Dear Commissioner Pruitt: I plan to attend the Education Town Hall meeting in Louisville but also wanted to put my thoughts on paper in response to the questions raised by the flyer. As quick background, I represent CTL, a non-profit educational firm with a 20+ year history in Kentucky, originally created to help implement KERA, and a frequent partner with the KDE in a variety of endeavors. Our vision is an excellent and caring teacher in every classroom, and our mission is to advance excellence in teaching and school leadership: www.ctlonline.org. Questions from the flyer:
1. Expectations of Schools:
With CTL’s background in mind, we expect schools to develop the full capacities of students by engaging them in rigorous and interesting work that has application to the world beyond the school. We also expect teachers and principals to create school environments supportive of deep learning for both students and the adults who work with them, ensuring that all have a voice in making their experiences as authentic and valuable as possible. Finally, we expect schools to reflect the deepest aspirations of the community and to engage the broader community in meeting those aspirations.
2. Characteristics of Schools that Are Most Important:
- High Expectations for Student Achievement: Students depend on their teachers and principals to support their learning, but also to help them see what it is possible for them to learn while in school and as they become as adults. Students who may not see themselves taking advanced placement courses or applying to college need to encouragement to do so, in order to develop a vision for themselves and their potential. All students, especially in middle and high school, should be expected to take advanced coursework in order to prepare them for success after school, and schools need to support students in this level of work. On a related note, teachers must design instruction so that students produce high quality work and persist until their products are revised and polished. Sometimes poor quality work is a result of poor design or lack of clear standards rather than student apathy.
- Collaboration: There is a good deal of research and professional literature on the importance of schools establishing a culture of collaboration where teachers learn with and from each other. This suggests time for teachers to work together on planning, assessing the impact of their efforts, and engaging together in professional learning to better meet the needs of their students. Such collaborative arrangements also spur teacher growth and contribute to job satisfaction and retention of faculty. Additionally, building collaborative rather than competitive structures within classrooms allows students to consider multiple perspectives, learn from and with peers, and develop critical thinking and interpersonal skills that will serve them well in college and career.
- Opportunities for Leadership: Until recently, teacher leadership has often been overlooked as a source of innovative ideas and a means for improving schools. Distributed leadership models that engage teachers and administrators in solving school problems together have potential for increasing student learning and building positive and nurturing school cultures. Additionally, when students see their teachers assuming leadership roles, it expands their view of the educational process and provides models for their own eventual leadership. To build on student leadership, students need opportunities to take a lead role in their own learning, so they along with their teachers develop a sense of agency. Finally, when thinking about building the leadership capacity of schools, it is critical that principals and assistant principals, as well as district office staff, participate in regular professional learning and mentoring, so that true instructional leadership emerges.
3. Measure School Success:
A critical consideration is whether we have valid measures of student success and if test scores are sufficient to reflect both academic and socio-emotional growth of students. We currently have focused on a narrow band of indicators to determine what and if students are learning. At the high school level, end of course exams are not sufficiently aligned with state standards/KAS which creates a dichotomy for teachers and schools. Rather than have a tacit curriculum, we as a state need to boldly commit to teaching students the content we believe will provide them and Kentucky with a bright future. Moreover, our state assessment system doesn’t include actual student work products, or work developed and refined over time, or surveys of students to determine their satisfaction with their learning opportunities and the culture of their school. Additionally, making a few percentage points of progress each year doesn’t tell us whether teachers have the freedom to innovate in meeting the needs of their students and how much more they could achieve if their teaching was not dictated by pacing guides, but rather the interests of their students and the content knowledge and imagination they possess as teachers. In short, we need a broader array of indicators to determine if schools are successful for all students, and if teachers and administrators have the autonomy to design schooling in ways that develop everyone’s potential.
On a related note, because the tests currently drive much of what goes on in schools, non-tested subjects like the arts and humanities, so critical to student development, lose currency. This is true of subjects in years that are not tested; for example, accountability grades where science and social studies are not assessed and therefore at the elementary level taught superficially or infrequently. There are unintended consequences in having test scores drive everything and measuring student school success narrowly.
Another measure of success is what students are prepared to do after high school: are they successful in postsecondary education; do their reflections a year or two out express appreciation for all they learned and/or regrets over experiences that would have better prepared them; are they successful in their jobs and careers. Because Kentucky has such a strong P-20 system in place through the Council on Post Secondary Education, creating a more comprehensive and aligned system that measures success during and after high school is essential if we are to continue to improve the education we provide our students. The original SB 1 passed in 2009 attempted to create this aligned system, but more concentrated effort is needed to make it a reality.
4. Ensure Schools Are Successful
Returning to broader concepts of equity and excellence, efforts to build school success need to look at each aspect of schooling with a critical eye and make necessary improvements: how are students and teachers assigned to classes; to what degree is there culturally responsive teaching; what efforts are made to help each student learn at high levels, not consigning them to low level tracks or groups, but providing support and scaffolding to catch them up and accelerate their learning; how is student discipline handled and whether it promotes positive behavior and bonding to the school; to what extent does the school operate as a democracy, with students, teachers, administrators and community all having a voice in decisions that affect the school; and, to what extent does the school operate as a center for the community and a source of its pride, including how the larger community is involved in the life of the school. Clear mission, values and goals, agreement on strategies to meet those goals, sufficient resources to implement what is planned, autonomy and flexibility at the school level, a focus on what students need and seeing schooling through their eyes, and a sense of commitment and investment by all involved in the educational enterprise are ways to ensure that schools are successful.
5. Celebrate School Success
The KDE already uses a variety of ways to publicize the positive things that schools do, through Kentucky Teacher online, social media, etc. The mechanisms are in place but what is important is to make sure that what is being celebrated represents the ideals we are striving for in our schools, emphasizing equity and excellence, and moving beyond recognizing test score increases to looking at all the ways schools build student success, as well as develop the capacities of students, teachers and administrators.
Deborah Walker, Ed.D.
President and CEO
CTL – Collaborative for Teaching and Learning