Friday, August 28, 2015

Final Words

This is my last blog as commissioner of education for Kentucky. It has been my privilege to serve the children of Kentucky. I am extremely proud that Kentucky educators have helped more students graduate from high school and achieve college- and career-readiness than at any point in the history of the Commonwealth. Student achievement on state assessments, the ACT, and other national assessments continue to show Kentucky students are making progress.

While I am proud of these accomplishments, I am also aware that there is much work to do for the new commissioner and the Kentucky Board of Education. 

Achievement gaps persist and unless addressed, many children will not be able to reach their potential. Early childhood expansion is critical if we are ever going to close achievement gaps. 

While we have excellent teacher preparation programs in Kentucky, we must review the certification requirements for our upper elementary and middle school teachers who focus on mathematics. 

The Governor’s Bullying Task Force recommendations need to be fully implemented in our schools. 

Funding for critical support systems like school transportation and career and technical education must be increased. 

These issues and others will present many challenges to the Kentucky Department of Education leadership and the Kentucky General Assembly.

While we have achieved much and there is much left to do, my fondest memories of Kentucky will be the people. I traveled to every county in the state and visited every school district. I visited more than 800 schools and personally talked with thousands of educators, parents and community leaders across Kentucky. I am convinced that the people of Kentucky are kind, caring and committed to support public education. 

It has been the pinnacle of my career to work with a terrific Governor and First Lady. 

Members of the General Assembly have been strong advocates of education and Senate Bill 1 (2009) has provided the road map for the last six years. 

The team at the Kentucky Department of Education is second to none and will continue to do terrific work in support of our schools and students. 

Kentucky teachers are the best in the nation and will continue to motivate students. 

Finally, the reason educators do what they do is for the children. It is the reason I have done what I do for so many years. The Kentucky students I have met during my time as Commissioner are bright, eager to learn, and motivated to succeed. Kentucky has a very bright future with these students as future leaders.

Best wishes to all.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The future of PGES

During the August Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) meeting, Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) Associate Commissioner Amanda Ellis provided the board with an update on results from the 2014-15 implementation of our Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES). This was the first year that every district implemented the system for teachers and leaders. Also, every local school board implemented the Superintendent Professional Growth and Effectiveness System. In my June 26 blog, I discussed the national perspective on this issue.

The results from Kentucky mirrored those that have been released in most other states. More than 90 percent of our teachers and leaders received ratings of accomplished and exemplary. Some will take this as good news and others will say that Kentucky has wasted five years and significant resources to implement a state evaluation system that has a mismatch between student performance and teacher performance.

The group that calls the PGES a waste of time and resources will point to the student achievement distribution in Kentucky. This distribution shows that slightly more than 50 percent of our students are achieving proficient and distinguished performance on state tests while more than 90 percent of teachers and leaders are receiving the highest ratings of performance.

The Kentucky Board of Education made a key decision to not include the PGES results in the state accountability model for 2015-16. Key reasons for the decision were the concern about the results and concerns about time to implement the system and problems with the technology system used by PGES.

The key question should not focus on the past but on the future. Certainly, the KDE team agreed with KBE that the PGES system was not ready for inclusion in the accountability model. However, it is critical to be clear about the purpose of PGES. The purpose was not to rank and rate teachers. The ranking and rating system was a federal requirement. Most major corporations have learned that evaluation systems that rank and rate do not lead to a more productive and engaged workforce. The basic purpose of the PGES was to promote professional growth and elevate the teaching profession.

Moving forward, I hope the KBE and KDE will focus on a couple of key issues.

Issue #1) – Ask teachers if the feedback they receive from PGES helps them improve their instruction. We know that many of our principals struggle to provide feedback to teachers since the principals may not have the content knowledge in a specific area. However, PGES allows for peer observers and also student feedback. These two sources in addition to the principal could provide excellent suggestions on how to improve. Also, it is very important that Kentucky focus time and effort on training principals on how to provide solid instructional feedback.

Issue #2) – KDE must partner with our universities, leadership training programs and other partners to provide coaching and feedback on how to develop rigorous but fair student growth goals. Every teacher in Kentucky should have student growth goals. Every principal will be evaluated on how well the teachers meet those student growth goals. KBE and KDE should look closely each year at the correlation between student growth goal performance and teacher/principal performance on PGES.

Issue #3) – KDE and districts must address time and technology concerns. The amount of time required of teachers and principals to complete the PGES measures must be manageable. The technology must be user-friendly and be seen as a time saver rather than a time consumer.

Issue #4) – This year the PGES data represents only the tenured teachers who were in their evaluation year cycle. The PGES data did not include statewide data from first year teachers or teachers not in their evaluation cycle year. It is still too early to make any long-term decisions on the future of the PGES system.

Issue #5) – KDE must focus training and support not only at the teacher and principal level, but also at the district level. Too often, central office administrators do not have the capacity to coach principals on how to provide instructional feedback to teachers. There are excellent models in our districts and KDE needs to identify those best practice districts and provide those models to all districts.

If any state in the nation can serve as a model for the implementation of a teacher and leader effectiveness system that improves student learning outcomes, it will be Kentucky. We have all the necessary ingredients: terrific teachers, strong leaders, terrific collaboration among partners and a focus on children.

Hopefully, everyone will give our schools and KDE the time needed to make the necessary adjustments in training and support.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Turning around low-performing schools

This week, the Interim Joint Committee on Education (IJCE) held a hearing to discuss low-performing schools. The committee received testimony from Dr. Charles Duke from the University of Virginia, Brent McKim with the Jefferson County Teachers Association and Dr. Tom Shelton, the executive director for the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.

Since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) took effect in 2002, schools have been accountable for closing achievement gaps and working toward a goal of 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math based on state assessments. Under NCLB, if a school failed to meet targets for academic performance for all student groups, then it faced a number of sanctions that increased in severity the more years that a school failed to make progress. Sec. Arne Duncan used stimulus dollars to help improve low-performing schools. The 2010 session of the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation to connect to federal requirements and Kentucky was able to gain more than $50 million in funding through the School Improvement Grant process.

This process required Kentucky to identify the bottom five percent of schools based on reading and math performance. These schools then underwent a leadership audit to determine if the principal, school council and/or district had capacity to turn around the school. The school had four options to choose from in turning around the school – transformation, school closure, restaffing or external management. Most schools chose the transformation model. Jefferson County used the restaffing model. A number of school councils lost authority and some principals were replaced. On rare occasions, the school district was found to lack the capacity to lead the turnaround, so the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) assumed control of school improvement efforts.

For the most part, the Kentucky turnaround model has been successful. Three schools have been named model schools after improving student performance. Pulaski County, East Carter and Franklin Simpson High Schools have moved from the bottom five percent to the top 10 percent of high schools in Kentucky. Many other schools also have improved, however, we continue to see schools in our large urban areas struggle.

The presentations to the IJCE this week highlighted what KDE believes are some essential components of improving low-performing schools. KDE believes that our low-performing schools need to have comprehensive reviews that identify strengths and areas for improvement in teaching and learning. These reviews are then the basis for short- and long-term plans. KDE also believes that low-performing schools need full-time coaches for the principal, language arts instruction and math instruction. The ONLY WAY to turnaround student performance is by supporting classroom teachers in these schools and providing them with the resources needed to improve student learning. KDE also believes that parent/community support and strong discipline are essential support tools to help teachers improve learning outcomes.

The last few years have seen significant debate about the pros and cons of school choice and charter schools. I have always been an advocate of school choice. Anything that gets parents more involved in educational decisions should be supported. However, school choice should be controlled by the local school board, which has the responsibility for the schools in its community.

I am certain the debate on how to turnaround low performing schools and close achievement gaps will continue to be an important topic. There are no simple answers. Our schools cannot do this work in isolation. While we have seen many schools and communities improve dramatically, we have also seen a number of schools languish in low performance.

Schools are often a reflection of the community in which they are located. In our large urban communities, high unemployment, poverty and crime are often ongoing challenges. Many students and parents feel hopeless. Turning around schools in these communities will require a unified effort – our cities, local elected officials, school districts, business and community leaders and our state policy makers will all need to work together. Failure to unify these communities will result in a continued drain on local and state economies and the lost promise of thousands of young people’s future.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Work yet to do

Kentucky has made remarkable progress in high school graduation rates and in the percentage of high school graduates who are college ready. High school graduation rates are among the best in the nation at 87.5 percent and our college/career-readiness rates have soared from 30 percent of graduates in 2009 to more than 62 percent in 2014. 

While this is good news, there is much work yet to do.

Despite the improvement in college/career readiness, currently only 60 percent of high school graduates enroll in postsecondary programs. In some of our high schools that number is as high as 90 percent while in others it is less than 40 percent. However, back in 2012-13, more than 80 percent of students said they had plans to enroll in postsecondary when they graduated from high school. 

Job number one is to find out why students who indicate an intent do not follow through and enroll in postsecondary. Is it the tuition rates? Is it a lack of support from families? Is it a lack of skills to complete the enrollment process or complete financial aid forms? Is it a lack of college scholarship funding from the Kentucky lottery?

Job number two is to make certain students who move on to postsecondary work are successful. We know that students who graduate from high school having reached the Kentucky college/career-readiness benchmarks realize more success their first year in college than those who are not college ready.
     • They have a higher GPA – 2.6 versus 1.7 for those who are not college

     • They complete more college hours – 22 versus 11 for those who are not
        college ready. 

     • They return for a second year of postsecondary at higher rates –
        85 percent versus 65 percent for those who are not college ready.

It is clear that Kentucky’s college/career-ready benchmarks are excellent indicators of success in postsecondary. I know our postsecondary institutions are working hard to build support systems for students who need additional support to reach success in their freshman year.

Job number three is to make certain students who move on to postsecondary are enrolled in career pathways that lead to jobs paying a living wage. Too many of our students who are graduating from postsecondary programs are finding that they have large student debt and very few job prospects in their chosen field of study. In some areas, unemployment of college graduates exceeds 20 percent and underemployment is higher than 40 percent. 

Preparing students to make wise career choices begins in elementary school and continues through postsecondary. We should NEVER put students into programs that lead to a dead end. Our career pathways programs should always provide students with plenty of on ramps and off ramps as they move through the education system.

Job number four is for Kentucky to decide what type of economy we are willing to support. Recently, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce released an analysis of the workforce pipeline in the Commonwealth. Less than 10 percent of employers think the workforce is prepared with the skills needed for the 21st century economy. Similar reports from the Southern Region Educational Board, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Governor’s Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have pointed to similar concerns about the workforce pipeline. While there are plenty of job openings, employers say it difficult to find employees with the skills needed for those openings. We have a huge skills gap in Kentucky and across this nation. 

Kentucky must decide if we are going to invest in an education and workforce system that will prepare our citizens for the 21st century economy. The states that invest in K-12, career pathways, the workforce pipeline and postsecondary today will outcompete other states for jobs in the future. As Kentucky prepares to elect the next governor, these are critical questions to be asking.

Friday, July 31, 2015

What state testing tells us

There has been a lot of controversy over state testing in the last year. 

Fortunately, Kentucky has not seen much of this controversy thanks to the leadership of our General Assembly. In 2009, the Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1 which required Kentucky to develop college- and career-ready standards, assessments based on these more rigorous standards and an accountability system aligned to both the standards and assessments. 

What has happened in other states?

While most other states adopted college- and career-ready standards in 2010-11 time frame, the adoption of the standards was voluntary. Major push back on college- and career-ready standards occurred after President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan supported adoption and implementation of the standards through the Race to the Top grants and No Child Left Behind Waivers. 

Most states moved slowly to implement the standards and relied on the Race to the Top (RTTT) assessment consortia – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) or Smarter Balanced – to develop new assessments. The first administration of these consortia-developed state assessments took place during the 2014-15 school year, and only now states are beginning to report the results.

Major push back on the state assessments happened within the last 12 months primarily due to opposition to the college- and career-ready standards; opposition from teachers who were concerned about being evaluated based on student test scores (a Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waiver requirement); and opposition from parent organizations who were concerned about over testing of students and narrowing of curriculum due to an emphasis on tested subjects.

At one time, almost 40 states belonged to one or more of the assessment consortia. Very early in 2010, Kentucky belong to both. However, it became apparent to us that the consortia would not be able to provide an assessment that met our budget or timeline. 

Kentucky worked with classroom teachers and assessment experts to develop a Kentucky-specific assessment that was aligned from 3-8 through high school with the college-readiness expectations based on the ACT. Kentucky parents and teachers are able to determine as early as 3rd grade if a student is on track to reach the ACT college-readiness benchmark in the 11th grade. Since the ACT is a state-required assessment and is widely recognized by parents and colleges, this alignment seems to have given Kentucky an advantage with helping parents understand the importance of annual testing.

As I reflect on events since Senate Bill 1 in 2009, the key reasons that Kentucky has successfully navigated the rough political waters that have sunk other states are:
     1) General Assembly support and action on a comprehensive college- and career-ready agenda
     2) Overwhelming support and buy in from educators and parents for the college- and career-ready agenda.

Moving forward, I believe that we will continue to see other states struggle with state assessments. 

I predict the RTTT assessment consortia will have difficulty providing an assessment of college- and career-readiness that is comparable to accepted measures such as ACT. The consortia also will struggle to provide an assessment that is cost effective for states. Due to the political environment, we will continue to see more states drop out of the assessment consortia (currently the majority of states do not belong to an assessment consortium).

I am very proud of the leadership of the General Assembly and the work of Kentucky educators to make a smooth transition to a college- and career-ready agenda. I predict that the Kentucky economy will continue to improve due to the education focus on college- and career-readiness. 

Just this week, I reviewed data for the Class of 2013 that revealed students who graduated from high school, met the Kentucky college-readiness benchmarks and attend postsecondary out performed students who were not college ready. According to the data, in their first year of postsecondary, college-ready students 
     • have a much higher GPA (2.6 vs 1.7)
     • complete nearly double the number of college credit hours (21.9 vs 11.1) and 
     • return for a second year of postsecondary at a higher rate (85 percent versus 65 percent) 

This is great validation that our assessments and college-readiness benchmarks are strong predictors of postsecondary success.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Recovery of dropouts should be seen as opportunity

Senate Bill 97, which the Kentucky General Assembly passed in 2013, raises the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18 for all Kentucky public school districts once 55 percent of districts voluntarily adopt such a policy. This took only two weeks in 2013. Because of the vision and leadership of these local boards of education, now all Kentucky school districts have adopted a policy to raise the dropout age to age 18, with the vast majority of districts implementing the policy in the upcoming 2015-16 school year. 

As a result, local districts are contacting students between the ages of 16 and 18 who have dropped out of school so the students can re-enroll in school this fall. 

The recovery of young adults who have made the unwise decision of dropping out of school is an economic, moral, and civil rights imperative for Kentucky. For too long, Kentucky has chosen to forget about these students and hoped that they were able to find their way in life. For too many of these students, the path forward has led to unemployment, dependency on social programs and for some, incarceration. More than 70 percent of the inmates in our nation’s prisons are high school dropouts.

The recovery of these young adults presents a tremendous opportunity for our schools and communities. The Kentucky Department of Education provided planning grants of $10,000 to assist school districts with this transition. Implementation grants also were provided to assist districts. And it should be pointed out that students who re-enroll are included in federal, state and local per pupil funding.

As with any new initiative there have been some missteps with implementation of the recovery system. Recent media articles have drawn attention to isolated cases of students caught in the middle of the transition to raising the dropout age.

One of the transition issues is related to the GED. For many years, high school dropouts looked to the GED as an alternative to a high school diploma. The GED was not intended for students between the ages of 16-18. The GED was intended for adults who were seeking to re-enter the education system to gain credentials that could help them gain better employment opportunities. 

A leading economic researcher, Dr. James Heckman, has well documented evidence that 16-18 year old high school dropouts who seek a GED have no better economic future than high school dropouts. Today’s economy does not support high school dropouts. There is substantial research to show the earnings difference between a high school dropout and students who move forward to a high school diploma and postsecondary credentials. 

Also, the GED has made a major shift in the level of performance expected to pass. The GED transition was based on the academic and career skills that students need in order to be competitive in the current economy. Very few of the students who have dropped out would be able to pass the new GED without significant support in literacy and numeracy skills. What better place to receive this support than in our public schools?

While Kentucky is shifting to a higher dropout age, there will be a number of students caught in the transition over the next two years. We must seize this opportunity to be creative and innovative. School districts must look at innovative ways to provide educational opportunities to these students. Educators must use common sense. It makes no sense to tell a 17-year-old who will turn 18 in December and has only a handful of high school credits that he/she must return to school and enter traditional credit coursework. Instead, educators should look for creative alternatives. Educators should utilize the plans created as the result of the planning and implementation grants provided by the Kentucky Department of Education. Educators should look for community-based solutions that would provide academic skills in a competency-based model and career and technical skills in work-based learning model that would provide the students caught in the transition with an improved hope of job readiness. 

The alternative is doing nothing and continuing to ignore these students. This alternative would only serve to sentence these students to an outlook based on poverty, despair and hopelessness. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

College and Career Readiness – Part II

Over the last few weeks, I have been spending a significant amount of time meeting with other states and presenting at national conferences on issues related to accountability and career and technical education. 

In the past year, several very important reports have focused on career and technical education. The Council of Chief State School Officers published a report titled Opportunities and Options: Making Career Preparation Work for Students and the Southern Regional Education Board recently released Credentials for All: An Imperative for SREB States. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has published a report addressing the talent management pipeline and the National Governor’s Association has a major initiative with states that tackles the same issue. 

A common theme among all the reports is that we must change the national conversation concerning career and technical education and one of the strategies that can help is to elevate and integrate career and technical education within a state accountability system.

With the passage of Senate Bill 1 in 2009, Kentucky had a clear mission to develop an accountability system that focused on the academic preparedness of high school graduates for entry-level courses at the postsecondary level. As we were developing the accountability model in late 2009 and 2010, every stakeholder group asked us also to address career readiness. One of our first steps was to come up with a clear definition of what that meant.

Career Ready:  the level of preparation (core academic skills, employability skills and technical, job-specific skills) a high school graduate needs in order to proceed to the next step in a chosen career, whether that is postsecondary coursework, industry certification, or entry into the military or workforce.

Once we came to a consensus on how to define career readiness, it was critical that we have measures to gauge how well our students were doing in the areas that it encompasses – core academic skills, employability skills and technical, job-specific skills

With the ACT already in place, we had a measure of core academic skills. It is clear that most jobs that pay a living wage will require reading and math skills that are commensurate with college-ready academic preparedness. A national organization has completed Lexile studies that show the reading level for jobs in most career-related areas require similar reading levels to college freshmen textbooks.

While the ACT provided the basic screen for academic readiness, Kentucky higher education provided tremendous support for Compass and other college placement tests (KYOTE), so that students had an opportunity to become academically ready during their senior year if they failed to do so on the ACT during their junior year. 

Additionally, working closely with the business community, Kentucky was able to determine that the WorkKeys silver, gold and platinum levels were excellent predictors of academic readiness and some employability skills.

Kentucky worked with the military community to identify the appropriate level on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) that clearly established a potential military candidate had the academic skills needed to enter a military career path, which equated to a private career path and a job that pays a living wage. 

The technical and job-specific skills are more wide ranging than the academic readiness. These skills require career pathway-specific measures. Students in Kentucky can gain technical readiness through the completion of a set of career and technical courses that are aligned to career pathways. Additionally, students are required to exhibit an appropriate level of employability and technical skills through either the Kentucky occupational assessments (KOSSA) and/or an approved industry-recognized certificate.

What we were able to do in Kentucky is to incentivize career and technical education by awarding accountability points for both college readiness and career readiness. In doing so, we elevated career and technical education to an equal status. The key for the future will be that we no longer talk about college- and career-readiness as separate issues. Educators should talk about students becoming “life ready.” 

Educators also should focus on the concept that there are no dead ends in education. A student may choose a career pathway and enter the workforce after gaining a one year technical certification and industry certification or a student may choose to enter the work force after a two-year or four-year degree. Either way, students should always be encouraged to return to education to gain additional and stackable credentials. 

Countries like Switzerland, Germany and Singapore have recognized the need to elevate and integrate career and technical education and their economies show the wisdom of this national focus. Kentucky has been at the forefront of this work in the U.S. and I anticipate that in the next 3-5 years we will see many more states move in a similar direction. 

Creating the workforce of the future should be one of our primary goals of education. This does not run counter to the goal of creating an adult with a passion and commitment to lifelong learning. College- and career-readiness are two concepts go hand in hand since both ensure success for children and our nation.