The Future of Reform in Kentucky

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The Future of Reform in Kentucky

Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Improving Productivity in Kentucky's Schools and Districts Conference

November 10, 2011

Thank you so much, Terry.

Terry Holliday is the latest of a long line of great educational leaders here in Kentucky. He arrived on the job shortly before the Race to the Top competition. In short order, he led the state to submit an application that had the support of all 174 districts in the state, as well as union leaders. When Kentucky didn’t win in the competition, he and his team didn’t stop and lick their wounds. Terry formed a steering committee to realize the vision of defining teacher effectiveness.

The amazing thing about the Race to the Top competition is that it has unleashed an avalanche of reform -- even in states that didn’t win a grant.

But it’s no surprise that Kentucky responded to the challenge of Race to the Top. Kentucky has been a leader in education reform for two decades. By collaborating with courage and commitment, Kentucky’s schools have improved dramatically, as has the achievement of Kentucky’s students.

My message to you today is simple: This is no time to rest on your laurels. For all of your progress, Kentucky and the rest of the nation are falling short of providing the world-class education that every child in America deserves.

President Obama and I believe deeply that a great education and a strong economy are inextricably linked. America cannot thrive in the new century without a skilled and educated workforce.

I urge you to collectively commit yourselves to sticking with education reform until every student in Kentucky is prepared to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century.

I know that this is a challenging message to hear. Everyone here has been working extremely hard for reform over the past two decades. The results have been phenomenal. You’ve rebuilt public education in this state. You’ve led the nation on a path toward standards-based reform. By most measures, Kentucky’s students have made dramatic increases.

But Kentucky, like the rest of America, must dig in and do more for reform. The path to prosperity for Kentucky lies in investing in education and committing ourselves to ensuring all children are equipped to succeed in the knowledge economy. This work is more important than ever, and I am both confident and optimistic that Kentucky is prepared to continue leading the way in reform.

My confidence is not based on some vague hope in the unseen. Instead it’s based what Kentucky has already accomplished, in the face of substantial challenges. In 1989, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a sweeping declaration that the state’s system of public education was unconstitutional. The court gave the state legislature a huge task: Create a new system from scratch and find the money to invest in those new schools. Policymakers and educators responded with remarkable courage and commitment. The legislature overhauled the public school system, building a model not just for the state, but for the rest of the nation to follow.

Through those reforms, Kentucky became the first state in the nation to write definitions of what students should know and be able to do. Today, we call these academic standards, and every state has them. Kentucky continued to lead by creating assessments to measure student success on those standards, and accountability systems to measure the success of schools.

In 1990, these were novel concepts. But 21 years later, thanks to Kentucky’s example, all states are deeply engaged in reforms based around these fundamental principles.

And while my confidence is rooted in the accomplishments in the past, my optimism is inspired by the leadership of today.

In Washington, I am so lucky to work in close partnership with Gene Wilhoit, a native of this great state and a former commissioner of education here. Gene has provided amazing leadership in helping create a common core of educational standards. Kentucky was the first in the nation to adopt these standards, and 45 have followed your lead. I owe you so much for your willingness to step out front on this issue. You literally helped to create this revolution.

These standards will be an absolute game changer in education. We will no longer have 50 different goalposts for measuring success. And we’ve stopped lying to children – telling them they’re ready for college and careers when they’re not. Going forward, every child in Kentucky and Mississippi and Massachusetts will be measured based on standards that truly prepare them for success.

Here in Kentucky, you also have great leadership from elected officials. My friend, Gov. Steve Beshear, has a transformational proposal to make public education available through early learning programs starting at age 3.

We all know that investing in high-quality programs for our youngest learners pays dividends for decades. I’m glad that Kentucky voters just gave the governor a resounding victory and another four years to fight for this plan and other reforms.

In the state legislature, lawmakers are committed to working across party lines to promote reform. Two years ago, the legislature recognized that the state’s accountability system wasn’t serving you well. Democrats and Republicans worked together to unanimously pass S.B. 1.

The new accountability system emerging here is based on the same principles as President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform of the No Child Left Behind Act. It measures whether students are prepared for college and careers. It focuses on student growth and gain, rather than absolute test scores. And it maintains a commitment to disaggregating data to track whether schools are closing the achievement gap.

President Obama sent his Blueprint to Congress a year and a half ago. Now that Congress is four years late in reauthorizing NCLB, President Obama said we can’t wait for Congress to act. So we’re using executive authority to give states relief from NCLB’s rules that are barriers to reform.

I know Terry Holliday and his team are hard at work on Kentucky’s proposal for flexibility. We look forward to receiving it next week. Kentucky has another chance to shape the national conversation. More than 40 states have expressed interest in this flexibility so they can enact policies that improve instruction and raise student achievement.

Your willingness to challenge the status quo, your leadership and creativity, and your forward thinking has led to profound improvements in student performance.

Let’s look at your results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card. In the two decades since the state Supreme Court demanded a better education system for Kentucky’s children, the growth of 4th graders and 8th graders in math and science has been exceptional. From 1992 through 2011, Kentucky’s 4th grade reading scores have increased faster than all but three other states. Overall, Kentucky’s students are now in the middle of the pack compared to other states, after starting out near the bottom.

This is good news indeed. But you shouldn’t have a sense of complacency. Other data reveal what should be a wake-up call for Kentucky. 

Look at the results of ACT college entrance exams. Of Kentucky’s Class of 2011, just 16 percent were prepared to do college-level work. That means 84 percent of Kentucky’s 18-year-olds aren’t prepared to be full participants in the knowledge economy. And we know they likely won’t be able to compete with their peers across the world unless they complete at least one year of postsecondary education.

Indeed, other data show that Kentucky’s students are trailing the rest of the world.
Last year, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and his colleagues did a study that showed how well each individual state did at producing high-achieving students in mathematics.

He found that if Kentucky was its own country, it would rank 34th in the world in producing students proficient in advanced levels of math. Equally troubling, 35 U.S. states are ahead of Kentucky in the percent of students scoring as advanced in math.

And to those who might answer that somehow Kentucky’s performance is just being dragged down by minority students and English Language Learners, the research suggests otherwise. The results for Kentucky’s white students were even more telling. In 35 U.S. states, white students are more likely to be high-achievers in math than white students here in Kentucky. And in 33 nations, all students are more likely to be high-achieving math students than just Kentucky’s white students alone.

The bottom line is that all students in Estonia, Slovakia, and Poland are out-performing Kentucky’s white students – and Korea, Finland and Hong Kong are far ahead of the children in your state.

These are sobering statistics, and they compel us to act. Being in the middle of the pack isn’t good enough in a highly competitive, knowledge-based, global economy.

Challenging the status quo is never easy, and I know it’s especially difficult in the current economic climate.

In real terms, Kentucky’s per-pupil spending on K-12 education has fallen since 2008. Superintendents and school board members are faced with setting priorities. All too often, it feels as if there are no good choices.

President Obama and I understand how hard your financial situation is – and we’re working hard to support you.

Through the American Jobs Act, President Obama has proposed $30 billion to keep teachers in the classroom instead of on unemployment lines.

Even though the economy has added private sector jobs for 20 consecutive months, the crisis in public financing is forcing state and local governments to reduce the number of teachers and other public servants. We estimate that another 280,000 teacher jobs are at risk for the 2011-12 school year. Children deserve to have committed teachers in their classrooms. The American Jobs Act would provide $406 million for Kentucky – enough to support 6,100 teachers in the classroom.

And those teachers should be working in modern facilities that give students the best opportunity to learn. The American Jobs Act would provide an additional $30 billion to modernize and repair schools and community colleges.

This is a win-win situation – putting members of the construction trades back to work while creating 21st century science labs and computer facilities for our students. The nation’s schools face an enormous $270 billion backlog of deferred maintenance and repairs.

Earlier today, I visited Shawnee High School in Louisville with Congressman Yarmuth. With a three-year, $1.5 million federal turnaround grant, Shawnee is starting to move the needle in the right direction. And with a new project funded by our Investing in Innovation fund, the school is emphasizing that college should be within reach of every student.

But Shawnee has significant maintenance needs. With an antiquated H-VAC system, the temperature can vary 20 degrees between rooms. The fire alarms in the aquatic center are rusting and set off false alarms, regularly interrupting time dedicated to academics. Sadly, I see similar conditions everywhere I go. These are not learning environments where our children can thrive and reach their fullest potential. 

Through the American Jobs Act, Kentucky would receive $390 million to repair and modernize its K-12 schools – and another $55 million for its community colleges. This money would support as many as 5,800 construction jobs. Together, it would be an additional $800 million investment in children, in education, and in Kentucky’s future.

The American Jobs Act is based on bipartisan ideas and it is fully paid for.
It is meant to reduce the financial crisis facing schools and districts today. But it’s clear that the schools will face financial challenges for the long term. Close to half of public school revenues come from states. State budgets have been under enormous fiscal pressure over the past three years and many won’t return to their pre-recession revenue levels until next year – at the earliest.

Local funding accounts for about 44 percent of K-12 revenues nationwide – most of that money comes from property taxes. Property valuations plummeted three years ago in the housing crash and are likely to remain largely stagnant during the next two years – or possibly even longer.

So whether we like it or not, it’s clear that schools are going to be faced with the challenge of doing more with less for the foreseeable future. This is what we are calling the New Normal that everyone involved in education must grapple with. We must be smart, and we must be strategic. Dumb choices now will only make a tough situation worse.

As I said in a speech last year, there are productive and unproductive ways of doing more with less.

The wrong way to increase productivity in an era of tight budgets is to cut back in a manner that damages school quality and hurts children.

I'm talking about steps like reducing the number of days in the school year, slashing instructional time spent on task, eliminating the arts and foreign languages, abandoning promising reforms, and laying off talented, young teachers.

Unfortunately, that pattern of cutbacks has prevailed too often in the past. 

A different strategy for increasing productivity is to improve efficiency by taking steps like deferring maintenance and construction projects, cutting bus routes, lowering the costs of textbooks and health care with high-volume purchasing with districts and states, improving energy use and efficiency in school buildings, and reducing central office personnel.

Many districts, including Chicago when I was CEO there, have pursued such cost efficiencies for years. The strategy is to pare back less-than-essential costs, while doing everything possible to minimize the impact of cuts on schoolchildren.

These types of district-level cost efficiencies are absolutely essential. But they can best be described as necessary but nowhere near sufficient.

By far, the best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education.

Throughout the country, we’re starting to see examples of states and districts that are creating opportunities to do more with less. Earlier this year, I sent ideas to every governor outlining principles and explaining ways that schools can be more productive. That document is available on our Web site –

Here in Kentucky, Boone County and Ohio County schools are introducing efficiencies in their transportation systems and looking to control costs of other services. These are necessary first steps that will protect the classroom from cuts in these difficult times.

But how do we continue to find efficiencies and improve student learning?

In Delaware, the state is using its Race to the Top grant to identify professional development programs that are effective at improving student learning. This has the potential to reform how almost $4 billion a year in federal professional development money is spent nationwide.

While some districts are making the unproductive choice of shortening the school week or year, a nonprofit organization by the name of Citizen Schools is working in seven states to create community partnerships to expand learning opportunities for at-risk students. It recruits volunteers to teach apprenticeships and provides tutors who align their work with what’s happening in the classroom.   

In Georgia, Forsyth County Schools are using a grant from the Investing in Innovation Fund to tap into a wealth of data to create individualized learning plans for every student. These plans have the potential to reduce remediation, prevent dropouts, and accelerate students’ progress toward graduation: all for the cost of $18 a student.

In Mooresville, North Carolina, the school district is leading a digital conversion in their classrooms. Starting in 4th grade, every child has a laptop. In K-3 classrooms, Smart boards and other technology make learning interactive. Throughout the district, digital texts aligned with the state’s standards are the center of learning. Mooresville students are improving faster than the state average despite the fact that the district receives less funding than most districts in the state. And these student achievement gains have come at the same time as their student poverty rate has increased from 31% to 40%.

These are just a few examples of how schools can change instructional practice and policies so they can do more with less. In particular, Forsyth and Mooresville are using technology as more than a productivity tool. They are harnessing the potential of technology to transform student learning. I truly believe that we need to act now to leverage technology’s power to provide all children with access to world-class educational resources – anytime, anywhere. The challenge for the country is, can we take a difficult financial crisis and turn it into an opportunity to drive innovation?

I believe the New Normal can spur a new era of creativity in education reform as we rethink how we invest in education for our nation's children – and how we reform our schools to prepare students for success in the knowledge economy.

The challenge of building a world-class education system for all children is large. But the people of Kentucky have shown that great things can happen when adults put aside their differences and do what’s best for children.

For 20 years, Kentucky has helped lead the nation where it needs to go. You have seen dramatic results from your commitment to reform, and you understand the importance of the task at hand.

Education must be the one great equalizer in America. We can never forget that children have only one chance to get a great education. Working together with creativity, courage, and commitment, Kentucky can provide a world-class education for all children in your state.

Thank you for your seriousness of purpose. Thank you for your sense of urgency. Thank you for the example you continue to set for all of us.