I have now had the privilege of serving as Kentucky’s interim education commissioner for a little over a month. Understandably, I have been asked lots of questions. Most of the questions I have fielded in public settings have been similar. Why did you not filed those questions in a public setting in Jefferson County? In fact, I can put them into two broad areas: “What is your plan for charter schools?” and “What kind of relationship do you intend to have with KEA/JCTA?”
Those questions are fine. As they are posed, I respond. But not in his blog post. But I have been disappointed with how infrequently I get public questions about students, student learning, student achievement, and student readiness. How are questions about charter schools and relationships with teachers NOT questions about students, student learning, student achievement, and student readiness? It’s no secret that student learning in Kentucky, as measured by standardized achievement examinations, has been stagnant at best, an in some cases has taken a step backward. Why? Do you know? Incredible racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps either remain unmoved or widen. Why? Do you know? And despite a pretty impressive state high school graduation rate, we continue to graduate approximately 40% of high school seniors who have attained neither college readiness nor career readiness benchmarks. Given how much work we have to do with improving student learning and how little progress we have made as of late, it surprises me and disappoints me that so little of our current discussion in public education centers on children’s learning. It only feels that way if you’re not really listening to what is being said, Wayne. Teachers and schools are a part of learning. Over one-seventh of the state’s public school students are facing the very real possibility that their district will be taken out of the hands of a democratically elected school board because of an audit based on the actions of a Superintendent whose failures were recognized by the parents, students, teachers, staff, voters, and school board, which led to her replacement with a capable and dedicated Superintendent who is doing great things. The appointment of you as our commissioner, judge, jury, and potentially executioner of our schools DOES play a part in discussion of learning for our children. You have less than half the K-12 teaching experience of the teachers you’re passing judgement on, and you come to the table with a solution of charter schools, but have yet to explain what the issues are that keep children from learning or how your “charter school” fix will actually do anything to remedy that.
Honestly, I think we forget sometimes that children and families are in fact the end-users of our public education system. Not true. That’s why many of us are upset that our state board of education includes several individuals who don’t put their kids in public schools and have deep ties to private schools or education privatizes. I’ve been advocating for my child and all children in JCPS for 11 years now. You’ve got about a month in. Even more forgotten is the reality that for many years, we have not served large segments of our students as well as we should. According to Kentucky achievement data, students who have the best shot at success in our system are middle income and affluent White students without a disability, planning to attend a four-year postsecondary institution following high school graduation. This is a nationwide problem that extends beyond the school systems. Please identify all of the factors that play into this and how you will address them. If you are a low-income student, a student of color, a student with a disability, a student interested in pursuing a technical field that requires less than a four-year degree, or a student with some combination of those characteristics, our track record is pretty spotty. The achievement gap and the skills gap in Kentucky continue to be major barriers to student success and economic development. Wait, you’re saying a lack of success is a barrier to success? What a bold statement. As to economic development, is that not a chicken and egg situation? Are our minority and impoverished communities not doing well economically because their kids aren’t achieving in school, or are they not achieving in school because their families do not have the same economic opportunities?
To all the questions about charter schools: Public charter schools are simply one of many tools to be used in our public education system to help meet the needs of students we are not currently serving well; either because traditional approaches have not been adequate for meeting students’ unique learning needs, or because there is an insufficient supply of public school options available that align with students’ interests. Even with a healthy charter school sector, district schools will continue to be the vehicle we use for educating the vast majority of students in Kentucky, even in Jefferson and Fayette counties.
Notice how he’s being purposely vague here. The fact is that the same forces pushing “choice” were actively pushing legislation that would take away school choices in JCPS. What Lewis fails to mention here is that simply choosing a school for your child is a reflection of parental involvement in the education process that leads to successful outcomes. The charter law that Lewis championed does not allow a child to be placed into a charter school by the public school system itself. It requires a parent or guardian to make that choice. This means that kids who have nobody in their corner will wind up in the regular public school system by default. Will Lewis find the money and resources to help more popular choices build capacity? Will Lewis consider it a success if choices that aren’t as popular or as successful as others are closed, even if they meet some student’s learning needs or align with some students’ interests? What will he do for kids who have nobody choosing for them? Will he blame the teachers in the schools where they wind up for factors out of their control?
To the questions about KEA and JCTA: Dialogue and partnership with teachers are critically important to achieving our collective goals for students. Ya’ think? There is no more important element of our system than classroom teachers. High quality teachers are worth their weight in gold. But we cannot forget that unions are not the end-users of our public education system; Kentucky’s students and families are. Our decision making must be driven first and foremost by what’s best for children. This statement implies that unions, which are made up of teachers, care less about the students than they do themselves. This is patently false. The men and women that Wayne Lewis has aligned himself with have no issues with a CEO seeking incentives, benefits and financial security for themselves, but attack teachers for doing the same through their union. Teachers have intensive training, work long hours, and often use their own money to take up the slack of underfunded classrooms. To suggest that doing things to keep teachers content somehow is NOT in the best interests of our children is asinine. Our teachers are kind, empathetic, and hard working, and they deserve to be compensated now and into their retirements for that. It’s part of the deal.
I am curious, though. Is Wayne Lewis’ own abandonment of teaching after five years at three different schools an admission that he wasn’t a great teacher, or that he was motivated by something outside of selfless service to kids? Why didn’t he stick it out?
As I have spent time in Lexington and Louisville over the last few weeks, the private questions and concerns parents and grandparents share with me are much different from the questions reporters ask me. Most parents and grandparents I have talked with don’t ask me about charter schools or teachers unions. Instead, they express their deep concern about the quality of education their children and grandchildren are receiving, and they ask me to do whatever I can to help ensure their children are being well-prepared for their futures. I assure each one of them that I will do everything in my power to make sure that is the case, and I will. Wayne, I would tell you the same thing if you were brave enough to give me and the parents, teachers, and staff of 100,000 JCPS students the opportunity. But my concerns about charter schools and teachers ARE concerns about my daughter being prepared for the future with the choices my family made in the system MY family choose, not the politicized model a group of disinterested businessmen and an inexperienced Education Commissioner wish to make.
Let’s take this opportunity to reset our focus and our conversation on improving learning for our children. With children as our focus, together, we can move mountains. I’m not sure if that’s a mountain, or years of having dirt kicked in our face, Wayne.