Thursday, March 19, 2009

Open Letter from Bob Sexton

Open letter to Kentucky Teachers, Superintendents,
Principals, and School Boards

From Robert F. Sexton, Executive Director,
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
March 18, 2009

On Friday, March 13 the Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1, calling for an improved assessment and accountability system by the spring of 2012. We and many others strongly supported this legislation because it included testing improvements in response to teacher and public concerns. It could, if done right, move us to a next generation of testing and accountability, the kind of changes we also expect to see coming from the U.S. Department of Education and other states in the next few years.

But at the last minute a surprise provision was added with no public discussion, creating a big problem for everyone who works in education or cares about quality public education.

It was decided that, for the next three years starting this spring, Kentucky schools should have no accountability except for student test scores on math and reading as required by No Child Left Behind. This means that the results of testing for writing (portfolios included) science, history, geography, economics, civics (i.e., social studies) and the arts won’t be counted. The Kentucky Department of Education is also prohibited from publishing an overall school improvement score (accountability index) so schools won’t know whether they are better or worse than the previous year – and neither will parents or other taxpayers.

In supporting this measure the Kentucky Education Association president said we should “just give everybody a breather” from most accountability until we have a new system in three years.

In the past 15 years Kentucky schools have made well documented and unprecedented progress. Overall the state has moved from the nation’s educational cellar to the middle ranks of the states. Kentucky teachers and school leaders deserve huge credit for this. In schools that stand out for improving student achievement the research shows that the quality of teaching — what happens in the individual classrooms — is what matters most. What happens in those classrooms depends on school leadership too. So huge numbers of educators deserve the public’s deep appreciation for what they’ve done — this progress required very hard work over a very long time.

Taking a “breather” presents educators with at least three serious challenges. A disaster looms unless they find constructive ways to address them:

1. For the next three years schools won’t have a way of telling parents and other taxpayers how they’re progressing with student learning except in math and reading required by NCLB.

The CATS test will be given in science, history, geography, economics (social studies), and writing but it won’t count in an overall score for the school. Although the Kentucky Department of Education can make the test results public, we don’t know yet how – or if – that will happen.

No one will know whether one school is progressing compared to another, whether the achievement gap for minority or disadvantaged kids is being narrowed, or which schools need special help so their kids can catch up.

The challenge to educators: figure out how to let your parents, school council members and taxpayers know how your school is doing with the whole curriculum, not just reading and math.

2. In some schools, or perhaps many, a likely result will be to de-emphasize writing, science, social studies (history, economics, geography, civics) and the arts. This would be a tragedy for our communities and our commonwealth. These subjects are at the heart of preparing young people to be ready as citizens to handle the complex problems we are handing them. To slight these subjects in any way is appalling for our democracy.

The challenge: educators need to figure out how to emphasize the whole curriculum, not just math and reading. This has been difficult in the other states where the curriculum has been narrowed the way Senate Bill 1 has narrowed Kentucky’s.

3. Strong accountability (proven results) and making the case for adequate or superior school funding are joined at the hip. Since the early 1990s, all across America, there has been an implicit but real contract between educators, parents, and other taxpayers that says, in effect, “if we see results we’ll pay taxes for schools” and educators said, in response, “we’ll do our best to educate every child and show you the results to prove it.”

If it seems that schools have stopped focusing on increasing results for the next few years, it will be easy for local taxpayers to say schools don’t need increasing revenue either. I worry that folks like our Prichard Committee volunteers and the business community could also turn away from concern about school funding. They may return to those concerns once Kentucky gets serious again about results in writing, science, history, geography, civics and other core content — or they may not.

The challenge: educators need to prove to their communities, parents, taxpayers and business leaders that they do care about results for kids. Don’t worry about the folks who never have and never will support good public schools. It is the friends of strong public schools who will be very upset now. And that’s one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in years.

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