In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Susan Allred, pictured far right, the Kentucky Department of Education’s associate commissioner of Next-Generation Schools and Districts, who discusses what happens after the first results from Kentucky’s new accountability system are released publicly this month. She explains how schools are categorized and what kind of assistance will be available to schools and districts.
Q. What is the important message or information that still needs to get out as we approach the release of the first set of scores under Kentucky’s new Unbridled Learning accountability system?
A. I’m more interested in the other side of the test scores: what do we do next. We’re identifying, according to Regulation 225, Priority and Focus schools and because of the history of No Child Left Behind, people immediately see those as negative consequences. But really, in the area of Focus Schools, all it is saying is, there are significant gaps with a group of students and we want to be sure that you are focusing on them and providing them the right support and help.
So if you are a Focus School, it’s been determined that basically you have a large gap between all students and this group of students. And in Kentucky, no one should be terribly surprised that this turns out to be African-American males, students with disabilities and students economically disadvantaged.
We know that already, so it would seem that this data is anticlimatic. If you look at your data and see that you have a gap, then you should be focusing on the gap. So this recognition, the first level says you have to revise your School Improvement Plan to reflect a goal for those students and then have related activities.
That’s it, that’s the big consequence. In other words, you have to do what you need to do.
In year two, if that gap still has not closed, then the challenge is, what else do you do? And you would expect folks to discuss this with their populations, their stakeholders and definitely with their superintendent. And they should have those goals set, they should be working on those interventions and that’s where money should be spent.
And then in years three and four you get the state’s attention.
Q. What kind of assistance will be available in those first two years to Focus and Priority schools?
A. Our (KDE) support is that we’re asking everyone to use our electronic platform ASSIST (Adaptive System of School Improvement Support Tools). In ASSIST there are some tools that schools can use to diagnose their issues. They need to study their data. And there are some analysis questions, and they will write an executive summary about their school and then they develop their plans based on student data.
Since they have to write a school improvement plan by law anyway, we’re just saying, “If you put (this information) in here, then we won’t keep asking you for other reports.” We hope to use this platform for Title I, Title II reports, special education reporting, planning, so that we have one single plan. And to me, that is like dying and going to heaven.
What we hope this will do if schools and districts take it seriously, then your comprehensive plan will be there, your community will know what you’re working on, funding sources will know what you’re working on and it will be one common story for each school.
Q. So what you’re saying is that all schools and districts have to write improvement plans, Priority and Focus schools are just going to have to write a little bit more?
A. Yes ... what I say is that we all have something to focus on, so I would see a conversation over time of, ‘What are you focusing on this year?’ We have to have these categories for compliance with our waiver (from No Child Left Behind) and with accountability, but at the end of the day, we should be focusing on things that are important, and that’s gaps in data.
So where other people seem to be very stressed that we may have 300-500 schools that may have to focus on their gaps, I’m suggesting that we all have gaps on which to focus. These, however, have more severe gaps and we’re going to provide them more clarity and support as they need it.
We have various suggestions on our website to address the different gaps. They don’t have to use our activities, but they do have to set a goal. And that’s true of everyone by statute, which says biennially, you have to set achievement goals. So, what we’re saying is that if you’re waiting until biennially, you’re crazy. We need to focus all the time on where we’re going.
We are helping them set their targets annually and then we’re suggesting activities to go with that. ... the goals are set on their current performance, so not everyone has the same one. It’s based on where you are and a reasonable projection on how to close the gap over time. So you have incremental steps in a year.
One of the things we have learned from the Priority Schools to this point – what were Persistently Low Achieving schools – is that no matter what you focus on, that’s what improves. The CCR (College and Career Ready) data is not out yet, but we have some PLA schools that have made 20 percent gains in CCR in a year. Why did that happen? Because they focused on it.
Q. What is the role of the school board in this?
A. What I would hope school boards are doing is to first look at the school and district report cards as data points in time and supporting the idea of meaningful, purposeful comprehensive school and district plans that are transparent, and that includes where we are spending money.
We have to build trust again in the professionalism of the school business and we can’t do that if we don’t function as a business – with intended outcomes and aligned support and processes. So school boards don’t need to be a rubber stamp; they need to ask questions and to understand because from my way of thinking, this is urgent work.
Statute says that they are supposed to look at this plan twice a year, the status of where everything is, is the budget on track, are you making the progress you think you should be making, projected outcomes, etc. But I am very impressed with some districts out there, particularly some that have PLA schools, that are providing quarterly and even monthly reports to their boards on what’s happening in the schools. And I don’t mean dog and pony shows, I mean really looking at what’s happening in the data on the kids.
And that’s where we’re seeing significant improvement. We’re seeing boards have work sessions that are just about student data and information – wow. They’re actually having an ownership of student data and information.
The more boards are aware that they have an active role, should have an active role in monitoring school and district plans – and we don’t mean micromanage — know what’s going on, they can be the standard bearers for what’s going on in their school district.
Q. With an anticipated 300-500 Focus Schools being identified, how is the department going to provide them all with assistance?
A. Let me back up a little and talk about Priority Schools. There are going to be 41, which have already been selected because they are the PLA schools from the past three years. With the passage of Regulation 225, they are deemed Priority Schools. So you won’t have any more Priority Schools, but in three years you can have new Priority Districts, which is a new category. But right now it’s just the Priority Schools. Those schools will stay Priority until they make their AMO (annual measurable objective) for three years in a row. If they do that, then another district will be moved in.
But it is my hope that since we are beginning to see amazing improvement in particular areas that what we are going to get out of the Priority Schools is actually a network in each region of some best practices that schools around them can connect to. So you don’t have to have a ton of people in Frankfort, you’ve got schools that have proven themselves, who’ve done the work and know how to do the work, and they’re sharing with each other and we get over this idea of designation.
Q. What about the Focus Schools?
A. Each of the Focus Schools will be assigned to someone in this office for the purpose of monitoring their plan. So when they put their plan in ASSIST, we’ll have someone who is looking at that plan and watching how that plan is moving forward because they do have to give updates. If they need help and assistance, it won’t necessarily be this person doing it, but this person connecting to who they need to be connected.
Much of the work that we’re doing here these days is more structural, like the core curriculum: how do you actually do that? So that’s the kind of training that’s being done. But one size doesn’t fit all and I think we’ve accepted that that’s the case. But, we have to make sure that they have the systems to be successful. There are 32 people in this office, and they may have as many as 15 schools. But again, it’s not to check the boxes on them, it’s to become a resource of support.
And in the meantime, we have a delivery plan that is helping us to define the processes that can support these schools like, what are the best practices, what is the best PD? So we’ll be providing them that kind of assistance as we continue the delivery plan at this level and aligning this work to their work.
Q. It sounds like you have the resources and the plan to work with all of these schools.
A. And the plan is to put a mirror in front of everyone’s face and say, “Look and see what you’re doing for these children.” That’s all this is. And I would like to think we are getting away from practices of perceived punishment. That does not work. Punishment may make people feel better, but it doesn’t help children. What helps children is that their school is getting the support it needs to help them be successful.
I would anticipate 1-2 percent of the schools and districts are going to have trouble with what’s just come out of my mouth, and here’s what I would say to them: then get 100 percent of your kids college and career ready and you have no disagreement with me. What we’re attempting to do is help you get there. If we’re going to help you get there, then you have to come to the table on this one particular issue, which is meaningful, comprehensive school and district planning.
If districts think they have a new or better way to do this, then they can apply to be a District of Innovation, in which they can propose to do away with everything that we came up with and have a different way to get to where they need to be. There is an application process that is beginning mid-year to begin them in 2013-14. I would encourage districts to get on board with that, but they would have to propose an accountability for it as part of that.
We want to encourage innovation.