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Education summit: Ky. trying to get in front of U.S. goals

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Leaders meet to begin evaluation

By Todd Martin

A group of nearly 50 from educational associations, school districts and legislators both state and federal met Monday at Collins High School to begin the discussion of the relationship of the future of education in Kentucky with federal standards.

The Kentucky Leads The Nation group, started by the Shelbyville-based Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, is trying to get out in front of the reform and reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind.

“I thought it went very well,” said Leon Mooneyhan, chief executive officer of OVEC and a former superintendent of Shelby County Public Schools. “We had frank and open comments from several people, including [U.S. Rep.] John Yarmuth [D-KY] and [state Senate President]) David Williams [R-Burkesville].

“We received a good explanation of the waiver request from the Department of Education, and I think we really got things started.”

Mooneyhan said this roundtable session was the first of several meetings for the group, with the next coming Aug. 23-24 in Louisville.

ESEA, which was signed into law by President George Bush in 2001 – designed to be a national measure of school performance to help ensure student progress – is up for reauthorization, but because of more pressing matters in Congress, that likely will be delayed.

That’s why U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has told states that that he will be accepting applications for waivers for the new ESEA standards, and Kentucky is the first to submit a waiver request.

Gov. Steve Beshear and Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday have asked for more flexibility in the ESEA standards, and Beshear officially sent a letter to Duncan last week, requesting that Kentucky be able to replace the public school accountability portions of ESEA with its own model.

Mooneyhan said this group’s goal is to help define what Kentucky needs reformed when either the waiver request is approved or when the reauthorization of ESEA is taken up in Congress.

“This is a way for us to become more involved in the educational standards and, possibly, in federal funding,” he said. “The idea is for us to come together and foster ideas for collaboration and learn what one another are doing, so we can see what’s working in Kentucky.”

After hearing several presentations from legislators and representatives in Kentucky Department of Education on Monday morning, the group ­­­– which included Shelby County Superintendent James Neihof – spent the afternoon beginning to identify key areas that need change from the current ESEA standards.

The top three issues the group identified have to do with the way the standards are measured and how low-performing schools are mandated to improve:

  • Changing the all-or-nothing aspect of the way schools are judged. With up to 25 or 26 categories of evaluation, if a school fails one, it’s listed as a failing school. Mooneyhan noted that if these standards continue, it’s possible that all the schools in the state could be listed as failing at some point.
  • The wide number of subgroups and the way students are included in them. Currently, if students fall into several subgroups, then they are counted multiple times.
  • The limited number of turnaround options, and the way they are handled. This isn’t an issue Shelby County has had to deal with, but the lowest performing schools are mandated to go with one of four turnaround models, limiting how the school can spend funding while answering students’ needs.

To answer these issues, Mooneyhan said the group stated measuring growth, using more flexibility and having more accountability are the answer, including:

  • Watching a student’s growth instead of measuring a student against a flat goal is a much better way to see improvement. “For example, if a student should start a grade with a level of four, but instead starts with two and tests out at the end at three and a half, they’ve grown a year-and-a-half, but would still be considered failing [under current standards],” Mooneyhan said.
  • Additional turnaround models and more flexibility for low performing schools. Give districts the opportunity to identify problem areas in low performing schools, and the flexibility to use the extra funding in those areas.
  • New accountability standards. Developing a new system with evaluation of teachers connected to student scorers, as they measure to growth models, will give a stronger evaluation of how a teacher and a district are progressing.

While this is just the beginning for the Kentucky Leads The Way group, it is also still the beginning for the waiver process and how it will be handled.

Duncan, the secretary of education, has not said what will be required of states that receive waivers, and congress still isn’t sure how much power Duncan has to waive federal requirements.

“The law does provide him with the authority to grant certain waivers, but we’re not sure how far he can go yet,” Mooneyhan said. “I just got an email that said Republicans are already saying he can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to grant waivers.”

But Kentucky, behind the organizational power of OVEC, is working to get itself in front of the changes so its collective voice can be heard.

“We need to be ready,” Mooneyhan said. “It may not be this year or even next with a presidential election coming [when the new ESEA standards are reauthorized.] Some are saying they could be piece-milled. Can you imagine how long it would take to get four, five or six bills on education passed in congress?”