Monday, March 28, 2016

The most effective test prep is good teaching

Well, it’s that time of year again.  The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, the grass is greening, the trees and flowers are blooming and the Commonwealth is emerging from a cold, gray winter and bursting to life once again.  Yes, spring has sprung in Kentucky.

Yet, many in the education world view this as the season of dread. It is, after all, the time of year when our students sit for state exams.  Testing is a hot topic across the country.  We worry about over testing, “teaching to the test” and the stress our students incur as the result of testing.  Assessment and accountability have become interchangeable words and both have made us change our perspective on education.

As we move forward into a new era of assessment and accountability, I believe it is time to change this mindset from one of testing trepidation back to a demonstration of the learning that has taken place over the course of the school year. There are several things we need to remember for this shift to happen so that we can be most effective educating all of our children.

First, testing is not new. Students have taken tests since education began.  All industrialized countries test students and participate in international assessments.  I took tests as did anyone who ever went through K-12.  However, since accountability has focused so intently on state test results, it seems to have created a loathing and opposition to all testing. We always need to be mindful of why we are testing. Assessment has its place; it is needed to ensure all students are learning and getting an equitable education.  However, assessments must be high quality, aligned to rigorous standards, and must not be the only measure we use to determine the excellence in education.  That last point is key.
I often speak of my three pillars of education: equity, achievement and integrity.  All of these relate to assessment, but are not defined by it.  In fact, many think when they see the word achievement, it is determined solely by assessment.  Of course assessment is part, but not all of the equation.  I believe our students must be able to demonstrate achievement in many areas.

Closing the achievement gap starts with closing the opportunity gap.  Access to various opportunities for learning must be available to students both within and outside of tested subjects.  Opportunities in the visual and performing arts, STEM, science, social studies, career tech education, and any non-tested or limited-tested subjects have value, can increase student engagement and will lead to a well-rounded, educated and employed populace.  It is why our new accountability system must look at the inputs into the system and not just the outputs.

Additionally, we must remember that the most influential factor in all of education is the teacher.  It is unfortunate we often forget this.  In my opinion, we spend way too much time and money on test prep programs and not enough on one single, simple truth – the most effective test prep is good teaching.  I understand not wanting students to walk into a high stakes test unawares.  As a former AP teacher, I would have students practice problems periodically.  What I did not do is stop instruction for a month to “prep” my students.

It is time we realized that waiting until the end of the year and cramming their heads with information they didn’t relate to or get the first time around, going over the same material slower, and with additional worksheets is not the answer.  It’s our teachers who are.

I strongly believe, and research supports this, that if teachers do what effective teachers do and give great instruction and reteach when necessary along the way, the test is just an opportunity for students to demonstrate what they know.  So again, the best test prep is a great teacher giving great instruction throughout the school year. I am hopeful we can change the narrative in the future of Kentucky education. Great learning opportunities for all students plus great instruction equals great achievement – that is the equation for education success.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, but there is no where I would rather be than here in Kentucky working with our educators for Our Students, Our Commonwealth.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Our Children, Our Commonwealth

I have now been in my position for six months. I cannot believe how quickly time flies when you are having fun. This has been the greatest six months of my professional life. I am looking forward to the future. 

This past week, we had our first Town Hall Meeting in Shelbyville. It was a great start. We had almost 300 people come to the meeting to discuss what we value in Kentucky schools. I was very impressed and excited with the discussion and passion of our shareholders. Guess what we heard? Of course there were a lot of different ideas. But, I heard clearly two things, our new accountability system is about Our Children, Our Commonwealth. 

As we move forward in education, I think we need to focus and take ownership for our students' education. We will establish equity, achievement and integrity as the pillars of our work. But we should remember why these matter. Yes, accountability has as its measure, schools and districts. But what really matters are the students in those schools. Education is about our students. That sounds like such an obvious statement, but oddly enough it gets lost sometimes – especially when we discuss accountability. We have accountability to ensure a quality education for students, but it can become about the adults. 

Our Children
No one will debate that our schools and education should be about students. All educators went into education to help shape future generations. We have to do more than acknowledge this; we must own it. These are the children of the Commonwealth, our children. In saying they are our children, we move past acknowledgement and into accepting responsibility for our children's education. It's a must. They are not someone else's children, but ours. When we embrace this, it gives us a new sense of urgency. This has been what has driven Kentucky’s education improvements for 25 years. I am calling on us to do this once again. 

Our Commonwealth
Improving education must be done collaboratively. We need all shareholders working together to improve the lives of our students. We need to rally around the idea that we possess the ability to affect the future of our state. The preparation of OUR children will impact the future of OUR Commonwealth. Interesting word, Commonwealth. To me, it means working together for the common good. Focusing on our children is the single most important thing we can do for them, for our state, for the common good. Together, the shareholders of education in the Commonwealth will move us forward and improve the lives of our citizens. 

We will be in Campbellsville next week. I hope to see you there. Our children need your voice and your values. 

As always, I continue to be proud to serve Our Children, Our Commonwealth. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Accountability that promotes what’s best for students

If you have followed my blogs over the past five months, you probably know by now that my favorite thing about being commissioner is that I get to see firsthand our incredible teachers and students at work.  I continue to stand in awe of our teachers and most importantly our students.  Given that education is and should be all about our students, we should have an accountability system that reflects that.

Last week, I announced the first step toward developing new state and federal accountability system under the Every Student Succeeds Act – a series of Town Hall Meetings.  I will be traveling around the Commonwealth to 11 locations to hear from our parents, educators, elected officials, community members and students about the things they value in our schools.  This is a key first step, but there are a couple of things that I believe we must keep in the forefront as we undertake this exciting, but daunting task of building a new accountability system.  

First, we must keep in mind the pillars of our work:  equity, achievement and integrity. These three pillars are student focused.  Of course, they affect adults, but they are first and foremost about students.  As such, our new accountability system must anchored in these three components and students must be our focus.  

In 2001, when the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was signed into law, the way we think about accountability changed.  The one really good thing that came out of NCLB was that we cast a spotlight on the performance of ALL students.  It has forced us to consider how we need to change instruction to support all of our traditionally underserved populations.  
There are two things, however, that I believe were unintended consequences of NCLB that I have not heard a lot of people talking about.  

First, accountability and assessment became synonymous.  This is something we must correct going forward.  I am a believer in a quality assessment system, and a strong accountability system.  However, they are separate issues.  Assessment must be a part of the accountability system, but it should not be the system.  We can glean a lot of data from assessment, but assessment should not be the sole focus of our accountability system.  When it is, it effectively limits the curriculum that is taught and I believe ultimately limits the overall learning of our students.  We must go beyond just the outputs of tests and look at what is going on with our students in schools and classrooms to evaluate whether their needs are being met.  

The second unintended consequence from NCLB is that while we were disaggregating data for our students, we were aggregating school practice.  We basically said it was okay to do whatever you need to do to get students to pass the test, often at the expense of other necessary aspects of education such as science, social studies, visual and performing arts, career and technical education, and even how we meet the needs of our gifted and talented community.  

Since accountability is reported at the school and district levels, it will be critical that we inspect our new system from every angle to ensure that there are no unintended consequences.  

In my opinion, we need a system that promotes best practice and collaboration among our districts. We need a system that promotes learning opportunities to achieve education of the whole child. Items such as school culture, availability and promotion of subjects outside the tested subjects, special attention to equity and diversity with regard to access are all things that will lead us to even greater levels of proficiency for our students. Finally, we need a system that celebrates the good things that go on in our schools and districts and holds all accountable for providing a quality education for all students.

I hope you will join me at one of the town halls.  If you cannot, I hope you will make your thoughts known on what our new accountability system should include through a special e-mail box we have set up, Please include the perspective from which you are writing – as a parent, educator, student, lawmaker, community member or other shareholder in our education system.

I need your help.  The Commonwealth needs your help.  Most importantly, the students of this great Commonwealth need you to be part of the conversation and put aside the issues that we have as adults and do what is right for them.

As always, I am so proud to be Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education, but I am especially proud at this point in history.

Friday, March 4, 2016

How do Kentuckians define school success?

On the surface, the question sounds pretty simple, “How do we define school success?” But the answers are usually not that simple – one reason that our current Unbridled Learning Accountability model is so complex.
In the past, we’ve defined school success based solely on student achievement. Most recently, we’ve done so by also considering measures such as reduction in the achievement gap, graduation rate, college- and career-readiness rate, student growth, and learning opportunities and in mostly non-tested programs such as arts and humanities, world languages and practical living and career studies. We’ve also included a measure of teacher effectiveness – at least on paper.  The state board voted to delay including it in accountability for a year.
With the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we have the opportunity once again to answer the question, “How do Kentuckians define school success?” as we work to design a new education accountability system that will be used as the basis to improve our schools and celebrate their educational progress. It is my goal to collaborate with legislators, educators, students and the public to produce a system that is fair, reliable, valid and easier to understand than what we currently have.
Soon, I will be embarking on an 11-stop listening tour across the state. I invite you to attend one or more of the sessions we are calling, “Education Town Hall Meetings: How does Kentucky define school success?” Below is a list with the dates and locations of the Town Hall Meetings which will run from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. local time.
During the meetings we will provide a brief overview of our current accountability model and what the feds are requiring be included in our new accountability system under ESSA. Then it will be up to you to let us know your thoughts.  We will be using these questions as a way to start the conversation:
What do you expect from our schools?
What school characteristics are most important?
How should we measure school success?
How do we ensure all schools are successful?
How should we celebrate school success?
This listening tour is your opportunity to provide input to Kentucky Department of Education staff and me on the design of the accountability system. Please plan on attending one of these Education Town Hall Meetings to let your voice be heard. 
EDUCATION TOWN HALL MEETINGS: How does Kentucky define school success?
All meetings are 6:30 – 8 p.m. local time.

Monday, March 14
The Blair Center @ Southside Elementary
728 Ginkgo Drive
Shelbyville, KY 
Tuesday, March 22
Campbellsville University – Gheens Recital Hall
210 University Drive
Campbellsville, KY
Tuesday, March 29
Daviess Co. High School Auditorium
4255 New Hartford Road
Owensboro, KY
Thursday, March 31
Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative
412 Roy Campbell Drive
Hazard, KY 
Thursday, April 7
Kentucky High School Athletic Association
2280 Executive Drive
Lexington, KY 
Monday, April 11
Southeast/Southcentral Educational Cooperative – Corbin Center
222 Corbin Center Drive
Corbin, KY
Monday, April 18
Kentucky Educational Development Corporation – Ashland Conference Center
904 Rose Road
Ashland, KY 
Thursday, April 21
Seneca High School Magnet Career Academy – Stickler Theatre
3510 Goldsmith Lane
Louisville, KY
Monday, April 25
Northern Kentucky Northern Kentucky University
James C. and Rachel M. Votruba Student Union – Ballroom
Kenton Drive
Highland Heights, KY 
Wednesday, April 27
GRREC Offices and Training Center
230 Technology Way
Bowling Green, KY
Thursday, April 28
Murray Middle School Auditorium
801 Main Street
Murray, KY 
For those who may not be able to attend a meeting in person, an online meeting will be offered at a later date. As a third alternative we have set up a special email,, for you to submit your thoughts. 
Your feedback on this critically important topic is essential. We must work together to shape a new accountability system that accurately measures the success of Kentucky’s students, schools and districts.
Hope to see you at one of the town halls!