Friday, May 29, 2015

A history lesson to remember

As we wrap up the 2014-15 school year, I have high hopes for the future of our high school graduates in Kentucky. We will have a higher percentage of students successfully complete high school in four years than at any point in the history of the Commonwealth. Of those who graduate from high school, we will have the highest percentage of students reaching college- and career-readiness in the history of the Commonwealth. This is an amazing testament to the hard work and dedication of educators, parents and students in Kentucky. 

Given these amazing results, I feel it important to remind readers of the recent important events in education history that have helped Kentucky reach these significant milestones.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990 was and remains the foundation of our work. KERA became reality based on significant business support and support from the Prichard Committee to reform education in Kentucky. By any measure of student success, KERA has been the basis for improvement. 

While KERA moved Kentucky from the cellar of state rankings to about the midway point, there was continued concern voiced through the late 1990s and 2000s about how prepared high school graduates were for college and career. Too many high school graduates were taking college placement tests and finding out that they needed to take remedial courses prior to taking credit-bearing college courses. The college remediation rates were as high as 80 percent in a number of our technical colleges. Remediation is a significant cost for students and colleges, and students who need remediation are much less likely to return to college after their first year than students who are ready for college when they enroll. 

In 2009, the Kentucky General Assembly came together again, as they did in 1990, and passed significant education reform legislation – Senate Bill 1. This legislation required the Kentucky Board of Education to set a goal to reduce by 50 percent by 2015 the percentage of high school graduates who were not ready for college-level work or prepared with the skills necessary to enter a career that would lead to a job that pays a living wage. In 2010, the percentage of students ready for college level work was 34 percent. A goal was set for at least 67 percent of high school graduates to be ready for college and career by 2015. From all indications, Kentucky will reach this goal with the Class of 2015.

In order to reach our goal, Senate Bill 1 required new standards, assessments, and accountability systems. 

Throughout the 2009 session of the General Assembly and during the interim session of 2009, all of the stakeholders in Kentucky were aware and supportive of Kentucky adopting and implementing the Common Core standards for English/language arts and mathematics. It was very clear that a student must master these basic standards in order to achieve college- and career-readiness. Certainly, local districts could exceed the standards, however, not every student in Kentucky needs to take AP Chemistry, AP Calculus or other high level coursework in order to reach the college- and career-ready level. Acceptance into a top tier university requires students take more rigorous courses, however taking these courses is a decision students and their parents must make depending on college- or career-plans. 

Senate Bill 1 asked Kentucky educators to implement standards, assessments and a new accountability system so more students would reach college readiness. The universally accepted definition of college readiness is that a student would reach a level of performance that would enable the student to enter credit-bearing course work at a two-year or four-year university. The measures include ACT, Compass, and the state placement exams used by all public higher education programs – KYOTE.  All Kentucky higher education institutions agreed on these measures and the scores needed for high school graduates to reach college readiness. 

As parents talk with their students in grades 3-8 about the end of year K-PREP assessments and the high school end-of-course assessments, it is important to note that each parent and student will receive an assessment report in the fall. This assessment report will enable parents to know if their student is on track to reach the college- and career-readiness level upon graduation. It is very important for students that parents have a discussion with their child’s teacher and school officials concerning student performance and how to support students in reaching college- and career-readiness by high school graduation.

Over the next few months, there will be a lot of political discussion and debate about the Kentucky’s academic standards, assessments and accountability systems. While we can certainly revise the systems and make them stronger, it is important that parents recognize that the systems are working. More students are graduating from high school with the skills needed for college and career success. 

Lots of politicians will tell you what they are against, however, it is difficult to find out what they really support, and if what they support has a track record of success. Hopefully, this brief history lesson will help filter the political rhetoric from the reality of proven systems that are successful in helping more children reach college- and career-readiness and emerge from high school ready to take the next step in life.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Improving Kentucky’s educator effectiveness system

This week Kentucky’s educator effectiveness system was a topic for discussion at a meeting sponsored by the Southern Regional Education Board. Teams from six states (Kentucky, Oklahoma, Maryland, South Carolina, Mississippi and North Carolina) convened to review progress on statewide teacher effectiveness models and identify possible improvement strategies for the models teams. Each team had a teacher, principal, superintendent, state department and education association representative. Kentucky’s 2014 Teacher of the Year Holly Bloodworth, Fayette Co. Principal Ron Chi, Boone Co. Superintendent Randy Poe and Chief Academic Officer Karen Cheser, Kentucky Education Association Executive Director Mary Ann Blankenship and President Stephanie Winkler, and myself constituted Kentucky’s team.

It was apparent from the discussions with other states that Kentucky has a strong state model for teacher effectiveness. The Kentucky model, the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES), was developed over a 4-year period with input from teachers, principals, superintendents, parents and other stakeholders. The PGES was fully implemented during the current school year. While the implementation has been successful, we have identified several challenges and areas for improvement.

Challenge #1 – too many of our principals and teachers are more focused on compliance with the PGES data collection rather than a focus on professional growth linked to the Framework for Effective Teaching. This is to be expected in the first year of implementation. With any new process, teachers and principals are trying their best to comply with expectations. It will take more time, resources, and support through training to move from compliance to professional growth.

Challenge #2 – the software got in the way of the focus on professional growth. As with most software companies, our provider of the PGES evidence system over promised and then under delivered. We have gotten feedback from all stakeholder groups and are in the middle of making decisions about how to improve the evidence gathering process for PGES.

While there are other areas of improvement for PGES, these two challenges seemed to be the most pronounced based on stakeholder feedback and data analysis. Moving forward, we will continue to work with our Teacher Effectiveness Steering Committee and review the results from the first year of full implementation as we strive for improvement. 

At the meeting it was evident that what Kentucky does better than most is work well together. We have been very successful in developing an excellent model for teacher effectiveness and I am confident that through continued collaboration, Kentucky will revise the system and ensure the system makes an impact on professional growth and student learning.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Graduation rate moving in the right direction

In recent years, the high school graduation rate became a critical measure of success for our schools and districts across the nation. The National Governor’s Association developed a common definition for high school graduation rates, the cohort rate, and No Child Left Behind required all states to report the cohort graduation rate so a common report would be available for comparison.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan added incentives for schools and districts to improve graduation rates through programs such as School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top.

Two leading national organizations developed a collaborative model to focus the nation on improving graduation rates. America’s Promise Alliance, led by General Colin Powell and his wife Alma, joined forces with the Alliance for Excellence in Education, led by former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise. The collaboration led to an effort called GradNation and a national goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. GradNation produces an annual report which is available online. Here are some highlights from this year’s report.

The 2013, graduation rate for the nation was 81.4 percent which is on target to reach 90 percent by 2020. Kentucky had a graduation rate of 86.1 percent, which was well above the national average and among the top ten rates in the country. Kentucky’s class of 2014 reached an all-time high grad rate of 87.4 percent, which will probably place Kentucky among the top five states in the nation.

Hispanic/Latino and African American students are beginning to close the graduation gap. Historically they have not graduated at the same high rates as most of their counterparts.  However, in 2013, Hispanic students registered a 75.2 percent graduation rate and African American students recorded a 70.7 percent rate. Again, Kentucky again outperformed the nation with a 2013 graduation rate of 79.8 percent for Hispanic/Latino and 78.4 percent rate for African American students. According to state data, these rates continued to improve in 2014 with an 84.4 percent rate for Hispanic and 79.4 percent rate for African Americans.

Perhaps the report’s most exciting news for Kentucky was the results for economically disadvantaged students. Most researchers know that Kentucky has one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty and one of the highest percentages of children qualifying for free- and reduced-price meals.

Despite these challenges, the GradNation report revealed that Kentucky had the highest graduation rate in the nation for economically disadvantage students – 85 percent! It is a strong testament about the expectations of parents, communities and students; and a strong testament to the terrific work that teachers and school leaders do every day.

While the GradNation report should give Kentucky a reason for celebration, we must continue to work to address the challenges of those students who are not reaching graduation. Under the leadership of Governor Beshear and the advocacy of First Lady Jane Beshear, Kentucky raised the dropout age from 16 to 18. The new policy takes effect in nearly all 173 school districts in August with the beginning of the 2015-16 school year. This effort coupled with improvements in alternative schools, career and technical education, early warning systems, high school transition courses and many other strategies that our schools are implementing will certainly result in continued improvements for our high school graduation rate.

I feel certain that, when it comes to graduation rates, Kentucky will continue to be a top performing state and will continue to help more students achieve a bright future.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The truth about teaching

Teacher Appreciation Week is drawing to a close. But I didn’t want it to pass without a nod to our state’s great educators. In my travels around the country, I often brag on our teachers. They are the ones on the front lines of learning day in and day out and are primarily responsible for the progress we have seen in recent years.

Coach John Wooden once said that the teaching profession contributes more to the future of our society than any other single profession. I agree. Regular readers of my blog know that I often cite the importance that other countries place on the teaching profession. We should follow their lead. As businessman Lee Iacocca once noted, in a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.

Most of us think we know what it means to teach, and by extension, to be a teacher.

But, the truth is, most people don't really know much about teaching. Their memories and perceptions come from being students — not teachers who spent hours, days and months preparing for them to arrive in their classrooms.

Most people have no knowledge of hours-long curriculum planning meetings, weekends spent correcting students' work or the time spent on professional learning seeking out new teaching strategies to help students master critical concepts.

Most people have never managed a classroom of 25 or more students, some of whom come to school angry or neglected, leery that another adult will let them down, but at the same time craving someone who will listen to them, see them, believe in them and help them.

Most people don't know what it is like to stress over learning new, more in-depth standards, master yet another new technology, or feel like a failure when all their hard work results in barely a percentage blip on state assessments.

In the public eye, teachers often swing between being revered and reviled. They are either members of the noblest profession or they are viewed as incompetent and ineffective.

These are simplistic, one-dimensional characterizations. Neither offers a true portrait of what it means to teach. In fact, the two extremes allow the realities of those who teach our children to be glossed over, unsaid and unshared.

Our preconceived notions and assumptions stop us from really knowing the first-year high school special education teacher who deals with students who cannot control their emotions and act out by swearing, throwing things, and sometimes physically harming themselves.

We don't get to meet the teachers who keep snacks in their desks so students don't go hungry, who buy winter coats, hats and mittens for children who come to school cold, or who purchase new shoes for those who can't afford them. Then there are the teachers who often work summers to raise money to help send students on field trips and to sporting events — experiences these students wouldn't otherwise have, if not for the teacher's selfless acts.

We seldom hear about teachers who help students afford the medications they need or who, often anonymously, pay to have heat, electricity or water turned back on for struggling families so their students will have the basics at home.

We miss out on learning about the teacher who regularly helps students' families read their mail because they cannot read well enough to understand it.

Or the teacher who logs 50 hours in one nine-week period volunteering time after school so that students can have the experience of being part of a drama production.

Yet, all of these teachers are real — dedicated, compassionate professionals who want the best for their students.

Few, however, take the time to learn what teachers really do and what is happening in their classrooms. Teachers ignite the spark of learning in children. They inspire, encourage and support our children. Great teachers don’t see students for what they can’t do, but help them discover what they can do.

If all the current critics of public education spent just one day with a teacher in a classroom, they would learn the truth about our public education system, the progress our students are making and the dedication and professionalism of our teachers. 

Too often we think we know what teachers do and what they need to do better. But we don't really know unless we listen to those who know — those who teach.

Teachers educate our children, but they also have much to teach all of us about what is happening in our schools. Let's take the time to not only thank them, but also talk with them and to listen to what they have to say.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A 4-year degree isn’t the only path to success

I ran across an interesting report this week with evidence that associate degrees and certificates can be a viable path to the middle-class. The report has significant implications for Kentucky as we begin to reform our Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. We anticipate significant recommendations and budget requests focused on CTE reforms during the 2016 session of the General Assembly. The Colorado report could provide a goal and key measures for this legislation – an increase in associate degrees and certificates that are linked to key industry sectors in Kentucky and provide the opportunity to earn a living wage.

Here are a couple of the findings:
     •  While Colorado, like Kentucky, offers many pathways for postsecondary degrees, the fastest growing sector is the associate degree.
     •  Short-term certificates that take less than one year to complete and have a significant payoff within 5-10 years after earning the certificate. With certain certificates, average earnings exceed $50,000 compared with bachelor’s degree earnings of $55,000.
     •  An associate degree in applied science has far more value than an associate degree in art or science. An associate degree in applied science has essentially the same average earnings after 5-10 years as a bachelor’s degree. The most popular applied science areas and those identified as being in industry sectors that have significant job openings are registered nursing, allied health diagnostics and fire protection.

Possible next steps for Kentucky that should be integrated into legislation include:
     •  Identify industry sectors that have significant numbers of job openings.
     •  Within these industry sectors identify certificates and associate degrees that enable students to compete for available jobs.
     •  All certificate and associate programs should utilize business and industry to regularly identify and refresh the skills and competencies needed in available jobs.
     •  High schools and community colleges should work closely to align career pathways to ensure students have a seamless experience.
     •  Every career pathway should lead to an industry-recognized certificate and/or appropriate associate degree.
     •  Heavy emphasis should be placed on dual credit opportunities to reduce the cost of postsecondary education as a student works toward an industry certification and/or associate degree.

Reforming career and technical education in Kentucky should not be based on anecdotal information. We must move forward based on hard data from industry and economic development. Preparing a workforce for the future will be the best economic development tool for Kentucky as we recruit business and industry to our state and local communities.