Workers people group.

Fundamental Education Reform in Kentucky: An Economic Imperative

I love being a Kentuckian. Our state has been blessed with unbelievable natural beauty and some of the friendliest, good-natured, hardworking people you could ever hope to meet. My wife and I thank God daily for the blessings of our Kentucky home, church family, and friends. But there remains tremendous untapped potential in our state. We have not yet become the state that we can be, that we should be. And central to our untapped potential is a public education system that while much better than it has been in generations past, is still in dire need of reform.

Kentucky has made significant strides in public education since the early 1990s. The passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) and other subsequent reforms have been good for Kentucky’s children. But the academic performance and employment and earnings outcomes for our low income children and children of color is drastically different from performance and outcomes for our middle income and White children. That reality is crippling our state.

Much work remains to be done to improve the education attainment, employment, and earnings outcomes for all of Kentucky’s students, but drastic improvement in performance and employment outcomes for our low income children and children of color is both a moral and economic imperative. We are a state that has for years ranked near the bottom in labor force participation. In 2015 we ranked 47th out of the 50 U.S. states and DC, with a labor force participation rate of 57.9%. We lead only Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia in labor force participation. While those are fine states, we can do better. In sum, not nearly enough Kentuckians are working, and a major factor contributing to our labor force woes is our failure to equip all of our students with the knowledge and skills needed for gainful employment. That failure has in turn led to our challenges with attracting companies with high wage jobs to Kentucky, jobs that require a pipeline of skilled workers. There is no doubt about it, we have to do better.

First, there must be acknowledgement by education leaders and policy makers that current academic and performance outcomes for our students are unacceptable. Period.

Second, leaders must acknowledge that what’s happened and what’s happening in Kentucky’s public schools contributes to the current racial and socioeconomic performance and outcomes gaps. Leaders and policy makers seem content with pointing to out-of-school factors which contribute to gaps, but most leaders seem unwilling to admit that school factors have contributed to the problem as well. While our schools are not wholly responsible for the gaps, our schools have played a role and continue to play a role in the maintenance and in some cases exacerbation of performance and outcomes gaps.

The frequently heard refrain that “we’re working to ensure that all kids learn” is meaningless when what we are doing doesn’t lead to all kids learning. Leaders have talked about public schooling working for all kids in Kentucky for a long time, but low income kids and kids of color continue to be left behind. It’s past time for state and school leaders to acknowledge that what we’ve been doing in the name of all kids hasn’t worked for all kids; and begin exploring what we can do different to ensure that low income kids are learning, that Black kids are learning, that Latino kids are learning, etc.

Third, leaders must commit to fundamental change; not tinkering here and there, but fundamental change in our state’s public education system. The magnitude of socioeconomic and racial performance and outcomes gaps in Kentucky are such that tinkering with the system will get us nowhere. Fundamental reform to Kentucky’s public education system is an absolute necessity. Reform is needed in every area, from the recruitment, selection, and training of teachers and leaders, all the way to the mechanisms we use for holding schools, leaders, and teachers accountable for student learning and outcomes, and everything in between. A system that produces such disparate outcomes for different groups of children is fundamentally broken, and nothing short of large scale reform is worthy of consideration.

We can and we must reform Kentucky’s public education system to be responsive to the needs of our most vulnerable children; reform is both a moral and an economic imperative. The health of our state’s economy is dependent on our ability to better prepare all of our children for success. We cannot afford to prepare only some of our children for gainful employment, and lives as civically responsible, tax-paying citizens of our state. All Kentuckians’ futures are inextricably bound together.

group of african college friends

Educators’ Disbelief in the Academic Potential of Students of Color

One of the reasons for persistent racial achievement gaps in our schools is differences between what leaders and teachers believe to be the achievement potential of White students and students of color. Rhetoric espousing belief that all children can learn at high levels can be heard in every school and school district in America. That rhetoric, unfortunately, does not yet match reality. There remain school leaders and teachers who believe Black and/or Latino students are incapable of learning at the same levels as White children. group of african college friends

Leaders’ and teachers’ disbelief in the potential of students of color rarely looks like blatant racism. It rarely sounds like leaders and educators saying to students of color that they are less academically capable than their White counterparts (although that does still happen in some limited instances). Nevertheless, their disbelief is unmistakable.

But in 2015, that disbelief most often manifests itself as failure to challenge students of color to meet the same rigorous academic standards that they expect White students to meet or exceed. Their disbelief looks like hard and soft sorting mechanisms that systematically channel students of color into tracks that will limit their academic and profession. That disbelief looks like allowing students of color to decide whether they will or will not work in class that day/semester/year. That disbelief looks like coddling students of color rather than challenging them to achieve academically at high levels. That disbelief looks like pushing students of color to the absolute limit of their abilities on the athletic field, while challenging them to do little more than show up to the academic classroom. That disbelief looks like failure to challenge colleagues and administrators who write and implement policies that perpetuate the status quo for students of color in schools and institutions of higher education.

While leaders’ and teachers’ disbelief in the academic potential of students of color is different from calling them racially insensitive names or preventing them from enrolling in predominantly White schools and institutions, it is just as dangerous as the blatantly racist actions of the past. And that continued disbelief in the academic potential of children of color is partly responsible for the racial achievement gaps that persist in America’s schools.

Focused pupil working at her desk in a classroom

Telling All of America’s Story is Important: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Ronni Dean-Burren is the latest addition to my list of parent heroes. Her 15-year old son Cody noticed that in his McGraw Hill Geography textbook, enslaved persons in the United States of African descent were referred to as as “workers”. In Cody’s book, American slavery was discussed as part of a larger conversation about immigration, and the U.S. being a nation of immigrants. Cody took a picture of a page from from his book with his cell phone and sent it to his mother with the message, “we was real hard workers, wasn’t we.” Outraged, Ronni took to social media to make the case that the McGraw Hill text was putting a particularly misleading twist on America history, particularly the history of slavery in America. In response to her vocal criticism, which got considerable attention, McGraw Hill Education released a statement saying that it would change the language to describe the arrival of African slaves in America as “a forced migration.”

I believe America to be the greatest of nations, but neither McGraw Hill nor anyone else has the right to retell her story, painting the institution of slavery in a much more favorable light than it deserves. Consider the implications of such an attempt to re-tell American history, in particular the history of slavery in America. Without an understanding of slavery, children can’t come to understand that the disproportionate underclass position of African Americans in the 21st Century has its beginnings with American slavery. Without a historically accurate account of American slavery, children are unable to appropriately answer lingering and often unspoken questions about the persistent gaps in wealth and education between Whites and Blacks in America.Without an understanding of slavery, children are left to mistakenly conclude that differences in life outcomes between Blacks and Whites in America come wholly as a result of differences between the races in ability and work ethic.

Thank you to Cody and Ronni Dean-Burren for sounding the alarm, and let this be a wake-up call for all Americans. An accurate account of American history is important for all of us; an account which includes both our mistakes and our accomplishments. America’s greatness is not diminished by her mistakes. But trying to erase our errors from American history would be disastrous: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

Firing South Carolina Deputy Ben Fields is Not Enough

The video of now ex-South Carolina Deputy Ben Fields’ violent arrest of a teenage girl in Richland County South CarolCrime Sceneina has made its way over the airwaves and across social media sites. If you haven’t seen it, you must. No explanation I could provide here would do justice to just how shamefully violent this law enforcement officer was toward a child.

I was outraged when I saw the video, and I continue to grow even more upset every time I see it. What is incomprehensible to me, is not that the deputy had zero regard for the safety or well-being of a person he is sworn to protect, but that he believed he could get away with the abuse of a child in the middle of a classroom. This was a child, sitting in a desk in a classroom, who while clearly defiant and disrespectful, posed no physical threat to herself, her classmates, her teacher, or the abusing deputy. Nevertheless, ex-Deputy Fields proceeded to put the child in her place by knocking her to the ground while still in her desk, then dragging and throwing her across the classroom before arresting her and charging her with the South Carolina offense of “disturbing school”.

I continue to ask the question I’ve asked since my initial viewing of the video: What if she had been my daughter? And my response remains the same: Thank God she wasn’t.

I was pleased to hear that Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has terminated Ben Fields. But I’m not satisfied with Fields’ termination. Termination is a sufficient form of discipline for an employee who consistently fails to adequately perform his job, who consistently fails to meet performance standards, or who commits an act serious enough to warrant ending the employment relationship, but not quite rising to the level of being criminal. What ex-Deputy Fields committed, on the other hand, was a felony. He abused his position as a deputy and unmercifully treated a child with reckless abandon. He tossed a child across the classroom like she was a rag doll; as if she had no worth. If Fields had treated a dog like he treated this child, there would have been calls for his termination on the basis of animal cruelty. But he didn’t abuse a dog; he abused a child.

So I’m not satisfied with Fields’ termination. There is nothing this child could have said or done that warranted being treated in the manner she was treated. Fields abused and hurt a child; not someone’s dog, but someone’s child. And for that, he be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. A message must be sent to Fields and to would-be child abusers wearing police uniforms that such behavior is not only impermissible, but such action will land them in jail.

Website Image

Kentucky’s Classification of Students of Color as ‘Gap Students’ Must End Now

Since at least 2012, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) has classified students of color and economically disadvantaged students as gap students; a classification which has filtered down to school districts and schools, so that teachers and administrators across the state commonly refer to students of color and economically disadvantaged students as gap students. KDE’s rationale for the classification of students in this way is that the academic achievement of these groups of students is typically significantly lower than that of White students, leaving significant achievement gaps. What KDE misses, however, is that gaps refers to the distances between the achievement scores of subgroups of students; gaps do not (or should not) refer to any specific groups of students. Referring to any group of students as gap students is at the very least extremely unprofessional and inappropriate. I argue that such labeling is additionally incredibly insulting, hurtful, and even harmful to children.

It is beyond my understanding why anyone would think such a labeling convention would be a good thing. Achievement gaps are ugly. They represent failures on the part of adults to get learning right for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. What achievement gaps do not represent is wrongdoing or shortcomings on the part of children. The academic achievement scores of children of color at levels significantly below those of White children is not a function of children of color having any less capacity to learn than White children. Why, then, would KDE attach such a derogatory label to children?

If we’re honest about it, the gap label would be more appropriately applied to teachers, schools, and school districts than to children. There are teachers and schools that we know for certain do more to exacerbate achievement gaps than to eliminate them. There are teachers and schools in Kentucky that are either unwilling or unable to meet the specific learning needs of culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse learners. Perhaps KDE should consider labeling those teachers and schools as gap teachers and gap schools. But to attach such a disparaging label to children is inaccurate and inexcusable.

I do not believe there was malicious intent with the creation of the gap category of students. In fact, I believe KDE officials’ intentions were probably noble, but even with the best of intentions, the classification of students of color and economically disadvantaged students as gap students is highly problematic and must be changed immediately.

I Sincerely Hope the Louisville NAACP is not Intentionally Misleading African Americans about Charter Schools

I read this morning that during a forum last week the president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP made the statement that charter schools are private schools that cherry pick their students. First, search I hope what I read was a mistake. If, buy cialis however, it was not a mistake, I hope it was an honest mistake on the part of the president and not an intentional attempt to mislead Louisville’s African American community about charter schools.

Charter schools are not private schools. All charter schools are public schools. Under the charter school legislation that has been proposed in Kentucky, charter schools would be funded in the same way that every other public school in Kentucky is funded; receiving state and local dollars based on the number of students that attend schools. Further, under the proposed legislation in Kentucky, students would be admitted to charter schools through a simple admissions process; there would be no admissions preferences. Students who apply would be admitted, and if there are more applicants than seats, admission would be determined through a lottery. The proposed charter school legislation in Kentucky would actually make charter schools much less selective than the current magnet programs in operation in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS).

Again, I hope the Louisville NAACP president’s comments were an honest mistake and not an intentional attempt to mislead Louisvillians. With the achievement of African American students in Jefferson County where it is, we don’t have time for politics and gamesmanship. If we’re going to debate the most appropriate ways for improving education for children in Louisville and across Kentucky, let’s do it honestly.

Parents want as many high quality school options available to them as possible, period. Strong public charter school legislation is one way to increase the number of high quality options available to parents.

Confederate Flag

Rebel Flag Over South Carolina Statehouse is Coming Down

The Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina Statehouse is coming down. At 4:00 pm today, healing South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) is scheduled to ceremonially sign the bill  that will remove the flag. This symbol of Confederate resistance was raised over the South Carolina State Capitol during the 1960′s as a symbol of the state’s resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. To be more specific, the state raised this Confederate symbol in 1961 as a symbolic gesture expressing the state’s disdain for the American movement which desegregated schools and other public and private accommodations, and ended legalized discrimination against African Americans in areas including housing, lending, and employment. That symbol has flown over South Carolina’s Statehouse for over 50 years now, as a finger in the eye of not only African American’s in South Carolina, but Americans of all colors and persuasions who believe in equality. But today the flag comes down.

I’ve heard more than a few Americans, Black and White, question the significance of removing that hateful symbol from the Capitol’s grounds. Some thoughtful people have mounted the argument that energies dedicated to removing that flag would be better directed at causes that would have more immediate tangible impact on the condition of people of color in South Carolina. But I believe South Carolina Governor Haley put it best in saying of the flag’s placement at the state capitol, “it should have never been there …These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of. What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain.”

Taking that flag down at the South Carolina capitol means parents and teachers in South Carolina will no longer have to try to explain to children why such a hurtful symbol flies over their Statehouse in the year 2015. So I for one am ecstatic that the flag, raised to symbolize South Carolina’s resistance to protecting the rights of African Americans, is now coming down. Unfortunately, it took the recent tragedy at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to bring us to this point, but it’s coming down today. It’s about time.

Diversity Shout-Out: University of Kentucky’s Dean David Blackwell

19-university-of-kentuckyA few weeks ago I attended campus community forums to hear from the two finalists for the University of Kentucky Provost vacancy. The finalists were Dr. Timothy Tracy, ask Dean of the UK College of Pharmacy, and Dr. David Blackwell, Dean of the Gatton College of Business and Economics at UK. Both candidates were clearly very capable leaders, but ultimately, Dr. Tracy was selected as the next Provost at the University of Kentucky. I send my congratulations to Dr. Tracy and I look forward to working with him as we continue to move UK forward.

But the purpose for my post is to highlight an incredibly forward-thinking comment made by Dr. Blackwell during the campus forums. In response to a question posed by an audience member about moving the University of Kentucky forward in the area of diversity, Dr. Blackwell commented that the University should not limit itself to merely mirroring the diversity of the state. As you might know, compared to most other US states, Kentucky’s racial and ethnic diversity is pretty low. As of the 2010 US Census, Kentucky’s population was about 88% White, about 8% Black, and only about 3% Hispanic or Latino of any race. With that demographic profile, Kentucky ranks as one of the least diverse states in America. In fact, some analysts have placed Kentucky as being one of the top five least diverse states in America.

Even as one of the least diverse states in the country, the demographic profile of the faculty at the University of Kentucky falls short or mirroring the state. Most notably, the University’s percentage of Black faculty members is disproportionately low. During the 2012-2013 academic year, only about 3.5% of full time faculty members at UK were Black. Much more work must be done to increase the racial/ethnic diversity of faculty at UK; particularly with increasing the number of Black full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty members.

The University of Kentucky’s student demographic profile is pretty similar to that of the state of Kentucky. During the 2012-2013 academic year, total Black/African American enrollment at UK was just under 7% and Hispanic or Latino enrollment was just under 3%. So if a diversity goal for the University is for the student body to mirror the demographic profile of the state, UK is close and just a tad more work would put it right at the goal line.

But Dean Blackwell’s comment causes us to rethink such goals. He suggested that even if the faculty and student body at UK mirrored the demographics of Kentucky, more could and should be done to increase diversity at the University. Dean Blackwell asserted that if the goal of the University of Kentucky is to be a highly competitive national university, then the diversity of UK will have to surpass that of the diversity of Kentucky, because the most successful organizations are diverse organizations.

Dean Blackwell’s comments were both insightful and challenging, and I hope leaders at all levels of the University will take on that challenge to continue to move the needle on diversity at UK. I have no doubt that a more diverse UK will be a stronger UK.

The Black Men Teaching Initiative in Pennsylvania

There is a collaborative initiative underway in Pennsylvania aimed at increasing the number of Black men going into the teaching profession. The Black Men Teaching Initiative was founded by Dr. Robert Millward, see coordinator of the Administration and Leadership Program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and is comprised of faculty and administrators from institutions including Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Point Park University, and Community College of Allegheny County. The initiative is funded by the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowment.

I am really excited about this initiative and its potential for raising awareness with African American male students about teaching as a career choice. If current students are anything like I was as a high school or college student, pursuing teaching as a career never crossed my mind. But I never considered teaching because it was never presented to me. No one ever suggested that I consider teaching. No one ever said to me they thought I would be a good teacher. My mother was the first person to suggest that I consider teaching as a career, and that suggestion came after I had completed a masters degree in another field. Perhaps if someone had suggested the teaching profession to me earlier or at the very least talked with me about what a teaching career would look like I would have found my way to the profession sooner.

We have to come to terms with a few realities. The vast number of students pursuing teaching as a career are middle class White females. Given the current demographic profile of American students and their learning needs, the cultural mismatch between the teaching force and our students is problematic. Am I saying that middle class White females can’t be great teachers for African American and Latino students? I am not saying that at all. I have known and worked with White female teachers who are amazing with students of color. In fact, two of my mentor teachers, who essentially taught me how to teach as an early career teacher, are White females. In addition to helping me to become an effective teacher, I credit their mentoring with keeping me in the teaching profession. What I am saying, however, is that it is critical that the demographic profile of the teaching profession begins to more closely mirror the demographic  profile of our students.

There has been considerable conversation about the importance of teachers of color serving as mentors and role models for students of color; and it is true that teachers of color serve in those important roles. Students of color and White students need to see teachers of color and leaders of color in their schools. It is a problem that in many of our schools and school districts the only people of color, especially men of color, students see are in custodial and food service positions. People of color should be found throughout the ranks of people working in schools and school districts, from schools’ bus and cafeteria monitors and all the way through the district superintendency. But also, it is important to increase the percentage of people of color as teachers and leaders because their voices are needed in conversations about students’ diverse cultural backgrounds, cultural differences that have implications for student learning, the development and adoption of curriculum, instructional strategies, and community engagement. We can no longer pretend that teaching and leadership teams that don’t include people of color can make the best decisions for children and communities of color. That thinking is backward, flawed, parternalistic, and incredibly insulting to people of color.

So again, I am excited about what is happening in Pennsylvania. I don’t think many of us having taken this issue very seriously (see a previous post for some of my thoughts on what we have failed to do). My hope is that the Black Men Teaching Initiative will spur thinking and innovation around further diversifying our teaching force, and in particular, increasing the number of African American men in our classrooms.

Huppenthal Must Be Removed as Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction

I will not say much about this story as John Huppenthal’s comments have been well-chronicled and editorialized in the news media and the blogosphere, cheap but he must be removed. Huppenthal’s insensitive, racist, classist comments are a mischaracterization of Americans and are offensive to many of the families and communities he is entrusted with serving as state superintendent of public instruction. During his tearful public apology, Huppenthal said that his online comments did not reflect his thinking and the love he has in his heart. But that’s crazy. If his online comments don’t reflect his thinking, where did they come from? Was he insulting low-income people, Latino’s, and African Americans just for giggles? Was it some kind of joke? And I don’t doubt that Huppenthal is a loving person. Most people love some other people. In fact, after his apology, I am convinced that he in some way or another cares for his assistant-who he also offended through his comments. But Huppenthal will not convince me, or more importantly convince the people of Arizona, that Latinos, low-income people, and African Americans give him a warm and fuzzy feeling on the inside.

Under no circumstances can Huppenthal continue as Arizona’s state superintendent, but I believe Arizonans would appreciate his honesty at this point. Huppenthal ought to be willing to be as honest now as he was in his anonymous online posts. If he thinks Americans who receive welfare benefits are lazy pigs, call them lazy pigs to their faces. If he thinks Spanish should not be spoken in the U.S., in schools, on the radio, and very little in Mexican restaurants, he should say so.  But even if he decides to be honest with Arizonans, and regardless of how many tears he sheds, Huppenthal cannot continue to serve the children and schools of Arizona after making public comments where he degrades and insults children he was elected to serve. He must go, and he must go now.

Wayne D. Lewis