Monday, January 11, 2016

Dismantling Success

A new research brief from the Center for Business and Economic Research at UK finds that student achievement in Kentucky's public schools has improved markedly over the past quarter century, moving the state from the bottom of the pack to a position solidly in the middle. Despite the fact that some children still lag behind (and don't kid yourself, some children lag behind in every state and in every country) this is terrific news. It is a testament to Kentucky teachers and those who have pressed for better schools.

 Read the complete brief here.

Despite what should be great news, there has been considerable effort, by some, to declare that Kentucky schools are failing, and Senate leadership is presently looking to dismantle some elements of the system - a system that was largely designed by Republicans.

The first big push for school reform in the late 20th century came from Republican President Ronald Reagan in his blue ribbon panel's A Nation At Risk report. That call for better schools was embraced in Kentucky two years later by the Prichard Committee (which issued its own report, titled A Path to a Larger Life) and along with the Chamber of Commerce, and others, went to work lobbying the General Assembly. The next national push came from the next Republican president, George H. W. Bush who activated the nation's governors in a collective effort to raise standards and implement a series of rigorous assessments with real consequences. It was about that time that the Kentucky Supreme Court declared the state's school system to be unconstitutional and the General Assembly responded with the nation's most ambitious school reform effort ever - called KERA.

Since about 2001, with the passage of NCLB, education politics in America has been largely bipartisan with moderate Rs and Ds, business interests, and the U. S. Department of Education all pushing a similar reform agenda - raise graduation requirements, around a set of common curriculum standards with assessments, and track P-12 student performance in a high-stakes accountability system. The Education Trust, Fordham Foundation, and National Alliance of Business partnered with the National Governor's Association This agenda was promoted heavily in Kentucky by Republican Governor Ernie Fletcher, while nationally, the development of Common Core State Standards was underway.

NCLB was progressing about as well as could be expected until 2007 when NCES reported that state assessment data showed (what most education policy experts already knew) that differences in state academic standards made it impossible to compare progress from state-to-state. Some states were gaming the system and in some cases lowered the bar on academic expectations. A common core of state-shared academic standards was seen as the solution and Bill Gates was convinced to spend $200 million advancing the effort.

In Kentucky in 2009, the Republican-sponsored (but essentially bipartisan) Senate Bill 1 called for KDE to consider national standards and align them to entry-level college skills. It was full steam ahead. That is...until President Obama signed on and incentivized compliant states with federal dollars through the Race to the Top program. It was not long after that Republicans began to abandon their own program.

In late 2015 NCLB was finally reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act which has as its main feature the decentralization of authority.

Last week, standing less than five feet from original SB1 sponsor Sen. Damon Thayer, Republican Majority Leader Mike Wilson proclaimed that a 2016 second phase of Senate Bill 1 was an effort to "Go back to what our intentions were..." 

Actually, it's hard to be certain what "the Republicans" intended because the party is split and political arguments are fluid. The only unity seems to be in opposition to anything touched by President Obama. ...and charter schools. Republicans are pretty unified in support of charters, which show very little promise system-wide. 

One supposes it's just politics. President George W. Bush's NCLB had become unpopular and was widely blamed for creating America's most over-tested generation of school children. Its rewards and sanctions may have been well-intended, but many came to believe that the real motivation behind the law was to discredit schools and look for teachers to blame. Conservative support for NCLB principles was split. Traditional Republican thought leaders supported assessment, accountability and common core while libertarian opponents mounted a massive smear campaign against the standards. In Matt Bevin, Kentucky elected a governor with libertarian leanings. Republicans (like Thayer) who once insisted that common national standards be considered for Kentucky now oppose them in favor of state standards. In other states where Common Core was tossed out they were soon replaced with standards that looked a whole lot like Common Core. But conservatives claimed that they were "state standards." If this becomes the national trend under ESSA, it will be increasingly difficult to compare student performance from state to state, which is clearly what Republican intentions once were.

 Education bill top priority in senate
 This from the State Journal:

Claiming the Republican Majority Caucus in the Senate wants to get back to controlling educational standards in the state, Senate President Robert Stivers said the Senate’s number one priority bill is personal.

The Republican controlled Senate filed 13 priority bills Wednesday, many of which, like “right-to-work” and “informed consent” prior to an abortion, have been priority bills in the past.
Stivers told The State Journal the Senate’s “Education Reform Bill” has been the chamber’s priority bill in the past, but after his long journey seeking educational reforms 20 years ago he wanted it to be a priority this session.

“This is my 20th year. I always wanted to do things that I said were best for my kids,” Stivers said. “If I did things that I thought were good for them, I think they would be good for a lot of children. Education and the educational component of what this plans to do would be good for my children.
“I think that is really what we should do as a government – that which the individual can’t do for themselves — provide a good quality public education. Workforce readiness, preparing children for opportunity when they become adults...that’s what we need to look at as a priority.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Wilson of Bowling Green, would change Kentucky’s current common core standards with a standards and assessment review structure that would recur ever six years and mirror the original Senate Bill 1 from 2009.

Wilson said teacher reviews would go back to principals not the Kentucky Department of Education, it would put education control on the local level.

Those standards would be evaluate, Wilson said, by practitioners that are “engrained in subject area, not affiliated with any testing vendors or curriculum vendors so we have teachers, boots on the ground, actually reviewing these.”

The standards and assessment review structure would involve a public review component in math, science, language arts and social studies.

The Kentucky Board of Education would have website solely for receiving public comments, a third party would be charged with collecting and disseminating those public comments to the advisory panels at the middle school, elementary and high school levels.

The advisory panels would consist of six teachers for each subject and various grade levels and one Kentucky Higher Education representative. Those panels would pass on their recommendations to a standards and assessments development committee comprised of a committee for each subject, six teachers in those subject areas and two higher education representatives with one from a public institution.

Those standards and findings would in turn go to a recommendation committee consisting of three governor appointees, three senators appointed by the Senate president and three representatives appointed the by the House speaker which ultimately would send their refined recommendations to the Kentucky Board of Education which would implement those standards and alignments no later than the second academic year of the review.

 “We want to get back to controlling our standards. There has been such misinterpretation of what we were trying to do years ago that it has become a total distraction to the educational process,” Stivers said. “Teachers will feel more like they can teach. We won’t have as much testing therefore teaching to test — we can still measure accountability, we can have measures, look for workforce readiness. Ideas and theories become toxic and become impediments of themselves.”

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