Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Unfinished Business

By Penney Sanders

When the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) was enacted in 1990, a founding principle was that “no child shall remain in a failing school…”.

At that time the public perception was that Kentucky was full of failing schools. While there was little data to quantify that belief; it was, nonetheless, one of the widely held assumptions about Kentucky schools.

Twenty years of assessment, professional development and accountability have brought us to today’s reality that we still do have some poor performing schools in Kentucky. Rather than based on perception, these schools are now identified based on data. We have quantified “low-performing”...

Though some would argue that the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has many problems, it is the recognized standard for indentifying failing schools.

[It is interesting that Kentucky is aggressively seeking “Race to the Top” funds but wants to quibble about how low-performing schools are designated.]

A cursory analysis of the 2008 -2009 list of low performing school reveals that
the majority of the seriously low performing schools (Tier 5) are in .Jefferson County. The remaining schools on this list are scattered around the state with no region dominating. Only one district outside Jefferson has more than one school on the list.

After 20 years, if the full promise of the Kentucky’s school reform is to be met, these failing(seriously low performing) schools must, once and for all be dealt with.

NCLB states that children in failing schools are eligible for additional tutoring and assignment to other schools. The ultimate penalty is the closing or reconstituting of the school: new leadership, new faculty.

Interestingly, KERA envisioned such provisions. The KERA framers believed that schools, after 3 or 4 years of poor performance, would be closed or the children given the option to go elsewhere. Sadly, we have not seen those sanctions-the ultimate hammers ever used.

The question is WHY NOT???

How long should students have to attend failing schools?? Why have KY legislators not demanded that students be removed from persistently failing schools??? Why have we not been more serious about turning around Tier 5 schools????

It seems that school boards, administrators and yes, legislators have escaped accountability through a myriad of excuses. My favorite is;” there is no room in other schools, so we can’t move too many of the students out of failing schools.”

The answer is simple, MAKE ROOM!!!! The response should be one of how do we make this happen not the whine of why we can’t do it.

Where is community outrage when students spend years in poor schools?? Why does tax money continue to support failing schools.

Looking at the list of failing schools, students can move from a failing elementary to a failing middle school and culminate their educational experience in a failing high school. What about this pattern is insane?? If such a pattern exists for one child in a district, it exists for too many.

This is not what the framers of KERA envisioned.

Patterns of failure can and must be altered. Such “Turnaround” is what Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks about in every speech he has made since assuming office. He is a powerful advocate for changing the culture of failure.

Since the majority of Tier 5 schools are in Jefferson County (3 elementary, 10 middle and 8 high schools), this would allow all the political and educational entities to focus energy and resources into this district

Models of change abound. However, one has to get beyond excuse-making - “parents are not supportive, kids don’t want to learn, they don’t come to us with the necessary skills, and they are poor” - to begin turning schools around.

Many Kentuxcky schools have moved beyond excuse-making, it is time everyone did.

A number of cities: Chicago, New York, Boston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and others; have aggressively embraced radically transforming failing schools. Superintendents have been replaced, mayors have assumed control of schools, and new management/leadership models have been implemented.

Apparently this journey in Kentucky must begin, as KERA did, with the political will to recognize there is a problem. The General Assembly should reaffirm its accountability and responsibility for the schools of the Commonwealth.

Turning Tier 5 schools around should become a legislative priority. This time a primary focus should be guaranteeing parents the right to remove their child from a failing school. ALL options should be on the table for legislative consideration.

Because many of the Tier 5 failing schools are in Jefferson County, the JCPS Board must be specific about their commitment to changing failing schools.

Board members have an obligation to explain to parents why their children have no options other than a failing school. An example of the insidiousness of the problem was evident on one of the failing school’s websites-the school, despite being Tier 5, notes it is a “Nationally-Recognized School of Excellence.” At one time maybe, but not now.

JCPS must develop options. It must allow students to transfer out of persistently failing schools. Room must be found to save children. Successful alternatives must be created.

Excuses and good intentions are no longer good enough. Measureable progress is the only evidence that the Board can be comfortable with.

The Board must hold the Superintendent accountable for real change. Both the Board and central office leadership must adopt a sense of urgency.

Perhaps it is time for failing schools and educational attainment to become an issue in the mayoral campaign. Other big city mayors have made educational improvement an integral part of their administration. Why not Metro-Louisville. Eighteen failing middle and high schools should be discussed by every candidate.

Finally, if after two years of local effort, there is still no progress, the Commissioner of Education and the State Board must exert the authority that is available to them to takeover failing schools. In fact, continued failure mandates their action.

The ultimate promise of KERA-no child in a failing school-must finally be fulfilled.


Anonymous said...

Unil parents to, are held accountable school reform, as we know it, will never be possible.

Anonymous said...

Until parents are held accountable? Okay, hold them accountable by implementing the Missing Piece of the Proficiency Puzzle. Include parents in meaningful,authentic ways and they will rise to the occasion as partners. Districts and schools make decisions everyday about what parents are allowed to know about their child's educational attainment, and it is severely lacking. Parents who know enough to ask for more information are considered "involved parents". Parents who don't know enough are considered the reason for their child's academic failure.

It's a good thing the medical field doesn't operate under the same premise. It seems that they treat the child's illness despite the knowledge level of the parents. We put KYCHIP in place to make sure that children have health insurance and access to health care. Maybe we need to implement "education insurance" that provides an adult education advocate for each child if the parent doesn't have the knowledge to go it alone when the district fails to treat the child's educational shortcomings.