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Kentucky's educational progress: From practice to proficiency

Classes get underway at the university this week, but for most of my educational administration students, school started several weeks ago.  The new school year was met by a Harvard report that inspired a lot of self-congratulation on the part of Kentucky educators.  The report, "Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance," ranked Kentucky as one of the most-improved states in the U.S. through an analysis of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, sometimes known as "the nation's report card") over the last 20 years.

From just the headlines and summary of the report, many educational leaders quickly celebrated this recognition.  Just as quickly, however, Richard Innes, gadfly and education policy analyst with the Bluegrass Insitute, noted some serious methodological problems with the Harvard study.  Innes rightly pointed out that the study did not control for differences in student demographic variables, nor for the fact that Kentucky, like many other states ranked highly in the Harvard report, excludes an unusually large number of students with disabilities from taking the NAEP.  These problems, coupled with major changes in the NAEP science test over the years, make it nearly impossible to actually compare how one state has progress against any other.

 On the other hand, there was some encouraging news when the latest round of ACT testing was recently released, showing that Kentucky's performance has steadily inched up since 2009, from an average composite score of 19.4 to 2012's 19.8.  Still, only 59% of Kentucky's ACT takers scored at the benchmark level for English - and that was our best score.  A paltry 17% proved college and career-ready in all tested areas.

So there is still tons of work to do in improving Kentucky's educational quality, and only very modest improvement to show for all our efforts since Kentucky became an leading education reform state in 1990.

My own career in education has spanned much of the last 20 years in question, and I believe we have, in fact, made some serious strides in educational practice, even if we've not yet turned those changes into measurable results.  I think educators should be encouraged by these changes, but we cannot be satisfied with our efforts until far more students are achieving at a basic level of proficiency, and taxpayers and policy makers are right to push us ever harder to get a better outcome.

As I see it, educational practice in Kentucky has greatly improved over the last 20 years in five key areas, and the Commonwealth likely leads the nation in implementation of these practices:

A serious attention to standards.  While Kentucky has emphasized the teaching of content standards since well before the implementation of KERA, a relentless focus on providing what Marzano called a "guaranteed, viable curriculum" has never been stronger.  The implementation of Common Core standards accelerated this emphasis.  But while the Common Core standards are better structured and more narrowly focused than before, there are still far too many standards to realistically teach to proficiency. 

The taken-for-granted nature of Professional Learning Communities.  From what Richard Elmore once called the "privatization of teaching practice," collaboration among teachers is now a taken-for-granted component of our professional life.  There is something that passes as a "PLC" in every school, though in the vast majority PLC's fail to operate anywhere close to the kind of framework envisioned by Rick DuFour and his colleagues.

The dawn of formative assessment.  Besides "Common Core," perhaps no two buzz words have been heard more in Kentucky schools the last few years than "formative assessment."  I'm delighted that Kentucky educators have discovered the power of using routine, descriptive, non-evaluative feedback to show students their progress toward proficiency.  But most schools are using only a surface level of formative assessment, still use highly evaluative grading practices that don't really reflect what students know and are able to do, and even teachers who try to use effective formative assessment are still hampered by a set of standards that are far too big to teach (see note on Common Core above).

Response to Intervention.  For all the problems I've seen in the way various schools have implemented RtI, I still think this amounts to one of the most significant developments in educational practice of my career.  The emphasis on identifying struggling students early and pouring on the supports before they fall farther and farther behind their peers isn't just common sense, it's the right thing to do and represents a culmination of our progress in establishing a guaranteed and viable curriculum, effective formative assessments, and PLC's that focus on the learning needs of individual students.

Principals as instructional leaders.  Perhaps the second most-important change in educational practice of the last 20 years is the notion that effective school principals must also be effective instructional leaders.  The managerial aspects of school leadership are as important as ever, but no principal can now afford to sit by while sub-par teaching is happening in classrooms.  Principals must be heavily engaged in the instructional program of the school, model best practices, communicate ceaselessly with teachers about effective practice, and articulate a clear and compelling vision of instructional improvement.

In all these ways, I believe Kentucky has made enormous advancements in the last 20 years.  I believe that a key reason we haven't been able to turn these improved practices into student proficiency is because we've still never reached what Doug Reeves calls "deep implementation" with any of them.  They continue to be surface-level add-ons to the ways we've always done "school" and are not yet fundamentally altering our entire approach to the work of teaching students.

I also worry that the structure of school itself, based on a one-size-fits-all factory model of learning, provides huge obstacles for well-intentioned educational leaders to overcome.  In 20 more years, the effective school will probably look very little like it does today.  But it falls to leaders in education themselves to create these new models of learning, to pioneer these new frameworks of teaching, and to restructure educational policy in a way that unleashes greater innovation and creativity.  Rather than resist technology, school choice, and other sweeping reforms, school leaders should embrace these new structures as a means to more effectively realize our goals and capitalize on the significant progress we have, in fact, made these last 20 years.

Educators (and the public) are justifiably weary after decades of school reforms to see so little measurable progress in student learning.  But we have indeed made substantial improvements in our practices, especially here in Kentucky, and the future is bright with possibility.  It will depend on an emerging generation of school leaders to turn our long-standing vision into reality.

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