November 16, 2015

Prichard meeting focuses on increasing student achievement, closing gaps

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Increasing the academic achievement of all students and closing the performance gaps that persist between student groups was the focus of the recent fall meeting of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

The two-day meeting in Louisville included presentations by national scholars, Kentucky educators, students and committee members who encouraged the statewide advocacy group to sustain and build on its commitment to ensuring a quality education for every Kentuckian.

Dr. Ronald F. Ferguson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government spoke of the need to strike a balance between student outcomes that can be measured by testing and characteristics he described as “agency-related factors,” such as persistence, future orientation and conscientiousness.

Teaching has a profound influence on both of these, he said, and “all ages and stages” of a student’s educational progression are important. “There is no throw-away period.” In addressing the importance of early childhood education, Ferguson encouraged the committee members to saturate their communities with parenting information and supports and to “help make life the program.”

Student Susie Smith, a member of the committee’s Student Voice Team, said in response to a question that two things schools could do to address achievement gaps are to make sure students master skills at the appropriate age and to guard against separating or setting different performance expectations based on race.

Ferguson recommended that the study group the committee has empaneled to address closing the achievement gaps to find a way to institutionalize attention to the issue – to “look at the numbers and not blink.” He also emphasized the importance of ensuring that educators working to close achievement gaps are equipped with the information and resources they need to do so.

Floyd County education leaders shared their story of the positive impact of setting high expectations for students. Once the subject of a state takeover, the school district is now one of the highest performing in the state, with test scores that rank near the top statewide.

Superintendent Henry Webb told the committee that the district refuses to use excuses and “takes kids where they are” to work for higher achievement. School board member Jeff Stumbo said the district set a goal to be in the top 50 when its performance was rated at 145th. “Now we’re in the top 12.”

Betsy Layne High School principal Cassandra Akers credited a great team of teachers and cited expanded advanced placement and dual credit programs as examples of progress. She said the school also has created transitional/development classes for students who fall short of benchmarks as they enter high school.

Lieutenant Governor Crit Luallen applauded the committee as having been the “constant through the years in education” with its advocacy work and urged the committee to renew its commitment to “holding the ground we’ve already gained” as it works with legislative and executive branch leaders.

Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, noting that he had held the position for less than three weeks, said he hopes to generate “Kentucky fatigue” across the nation as people get tired of hearing about the state’s educational progress. He emphasized the importance of addressing the “opportunity gap” to give students what they need to close the achievement gap.

Looking ahead, Pruitt said areas that he expects the state department to address will include improving student performance in middle school math, early learning and the accountability system that he said is too hard for people to understand.

A panel of educators and advocates provided a review of the reform that began in the 1980s as well as the strengths and challenges of Kentucky’s education system.

Prichard Committee board member Helen Mountjoy noted that the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act contained messages still relevant today about the importance of closing achievement gaps and setting high expectations for all students. Deborah Walker, president and CEO of the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning, said she believes that notions of a systemic approach to educational improvement and setting high expectations had taken root in Kentucky. Teacher leadership was among the areas in need of more attention, she added.

Teachers are sharing their expertise at greater levels than ever, but barriers persist to realizing the full potential of the intellectual capital that can be found in Kentucky classrooms today, said Brad Clark, director of the Hope Street Group teacher fellows program.

Veeko Lucas, a former classroom teacher and a senior effectiveness coach for The New Teacher Project, emphasized the importance of putting lessons before students that are aligned with high academic standards and include the materials students need.

Education advocate and former principal Dewey Hensley and Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe emphasized the importance of quality teaching and the need for school leaders to ensure that all students have access to quality teaching every year.

“We’ve significantly increased achievement for all student groups across the state of Kentucky since the 1990’s but the gap in achievement between different populations of students has also widened significantly. At this moment in the Committee’s history we are celebrating our progress as a state and redoubling our efforts to ensure all children, regardless of background and geography, learn deeply, achieve at high levels and have access to the quality of life that so many of us enjoy,” said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee.



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