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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.

Teacher and Leader Preparation-A Few Areas for Improvement

As I prepare to facilitate a conversation with my College of Education colleagues tomorrow on the future on teacher and leader preparation, I am spending some time tonight reflecting on what I think we are doing well with educator preparation and where I believe we still have considerable ground to cover. Here are just a few places that I hope our conversation goes to tomorrow:

I would like us to begin to be much more intentional about the students we recruit into teacher preparation programs. I believe greater emphasis in teacher education has recently been placed on being intentional with the selection of students; but I contend that we are missing out on more than a few likely teaching superstars because we do not go after them. The reality is that high ability students usually have options.The teaching profession gets its share of high ability students, but we also get our share of students that couldn’t do much else. That has to change. Preparation programs must begin to target and compete for the high ability, diverse pool of candidates needed to do the demanding job that teaching is.

Next, too many teachers are leaving our programs without a sufficient grasp of the content area that they plan to teach in. This has gone on for quite some time now, with students in elementary schools and in hard-to-staff schools bearing the brunt of this ridiculousness. There is absolutely no excuse for this. Our programs cannot continue to be so lacking in rigor that a candidate finishes a mathematics education degree program in good standing yet does not know mathematics well enough to teach it at a high level. The fact that this scenario is more common than not in some places is reprehensible, and it is a clear indicator that some programs are not worthy of the public’s trust.

Finally, with the occasional exception, neither teacher nor leader preparation programs are doing a particularly good job of preparing educators to teach or to lead in the diverse school and district settings which most of them will work in. The majority of our programs continue to prepare educators to teach Ward and June Cleaver’s children; nevermind the fact that Jerry Mathers who played “The Beaver” in the 50s sitcom probably now has great-grandchildren in school. The US has changed considerably over the last few generations. In most ways US families and children in 2012 are very different than they were generations ago. Teacher and leader preparation programs must embrace these realities and do a better job of preparing students for the settings that await them.

Teacher Career Ladders-It’s Time

As we begin another school year, one of the educational leadership and policy areas that I hope we can begin to make some progress on is creating career-ladders for teachers. There is consensus in the research literature that the classroom teacher is THE most important school-level factor for impacting student learning. Leadership is extremely important, but the relationship between leadership and student learning is an indirect one. Classroom teachers’ impact on student learning is direct and it cannot be overstated.

With that said, one of the issues that we face in education is keeping highly effective teachers in classrooms. This is difficult for a variety of reasons, including community variables, income, working conditions, etc. Attracting high quality teachers into teaching is a challenge, and keeping them there can pose a challenge as well. It is no secret that a significant number of our teachers leave the profession completely. Neither is it a secret that some of our most capably teachers are attracted to higher-paying, higher-status positions in administration. As I said previously and as you will hear me say over and over again, our schools need good leaders; but possibly even more important, our schools need really good teachers in classrooms.

Educational leaders and policymakers will have to begin to wrap their heads around possibilites for building career ladders for our most capable teachers that do not take them out of classrooms completely. A highly effective teacher should not feel like he or she has to move out of the classroom to move up the career ladder in education. As it currently stands in many school districts, a first year teacher has the same job description, responsibilities, and expectations as a 20-year veteran master teacher. The emphasis in some of our states and districts on the development of teacher leaders gets at some of the policy possibilities for teacher career-ladders, but I believe that at this point we are only scratching the surface. It’s time to move this conversation forward.

The Case for Public Charter Schools in Kentucky (Part II)

I begin Part II of this series with a simple truth about charter schools: No child is ever forced to enroll in a public charter school. Public charter schools are schools of choice. The only children who attend public charter schools are those whose parents decided to enroll them in one. Why would a parent do so? There could be any number of reasons, but the short answer is that a parent would disenroll his/her child in one school and enroll him/her in another one because s/he believes that the child would be better served in the new school. So that is the make-up of families at public charter schools. These are people who were believe that their children are be better served by the program(s) avaiable at their chosen charter school.

I don’t know about any of you, but I have a hard time counting the number of parents that I know who are displeased with their child’s school for one reason or another. This does not necessarily mean that their chldren attend bad, or poorly performing schools. All it means is that the parents are not satisfied that the school is meeting their chidrens specific needs. Kids are different, and have different learning, social, emotional, and sometimes physical needs. Charter schools provide public school options for parents that find themselves in the position of wanting something different for their chidrens schooling than what the traditional public school they are assigned to is able to offer. That’s it. Nothing more. Public charter schools give parents options.

Saying no to allowing the creation of public charter schools in Kentucky amounts to saying that you are not supportive of providing children with additional public school options. It amounts to saying that if parents are displeased with the traditional public school option (and for most Kentucky parents there is only one option) available to them and they cannot affort to send their children to private schools, then it’s just tough luck for their children.

A frequent criticism of the charter school concept is that instead of creating public charter schools as additional options for parents we should devote our efforts to improving our traditional public schools. Well, I say that we need to be able to do both at the same time. Yes, we must continue to improve our traditional public schools. For the foreseeable future, traditional public schools will be the vehicle used for schooling the majority of our children. But there are many parents in Kentucky whose children are trapped in sub-par schools; schools that most of us would not send our children to under any circumstances. Saying no to allowing the creation of public charter schools in Kentucky amounts to saying to those parents that because they do not have the financial, social, or political capital to send their children somewhere else that they should just be patient and wait until we can figure out to fix their school; knowing full well that we have no idea when or if we will be able to transform their school. Saying no to the creation of public charter schools in Kentucky says to those Kentucky parents that because they don’t have the resources that more affluent and connected Kentuckians have, their children don’t deserve access to the same educational opportunities as other children.

I don’t believe for one minute that Kentuckians are against giving parents options to provide their children with the best public education possible; and I don’t believe for one minute that once Kentuckians learn about the options that public charter schools could make available to children across our Commonwealth that anyone will be able to stop public charter schools from becoming an important part of our public education landscape.

US Department of Education to Award $500 million in Early Learning Competion

In keeping with its commitment to improving the access to and the quality of early childhood education in the US, the US Dept of Education announced today that a half billion dollars will be allocated for a new Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. States will be encouraged to increase access to early learning, particularly for disadvantaged children. State early learning leaders are encouraged to offer suggestions for what specific appropriate criteria should be for awarding funds.

The notice for applications will come out in late summer and applications from states will be due at the end of September. Awards will be made by the end of this calendar year.