Monday, September 12, 2016

Uniting for a common purpose

This week many of us paused to remember one of the most terrible attacks by a foreign aggressor on American soil. Sunday was the 15th anniversary of a day we now simply refer to as 9-11. Across the internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and every other social media platform we saw the words, “never forget.” Very fitting and I hope the words hold true. 

You may be thinking, why would you pick this to talk about in an education blog? Well, like most things in my career, the answer starts in a classroom; my classroom.

The morning of September 11, 2001 started like any other. I was teaching my first period A.P Chemistry class. At 8:46 a.m., the first plane hit the first tower or the World Trade Center in New York City. Many people thought this was a horrible accident, then just minutes later, the second plane hit the second tower. I was in my first period until 9:15, so I had no clue this had happened. A short time later, our principal came over the public address system to tell us the news. Clearly this was no accident. Little could we imagine, more bad news was to come. 

Needless to say, my class and I were horribly shaken. Our principal made the decision to cut all ties with the outside world. There would be no TV or internet. This was due in large part because we had many students who had family members in the airline industry and we did not know what airlines were involved. About 10 o’clock, the principal came back on to announce a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I remember seeing a dear friend of mine who taught special education sprinting up the hall to get to a phone. Her son worked at the Pentagon. Of course, later we learned a fourth plane had been hijacked and crashed in Pennsylvania.

It was a day of fear, mourning, loss and maybe most of all the realization that as a nation, we were not immune to the evil of the world. While we will truly never forget that day, I am afraid we have overlooked an important part of it. As a result of the tragedy, September 11, 2001 united us as a country.

In the days after 9/11, we saw flags hanging from bridges, neighbors spontaneously hugging, churches filled, Congress from both sides of the aisle singing God Bless America in the Rose Garden. We saw a United States of America disregard what divided us and embrace what united us. We had a sense of country, we celebrated the heroes of that tragic day – from the firefighters to the passengers on Flight 93. Signs of “Let’s Roll” and patriotism were everywhere. There were no agendas and no special interests that superseded our need to protect our homeland. This is what should be celebrated, and remember with just as much reverence as the event itself. The fact that we can put aside our differences for the benefit of our nation is what makes us American.

Now, back to education. It is time in Kentucky that we come together for what should unite us – the future of our children. We need to realize that education is complex, diverse in the public’s thinking, and ever changing. 

What is universally constant however, is that our children are counting on us. They do not always realize they are, but they are. They are counting on us to make good decisions based on data and not on what we think is just a good idea. They are counting on us to do it together regardless of the things that divide us. They are counting on us to provide them with an education that will prepare them to be the next generation of this great country. We have made great progress in many areas, but we have still not provided each child with the opportunity to realize the American dream. 

So, as we continue to move forward with crafting education policy and improving education in the Commonwealth, we should “never forget” the circumstances that started us down the road of education reform, the great strides we have made in the past and the fact that we still have not met the needs of each child. But, we also should make sure we remember what unites us, our children and their future. If we focus on that, we can do just as we did after 9/11. We can forget our differences and do something really special for our children and ultimately the Commonwealth and the world. 

I hope you took time to honor the heroes and families of 9/11. They deserve it and we owe them a great deal. In that spirit, I hope you will join me in uniting for Our Children, Our Commonwealth.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Taking ownership for closing achievement gaps

Achievement gaps have been around for decades. They exist in nearly every school, every school district and every state. The Prichard Committee recently released a report about gaps in Kentucky. And ACT graduating class data released this month confirms gaps continue to persist. Everyone agrees we have to do something about gaps – something that will solve the issue once and for all, but then it grows quiet.

For a long time we have been trying to teach reading and math, testing reading and math, and yet not seeing the gains we want to see. So, what is it that has to change? I have a few thoughts.

First, I think we need to help our most struggling students see they can be successful. They need to see that people like them (in both look and background) are successful. I was very lucky because I had parents who expected me to do well and allowed me to see success. Dad was a first generation college graduate and mom was a teacher, both having come from backgrounds in the copper mining area of Copperhill, Tennessee.

However, I had a high school counselor who did not see the potential in me. She told me at one point that perhaps I was “not college material.” Oh, how I would love to give her my business card. Luckily, her opinion of me did not change my destiny, because I could see where I needed to go. I knew I needed to go to college to achieve my dreams, and I knew I could be a success if I worked hard.

Role models play a big part in students’ lives, sometimes even if they never meet face to face. Several weeks ago during the 2016 summer Olympics, Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win gold in an individual Olympic swimming event. Being the first is a huge accomplishment, but knowing the weight of the future was on her shoulders is just as big. Students of color watching the games saw that if she did it, it was possible for them too.

Last month, longtime educator Bill Twyman became chair of the Kentucky Board of Education. He is the first African-American to hold this position. Bill is extremely modest and I am not sure this was on his mind at the time, but by wanting to do what is right for the students of the Commonwealth and agreeing to serve, he has empowered others to reach new heights in education.

One last example, Senator Ralph Alvarado is the first Hispanic elected to the Kentucky General Assembly. He chose to step up and become a leader. As a result he had the opportunity to speak this summer at the Republican National Convention. Whether you agree with his politics or not, he enabled many students to see that they too someday could achieve this level of success.

So how does this help close the achievement gap? It helps because so many of our students cannot see their way to success. Many may never be exposed to success or may never get the opportunities they need in school to become a success. People like Simone, Bill Twyman, and Senator Alvarado give students hope and courage to move forward. As educators, we must understand these are not flukes, but that each and every child can realize success.

If we really want to see gaps close and diversity increase, we have to own it. I said this at the release of the Prichard Committee report. I publically announced I own the achievement gap and I have to do something about it. I also said if we do not all own it, we cannot begin to see change. It is not just the Commissioner and KDE that has to own it, it’s all of us.

It’s like in CPR training, you are taught to never call out, “Someone call 9-1-1.” If you do, it is likely that nobody will do it, because each thinks the other person will. Instead, you are supposed to point to someone and say, “You call 9-1-1!” In this case there is ownership, and it’s a lot more likely it will be done. This is somewhat like what we have done in the past with regard to the achievement gap – we all agree we have an issue, but everyone thinks it’s up to everyone ELSE to find a solution.
It is time to own the issue of achievement gaps and the fact that a lack of opportunity is at the root of its existence.

There are incredible things going on around our state such as the Black Males Working Academy that I attended in Lexington at the invitation of the Rev. and Mrs. C.B. Akins. They are taking responsibility for guiding greater Lexington’s African-American male students toward success in K-12 and on to success in postsecondary. They partnered with the University of Kentucky to provide scholarships to these young men as an incentive to push them to greater heights. But it is not just the young men who participate in this effort. It also is families and a full network of support.

If we are to see change, we must be that change. If we are to close gaps, we must own the fact that in the past, we did not offer opportunity or a vision of success to all students. Achievement gaps do not just exist for our students of color, economically disadvantaged or our special needs community; they exist in different manifestations across the board. But until we are able to deal with and own the issue, we cannot possible hope that it will change.

Today is a great day to make the difference in the life of a child. We all need to make the commitment to do so.