A Call for Better Prepared High School Graduates: Cases Louisiana and Kentucky

In an op-ed that appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune
today, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, John White, challenged
Louisiana’s education system to do a better job of preparing the state’s high
school graduates for college and careers. White, while acknowledging Louisiana’s
success with increasing high school graduation rates, asserted that changes in
the Louisiana, national, and global economies require that students pursue some
form post-secondary education and/or training to be competitive for jobs and
make a wage sufficient for supporting a family. White referenced less-than-desirable
statistics for Louisiana students with earning college degrees; reporting that “of
100 high school students in our state, on average only 19 end up graduating
from a university six years after leaving high school.” White asserted, “when we
award a high school diploma, it should mean that the student is prepared to
succeed in college or in the workplace, no questions asked.” And he is
absolutely right.

In Kentucky as well, we must continue with increasing the
number of young Kentuckians who graduate from high school. According to the
Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), Kentucky had a 2012 Average Freshman
Graduation Rate (AFGR) of 78.8%, up 3.8 percentage points from 2008 when the
AFGR was 75%. Shameful achievement gaps remain in Kentucky with graduation rates. African American students in 2012 had an AFGR of 72.1%; up 5.3
percentage points from 2008 (66.8%), but 7.9 percentage points lower than the
AFGR of White students in Kentucky in 2012 (80.0%). These shameful gaps must be eliminated. Achievement gaps are an ugly stain on the education system of our state.

But just as Superintendent White called for better
preparation of high school graduates in Louisiana, we must ensure that a high
school diploma in Kentucky consistently means something. Currently, I don’t
believe we can say with any confidence that every student earning a Kentucky high school
diploma—whether in Paducah or in Maysville—is well-prepared for
college and/or career. I believe some students leave Kentucky high schools as
prepared as any student in the U.S. Other students, unfortunately, leave
Kentucky high schools with the same diploma, but without the preparation
necessary for success in college or career. It is time to start talking
seriously about quality control in Kentucky. What does it mean to have a high diploma
from a Kentucky high school? What should postsecondary institutions and
employers be able to reasonably expect from any graduate of a Kentucky high school?

Kentucky’s new end-of-course (EOC) assessment program is a
significant step in that direction, but much more must be done. Currently,
Kentucky only has EOC assessments for English II, Algebra II, Biology, and
History; and in most schools EOCs account for no more than 20% of a student’s
final course grade. So theoretically, a student could show little to no mastery
of course content on the EOC and still pass the course with a pretty good
grade. This would not be so problematic if students’ grades were in fact
usually based on their mastery of course content, but grades typically include
all sorts of additional things like effort, enthusiasm, attendance,
citizenship, etc.

There is no way around it, testing must be an integral part of establishing
common expectations for high school graduates across the state, but we should not rely solely on
testing for quality control. There must be a norming of academic expectations
both within and across Kentucky school districts. What Ms. Smith expects of a
student to pass her Algebra II course in Woodford County should be very similar
to the expectations Mr. Jones has of his Algebra II students in Wolfe County.
After all, students in Woodford County get the same diploma as students in
Wolfe County; and these schools’ graduates will apply for the same jobs and for seats in the same
post-secondary institutions.

In summary, just as in Louisiana, there is much work to be
done in Kentucky. We must continue to make progress with improving the
graduation rates for students in our state. We must eliminate the shameful
achievement gaps that remain between students of color and White students in
Kentucky. And we must begin to work on quality control for Kentucky high school
graduates; ensuring that when a student leaves a Kentucky high school with a diploma,
that diploma means that the student has been prepared for success in college
and/or career. That is our charge. I believe we are up for the task. Let’s get
it done Kentucky!

Crying Stories

**This week I am attending the International Symposium on
Educational Reform hosted by the University of Jyväskylä
in Finland.**

Yesterday I got a dose of
inspiration unlike any that I have had in some time. It came from two graduate
students at the University of Jyväskylä, both from China. The first was a young
lady from Shanghai in her first year of doctoral study. Her presentation was on social justice reform in the Chinese education system. She highlighted
specific areas of injustice and inequity in Chinese education, including the
gross inequities in the quality of education available to the Chinese people
based on the region of the country they live in. These inequities, she argued,
have come more into public discussion as a result of Chinese migrant workers moving
east to cities like Shanghai in order to find work. In many instances, however,
these workers have found that their children are not permitted to attend
schools in the cities past the nine years of compulsory education. In order to
go further, Chinese law requires that these families return to western China
where their homes are registered; also where the quality of education is much
poorer and where there are fewer jobs. The second student fully supported the
findings of the presentation, and added that in West China (his home) there
were many “crying stories”; stories of pain, strife, and sorrowful conditions for
children and their families.

I believe what these two students
are doing takes an incredible amount of courage. The questions they are asking,
the norms they are challenging, and the positions they are taking have historically
not been received warmly in China. But both of these students are motivated and
even driven by the dire conditions that so many children and families in their
homeland face. These students inspire me.

As I think about my own life and
career, I have collected more than my fair share of crying stories as well. I
am not speaking of nearly the same conditions that my Chinese friends are
acquainted with, but all the same, I am well-acquainted with the conditions in
American society that limit the life possibilities of children based on their
zip code, family background, race/ethnicity, gender, etc. My prayer is that the
crying stories that I have collected and continue to collect right here in the
USA will forever haunt me and drive me to be the agent for change in our
education system that I am called to be.

Educational Leadership Preparation in Kentucky: A Race to the Bottom?

This week I am attending the International Symposium on
Educational Reform hosted by the University of Jyväskylä
in Finland. Yesterday I had a great conversation with a Finnish colleague who is preparing to assume the principalship at a school in the Jyväskylä
region of the country. Our conversation centered on the quality of educational leadership
preparation programs. He first shared with me that the government has limited
the number of higher education institutions authorized for principal training;
currently only three institutions may offer principal training in Finland. But
even among just those three programs, aspiring principals in Finland have an
understanding of which programs are most highly regarded and they typically apply to
those programs first.

When asked about the state of
affairs with educational leadership preparation in Kentucky, I shared quite a
few things. I included the recent state-required reform of educational
leadership programs across the state, including the requirement that principal
preparation occur at the post-masters level-only in Kentucky. I shared that at
the University of Kentucky we had redesigned our program with the input of
practitioner colleagues to be a rigorous, high-quality program, with work-embedded
assignments and courses co-taught with scholar-practitioners currently in the field. I
shared that our program was designed to be delivered in an executive-style format,
with Saturday on-campus meetings 5-6 times per semester and online and
independent work in-between on-campus meetings. I told him that our program was
designed to prepare aspiring leaders to be the change agents in education that
Kentucky desperately needs to turn the corner in student learning.

But I also had to share
with him a few unpleasant realities about educational leadership preparation in
Kentucky; realities which contrast considerably with how Finland has approached educational leadership
preparation. I told him that the Kentucky Educational Professional Standards Board (EPSB )
has chosen not to limit the number of higher education institutions in the
state that may offer principal preparation programs. As a result, I told him, Kentucky
has an oversupply of principal preparation programs; in fact, considerably more
programs exist than there is either need or demand for programs. Kentucky’s EPSB has approved principal preparation programs at 11
higher education institutions in the state. For comparison sake, Finland has a population of
5.3 million people and three programs leading to principal licensure; and
Kentucky has a population just under 4.4 million people and 11 programs leading
to principal licensure.

But it is not the abundance of
principal preparation programs in the state alone that is so troubling. Two
confounding issues make the oversupply of programs a problem for Kentucky.
First, all of the state-approved programs are not rigorous, high-quality
programs. And who can best attest to the quality or lack of quality in
programs? Students and graduates of the programs can attest to it, and they do.
Most of the students and graduates of educational leadership programs in
Kentucky that I have come across have no problem with telling you whether their
program provides or provided solid preparation for the principalship. And it’s
been more than a few current school leaders that have told me flat out that
their preparation program was useless. That is a problem.

But here is what makes it worse.
Many of those same students and graduates will tell you that they chose their
preparation program not because they believed it to be a high-quality
program, but because it was the cheapest/quickest/easiest way to earn principal
licensure. That is an area that I do not believe has been explored by the
educational leadership research literature. While more than a few studies have
shown educational leaders criticizing their leadership preparation programs, I
am not familiar with studies that asked those leaders if they chose their
program based on its perceived high-quality. For if the findings of my non-systematic
data collection were confirmed (and I believe they would be), and principals in
Kentucky are in large numbers choosing the leadership preparation programs that
they perceive to be the cheapest/quickest/easiest way to get the certification,
then Kentucky’s schools are in a whole lot of trouble.

First, I do not believe it bodes
well that aspiring school leaders would think so little of their preparation for
administrative positions that they would choose programs in that manner. Second
but also very important, when aspiring leaders choose leadership preparation
programs based on ease, programs that need to enroll students to remain viable
begin to compete for those students by watering down program admissions
requirements, curriculum, and expectations; creating what my colleague Justin Bathon has referred to as a Race to the
for leadership preparation programs. That, I fear, is what is
beginning to happen in Kentucky. And I fear that aspiring leaders choosing preparation
programs based on ease will have disastrous consequences for the state. Programs
in Kentucky that choose to compete for students will respond to the student market
by offering dumbed-down programs; and programs that refuse to compromise their standards
will go out of business as a function of the market. The result will be
Kentucky left with a generation of school
administrators that are certified, but ill-equipped to be the visionary and transformative
leaders that Kentucky schools so desperately need.

That, I told my Finnish colleague,
is where I believe educational leadership preparation in Kentucky may be headed;
but it doesn’t have to be that way. Kentucky’s EPSB can better regulate the market. EPSB’s bar for
program approval may be set too low. A higher threshold for program approval
with just a few high-quality programs in the state may be an avenue for the
EPSB to consider. Better regulation of the market would prevent current aspiring leaders from
choosing low quality options and forcing the entire market in that direction. But
in addition to EPSB responding to this potential crisis of school leadership, we
have to change the culture of the education professions to place a much higher
value on education, preparation, and professional learning. Preparation and
training are not just unnecessary hoops for educators to jump through; these
are opportunities for deeper learning and reflection so that educators can
improve what they do. It deeply troubles me that professional development for
so many Kentucky educators has been reduced to simply accumulating the minimum
number of hours required each year. It deeply troubles me that preparation and
certification programs are regarded by so many Kentucky educators as standing
in line to get their tickets punched so they can get the job that they think they
already know how to do. We must change the current seemingly dominant cultural
beliefs about professional learning in the education professions and/or change
the people that are going into the education professions. Finnish teachers and educational
leaders place great value on their continued learning and professional
development. That seriousness about their professional learning is one of the keys
to the Finns’ successfully improving educational outcomes for students across Finland.
Such an important cultural change could pay huge dividends for Kentucky as

North Carolina’s Homeschool Education Income Tax Credit Bill (House Bill 114)

House Bill 114 (2013), introduced
in the North Carolina House in February 2013, would provide parents of
homeschooled children with a state income tax credit of $1,250 per semester per
child. A home school is defined by North Carolina statute as “a nonpublic
school in which one or more children of not more than two families or
households receive academic instruction from parents or legal guardians, or a
member of either household.” Home schools in North Carolina may elect to
operate under the legal requirements of either “private church schools and
schools of religious charter” or “qualified nonpublic schools”.

House Bill 114 now sits with the
House Education Committee. As expected, providing tax credits to homeschooling
families has not been supported by traditional public schooling advocates, who
argue that providing tax credits to homeschooling families will take funds away
from traditional public schools. But interestingly, the bill has not been
supported by all home schooling parents in North Carolina. Some homeschooling
parents are concerned that state funding, even in the form of tax credits,
could mean a greater degree of state oversight/regulation for homeschooling.
For those parents, the tax credits are not worth the hassle of more oversight.

Proposed New Charter School Board in North Carolina (Senate Bill 337)

In an interesting turn of events, the North Carolina Public
Charter Schools Association has come out in opposition to the Senate Bill 337’s
creation of a separate charter school governing board in the state which would
have independence from the NC State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction, and broad chartering, monitoring, renewal, and charter revocation authority.

Current North Carolina Charter
School Law

Currently in North Carolina, there are three chartering entities in the state with the authority to
give preliminary approval to charter schools: local boards of education, the
board of trustees of a constituent institution of the University of North
Carolina (with the provision that this institution is involved in the planning,
operation or evaluation of the charter school), and the State Board of Education.
Chartering entities are authorized to give preliminary approval to charter
applications, but final approval for all charter schools rests solely with the
State Board of Education. Applicants who are denied preliminary approval by a
chartering entity other than the State Board of Education may appeal to the
State Board. The State Board may give preliminary approval to an application on
appeal if it finds that the chartering entity “acted in an arbitrary or
capricious manner in disapproving the application, failed to consider
appropriately the application, or failed to act within the time set” by law.

If a charter
applicant submits an application to a chartering entity other than the local
board of education, within seven days of its application, the applicant must
also submit a copy of its application to the local board of education where the
charter school will be located. The local board may offer comments or
information about the application to the chartering entity. The law requires
that when making decisions about preliminary or final approval of a charter
application, the State Board will consider the information or comments
submitted by the local board of education, and consider the “impact on the
local school administrative unit’s ability to provide a sound basic education
to its students.” The State Board may grant initial charters for periods of up
to 10 years, and upon the request of a chartering entity, may renew charters
for subsequent periods of up to 10 years.

For the purposes of
ensuring compliance with laws and meeting the standards agreed upon in their
respective charters, North Carolina charter schools are held accountable to
either the local board of education (if it applied for and received preliminary
approval from that local board) or to the State Board of Education. Any charter
school, however, may choose to be held accountable to local board of education
where the charter school operates instead of the State Board. The law requires
that each charter school report at least annually to its chartering entity and
the State Board of Education the information required by the chartering entity
or the State Board.

Senate Bill 337

Senate Bill 337
would establish a new North Carolina Public Charter Schools Board to be located
administratively within the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction,
but empowered to “exercise its powers and duties independently of the State
Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction.” Key functions of
the new Charter Board would include the following: (a) overseeing the process
for accepting and approving charters and making final approval of all charter
applications (a function now reserved for the State Board of Education); (b)
overseeing the process for monitoring charter schools’ operation; and (c)
taking actions regarding charter schools in the state, including renewals,
nonrenewals, and revocations of charters. The North Carolina State Board of
Education, however, would have the authority to “veto by a three-fourths vote
any action adopted by vote of the Charter Board if the State Board’s veto vote
is taken within 45 days of the date the Charter Board voted to adopt the

The Charter Board
would be comprised of 11 voting members, including: three members appointed by
the Governor, three members appointed by the NC General Assembly “upon recommendation
of the President pro Tempore of the Senate,” three members appointed by the NC General
Assembly “upon the recommendation of the recommendation of the Speaker of the
House of Representatives,” the State Treasure or her designee, and the
Lieutenant Governor or her designee. The State Superintendent of Public
Instruction would serve as secretary and a non-voting member of the Charter

The Controversy

Senate Bill 337 was
passed in the NC Senate earlier this month. The vote was largely along party
lines, with support for the bill coming from Republicans in the
Republican-controlled Senate. What makes the NC Public Charter Schools
Association’s opposition to the creation of the separate Charter Board as
proposed in the current version of Senate Bill 337 is that the Association
first supported passage of the bill. Charter school advocates have supported
the creation of the Charter Board to give charter schools in the state a
greater degree of autonomy from the State Board of Education and the Department
of Public Instruction; bodies which depending on the who controls them, could
be antagonistic to North Carolina’s charter schools. So the reason for the NC
Public Charter Schools Association’s seemingly change in attitude toward the creation
of the board is unclear. But I am betting that when that reason surfaces the plot
to this story will thicken considerably.

North Carolina Charter Schools, Teacher Credentialing, and the Future of Teacher Licensure

North Carolina Senate Bill 337 would, among other things,
remove the current statutory requirement that at least 75% of teachers in
elementary charter schools and 50% of teachers in charter high schools hold
teacher licenses. The controversial bill was passed in the Senate and now sits
with the House Education Committee. In addition to the eliminating teacher
licensing requirements, the bill would create a new state Charter School Board
with substantial statutory authority. I will discuss the implications of the creation
of such a board in a future post, but here I want to focus on the potential
elimination of teacher licensure requirements for charter school teachers in
the state.

If Senate Bill 337 is passed by the Republican-controlled North
Carolina House and signed by Republican Governor Pat McCrory, as I believe it
will be, the implications for teacher certification in the state are pretty
significant. If the bill passes, North Carolina wouldn’t be the first state to
remove certification requirements for teachers in public charter schools. In
Louisiana, a state that has blazed the trail in recent years for controversial
school choice policies, provisions of House Bill 976 (2012) eliminated certification
requirements for charter school teachers in the state. Prior to the passage of House
Bill 976, Louisiana law required that 75% of teachers in charter schools have
valid teaching certificates. The elimination of certification requirements for
charter school teachers in Louisiana has been pretty hotly debated—as I believe
it will be in North Carolina; with the change drawing the ire of teachers
unions and traditional public school district superintendents.

In Louisiana, this change has immediate implications for the
vast majority of teachers in the city of New Orleans. Approximately 75% of
public schools in New Orleans are charter schools and nearly 80% of the city’s
public school students attend charter schools. So eliminating requirements for
teacher certification in Louisiana could mean that over time, a majority of
teachers working in public schools in a major American city could be non-licensed teachers. Charter schools in
none of North Carolina’s cities serve nearly the percentage of students as
charter schools in New Orleans, so the immediate implications of the passage of
Senate Bill 337 are not quite as drastic. But eliminating licensure
requirements for charter school teachers in North Carolina and Louisiana
represents a national conversation (or debate) around what the most appropriate
credentials for public school teachers ought to be.

The majority of advocates for eliminating state licensure requirements
for charter school teachers see state-licensure as an unnecessary hurdle for other-wise
qualified aspiring content experts
who would like to teach. While the current policy changes pertain only to
teachers in charter schools, changes to licensure requirements for teachers in
traditional public schools will likely follow in some states. How could they not?
Whatever one’s feelings regarding the utility of charter school reforms, there
is no debating the fact that charter schools are in fact public schools; and
states will have a difficult time rationalizing the maintenance of one set of
credentialing requirements for chemistry teachers at Johnson Traditional High
School, but then waiving those credentialing requirements for Jackson Charter
High School right across the street. It just doesn’t make sense.

Teachers unions and traditional public school district
superintendents in Louisiana and North Carolina are currently making the
argument that different requirements for charter school teachers and traditional
public school teachers doesn’t make sense. They are right. But what I don’t
think they understand yet is that the resolution to these differences in
requirements for teachers will likely be the elimination of state licensure
requirements for all public school teachers in a state. It won’t happen
overnight and it won’t happen in all states, but mark my words, that’s where
this is heading.

The implications for teacher training, schools of teacher
education, and the teaching profession are huge! More to come…