Friday, November 21, 2014

The danger in oversimplifying achievement gaps

In several recent blogs, (Moving in the Right Direction and Making the Numbers Real), I congratulated Kentucky students and educators on the significant progress we are making in college/career-readiness rates and graduation rates. 

We are also beginning to see significant improvement in proficiency rates and our unduplicated gap group has improved in all areas. However, I did stress the need for Kentucky to redouble our efforts in closing significant achievement gaps. The Kentucky Department of Education will be developing very specific plans across curriculum, instruction, interventions, accountability and assessment to support schools and districts as they work to close the achievement gaps. 

In the coming weeks, achievement gap concerns will certainly continue to be a public and legislative focus. There are some stakeholders using the achievement gap issue to promote charter schools. There are others using the achievement gap to push for targeted funding. The public discourse will continue to grow in intensity and we may have some excellent recommendations and we may have some recommendations that are not based on research on how to close the gaps that have persisted for too long. 

I came across an excellent blog this week, that highlights some of the key challenges to using a simplistic approach of comparing student performance across groups of students. As the General Assembly, Kentucky Board of Education, school districts, and the public engage in discussion of achievement gaps, I would recommend reading this blog by the Albert Shanker Institute in preparation for those discussions.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

Politics as usual or not?

As the dust settles from last week’s election, there is much talk and speculation about the impact the election may have on public education in this country. At least that has been a primary topic for discussion this week at the Council of Chief State School Officers Annual Policy Forum that I am attending.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attended the meeting and took it as his opportunity to roll out the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind waiver process to state education leaders.

In the past few months, I have been critical of Secretary Duncan and the waiver process (see my blogs, USED action contrary to state, federal lawThe good news and bad news on NCLB waivers). My criticism has been focused on the fact that the original language in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act said states could submit waiver requests to improve teaching and learning. As long as they met that goal, the waivers were unconditional. However, it appears in recent years waivers have become conditional – based on whether a state meets the requirements of the three guiding principles of college/career ready standards, a differentiated accountability system and educator evaluation. Additionally, I have expressed concerns about the time and resources involved at the state level in the waiver application process.

Listening to the Secretary talk about the upcoming waiver process, it was apparent that he and his team had listened not only to me, but also to other state chiefs. Secretary Duncan told us as did the communication and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (USED) that the waiver process is being streamlined and states will be able to seek a three year extension and in some cases a four year waiver extension.

While I am confident that the Secretary and his staff have listened to our concerns, during our meeting, I asked him about his priorities given the recent election. Despite being there to talk about the waiver process, it was very clear that his priority was reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

I wholeheartedly agree! It is time for us to make reauthorization of No Child Left Behind the top priority. Given the new Senate leadership in Congress, I am hopeful that the Senate and House will be able to work in a bipartisan manner to pass legislation. While the waivers have been helpful, it is critical to have a long term solution through reauthorization. We will see in early January whether new congressional leadership works to govern or continues politics as usual. I certainly hope it is the former rather than the latter.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Community collaboration stretches preschool dollars

This week, Chief of Staff Tommy Floyd, who represents the Kentucky Department of Education on the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisory Council, is my guest blogger. The topic is preschool and how to serve more children who could benefit from a quality early learning experience with the limited funding available.

Terry Holliday, Ph.D.
Education Commissioner

In the coming weeks, the Kentucky Department of Education will be releasing results from the Kindergarten readiness screen of students beginning school this year. Superintendents know how important this data is to students and their future. Children who start behind in school may stay behind. Yet, high quality preschool can make a difference.

We are fortunate this year that Gov. Steve Beshear and the state legislature provided districts with additional funding for preschool. That additional funding, however, came with an expansion of eligibility guidelines, which means many districts also saw their preschool enrollment increase this fall.

With limited resources, many superintendents are asking: How can I stretch my state preschool funding so that more students will be ready when they start school?”

Terry Tolan, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood, and Rick Hulefeld, founder and executive director of Children, Inc. in northern Kentucky, recently shared with me a model that some districts are using that has allowed them to serve more preschoolers – for less – through collaboration with community programs like Head Start and STARS-rated early childhood centers.

Here’s one example: a private early childhood center in a district serves 18 children in the 4-year-old classroom, 12 of the children are from families whose income is at or below 160 percent of the federal poverty line. The school system places a half-time early childhood teacher in the center, and the early childhood center provides the half-time assistant. The school district would be reimbursed for the 12 children. The early learning center would still receive its usual child care reimbursement and parent co-pay.

How does this stretch the district’s preschool dollars? The district is not paying for a half- day teacher assistant. The district is not retrofitting and/or equipping another classroom or paying for janitor and/or utilities. It also may result in reduced transportation costs because parents may drop off and/or pick up their child before and after work. Most importantly, the school district has ensured that 18 children will be ready for kindergarten not just 12.

This model also offers many more benefits:  

•  The child spends more time in the classroom, less time being

•  There is greater alignment between the two halves of the day.
•  The child is in a full-day, full-year program that hopefully is more
    effective with the presence of the school district’s teacher.

•  The teacher has more contact with the family through the assistant
•  The transitions between home, school and child care seamless –
    a big support for working families.

•  The early learning center, which is typically open more than 10 hours a
    day benefits by reducing its staffing costs.

•  Other forms of sharing between the school and care provider may result,
    for example, around training.

It is important to note that many of the benefits listed still occur if the partnership takes place in the district’s classrooms with the district providing the half-day teacher and the early childhood organization providing the assistant and the wrap-around care.

Using a mixed model for delivering preschool will result in districts serving more children at reduced cost and, even more importantly, improve outcomes for children in the district.

As superintendents begin developing their 2015-16 budgets, I encourage them to consider this model and begin identifying potential early childhood partners in their community that may be willing to join with schools in an effort to ensure more students are ready for learning on their first day of school.