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June 2016

Reclaiming a place for the arts in Kentucky education


Last week the Kentucky Department of Education, in collaboration with the Owensboro Independent and Daviess County school districts and arts education groups from across the state hosted the first-ever Arts Education Summit in Owensboro.  The event included professional development for visual and performing arts teachers but also served as a rally calling for more attention to the arts in Kentucky's schools.

Car trouble prevented me from attending at the last minute, but Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt gave a good speech supporting the goals of the Summit and I sent my regrets - and my encouragement - to Kentucky Music Education Association Executive Director Dr. John Stroube. 

As I expressed to John, I believe our schools have probably never had a sufficient focus on the arts as a central and essential component of a well-rounded curriculum.  But in recent years, especially at the elementary level, instructional time devoted to reading and math has grown exponentially, not just at the expense of the arts but also other key subjects like social studies and science.  Anecdotally, I hear many education colleagues telling me that their schools are cutting social studies and science instruction down to one or two days per week next school year, or in some cases down to only one quarter of the year.  If that's the case, I can't imagine that the arts are faring much better.

It's very easy to blame educational accountability systems that place so much emphasis on tested subjects like reading and math for this problem.  And the system probably does play a role.  But in my experience, many educators have themselves encouraged the development of a testing culture that emphasizes test preparation (which is indeed time-consuming) over the real mastery of knowledge and skill (wherein testing is an afterthought and a natural byproduct of the learning process). 

We've got to stop thinking about curricular areas as discrete and separate realms of knowledge.  As my recent reading about classical education has revealed to me, a wide and rich exposure to content knowledge provides the foundation for good reading comprehension and the transferability of information across a wide variety of contexts.  Learning the arts (and social studies and science) actually strengthens the learning of reading and math.

A good resource on this topic is the Visual and Performing Arts Education In Kentucky white paper, written and distributed by Kentucky's arts education groups.  Among the points highlighted in the white paper that really resonated for me:

  • "Arts" and "humanities" are not the same thing.  Kentucky's current curriculum framework force fits these two areas together, inadvertently undermining both the visual/performing arts and the true humanities, which are extremely diverse and include everything from social studies to literature and philosophy.
  • Knowledge of art, music, and theater are essential components of a well-rounded curriculum, but are not a substitute for real training in art performance and skill development.  These differences should be more clearly and intentionally delineated and separately emphasized in the curriculum.
  • The current system of program reviews for Kentucky's non-tested subject areas (including "arts and humanities") is flawed.  This self-assessment process, which is mandated under current state law, is complex and highly prone to inflation.  A KDE audit of program reviews last year found that schools had over-rated themselves two-thirds of the time.  The Commissioner has appointed a task force to make recommendations for improving the program reviews, and I look forward to reviewing their suggestions.

I am always cautious to emphasize to educators, parents, and the public in general that policy and curricular changes are never going to be sufficient to guarantee that the instructional program in any given school is effective.   So much depends on the vision, commitment, and quality of work of the teachers, parents, and community supporters at the local level.   But we can do many things with policy that help local communities do a better job, and improving the richness of the curriculum, especially at the elementary level, has become a real priority for me, both in my work with preparing future education leaders and my role as a member of the state board of education.

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Usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University or the Kentucky Board of Education.

Fight the Feds to improve Kentucky's school accountability system

Classroom_3rd_floorKentucky has the chance to improve our school accountability system in dramatic ways, but it may require challenging federal regulations that place cumbersome limits on what states are allowed to do under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA, a reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, passed Congress and was signed by the President late last year, and promised to give states far more flexibility in measuring school performance and holding educators accountable for outcomes.  But the U.S. Department of Education recently released proposed regulations that would limit state flexibility in key ways.  Those regulations are now up for public review and comment through the end of July.

As a new member of the Kentucky Board of Education, I'll have a duty in helping approve Kentucky's new accountability system.  The Board and the Kentucky Department of Education will be authoring a collective response to the ESSA regulations, and I believe we'll push back hard against key provisions.  As an individual citizen, I have concerns about two areas of the regulations in particular that would hamper our options.  I urge readers to become familiar with these regulations and make your own voices heard.  My concerns have to do with 1) requiring schools to receive a single, summative score that factors in all accountability measures, and 2) requiring "proficiency" as the only measure of academic achievement.

Problem 1: A single summative score

First let me say that I believe strongly in school accountability.  As I wrote recently, the best thing to come out of the otherwise-flawed NCLB regime was the exposure of unacceptable, historic achievement gaps and a collective commitment to addressing those educational disparities.  Testing has its place, and should still figure prominently in how we measure school success (as it does under the ESSA law itself, which still requires reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8 and two assessments of science).

But no single measure of achievement can convey meaningful information about what a school does well and what it does not.  As it should, Kentucky's current accountability system uses multiple measures, including student proficiency rates on test scores, a measure of the school's progress toward closing achievement gaps, a measure of how much student learning grew over the year, and other metrics. 

No matter how you create the formula, though, when you try to mash all those measures into a single number, all the important information is lost.  That is especially true when you rank order schools based on that single number and then label them based on their achievement compared to other schools.  As a result, we get schools that are labeled as "proficient" or even "distinguished" but have glaring and unacceptable achievement gaps.  Schools' real strengths - and weaknesses - are masked.

In contrast, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt has talked about creating a "dashboard" of achievement measures, so that parents or the public can see at a glance how a given school is doing relative to various metrics.  I like this idea, but such an approach would be greatly hampered if we are required to boil all of those various measures down to a single number, especially if the system includes already-problematic measures we are required to use by Kentucky law, like the program review process for non-tested subject areas (the Commissioner also has a task force working on this problem).

Problem 2: Proficiency rates

A second concern about the new ESSA regulations, which is far more technical in nature, is the stipulation that student achievement can only be based on "proficiency" rates.  Proficiency is determined based on whether a student achieves a certain score or higher on a test, and is usually reported as the percentage of students who achieve that score.  That all sounds good, and it is to an extent, but there may be far better ways to judge whether a school is being successful. 

Under a proficiency-based system, schools are incentivized to place all of their energy into "bubble kids" who are on the cusp of proficiency, and may neglect students who could make great progress, but still not quite reach the magic cut score.  The school that is growing students more, whether they be traditionally high-performing or traditionally low-performing students, is arguably better than a school that just has a bunch of kids who test at the magic proficiency number every year.

So we should be looking at accountability systems that are based primarily on student growth or a formula that reflects how all students improve relative to scale scores rather than simple proficiency.  For a look at how these systems work, and other creative ideas about school accountability, see the recent accountability design competition sponsored by the Fordham Institute.  Such approaches are not exactly simple (Fordham authors Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright call this approach the Scholar's Paradise), but they may be infinitely more fair and accurate, and states should be able to consider such options.

But under the proposed regulations, states will be unable to use growth and scale measures, and that's at least as problematic, if not more so, than the insistence that schools receive a summative performance score.

I look forward to working with the Commissioner and other state Board members to push back against these proposed regulations (the Commissioner has already done an excellent job challenging the U.S. Department of Education's insistence that we use an intellectually dishonest measure of student science achievement under the current accountability rules).  In the meantime, please submit your own comments and feedback to the U.S. Department of Education regarding these new regulations.  Go here to review the regulations and select "Comment Now!" to submit your comments.

If you share my specific concerns, you might note that you are "opposed to rules that would require states to use a summative score for school performance" and that you are "opposed to the rule that student achievement must be a measure of proficiency."  If you feel confident to do so, describe the possibilities for Kentucky's accountability system under ESSA and how those improvements would be hindered by the rules as they are currently written.

I also recommend that you contact members of Kentucky's U.S. Congressional delegation with concerns.

I'll post more on this topic as it unfolds.


The promise - and limitations - of education policy

In my work with aspiring school administrators, I place a heavy emphasis on developing a clear and compelling instructional vision that is mostly impervious to the inevitable shifts and swings in education policy.  If the state's testing system changes again (and it will), or if curriculum standards change again (and they will too), it shouldn't cause an enormous upheaval in the life of a school.  If it does, then the school may be over-focused on test score outcomes or meeting accountability mandates and insufficiently focused on high-quality classroom instruction and a coherent curriculum.

I tell aspiring administrators not to focus so much on the policy world, not just because it can be a distraction from their core work of teaching and learning, but because history vividly illustrates the limitations of state and federal policy for dramatically improving student achievement.  Despite a huge increase in education spending in recent decades and enormous accountability pressures, student achievement at the high school level remains relatively stagnant since the early 1970's, and achievement gaps in Kentucky actually appear to be getting wider.

This isn't just a function of poverty (the favorite scapegoat of many educators).  It's a reminder that what happens in our classrooms on a daily basis is more about the individual teachers, the school principal, and the academic culture they create than about how teachers are evaluated, or how schools are rated for performance, or the minutiae of curriculum standards.  I wrote recently about what I've observed in low-performing schools; many of these schools are, in fact, different from higher-performing schools because of what happens in the classroom, and not simply because of the students they serve.

This, despite all the intense policy pressure schools face to improve.  Frederick Hess, education policy analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, has written about this pattern several times.  As he notes, "policymakers can make people do things, but they can't make them do them well."  So in Kentucky, for example, we can make principals and teachers use a rigorous new performance evaluation system, but we can't make principals evaluate teachers accurately enough to really distinguish between high and low performers.

So I advise educators all the time: develop a compelling and demanding vision for what high-quality teaching and learning is going to look like in your school, and what kind of people you want students to be at the end of their formal schooling experience, and pursue that vision relentlessly using best practices applied to your context.  And don't worry so much about what the Kentucky Board of Education does next.

The irony?  Two weeks ago Governor Matt Bevin appointed me to the Kentucky Board of Education.

I'm tremendously honored, of course.  Serving on the state board of education was never an aspiration.  It certainly never crossed my mind when I was teaching middle school social studies in the mid-1990's.  But I've tried to focus all of my professional energies these last 20 years on helping teachers and school administrators get better at their practice so more of their students have a shot at success in school and life.  And to the extent that I can do that on the state board of education, I will certainly try.

This new role does not change my mind about the limitations of policy.  At the end of the day, nothing I do on the Board will ensure there is a great teacher in every classroom or that every child has an equitable shot at life success via a well-crafted education. That responsibility still lies at the local and classroom level.

But there are things policymakers can do to help hard-working and dedicated parents and educators create maximum capacity for their schools.  For example:

  • Accountability matters.  For all of the flaws of the old No Child Left Behind regime, the modern emphasis on closing achievement gaps has been a tremendous boon for education practice.  While achievement gaps remain a glaring problem, the collective responsibility we feel now from the local to the national level for improving student achievement is a direct result of policy.  Kentucky will soon get to rework its accountability system under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and assuming federal regulators allow us a high level of flexibility, the way we structure the new system will further shape the priorities educators respond to in their work and how we define school success.
  • Curriculum matters.  I've written a lot over the last year about my rediscovery of curriculum and how what we teach matters as much as how we teach.  Educators are sometimes too self-constrained by their assumptions about Common Core, but there's no doubt that standards make a big difference in the shape of learning in our schools.  I believe curriculum will be a renewed focus for Kentucky in coming years, especially as we seek to learn what is best in Common Core and what needs to be left behind, revisited, or added.
  • Innovation matters.  One thing I'm absolutely convinced of is that effective schools in the 21st century cannot look like the industrialized, teacher-focused, one-size fits all schools of the past.  We need to design education policies that encourage more fluid and personalized educational systems that maintain rigorous curricular standards but foster individual learning that is responsive to each child's unique readiness level, passions, and needs.  Such learning environments require a significant rethinking about the structure of schools.  Kentucky's Districts of Innovation program is a step in that direction, as are many of the innovations emerging from the GRREC/OVEC Race to the Top personalized learning initiative.  Policies that help diversify the range of learning models and schooling structures available to Kentucky families need to be adopted and encouraged and wherever regulation stands in the way of education innovation, we need to offer more flexibility.

But this is perhaps where we reach one of the limits of education policy in Kentucky, because we remain one of only seven states with no meaningful school choice law.  As long as most families are beholden to the educational options being offered by their local school district - even when their local school district is a good one - there is a ceiling on the amount of innovation that is possible and a diverse marketplace of educational options will remain out of reach.  As a Board member I serve all Kentucky children, and every family deserves access to excellent public schools, charter schools, and non-public schools regardless of their income or ZIP code.

The Kentucky Board of Education does not make law; it only crafts policies that help implement existing law.  So in my role as a board member I am unable to bring school choice to the Commonwealth.  But as a private citizen I will continue to encourage the state legislature to pass a charter school law, scholarship tax credits, education savings accounts, and supports for homeschooling families and then will do my best to ensure those laws are implemented to the maximum benefit of Kentucky families and thereby accelerate the pace of education innovation and improvement throughout the state.

Ultimately, our schools will only be great because of the students, parents, and educators in local communities who work together to make them great.  But I'll do my best to help create the conditions for that greatness to flourish.