Monday, October 31, 2016

All students deserve opportunities to find their passion

In a week that kicks off with many of us participating in trick or treat, I got a real treat on Saturday night. I got to attend the Kentucky Music Educators Association’s (KMEA) State Marching Band Championships. It was an incredible event and I was honored to be a part of it.

I had the chance to watch these bands’ astonishing performances. The sound, the presentation and the sheer majesty of each performance showed all the hard work that each student and adult put into it. It was clearly hard work, but I want to spend a little time on something bigger and more inspiring. These kids and adults (I say adults because in addition to band directors/teachers, the parent commitment is incredible) do not spend time on this just because of hard work. They do it because they love it. And when I say they love it, I do not mean that in the way that the term is overused today. I mean they LOVE it. There is a real passion for what they do. You can see it in their faces, their actions, and in their performance.

One of the most impressive parts of the evening was the closing ceremony. The bands marched into the stadium and lined up across the football field. The pageantry and pride as they marched in and took their positions was on the scale of the closing ceremony of the Olympics. I was struck by the look of pride and joy on each student’s face as they marched past me. They did this because they love it, not just because it’s hard or they wanted something to do.

Some will read this column and think my observations are obvious. I wanted to write about it because it inspired me to think about how important opportunity is for all of our students. As we are working on our new accountability system, we must remember the importance of providing a rich, well-rounded education to each student. We have to realize that a well-rounded education not only shows an increase in assessment scores in tested subjects (which is supported by research), but it also gives students the chance to do something they love, which makes them appreciate and engage in their school and education.

We must move past the test and compliance and into quality education. We owe it to our students across the Commonwealth. Education is about more than a test score, it is time we all realize that.
The days of “if it’s not tested, it’s not taught” must end. As an education professional, I am appalled when I hear this. It is no different than having a brain surgeon walk past a person having a heart attack and refusing to help because “they don’t do the heart.” It is shameful and we cannot afford this attitude any longer.

The reality is we teach children and those children need the opportunity to experience music, art, career and technical education, science, social studies, languages and all the other aspects of school. If we want to see our achievement and opportunity gap close, we must start with a change in mindset.

My time this weekend inspired me. I am thankful to John Stroube and KMEA for allowing me to participate and see some of Kentucky’s best marching bands in action. Those students showed me their passion for their music. We need to keep that enthusiasm in mind as we go about making sure their education and opportunities to excel are second to none.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Courage in the face of adversity

October is a special month. There are lots of things that happen in October – Safe Schools Week; Down Syndrome Awareness Month, Learning Disabilities (LD) Month and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Month; the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens; college football really takes off; and of course, Halloween.

I realize that this is an education blog, but I am going to go a slightly different direction this week. That’s the thing about a blog, it allows you to share messages important to the blogger, and this week is no exception. I suppose my topic does fit the education realm to some extent, as health education is an important part of each child’s education.

October is a special month for me because it is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I hope everyone knows this since there has been plenty of pink around, even NFL referees and players have been wearing pink accessories. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is special to me for very personal reasons. It became important for the first time around 2006. My dear mother-in-law had her first bout with breast cancer that year. It was a tough time. We had just lost my father-in-law to esophageal cancer the previous year. My family, my wife in particular, had more placed on her than any person should. It was hard and grueling. It was sad and draining. But, as hard as it was, as I look back I realize there was good that came of it.

My mother-in-law showed a courage in facing her battle that was more than admirable, it was inspiring. I knew virtually nothing about breast cancer – only that it was treatable if caught early enough. Unfortunately, she had a very aggressive type that returned too soon after she beat it the first time. Through it all, she and my wife faced the challenges head on. She fought and held it off for a long time. She was focused on being with her grandchildren, and focused on doing what she could to help us. She was funny. She was proud. She was loving. She was a great lady.

My wife is the most incredible person I know. After watching her and her mom deal with this horrible disease, I can see why. She came by it honestly. As hard as it was, our family was given the example of strength and courage and reminded of how important life is.

This month is also important to me because a valued member of my staff fought and beat the disease. She found out she had breast cancer on the day of my first interview to become commissioner. She has become a dear friend and I am not sure the agency could run effectively without her. But knowing what I know about fighting breast cancer, it is easy to see why she is so cherished by me and our state education agency – she possesses the same courage my mother-in-law did. I am honored not only to know her, but also to have been Wilma Cannon’s son-in-law.

I realize this is may seem a pretty sad blog. That is not my intent. I simply want to add my own words to the month that is dedicated to awareness of this terrible disease. In most cases, it is treatable if caught early. So I encourage everyone – women and men alike (yes, though extremely rare, men do get breast cancer too) – to be diligent in their own self-examinations and for women, regular screenings. I also want to encourage you to be inspired by these strong and courageous individuals. They are all around us – in our classrooms, in our board rooms and in our communities. They teach us how to live, they teach us what it means to value the important things in life.

Take time this month to be informed and renew your commitment to taking care of yourself. In honor of these and other brave women, I will wear pink each day I can this month, I hope you will too.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Time to flip the script on thinking about achievement gaps

I was attracted to Kentucky by its groundbreaking history of education reform and the tremendous gains it has made in graduation rates and college and career readiness over the past decade. I want to build on those accomplishments and take our Commonwealth even higher, providing each and every child with a world class education that puts them and our state on solid economic footing for the future.

But for all its academic gains, our Commonwealth has fallen short when it comes to addressing disparities in learning among different groups of students. Far too many children are not getting the education they need and deserve to be successful in life. This disparity is called the achievement gap and, despite decades of well-meaning efforts aimed at closing these academic divides, it has not closed in Kentucky or nationally.

We have a moral and ethical obligation to rectify this situation for the well-being of our children, our Commonwealth and our society. A problem this large, this long standing, this entrenched, this so seemingly unsolvable, is understandably overwhelming. Where do we start? What solutions do we employ? Before we can even begin asking and answering these questions, however, I want to suggest that we all – as a state, as parents, as teachers and as community members – undertake what may be the most difficult, but undoubtedly in my mind the most critical step: We must shift how we think about the achievement gap and we must do it in two very specific ways.

First, we need to recognize it is all of our problem, and all of our responsibility to remedy this disparity in student achievement. In this age of accountability, the blame for the achievement gap has often been laid at the school house and classroom door. In turn, educators and others have pointed to out-of-school factors that contribute to gaps and are out of their control. It is time we stop the blaming and finger pointing and acknowledge we all have a dog in this fight. We all contribute to it, and to solve it, we must all share in it and take ownership. I take my part in that ownership and I invite all of you to join me in doing the same.

Secondly, 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. To me, the achievement gap is really an issue of expectations and opportunities. We have to admit that while our standards our good, individual district and school curriculum may be lacking. We’re not holding students to the same level of accountability.

We also have not given our students the same opportunities. For example, a very small percentage of African-American students took an Advanced Placement course last year. We’re not giving equal access to challenging classes for all of our students in the Commonwealth. That is quite simply shameful. Whether that’s because we’re trying to shelter students from the possibility of failure or because educators are trying to shelter their schools from lower passing rates, it isn’t acceptable.

If students are not given a chance to test their limits, then they will never be able to reach their full potential. In this case, it is not the children who are failing; it is the adults who are failing our children by sending the message to some students that, “This is not for you.” It is that kind of thinking and messaging, be it direct or indirect, conscious or not, that creates inequity and disparity in our schools, and until we begin to challenge it and replace it with new thinking and a message of high expectations and equal opportunities, we will never find solutions to the achievement gap.

There is no one size fits all to the achievement gap. Different approaches will work for different students. Before we can begin to try these solutions or create new ones, we need to change our culture and thinking around this issue. As shareholders for Kentucky’s public schools, you are in a perfect position to assist in shifting Kentucky’s thinking about the achievement gap. You can begin sharing the message of shared responsibility and high expectations and equal opportunities for all students at your schools and in your communities. Please join me in helping to spread this message. Together I know we can begin to address these longstanding disparities and inequities, and make a difference for the children of our Commonwealth.