Friday, January 29, 2016

Do not give in to despair

This was a big week in Frankfort as the governor released his proposed budget. I do not want to spend a great deal of space waxing philosophical about politics or the legislative processes. However, I could not let the week pass without saying something about what lies ahead of us.

In his address to the General Assembly, the governor made clear that proposed budget cuts are meant to provide resources to shore up our underfunded state and teacher pension systems, a problem that needs to be addressed. The governor and I agree that we need to protect our districts and state funds for education, so Governor Bevin indicated that SEEK would be exempt from the proposed cuts. However, even keeping the per pupil rate the same, while appreciated, will  leave districts short of the money they need as costs continue to increase. Still, the governor deserves props for trying to protect our districts and ultimately our students from the reductions. Yet, there are reductions.

Like other state agencies, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) is required to cut 4.5 percent or about $17.9 million from its current year spending before June 30. Since we are more than half way through the fiscal year, this is going to be difficult, at best. At KDE, we have long had the priority of trying to absorb as many of the reductions as possible so more money can go to classrooms to support actual teaching and learning. This will continue to be the priority.

Still, if this budget passes it will mean a further tightening of the belt for everyone. The department will be required to cut 9 percent in each of the next two years – amounting to about $72 million in reductions over the biennium.

I tell you this not to worry or scare anyone. Rather, it is to inform. We know there will be reductions in any budget that is passed and we must be prepared. This is a reality. In light of the situation, I look forward to working with our districts and partners to find ways to continue to offer excellent education to all of our students.

We know that in many ways we are victims of our own success. We continue to do what is right for kids in our state even when things are tough financially. That’s not just my personal opinion, it is backed up with evidence. A recent report from the Gatton College of Business and Economics showed Kentucky was one of eight states that outperformed the rest of the nation academically when obstacles to cost-effective educational spending are taken into consideration. Those obstacles include poverty, parental education, missed school days, rural population and high obesity rates. This should be the impetus for more spending on education not less. No one wants more cuts, but I am also sure that Kentuckians will do what is right by their students. We have for 25 years, and we will continue do so.

We all have a right and cause to be nervous about the proposed budget. However, do not give in to despair quite yet. The legislative process is long and there will be time after that to evaluate what actually needs to be done.

Over the next few months, KDE will be proactive in our communications and in providing guidance and support to all of our districts and partners. I will not panic and I urge you not to do so either. Let’s work together to inform one another, all of our partners and policymakers about the next best course of action.

Our priorities at KDE, and mine specifically, will be to minimize reductions in money going to local school districts in areas such as Flex Focus funds and other grants; Area Technology Centers; as well as the Kentucky School for the Blind and the Kentucky School for the Deaf.

We will get through this. We all need to work together, we must.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Equity, Achievement, Integrity

This was an important week for education in Kentucky and for me personally as I presented the first State of K-12 Education in the Commonwealth report. 

I have watched Kentucky from afar for the past decade and was always impressed with the work and commitment to improving education opportunities for students. For the past 3 months, I’ve been digging deeper to learn more about our system. I can tell you it has lived up to and even exceeded my expectations.

As I announced on Thursday, the state of education in the Commonwealth is strong. I felt it was important to share where we are in education currently, so we released a report that provides full picture – both the good and not so good – of where we are in K-12 education as we start off 2016. The report may be accessed here. 

So, what is next?  How do we move forward?  As I shared this week, I have built my education priorities on three pillars: equity, achievement and integrity. These three pillars have always been paramount to me because they make a real difference in the lives of children. That is why I plan to also make them the pillars of Kentucky’s education work from this point on.

First, there is equity. Equity cannot be something we just give lip service to. Equity is something that we all must give our effort, our commitment, and our very passion to in order to ensure every child has the opportunity for a high quality education, and is equipped to make any life choice they want after high school graduation. While we have provided greater access for students to advanced placement, higher level coursework and quality instruction, we have not overcome the simple reality that we have a large achievement gap. We must continue to shift our thinking and our instruction to meet the needs of a greater diversity of learners than we have ever had before. Equity means opportunities for all students and I plan to do everything in my ability to ensure this. 

Achievement is about how students perform, but it must be more than that. Ensuring all students achieve at high levels has been an earmark for Kentucky for years. Our students have proven they can rise to the occasion with demonstrated improvement in achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the ACT as compared with the nation as a whole. We cannot let up. To be clear, we cannot be solely concerned with test scores, but we cannot ignore them either. 

We also must continue to push for more students to graduate from high school. We have made remarkable progress in this area with an 88 percent graduation rate, among the highest in the nation with all states now using the same four year cohort graduation rate formula as a measure. And our diploma means something – among all the states in the country that require rigorous graduation requirements – four years of English language arts and mathematics through Algebra II for every student, Kentucky is number one in its graduation rate, all while raising our expectations and committing to excellence in achievement.

This is bigger than just education.  With this many more students graduating and graduating with a quality diploma, it has potential for a tremendous benefit to our overall economy. Each high school graduate contributes a net economic benefit to our economy of $209,000 through increased government revenues and lowered government spending.  This equates to a net economic benefit of approximately $1.1 billion.  In short, all students achieving at high levels is not just a nice tag line, it is a reachable goal with a big payoff for our students and Kentucky.

Finally, let’s consider integrity. When I was in the classroom, I had trouble giving students extra credit because their grade would not honestly reflect what they knew.

One particular situation stands out in my mind. I overheard a group of my AP Chemistry students talking about me as a teacher. One student, who hadn’t had me before, boasted about how she had made 108 in a regular chemistry class the year before and how I could not be that bad. The students that had me the previous year told her I was not “bad” as in hard, I simply believed in being clear about what a student understood. Needless to say, my new student soon realized she did not know or understand as much as she thought because of the artificial grade she had made the year before.

The bottom line is that we must be honest with our students, teachers, and parents about achievement. The same applies to our work with low performing schools. It requires an honest approach and requires our schools to be honest with themselves. The ones who have improved have held true to this notion. We have had 15 schools come off the priority list over the past six years and none of them have returned. That is one of the best rates in the country. Why? Because the educators in those buildings are honest and dedicated to ensuring their students get a better education. 

I could not be more proud to report that the state of education in the Commonwealth is strong. We have much of which to be proud, but I also recognize we still have a way to go in several areas. I pledge to you, as I have to the Kentucky Board of Education, to continue to build on our successes and address our shortcomings -- all while working cooperatively and with a commitment to equity, achievement, and integrity.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A new year, a new day

It’s a new calendar year, a new day in Frankfort and a new day in Washington D.C., and I couldn’t be more excited. When the page on the calendar turns from December to January, I always get a sense of renewal, drive and enthusiasm for the future. The feeling is more acute in 2016 than I remember in a long time.

Part of the reason is that I am here in Kentucky. Nationally, the state has an excellent reputation for improving K-12 education and the prospect to build on that legacy is one of the main things that drew me to my new Kentucky home. I am eternally grateful to the Kentucky Board of Education for trusting me with the opportunity. I pledged to them as I do to you, to listen to all sides and make decisions in the best interest of children. As stated in the Supreme Court opinion in Rose v. Council for Better Education more than a quarter century ago, “Each child, every child, in this Commonwealth must be provided with an equal opportunity to have an adequate education.”

But to me, adequate, doesn’t set the bar high enough. My goal is to build on our accomplishments of the past 25 years to provide each child and every child with an equal opportunity to an excellent, world-class education that will lead them to success in their postsecondary endeavors, and in life. I believe, as do many among us, that education is the key to prosperity in Kentucky. It is the one thing with the potential to break the cycle of poverty that has plagued this state for far too many years.

With that said, it is a new day in Frankfort with a new governor, new administration and a new session of the General Assembly that in the next few months – hopefully with the education community’s input and expertise – will determine the course toward our goal. Lawmakers will approve a new biennial budget and are poised to consider a slew of education legislation.

It’s also a new day in Washington, D.C. with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, this time around known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. It provides us a greater opportunity to chart our own course for the future of education than any time in recent history.

In the coming weeks, as always, it is important that policy decisions are based on the facts of today. We must build on our successes with the goal of moving education forward. It is absolutely essential that we are honest with ourselves and with our children and that we continue to have high expectations for all.

We have some great opportunities ahead of us, some would call them challenges, but I see them in a more positive light. These opportunities have reignited a fire within me, and hopefully one within you to work hard, stand up for what is right for Kentucky’s kids and not take the easy way out, even if it is the more popular choice. This will take attention, accurate information, hard work, courage, compromise and understanding. I’m up for the task, are you?