Friday, November 20, 2015

Every Student Succeeds

On Thursday, November 19, a potentially historic event occurred. A bipartisan conference committee made up of members of the U.S. House and Senate, including Congressman Brent Guthrie from Kentucky’s 2nd District, agreed on a framework for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), most recently known as No Child Left Behind.

This is a big deal for so many reasons. In fact, I was doubtful it could happen this year. But, if things go as planned, the actual bill, known under the compromise as the Every Student Succeeds Act, will be filed by the end of the month, with a House vote the first week of December and a Senate vote shortly thereafter.

Another reason this is a big deal is that, if passed, it will give a lot of accountability control back to the states. The framework includes some significant changes and some things that will hold steady. Annual assessment in English/language arts and mathematics for students in grades 3-8 and once in high school remains the same as the old law. So does testing once per grade band in science along with a few more items. However, determining big pieces of accountability – including how we determine our lowest five percent of schools – will be left in large part to the states. This is both exciting and scary. We, and when I say “we” I mean all shareholders in Kentucky, have a moral obligation to develop a system that represents a quality education for all students.

We do not yet know the timeline for implementation, but it will be my intent to take our time and take deliberate steps to gather feedback before, during, and after development of the system. I am not saying I know how we will do this – that is why shareholder engagement and guidance is so important.

However, there are a few things that I think are non-negotiables. First, we cannot back away from disaggregating the data to ensure all students, including our at-risk and struggling students as well as our gifted and talented students, are getting a quality education. This cannot only be just in mathematics and reading. Another non-negotiable for me is that the system must not narrow the curriculum in a way that does not support the whole child or a student pursuing his or her interest. If our goal is to ensure that every student has the opportunity to choose his or her own direction after high school, we must provide them with all the opportunities we can including the arts, career-technical education, science and social studies, just to name a few.

As I said in last week’s blog, the opportunity gap is a major issue that must be addressed if we hope to close the achievement gap. I do not believe we should develop a system that looks only at outputs (state assessments) and does not look at inputs. So, we have to consider how we will evaluate the quality of the student experience. This means we will need to find ways to leverage collected data and evaluation at the school level in a way that supports good decision making for students.

Finally, I think it is critical that we create a system that holds districts and schools accountable, but also it should celebrate schools that are innovative and are finding creative ways to meeting their students’ needs.

Again, I am not saying I know how to do all of this. I have some ideas, but we as an education community have a moral imperative to ensure a quality education for ALL students. For me, that means that every child that walks across the stage at graduation has the choice of where their life will take them. I believe we have the intellectual and compassionate capital to do this.

In my first month on the job, I have been validated in my reasons for wanting to be a part of the Kentucky education community. I do not know of another state with a group of educators and partners who are more committed to the welfare of our students than we have in Kentucky. I am looking forward to all of us uniting and working together for all of our children and the good of the Commonwealth.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Eliminating the Opportunity Gap

There are a lot of dedicated and passionate people working to educate our children in the Commonwealth. Education is not an easy job, at times I would say it is one of the toughest jobs around. Kids come to us with a diversity of needs, even greater than the diversity we see in our classrooms. Yet, educators rise to that challenge each day to try to level the playing field for all our students.

Despite the improvement we have seen, we, as a state, still have a lot of work to do. We have a significant achievement gap that needs to be addressed. In this blog, I’d like to look at a root cause of the achievement gap – something I call the opportunity gap.

There is a ton of quality education research that shows that students presented with rigorous opportunities to learn rise to the occasion. While our intentions may be good, sometimes students are not afforded those opportunities for one reason or another, none of which serves the child. We may mistake a child’s lack of preparedness for lack of ability. We confuse course content and course names. And too often, our attempt at rigor gives way to an educational rigor mortis.

Our students come to us at many different levels of preparedness and sometimes that is mistaken for ability. One example is mathematics. Math and science actually are two subjects that we have convinced ourselves we can get better at by doing less. Nationally, struggling math students often are given less math content over a longer period of time. What they wind up doing is more “drill and kill” to prepare for tests. That, in my opinion, is the worst thing to do. Experience shows time and time again that struggling students excel when presented with challenging and interest-driven projects or instruction. We often take this approach with our advanced students. But we must challenge our less advanced students as well. We can narrow the opportunity gap and help close the achievement gap by ensuring that every student is provided with a rich learning environment.

On the issue of content vs. course names, we turn once again to mathematics. In several national studies, we discovered that a course named Algebra I contained content as vast as the number of schools in which it was taught. Even across states with the same standards, course content varies widely. We tend to have Algebra I, Algebra I lite, and Algebra I low carb. Well, this type of low carb is not healthy and diminishes students’ opportunities to learn. To be clear, I am not saying that every course should be the same. In fact, quality standards-based education is big on standards and short on standardization. Teachers should have the freedom to meet students where they are and engage their interest, but also hold them to a high standard. When this doesn’t happen, in my opinion, it is a major contributor to the opportunity gap.

Finally, the idea of rigor must be part of this discussion. The research on how students learn has made clear that worksheets don’t stimulate learning and development. So-called rigor often leads to apathy and a lack of motivation – you might call it rigor mortis – when a child is disconnected from his or her learning. Rich engagement through applying knowledge generates opportunities to learn and experiences on which a child can build. But when a student lacks those experiences and it is not addressed in the classroom, then an opportunity gap is created which leads to a greater gap in achievement. So, I think a key way to close the opportunity gap is with quality instruction.

To ensure all students have the same opportunities, it will take all of us in the education community working together to make a difference for our children. I am excited about the challenge and for what we can do for the children of the Commonwealth to eliminate the educational opportunity gap and close the achievement gap once and for all.

Friday, November 6, 2015


This week, I was able to get out of Frankfort and do what I most like to do, visit with students, teachers and administrators. I travelled to Warren County. It was a great start to my visits to schools and districts throughout the state. Superintendent Rob Clayton hosted me at the central office and then accompanied me to two Warren County elementary schools.

Superintendent Clayton is a dedicated and committed educator, intent on focusing on children. You may ask how I know this. The strongest evidence was my very visit. There was not fanfare for my arrival. The attention was where it should be – on the schools and what was happening in them. To me, it speaks volumes when people recognize that the real stars of public education are our students and educators.

First, we visited with the principal of Briarwood Elementary, Lori Morris. Despite being in Focus status, Briarwood just earned recognition as a Distinguished/Progressing School. It was easy to see why. Students were the priority. The whole school environment was inviting and conducive to student learning at its best.

At Briarwood, students and teachers begin each morning in the gym with an assembly. This day, Superintendent Clayton presented every student and teacher with a window sticker they could proudly display in celebration of their accomplishments. It was remarkable to see their excitement. You could tell the students liked going to school here. You could tell Principal Morris along with all the teachers and support staff I met, loved their jobs and were dedicated to the students. So, congratulations to Briarwood Elementary, not only for their accountability designation, but for the nurturing environment in the school.

My next stop was Warren County Elementary, a traditionally struggling school. It has a high percentage of students in poverty and a significant number of English Language Learners who speak about 30 different languages. Principal Josh Porter has developed a similar environment to what I saw at Briarwood Elementary. I had the occasion to see several teachers in action. Without exception, each one had the students engaged in meaningful learning activities. This is an important distinction. It is not enough simply to have students engaged. Unless the content is meaningful to the students, their engagement will wane and they will not have a quality learning experience. Clearly, the students I saw were learning.

I was honored to visit Kristin Johnson’s second-grade class and have the opportunity to read to her students. From the moment you enter the classroom, you feel the kids are in a warm, inviting and exciting environment. One mark of a good teacher, in my opinion, is cultivating a comfortable environment. These students did not know me, but they took to me immediately. There was no hesitancy or shyness with a new guy in the room. They were talkative and wanted to be involved.

I chose to read the book, I Like Myself, to the class, which has a great message for our students. No matter who you are, where you live, what you look like, be proud of who you are. In fact, the book discussion generated a Twitter hashtag, #beproudofwhoyouare, which I think I will try to use on a regular basis. I am so grateful to Ms. Johnson for letting me have some time with her students. I had fun, the students had fun and hopefully they learned a little about self-esteem in the process.

I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to share about my time in JaMarvin Durham’s fourth-grade class. What I wouldn’t do to have this guy’s energy! Whether it was his way of keeping his students’ attention with his call, “Classity class” and their response of “Yesity, yes” or the “whoop whoop” that they use to celebrate student participation in the class – he exuded an energy that was contagious. You could see that his students worked for him as well as themselves. It was not just a show either, they were engaged in the work of the day and he was really pushing the students not just to regurgitate material, but to put it in their own words in order to illustrate their level of understanding. It was a joy to watch.

I’m sure as I venture out more, which I plan to do, I will find stories like these repeated in schools across the Commonwealth. I have no doubt that there are a lot of dedicated and passionate people who work tirelessly to educate our children. Education is not an easy job, at times I would say it is one of the toughest jobs around. Yet, Kentucky’s educators rise to the challenge each day. So, to all of our educators, #beproudofwhoyouare and what you do every day for the kids of Kentucky.