

Standards on trial in the court of public opinion

Abraham Lincoln once said, "Public opinion in this country is everything." And whether you subscribe to that notion or not, the recent release of two national polls on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) would seem, at least on the surface, to be a blow to standards supporters.

The first results came from the Education Next (EdNext) poll that has been given annually for about 14 years. When asked the question about support for the Common Core State Standards the following groups responded.

Support for CCSS

In another poll released last week, we saw similar results.  The PDK/Gallup poll, which has been around for more than 50 years and is one of the most respected of the polls, indicated 60 percent of respondents oppose using CCSS in their local schools to guide what teachers teach; 18 percent of respondents said the standards were too challenging; 40 percent said the standards were not challenging enough; and 36 percent said the standards were just right.

Both polls showed an erosion in support for the CCSS from the previous year. In 2012, hardly anyone in the general public had even heard of the CCSS. Why such a steep drop in such a short time and why do we see such a steep drop in teacher support?

In a pre-release media call for the PDK/Gallup poll last week, I made the following points.
     1) There has been a significant increase in media reporting about CCSS. Depending on your media source, the public has been confronted with a barrage of information, some factual, some not, that has led to a polarization of opinions with regard to the Common Core State Standards.
     2) With the rush to implement No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver requirements for standards, assessments and teacher evaluations, the general public and especially teachers have connected CCSS with federal overreach.
     3) With the rush to implement NCLB waiver requirements in some states, teachers feel they have not been provided adequate support in training or resources to implement the standards. With the rush to assess the standards and utilize the results from testing in waiver-required teacher evaluation systems, again, teachers feel they are being held accountable for implementing standards, assessments, and teacher evaluation systems without adequate support and time.

When we dig deep and go back to the PDK poll in the late 1980’s, we find tremendous support for the concept of more rigorous standards that all states would adhere to in order for more students to reach college- and career-readiness. Even in the current polling, when the term Common Core was removed, there was a majority of support for more rigorous state standards across all states.

Several positive things happened last week as the polls were being released. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that the United States Department of Education (USED) would relax the timeline for states that need more time to implement teacher evaluation systems that use test scores as part of the evaluation. Also, Sec. Duncan announced his concerns about “too much testing” in our schools. The PDK/Gallup poll indicated that the general public would support Sec. Duncan’s concerns about too much testing. More than 50 percent of those polled said standardized tests are not helpful; however, in excess of 80 percent support college placement tests, grade placement tests, and exit exams. It appears the public supports testing as long as the purpose of testing is clear.

A few other items of note from the recent polls:
     • Charter Schools – the PDK poll shows 70 percent support, EdNext shows 54 percent support
      • Vouchers – the PDK poll shows 63 percent oppose with EdNext showing 51 percent support

While the department's own anonymous survey of nearly 7,000 Kentucky teachers earlier this year showed stronger support for the standards than is evidenced nationwide, Kentucky is being proactive with regard to CCSS. This week, I announced the Kentucky Core Academic Standards Challenge, which will inform our regular review of the standards taught in our classrooms. I urge all readers, regardless of your opinion on the standards, to take the challenge.  It will be open until April 30, 2015.

Friday, August 22, 2014

USED action contrary to state, federal law

For readers who missed my blog last week, you may want to review the good news and bad news about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers. In the blog I said, “I believe the current waiver process represents a major federal intrusion into the rights of each state to develop, implement, and manage the public education of the state.” This created quite a stir in certain circles.

Let me explain my thinking on that by first giving a little background on NCLB waivers. In the original No Child Left Behind Act (2001) language, Section 9401 (b) provides the following guidance:

(1) IN GENERAL – A State educational agency, local educational agency, or Indian tribe that desires a waiver shall submit a waiver request to the Secretary that –
(A) identifies the Federal programs affected by the requested

(B) describes which Federal statutory or regulatory requirements 
             are to be waived and how the waiving of those requirements
             will –

            (i) increase the quality of instruction for students; and
            (ii) improve the academic achievement of students;
(C) describes, for each school year, specific, measurable
             educational goals, in accordance with section 1111(b),
             for the State educational agency and for each local
             educational agency, Indian tribe, or school that would 

             be affected by the waiver and the methods to be 
             used to measure annually progress for meeting such
             goals and outcomes;

(D) explains how the waiver will assist the State educational
             agency and each affected local educational agency, Indian
             tribe, or school in reaching those goals; and

(E) describes how schools will continue to provide assistance
             to the same populations served by programs for which
             waivers are requested.

What this language describes is a state-led waiver process to encourage innovation to improve instruction and student achievement outcomes for the students served by the NCLB law. The current waiver process being implemented by the U. S. Department of Education (USED) is a conditional waiver process. States must submit waiver plans that meet three basic conditions:
     • standards/assessments
     • accountability systems
     • teacher/leader effectiveness 
In exchange for meeting these conditions, states are granted 11-13 waivers from the original requirements of NCLB.

Originally, this was a great deal for Kentucky since we had a state law (Senate Bill 1 – 2009) that required the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) to implement new standards/assessments, accountability systems, and teacher/principal evaluations. As Commissioner, I was fully supportive of Secretary Duncan's waiver process since the reform efforts were a great match for Kentucky. However, the waiver process has now started to stifle innovation and have a negative impact on improving instruction and student achievement. 

Here is one case in point. Kentucky adopted new science standards as required by Senate Bill 1. Our teachers began to implement these standards this school year. We have learned from teachers that they need at least two years of implementing standards prior to assessing them. Additionally, Kentucky teachers and national science assessment experts told us that new science assessments will need to be very different than typical multiple choice tests. Students will actually need to do science and exhibit scientific thinking. Our National Assessment of Educational Progress has given us an early look at this type of assessment through the Technology and Engineering Literacy assessment. Kentucky wanted to develop a model of science assessment using Kentucky teachers and national experts that would provide innovative ways to measure student achievement in science and provide teachers with much more meaningful feedback on student performance throughout the school year so that teachers could improve instruction and student achievement. 

Kentucky requested a one-year waiver from science assessment from the USED. We needed the waiver in order to provide time for our teachers to actually implement standards and develop new assessment items for field testing in spring of 2015. We committed to having an assessment of student achievement in science by 2016. 

Despite having set a precedent for this type of waiver by granting the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment consortia states a waiver from accountability and reporting math and language arts assessments for the 2014 year, USED rejected our request. Obviously we were stretching the limits of USED staff to provide a state-led waiver request that meets the original requirements of Sec 9401 of NCLB. 

This is only one example of how the current waiver process is stifling innovation and intruding on a state's ability to implement state requirements contained in state legislation. There are other Kentucky examples and, in a recent meeting with other state chiefs, I heard many similar stories from other states.

What now? USED expects Kentucky to give a science assessment that measures our previous science standards in spring 2015. This expectation not only violates our state law, but, also violates NCLB that requires states to assess science (once in elementary and middle school) based on current state standards.

Kentucky and many other states supported the waiver process since we had state laws matching the conditional requirements. Kentucky will be able to sustain our efforts for years to come; however, I do have concerns about other states that used the leverage of the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant and waiver process to implement reforms without state law. What happens when the current administration departs? What happens as the waiver process continues to become even more prescriptive and time consuming?

States are responsible for education. Local school districts have tremendous flexibility and control in implementing state expectations. The federal role is and should continue to be limited to support for disadvantaged children. Hopefully, Congress will reauthorize NCLB soon and build in the flexibility for states and local school districts to be innovative in meeting the needs of all children by improving teaching and learning.

Next week, I will review recent results from national polls showing the impact of RTTT and NCLB waivers on public opinion related to Common Core standards, standardized tests, and teacher evaluation.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The good news and bad news on NCLB waivers

First, the good news: this week the U.S. Department of Education (USED) notified us that it approved Kentucky's application for a one-year extension of our Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver flexibility. The extension will run through the 2014-15 school year.

The bad news is that we are still operating under an NCLB waiver, as we have been since the 2012-13 school year. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan offered the waivers to states due to the inability of Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (which was due for reauthorization in 2007). State chiefs and local school superintendents were very excited about the waivers as an opportunity to move public education forward; while the number one priority was and always has been for Congress to reauthorize NCLB.

There are several pros to the NCLB waiver, especially for Kentucky.  The federal waiver requirements were an excellent match to our Senate Bill 1 (2009) requirements for new standards, new assessments, a new accountability system, and professional development and support for educators to implement these new requirements. When Sec. Duncan announced the waiver requirements, Kentucky moved quickly to apply. With the waiver in hand we were able to implement new standards, assessments, and a single accountability system for reporting school results, rather than having two systems – one for federal accountability, one for state – as we had in the past. Also, the federal waiver provided tremendous flexibility to our school districts on how to spend federal funds. All in all, we felt that the waiver was an excellent idea in the short term; however, no one thought waivers were a good idea in the long run.

As election seasons started to roll around, as if on cue, there was a lot of criticism of Sec. Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education. I for one found it hypocritical that Congress would complain about the waiver process when it was Congress' failure to reauthorize No Child Left Behind that led to the process.

While the initial waiver process was something we supported in Kentucky, it has become problematic. When the state chiefs talked with Sec. Duncan about what would happen at the end of the initial waiver period, we recommended a "streamlined and expedited" process for one-year extensions. It remained our hope as state chiefs that, in the meantime, Congress would reauthorize NCLB. That has not happened.

There is significant evidence from many states that the waiver extension process has not been streamlined. State chiefs have reported to me and our Kentucky experience has shown that our staffs spent hundreds of hours in preparing what was supposed to have been a streamlined application (our initial waiver extension request was almost 200 pages). Also, our staff spent many hours in conference calls and rewriting our waiver application based on questions raised from USED staff.  Click here if you’d like to read it.

Nor has the waiver extension process been expedited, as we were promised.  We submitted our extension request May 1 and it was mid-August before we got word on its status.  Our initial waiver took less time to approve.  In fact, of the 42 states that originally obtained waivers and the 31 that have submitted waiver extensions, to date, 13 are still waiting for word from USED on their status. In many cases, school has already started and school districts are not certain of which set of rules they will be governed by for the school year - NCLB or the waiver.

Now, USED is asking us to give feedback on the process for a two-year waiver extension for school years 2015-16 and 2016-17.

As one state chief, speaking only for Kentucky, it is time to end this process. It is time for Congress to act. We need a stable long range plan, not a series of cobbled together waivers that take away staff time from the work of improving education for all children.

Next week, I will provide more insight as to why I believe the current waiver process represents a major federal intrusion into the rights of each state to develop, implement, and manage the public education of the state.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Exciting Time of the Year

Many eager parents, teachers, school administrators and community members are looking forward to the new school year. Parents who take their kindergarten or first grade child to school for the first day will shed a few tears as they hand off their precious treasure to dedicated teachers and staff. Many parents will be very happy to return to a normal routine where the children are engaged in meaningful activities under the supervision of dedicated teachers and staff. 

School administrators are nervous! They are checking to make certain that they have enough staff to meet the needs of all children. Do they have all the supplies and textbooks on hand to meet the needs of children and teachers? Does the school look clean and inviting? Has the grass been mowed? Are procedures in place to make certain schools are safe? Do the bus routes meet the transportation needs? Will the school cafeteria be ready for the first breakfast and lunch? Have we provided all the required and necessary training to all staff?

Teachers are nervous also but very excited to see children return to classrooms. Teachers are in their classrooms setting up materials to make certain the classroom is inviting and conducive to learning. Teachers have been working over the summer months to develop new curriculum and finding materials aligned to the curriculum. Teachers have been engaged in professional learning to either get an advanced degree and/or prepare for new state initiatives such as the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System or new science standards.

Many coaches and band directors have been working hard for several weeks. They have been getting fields ready for practice and equipment and uniforms ready for the students. Schedules have been planned. Buses have been ordered for transportation to games and events. Meals have been planned. Booster clubs are in full operating mode to raise funds to support students.

Students are excited to return to school. They are excited to see old friends and make new ones. They are excited to see which teacher(s) they have and what they will learn. They are excited about the first football game or band competition. For some, they are nervous as they begin to realize that this is their last year as a high school student and they have not finalized plans for what happens after high school. For others, they are nervous as they make the transition from the confines of an elementary school to the confusion of a middle school or a high school.

For community members, many are excited to see activities at schools. For most of our schools in Kentucky, the school is the center for community activities. Schools are a huge source of pride for communities. Community members are always prone to brag about the academic ranking of their local schools, the sports teams, and other student groups.

This will be my 43rd year as a teacher, principal, superintendent, or commissioner. This time of year continues to bring goose bumps as I think about the tremendous potential that our children in Kentucky have. I get excited thinking about the buzz that happens in more than 1,400 schools in Kentucky. I get excited to think about the many conversations among parents, teachers, administrator, and community members that will be focused on making certain all of our children have a bright future. 

As school buses begin to roll and school zone signals start blinking, I hope everyone in the Commonwealth will slow down when driving through a school zone, take a moment to silently wish all of our students and educators a successful start to a school year, and whisper a wish that every student will achieve the promise of an excellent education to ensure a brighter future. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Partnerships are critical

This week, I wanted to give a “shout out” to one of our university partners.  On Monday, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of K-12 and higher education educators at the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Education P20 Innovation Lab meeting.

UK College of Education Dean Mary John O’Hair started the P20 Innovation Lab several years ago when she came to Kentucky from Oklahoma where she started a similar program with much success. When Dr. O’Hair first approached me about a possible partnership and sharing a position, I thought it was a great idea since, at the time, Kentucky was working with the Council of Chief State School Officers through the Innovation Lab Network of states and we were developing digital guidelines for schools.

The Kentucky P20 Innovation Lab, hosted by the UK College of Education, is leading the way to help schools in Kentucky transform education to deliver next generation learning and, ultimately, increase the number of students who are ready to succeed in college and career.

After four years of work, the P20 Lab has worked with more than 25 percent of the school districts in Kentucky. The P20 Lab provides training for school administrators and school teams to stretch their thinking in designing teaching and learning experiences.  The results have been pretty amazing. Not only has the lab served more than a quarter of our school districts, the vast majority of our Districts of Innovation proposals have come from districts who have gone through the P20 training.

At the meeting this week, it was exciting to see an agenda that shows Kentucky is leading the nation with innovation.

Former Kentucky Commissioner of Education, Gene Wilhoit talked about the exciting work going on at the National Center for Innovation in Education (another shout out to Dean O’Hair for bringing that center to Kentucky).

Professor John Nash, who Dean O’Hair added to the team from Stanford University, gave a talk on design thinking. Design thinking is utilized in many major corporations and is certainly cutting edge stuff in the business and non-profit worlds.

While we have numerous districts who are implementing innovation, we have seen Danville Independent featured on PBS and NPR and Eminence Independent featured in numerous state and national contexts and it was great to see them working with other districts to present their best practices at the meeting this week.

In addition, Taylor County has received many visitors from other states to look at its competency-based model and Jefferson County made news with its community proposals to design a new school for the District of Innovation model.

Kentucky is committed to leading innovation in education. This partnership between higher education and the K-12 system is producing exciting results for students. In addition to the UK P20 Lab, we have many other innovative efforts underway in Kentucky.

We started the Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky to financially support those innovative ideas coming from schools and districts. In the coming weeks, the Fund will announce awards to teachers, schools and districts in its first round of innovation funding

What I am most excited about is that we are all working together in innovative ways to help more students reach college- and career-readiness and prepare for a successful life.

Should readers want to know more about our innovation and partnership strategy, please contact David Cook by e-mail or by phone at (502) 564-4201, ext. 4832.