Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Importance of community partnerships to support school readiness goals

The central message that we heard from those who served on the Prichard Committee’s Achievement Gap study group was that it will take everyone working toward the same goal to achieve educational excellence for each and every child. 

Today, we have welcome news that at the national level, trends toward growing educational inequality show signs of reversing - with a hat tip to the broad array of leaders across business, health, faith, community organizations, government, and schools who have worked together to emphasize the importance of the earliest years of a child's life.

Sean Reardon and Ximina A. Portilla have found evidence from three nationally representative samples of incoming kindergartners that between 1998 and 2010, school readiness improved for children overall, with low-income children beginning to catch up with their higher-income peers.

This research should reinforce our resolve to work together to spread the message and ensure each child has the opportunities they need for a strong start in life. 

Communities across Kentucky are now resolving to build capacity for greater collaboration and partnership. 

The Preschool Partnership Grants authorized in the 2017-18 biennial budget are an important opportunity for Kentucky communities and school districts to build partnerships to work toward their school readiness goals. The state agency partners that worked together to design the grant program were right to do so in a way that meets communities where they are – encouraging all communities to apply for planning grants (Tier 1) or implementation grants (Tier 2) for those that are farther along.

Thanks to this grant program, school districts, child care providers, and other partners will have specific support to build capacity to serve more low-income 4-year olds in high-quality, full-day settings that provide the best foundation for school readiness and support for working families.

The 2014 General Assembly increased the eligibility for public preschool from 150% to 160% of the federal poverty level beginning in fiscal year 2016, providing an extra $18 million to cover expected enrollment increases. Across Kentucky, however, preschool enrollment of low-income 4-year olds declined from 9,338 to 9,201 between December 2014 and December 2015. Partnerships between school districts and child care centers will help boost enrollment and strengthen Kentucky’s early childhood care and education system from birth through preschool across all areas of the Commonwealth.

Many states across the nation, including states such as North Carolina with many rural districts, have long had “mixed delivery” models to deliver preschool with public funds in both school districts and child care settings. Several states, such as Oregon and Virginia, are now rolling out system that encourage or require this approach. One of the major reasons they have taken a mixed delivery approach is to maintain the viability of child care centers, which provide such essential care and education for infants and toddlers and working families.

While Kentucky policymakers did not choose a mixed delivery approach for its preschool program, the Prichard Committee’s Strong Start Kentucky coalition has long recognized the need to encourage voluntary collaborative models across school districts and child care to ensure both sectors remain strong, particularly in rural areas where child care options are the most limited.

In April 2015, in partnership with Metro United Way, United Way of Greater Cincinnati, Kentucky Youth Advocates Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children, the Kentucky Head Start Association, the Kentucky Department of Education, the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood, and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Stars for Kids Now, we released a brief, Pre-K Collaboration in Kentucky: Maximizing Resources for Kindergarten Readiness, that detailed examples of models underway now in Kentucky. Several partnerships in rural areas have been pioneers in working together to better serve young children:

  • Christian County - Hopkinsville Lets Go Play Academy and Christian County Schools. The school district sends a preschool certified teacher to the child care center to provide preschool services. The center provides the classroom assistant.
  • Perry County - New Beginnings Learning Center (NBLC) partners with Hazard/Perry County Schools. The center offers Head Start, state funded preschool and private high-quality child care in a fully blended classroom. Children receive a full-day program with wraparound services to meet families’ needs. The preschool teacher is paid half by the school system and half by New Beginnings.
  • Henderson County - Henderson County School District, Audubon Head Start and Henderson Child Development Center. The school district has twelve preschool classrooms providing a half-day program. The child development center is onsite to provide wraparound services and extend the school day.

The Preschool Partnership grant program is designed to help more districts and communities plan to take these steps or to enhance current partnerships.

Of all the stretches of road on a child’s educational journey, those that the child travels in her earliest years are those that often take the most coordination to get her where she needs to go next. We are encouraged by the courageous partnerships across the state and look forward to learning from their efforts. 

 *Note - we have edited this post to clarify that the research draws on a nationally-representative sample of incoming kindergarteners, and to focus on one study cited in the New York Times article which identified reduction of school readiness gaps based on family income. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Helping parents support their children through school

| Guest post from Dr. Keith Look, Superintendent, Danville Independent Schools |

This August, my oldest child began Kindergarten. In my twenty plus years of public education experience, I have hired and fired, hugged and restrained, and cheered and cried in some of the most challenging settings. Yet at this moment, I feel more prepared to revamp instruction and assessment than I did to tell my child good-bye on that first day (and likely the second, the third, and . . .).

Granted, I feel confident in my child’s Kindergarten readiness. But what about in third grade when his friend tells him to try this new “candy?” What about in 6th grade when he decides he is “not doing the work of that math teacher?” What about in 10th grade when he would prefer an “A” in the easy class as opposed to the C+ in its harder version? And what about all the other conversations I have coached parents through as a teacher and administrator but now, all of the sudden, realize apply to my child?!!?

As a professional in and student of the industry, I am the lucky one. I will have the networks and resources to get answers I need, but the average parent may not. So much attention is given understandably to new parents and early childhood educational experiences. As children grow older, information and support plummet. We wonder why parent engagement falters after elementary school. Maybe the answer is obvious. Maybe it is because we do not teach parents how to be “good education parents” at the myriad of stages across all of K-12.

The Danville Schools’ Good Education Parent initiative aims to make parents safe in their vulnerability when it comes to supporting their children through school. There must be space for all of us to help each other figure it out. Race, class, and all other official demarcations that divide us are irrelevant when it comes to understanding how to discipline the 7th grade student who decides to put everyone’s gym clothes in the locker room shower. The only person you want to hear from is another parent who says, “Let me tell you what I did when my daughter . . .”

It is time to begin the conversation anew. It is time to admit our own vulnerabilities and anxieties in order to help the next parent know his/her child is going to be okay. Perhaps more importantly, it is time to empower parents to know that they are not insane, weak, or ineffective for struggling to drop off their Kindergartner, discipline their 7th grader, or help their sophomore become proud of his/her talents and abilities.

The Danville Schools is proud to claim this work and make this charge—for ourselves and all other districts in the state. Start the conversation. Initiate the storytelling. Help me – as well as all the rest of us who are reaching new grades, schools, and milestones with our children for the first time – to be a good education parent in your district and community.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Unleash Student Voice to Make Schools Better

| by Eliza Jane Schaeffer, Student Voice Team |

Eliza Jane is chair emeritus of the School Governance Committee and strategy and development coordinator for the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team. She is a recent graduate of Henry Clay High School and a rising first year at Dartmouth College. 

This month, Kentucky students begin their annual mass migration from backyards and summer jobs to school rooms and study halls. And while we give up our borrowed right to lay in bed all day and watch Netflix, we also give up a more fundamental right, one that older Americans take for granted.

The moment we step into a school building, we forfeit our right to be heard. In our lives outside of school, we are technically free to comment on and change the policies and practices which shape our environment. But as students, a role we are required by law to play, we lack this ability.

My claims are not simply complaints and clamor.

In evaluating the data from the nearly 300 Kentucky schools and districts we surveyed, we found that 57% of schools do not offer their students an outlet for feedback and fewer than one in ten district school boards and school councils have student members. These statistics come fresh from the Student Voice Team’s Students As Partners report, a year-long, youth-led investigation into the merits of supporting students to serve more meaningful roles in school decision-making. 

In spite of this discouraging data, the report indicates real potential for growth. Our results show that nearly half of Kentucky superintendents and principals would be willing to add a student member to the decision-making body under their jurisdiction. This figure provides an opening to further the conversation about what is possible when the primary stakeholders are more fully supported to participate in school governance.

For inspiration, look no further than Northern Kentucky. In Boone County, high school senior Michael Henry serves as an advisory member on the board of education and as the head of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, a group which meets monthly to brainstorm and implement ideas for school improvement, hold question and answer sessions with the superintendent, listen to guest speakers, and interact with district officials.

Henry told the Student Voice Team that the board members “really appreciate the student’s opinion.” More importantly, he shared that students in the district are now excited about and involved in the decision-making process and will routinely stop him in the hallway to share their opinion on a matter the school board is currently discussing. Having a chance to meaningfully contribute to school improvement “is pushing them to get more involved,” he said.

Our research shows that supporting students in shaping their learning environment as Boone County did generates self-efficacy, agency, and opportunities for deeper learning. It also benefits the school system as a whole. A more productive, engaged student body translates to higher performances in the classroom, higher levels of informed discussion, and school policy solutions that reflect the experiences of all stakeholders.

With these education benefits in mind, we hope more of Kentucky’s elected officials, teachers, administrators, and students will embrace a school system that both fully recognizes--and unleashes--the potential of student voice to make our schools the best they can possibly be. And perhaps next year, as our students return to the classroom and lose their summer glow, they will not also lose their right to be heard.

To read the Students as Partners report and learn more about the Student Voice Team’s research, reasoning, and recommendations, click here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

ACT results show far too few Kentucky high school graduates have academic preparation they need for postsecondary pursuits

ACT results from the graduating class of 2016 released today indicate that Kentucky’s graduates have only narrowly sustained the progress that has been made in English (57% meeting Kentucky’s college- and career-ready benchmark) and reading (50% meeting benchmark) over recent years. The results, however, show that graduates have lost ground in mathematics, falling from 44.5% meeting benchmark in 2015 to 41% in 2016. Achievement gaps, meanwhile, have not budged.

It is imperative that Kentucky make rapid progress in the number of students graduating with the academic preparation they need for their next steps. It is also imperative that this journey ensure that students in groups with the lowest rates of meeting college- and career-ready benchmarks make dramatic improvement.

A high school graduate’s preparation for postsecondary education and training involves a range of academic, technical, and employability knowledge and skills that go well beyond what can be measured on a single test. The ACT test, however, which is taken by all 11th grade students in Kentucky, provides one important data point with which to evaluate Kentucky high school graduates’ preparation for their postsecondary pursuits.

Today’s results matter for two distinct reasons.

The first reason is that a students’ scores on the ACT have a direct bearing on his or her opportunities after high school. Meeting Kentucky’s college- and career-ready benchmarks means entry into credit-bearing courses in Kentucky colleges and universities, putting students on a solid footing to meet their postsecondary goals. Results from 2016 raise an alarm that fewer students will be ready for credit-bearing courses in mathematics, increasing the cost of postsecondary education and lowering students’ likelihood of completion. These results have real costs for families and the state’s economy.

The second reason is that these results provide a comparable measure of student learning of essential academic knowledge and skills. ACT’s own research shows that the best strategy to increase scores is to expose students to rich and rigorous coursework. Test prep is not a sound strategy. Across the board, Kentucky’s results on a variety of state and national measures show that mathematics needs considerable and urgent attention.

These results call for Kentuckians to work together to accomplish the following:

  • set high expectations for each student along with school culture and climate that helps each student achieve at high levels, as students will rise to the expectations of adults that they respect and admire
  • increase investments in effective and equitable strategies to ensure that each student engages in challenging work that aligns to the state’s standards
  • put an emphasis on mathematics with a systematic approach that encompasses elementary and middle school years that set the foundation for high school success

Finally, as Kentucky works to rebalance a college- and career-ready accountability system for all schools, it’s critically important that the state use national benchmarks of readiness rather than Kentucky setting its own, lower benchmarks that fail to set expectations for students at an adequate level relative to their peers in other states. Setting benchmarks lower than the national bar puts Kentucky’s students at a disadvantage.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Kentucky schools prioritize educator diversity

| by Cory Curl |

One of the many reasons that we Kentuckians have such devotion to Kentucky is the strength we draw from the rich and textured cultures flourishing in communities between the Mississippi River and the Appalachians, from country to city and everywhere in between.

We aspire that our young people, in particular, draw strength from their cultures as they take their education journeys. As such, leaders across Kentucky have long prioritized efforts to recruit and retain educators whose experiences or expertise reflect the full range of our students' cultures. 

The Prichard Committee study group report released last week, Excellence with Equity: It's Everybody's Business, calls on the state to redouble these efforts and to do so with urgency. 

The report illuminates, for example, that past efforts to recruit teachers of color have not met their promise. Today, Kentucky has 20.9% students of color but only 4.6% teachers of color. 

We are encouraged by new momentum to increase intentional efforts to recruit and retain a more diverse teacher workforce. For example, in Paducah Independent, district leaders point to the need to make sure students have role models that look like them and know where they came from. Kentucky's 2016 Teacher of the Year, Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, shares her own story of why educator diversity matters for all students. 

Many states and communities across the nation are also bringing renewed energy to educator diversity. We look forward to learning from these efforts as well as strategies that our Kentucky communities take in coming years.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Why Knowledge Matters

| by Cory Curl |

Reading comprehension has a lot to do with students’ knowledge and vocabulary.

To build a foundation for reading comprehension for all future learning, students need exposure to a well-rounded curriculum including science, social studies, arts, music, and other subjects beginning in early elementary school. Susan Weston has shared this point several times here at PrichBlog.

Fortunately, Kentucky’s education community has understood this for a long time. Both policy and practice have emphasized a well-rounded curriculum, and we have the results to suggest that this is the right track.

Science is a case in point. As Lisa Hansel of the Knowledge Matters campaign pointed out in a webinar that we hosted last evening, Kentucky ranked 4th in the nation on the 2009 4th grade NAEP science test. That year, Kentucky elementary schools had the highest amount of instructional time devoted to science (see this paper by Dr. Rolf Blank).

Lisa also suggested that this commitment to building knowledge in the early grades contributes to Kentucky’s strong showing in NAEP reading, where Kentucky 4th grade students score in the top 10 in the nation.

The webinar also featured Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who went into lively detail about why knowledge matters for reading comprehension, as well as why attention to this connection is important for equity for all students. Lisa provided five concrete recommendations of how states can incentivize a well-rounded approach in the early grades. You can learn more about the research and recommendations in this issue brief.

We had a great discussion about how parents can advocate for a knowledge-rich curriculum. Lisa and Robert also shared stories to illustrate why an emphasis on building knowledge provides an opportunity for engaging and active classroom learning rather than rote memorization.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides some policy spark for states to incentivize a well-rounded education, an opportunity that Secretary of Education John King underscored in recent remarks. As always, we encourage you to be involved in Kentucky’s efforts to redesign its accountability system and otherwise take advantage of opportunities provided in the new law.

We welcome your suggestions on how can help keep you informed and engaged through the process.

Monday, July 18, 2016

What Kind of Student Writing Do We Want? And Where?

| By Susan Perkins Weston | 

 Some writing makes an argument to support a claim.  Other pieces inform or explain, and still others provide narratives or real or imagined experience.  Our Kentucky Academic Standards call for students to become skilled in all three, but that still leaves room to puzzle about how much teaching and learning time should be invested in each kind. 

In EdWeek's new coverage of Changing Practice in Writing Instruction, that balancing pops up in multiple places.  In one interview, Lucy Calkins says "the common core says that a third of kids’ writing should be narrative."  Another article reports that "By the time students are in 12th grade, literary writing to convey experiences is expected to take up 20 percent of the time allotted to composition, compared with 40 percent each for informative writing and argumentative writing."

Both statements share a part of story. The 2010 Common Core State Standards aimed to align with an earlier Writing Framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  The original CCSS document show that framework using this table:
It's clear that Dr. Calkins' comment is about the grade 4 expectations, and the other article was explicitly looking at grade 12.

Both leave something big to be said.  This isn't all about English and the study of composition. Much of the high school writing for argumentation and explanation can be, should be, and must be part of mastering scientific communication and civic participation. That work belongs in science classes and social studies classes. That version of literacy needs teachers who are expert in the work of those disciplines.  Still more, those disciplines need literate students: they need students who are equipped to make sense of texts about science and social studies and equipped to organize and share thinking in those fields. 

For example, a high school's writing plans might be spread out like this, with plenty of room for narrative in English because major slices of argument and explanation happen in other classes.

The elementary and middle years can prepare students for that high school range, with argument and explanation becoming increasingly important as students mature.

Seeing the role of disciplines beyond English is essential to understanding how richly English classes can engage narrative writing, literary texts, and other classic undertaking.