Friday, February 27, 2015

Four big myths about top-performing school systems

I came across an interesting article recently on results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The PISA evaluates education systems worldwide by testing 15-year-olds in key subjects.

The man in charge of the PISA tests, Andreas Schleicher, the Director of education and skills with the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD), says the evidence from around the world reveals some big myths about what makes for a successful education system. Due to space, I have provided only four of the seven myths.

While you may or may not agree with the author’s interpretation of the results, the findings should certainly encourage additional discussion regarding the U.S. education system.

1. Disadvantaged pupils are doomed to do badly in school
Teachers all around the world struggle with how to make up for social disadvantage in their classrooms. Some believe that deprivation is destiny. And yet, results from PISA tests show that the 10 percent most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Shanghai have better math skills than the 10 percent most privileged students in the United States and several European countries.

Children from similar social backgrounds can show very different performance levels, depending on the school they go to or the country they live in. Education systems where disadvantaged students succeed are able to moderate social inequalities. They tend to attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms and the most capable school leaders to the most disadvantaged schools, thus challenging all students with high standards and excellent teaching.

Some American critics of international educational comparisons argue that the value of these comparisons is limited because the United States has some unique socio-economic divisions. But the United States is wealthier than most countries and spends more money on education than most of them; its parents have a higher level of education than in most countries; and the share of socio-economically disadvantaged students is just around the OECD average. What the comparisons do show is that socio-economic disadvantage has a particularly strong impact on student performance in the United States. In other words, in the United States two students from different socio-economic backgrounds vary much more in their learning outcomes than is typically the case in OECD countries.

2. Immigrants lower results
Integrating students with an immigrant background can be challenging. And yet, results from PISA tests show no relationship between the share of students with an immigrant background in a country and the overall performance of students in that country. Even students with the same migration history and background show very different performance levels across countries, suggesting that where students go to schools makes much more of a difference than where they come from.

3. It's all about money
South Korea, the highest-performing OECD country in mathematics, spends well below the average per student. The world is no longer divided between rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly-educated ones. Success in education systems is no longer about how much money is spent, but about how money is spent. Countries need to invest in improving education and skills if they are going to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy. And yet, educational expenditure per student explains less than 20 percent of the variation in student performance across OECD countries.

For example, students in the Slovak Republic, which spends around $53,000 (£35,000) per student between the age of 6 and 15, perform on average at the same level at age 15 as the United States which spends over $115,000 (£76,000) per student.

4. Smaller class sizes raise standards
Everywhere, teachers, parents and policy-makers favor small classes as the key to better and more personalized education. Reductions in class size have also been the main reason behind the significant increases in expenditure per student in most countries over the last decade. And yet, PISA results show no relationship between class size and learning outcomes, neither within nor across countries. More interestingly, the highest performing education systems in PISA tend to systematically prioritize the quality of teachers over the size of classes. Wherever they have to make a choice between a smaller class and a better teacher, they go for the latter. Rather than putting money into small classes, they invest in competitive teacher salaries, ongoing professional development and a balance in working time.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Solving an education conundrum

Recently, I attended a meeting at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to discuss a strategic plan for the Chamber and Kentucky. Kentucky Chamber CEO Dave Adkisson invited a group of “thought leaders” to hear a presentation from Ted Abernathy, who works with a number of local, state and national organizations to develop vision statements and strategic plans. 

During his presentation, Abernathy discussed a number of trends that will impact Kentucky and the nation. One trend caught my attention due to the tremendous impact it is having on education in Kentucky. The trend is urbanization. Urbanization is basically the movement of individuals from rural and small city settings to midsize and large city settings. The key reason for urbanization appears to be the availability of jobs in urban settings and lack of jobs in rural settings.

Nationwide, the urbanization of America is evident. In 1950, more than 70 percent of the population lived in rural or small city settings. In 2010, that number dropped to 48 percent and the number is expected to drop to 40 percent by 2030. In 1950, 7 percent of the population lived in medium to large cities. In 2010, the number had grown to 20 percent and by 2030, at least 27 percent of our population is expected to live in medium to large cities. In a map that Mr. Abernathy shared, it was clear that the migration from rural to urban areas is happening all across Kentucky and the nation. It was interesting to discover that more than half of the U.S. population lives in just 146 counties.

What are the implications of urbanization for education in Kentucky? The obvious implication is that students are moving from rural settings to urban settings. Certainly, if we compare the 1950 census to the 2010 census we see evidence of this migration. 

Students are moving because of job loss in rural settings. This is very evident in rural Eastern Kentucky communities. Many small communities that once relied heavily on the coal industry or agriculture for jobs have seen those jobs eliminated. The loss of jobs means the loss of tax revenue due to businesses being closed. When there are no jobs, people take their families to locations where there are jobs and in most cases, the jobs are located in or near urban settings. As families move away, the number of students attending schools shrinks.

The loss of student population means the loss of federal, state and local revenue for our schools. The loss of revenue means fewer teachers and fewer course offerings for students. The loss of revenue means less funding for teacher pay increases which means the gap between teacher availability in rural settings and urban settings will grow. This is especially evident when rural settings try to hire math, science, and special education teachers. The loss of revenue means less funding to build and maintain school facilities.

The loss of student population in our counties and small independent districts located in rural settings is well documented. When a local community has a small independent and a county system and both systems are losing students, then the communities begin to battle over student assignment agreements. When county and independent systems cannot come to agreement on student assignment agreements, then the commissioner and eventually the Kentucky Board of Education get involved. It is always best when local communities resolve these issues prior to state involvement.

What are the possible solutions? Our normal solution in the past has been to push for more education. However, this creates a conundrum. If we educate more students to higher levels, then those with more education will seek better paying jobs and when no jobs are available, the talent will leave for areas that have jobs. 

A possible solution is beginning to emerge with the Saving Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative that Governor Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers have sponsored along with other state officials. The key question is how do we build the infrastructure in Kentucky to recruit business and industry to locate in rural areas so that talented and educated individuals can remain in their rural communities and build the future? Hopefully, SOAR will be successful so our local schools and districts can be successful. The alternatives are not very desirable for those communities.

Friday, February 13, 2015

SB 97 implementation: one educator’s thoughts

Kentucky Department of Education Chief of Staff Tommy Floyd is my guest blogger this week. He shares some of his experiences and thoughts on the implementation of the higher compulsory school attendance age and how it is really focused on helping each and every child in Kentucky become successful.

I vividly remember the first high school dropout I encountered. He and I started kindergarten together. One day during our sophomore year, he told me that he was on his way to the office to meet his mom to sign out of school, not just for the day, but for good. As he walked out of the classroom, he almost seemed to apologize. I remember the profound impact this had on me. Not going to school was a foreign concept. My parents had always promoted the importance of an education. How could anyone even consider dropping out of school? Why did this boy’s parents allow this? At age 16 and without a high school diploma, what would he do for the rest of his life? Looking back, this was one of those early life events that started me down the path to become an educator and dedicate my life to the students of Kentucky.

The next memorable dropout I encountered was as a high school principal. Mary was a sophomore and a straight A student. I was filled with angst when her mother told me that she needed Mary at home to help with their large family, and that Mary had spent “enough” time in school. No shortage of begging and pleading on my part seemed to make a difference. Papers were signed and Mary and I parted ways – both of us in tears. 

For years, the subject of dropouts has been a sensitive one for me – it was when I was a principal, it was when I was a superintendent, and it continues to be today in my role as Chief of Staff at the Kentucky Department of Education. Whenever I hear about a student dropping out, I feel a sense of loss and sadness. I think about what the future could have been for the student if he or she had stayed in school.

When I talk with former students who dropped out, I often hear remorse and regret and some common reasons that led to their decision. I hear that a life event got in their way. They felt school was boring or seemed disconnected from what they wanted in a career. They were frustrated with an obvious lack of academic success that seemed to get worse with time. They felt that no one at school really cared about them. They often said that they didn’t give up on themselves; they simply gave up on the process.

Senate Bill 97 raises the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18 in Kentucky. Its pending implementation has prompted some to focus on the expense and challenges that lie ahead for districts to keep Kentucky students in school another two years. 

I offer a different perspective. I feel the law will be a success due to the people working in Kentucky schools and districts. There is a strong belief among today’s Kentucky education leaders in doing whatever it takes for a student to be successful. This is evidenced by our recent increase in both the graduation rate and the college- and career-readiness rate. Clearly, Kentucky has become a national leader when it comes to meeting individual student needs.

Kentucky schools and districts are changing the way they offer education. They are asking tough questions about potential at-risk students much earlier. Flexible scheduling to accommodate family needs, strong mentoring support, after hours tutoring, home visitation programs, student advocates, teen parenting classes, Saturday sessions, apprenticeships, career cluster opportunities are but a few of the ways Kentucky schools and districts are intervening earlier to prevent students from falling behind and eventually dropping out. 

One of the most exciting aspects of the work ahead is being promoted from within our schools and districts – the belief that our work is moving away from being about numbers to being about the success of individual kids. 

In the 9 Building Blocks for a World-Class State Education System, the National Center on Education and the Economy lays out multiple components that world leaders include in the development of their educational systems. Countries that lead the rankings in educational excellence provide more resources for at-risk students than for others and create clear gateways for students through a system based on global standards, with no dead ends. From what I see, the idea of no dead ends is already embraced in the majority of our schools and districts across the Commonwealth. 

When I hear stories of a student dropping  back into education, they have often done so because a team of public school educators have surrounded them with support and helped them realize the importance of education to the next life step in life – no excuses, no blame; just a commitment to find a way to make each student successful. As we move forward with the implementation of SB 97, I feel confident that superintendents, principals and staff will continue to develop new strategies to address the needs of every student and that educators will share those strategies with each other. 

While some may choose to focus on the challenges and expenses ahead with the higher dropout age, I am betting on the people inside Kentucky schools and districts who will continue to ensure our work is never about numbers, but instead is about the success of each individual student in Kentucky. 

Any takers?

Friday, February 6, 2015

A delicate balancing act

As a parent, it is always difficult balancing between supporting your children and monitoring their behaviors and actions, which in some cases may require a disciplinary follow through.

Teachers face a similar balancing act – supporting and nourishing students while also monitoring student behavior and academic performance.

Principals confront the challenge of supporting teachers, but also monitoring instruction and academic results of classroom teachers.

Superintendents and school boards experience the same balancing act with principals and school leadership.

And the Kentucky Department of Education also must address this same type of balancing act. We often question ourselves as to the right balance between supporting schools and districts and monitoring schools and districts. At this month’s Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) meeting, the balancing act was obvious with a number of issues.

The department has been working overtime to develop a more comprehensive system of supports for the schools and districts to help close achievement gaps. The department must identify those programs and practices that yield results for student groups who are currently not achieving at expected levels. The department also provided the KBE with revisions to the state accountability model this week that would address the monitoring and accountability of closing achievement gaps. This was a classic example of how a state agency and state board work to balance support and accountability.

Another issue that shows the balancing act is SB 97, which raises the dropout age to 18. Recently we celebrated the news that 100 percent of local school boards had voluntarily adopted a policy to raise the dropout age. Districts were provided with significant support through planning grants and best practice sites that will help them implement SB 97. In addition, the department is working to increase opportunities in career and technical education and provide implementation grants for promising practices that will help address student motivation and success for those students who are ages 16-18 and not currently engaged or motivated to complete high school.

The balancing act comes as the department attempts to address challenges from critics of SB 97. Critics raise concerns that local school districts will attempt to game the system by encouraging students to withdraw from school and enroll in home schools. Also, critics say the disciplinary incidents will increase. Another concern from critics is that students will be warehoused in alternative programs. The KBE and department cannot ignore these critics, so we must have monitoring and accountability strategies in place.

One such strategy will be the monitoring of the number of public school students who withdraw each year in favor of home schooling. As Commissioner, I certainly support parental choice. There are many excellent home school programs available to parents; however, there are many home school programs that do not provide an adequate education. At the KBE meeting this week, I asked that the department establish an annual reporting requirement to monitor the number of high school students who withdraw each year to attend a home school. This report will be important to address concerns of the critics of SB 97. The current number of students who withdraw and enroll in home school averages about 5,000 students per year. This is less than 1 percent of the total student population.

KDE will provide this report on an annual basis by district and high school. Should there be a significant increase in the percentage of high school students withdrawing from public school to attend home school, then we will work with our schools and districts to better understand the reasons behind the increase. In most cases, we will probably find that our districts need additional support with alternative programs, student support programs, and career and technical education. However, we must also be open to addressing any unethical behavior where students are encouraged to withdraw and attend a non-existent home school.

My expectation is that we will not discover any attempts to “game the system”; however, we would not be doing our due diligence as an agency if we did not monitor this issue. The balancing act is always difficult between believing that everyone will act in a student’s best interest versus acting to make the numbers and the institution look good. As Ronald Reagan so aptly stated – “trust but verify.”