Sunday, September 13, 2009

Key developments, fresh excitment

In today's C-J, Sam Corbett sums up the big opportunities now open to our schools. Sam chairs the Prichard Committee, and here's his column:
As we begin a new school year, it is time for fresh excitement about Kentucky education. In just the past few months, key developments have positioned Kentucky for more rapid improvement than we’ve seen at any time since the early 1990s. Here’s a quick summary of what’s happened and why it matters.

First, Kentucky is developing new academic standards that will be shorter, clearer and better aligned with college readiness and global competition. Senate Bill 1, passed this spring, commits us to that major revision and to matching tests that will start in 2012.

Second, national developments will strengthen our SB 1 work. Forty-six states have committed voluntarily to develop Common Core standards in mathematics and language arts, with Kentucky poised to be one of the very first to apply those expectations in our teaching, our testing and our accountability process. Kentucky will also benefit from the federal Department of Education’s commitment of $350 million to develop robust testing based on the Common Core approach.

Third, state leadership is now unified on education in a way we have rarely seen. Leaders in both parties and both houses of the legislature backed SB 1, and they and Gov. Steve Beshear intend to see it succeed. Terry Holliday, our new commissioner of education, is off to a great start, as is Bob King, the new president of the Council on Postsecondary Education. Together, Commissioner Holliday and President King have already launched major collaborations, including a longitudinal student data system to track students’ progress from pre-k to college and beyond.

Fourth, we have growing clarity about a central fact: standards, tests, data systems and state political commitments will only yield higher achievement if they are implemented well in classrooms. At this spring’s Prichard Committee meeting, Sir Michael Barbour identified teaching quality as the essential factor in the success of top-performing school systems around the world. In his words, “The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction.”

Barbour, a partner of McKinsey & Company and a former official in the administration of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, made a compelling case for four main strategies that work to build consistently effective teaching for all students:
  • Recruiting and training strong candidates to enter the education profession.
  • Strengthening current teaching through collaborative professional development that changes classroom practice.
  • Using data from tests and school inspection systems to measure progress and to intervene when progress is too slow.
  • Developing school leadership able to forge those three elements—new teachers, support for current teachers, and data on results—into schools that deliver rapid achievement growth for all students.
In hindsight, it is easy to see that our 1990 reform often fell short on the teaching quality front. We offered rewards for success and consequences for failure, and we assumed our educators were already equipped to respond to those incentives. In reality, they needed more direct and robust support—just as athletes reaching for a major prize need sustained coaching to deliver their best performance.

Teaching quality work could be the Achilles’ heel of our new efforts as well. Senate Bill 1 did call for new attention to effective instruction, directing the state department to ensure training for current educators on implementing the new standards and directing the Education Professional Standards Board to ensure that teacher preparation programs do the same thing for teacher candidates. Unfortunately, those two agencies have endured a decade of funding cuts. Stripped to the bare bones, they will be very hard pressed to implement robust new learning activities with their current funding.

That makes the fifth and final reason for new excitement especially important. The federal government is offering $4 billion in competitive “Race to the Top” grants for states that can show the best records of past reform and the best new plans to push those reforms further. Commissioner Holliday has already mobilized his staff and an impressively representative advisory board to draft a strong Kentucky application.

Together, these developments offer Kentucky a great opportunity. If we seize the day, working together with great energy in the coming months, we can ensure that our new standards translate into new teaching strength in every classroom and new levels of achievement for all our children.

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