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.