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“Good Life. Great Opportunity.” That’s Nebraska’s new brand, revealed by Governor Ricketts this week. How well does the new tagline speak to the state of K-12 education in the state? 

 

Good Life.

The quality of one’s life improves with a high quality education. Today, more than ever, a good life requires a good education. Nebraskans know this. We also know an educated populous is the key to a strong economy and safe, vibrant communities. 

Compared to many states, students in Nebraska perform well, but we still have room to improve. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than 50% of fourth graders in Nebraska are proficient in math or reading. For eighth graders, proficiency rates fall to less than 40%. 

By improving the quality of education available to every child in Nebraska, we can protect and build upon the good life. First, we must recognize the need for improvement. Next, we can look to states like Indiana, Colorado and Minnesota, where student outcomes have improved dramatically in recent years following student-centered policy reform. 

 

Great Opportunity.

Every child deserves a high quality education and it starts with the opportunity to attend a great school. Unfortunately, many schools in Nebraska do not perform as well as they should. In the lowest performing schools in Nebraska, less than one in five students are proficient in math and reading. 

Students in low performing schools have less opportunities to excel as they move through the education system, are less likely to attend and graduate from college, and less likely to find rewarding, high paying careers. Future opportunities, in other words, rely on the opportunities afforded by a great school from the start. 

When a child’s race or income predicts the quality of schools available to him, it indicates a clear lack of equality of opportunity. In Nebraska, we have among the largest achievement gaps (the difference in student performance based on race and income) in the nation: white 4th graders are twice as likely to be proficient in reading and four and a half times more likely to be proficient in math than black 4th graders and two and a half times more likely to be proficient in math and reading than Latino 4th graders. 

How can we work as a state to ensure opportunity for all Nebraskans? We can empower families with the opportunity to choose the best schools for their children, be it a traditional public school, a private school, or a public charter school. We can develop and empower great educators. And, by holding systems and adults accountable for always putting students first, we can ensure every child in Nebraska has the opportunity to realize the good life.

On Saturday, The Economist published a great article about teacher training. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s worth a read. The following post relies heavily on its content.

Educate Nebraska Board Member and outstanding educator, Jason Epting, with one of his students.

Educate Nebraska Board Member and educator, Jason Epting, with one of his students.

Everyone knows that teachers matter. Parents know, students know, teachers know. Unfortunately, more and more, we hear narratives that suggest otherwise. For instance, when schools fail to perform well, students and families often get blamed. Blaming the consumer of learning for not learning devalues teachers and their craft.

More than any in-school factor, including class size and access to technology, teachers have the biggest impact on student learning. Yet, too often, in Nebraska and across the country, we not only devalue the role of teachers, but fail to provide adequate training, support, development, and recognition of effectiveness. This mars a noble profession. It doesn’t bode well for students either.

Distribution of effective teachers is among the greatest inequities in K-12 education in America today. Low income and minority children are much less likely to be assigned an effective teacher than their more advantaged peers. The most effective teachers (performing in the top 10%) impart, on average, 1.5 years of learning per academic year. The least effective teachers (performing in the bottom 10%) impart only .5 years of learning in that time. Poverty may affect a child’s preparedness for school, but a great teacher affects her preparedness for life.

It’s not only less advantaged students who suffer from ineffective teaching. In 2011, the United States ranked 17th in reading, 22nd in science, and 25th in math among the 34 OECD countries. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore consistently perform at or near the top. According to Harvard Researcher Erik Hanushek, if the average American teacher performed as well as those in the top quartile, American students would perform as well as students in Asian countries within four years.

Mounting evidence shows that great teachers are made, not born. This contradicts what many Americans assume, a mindset which has informed how we prepare and support teachers. For instance, too many American teacher preparation programs lack rigor. “It can be easier to earn a teaching qualification than to make the grades American colleges require of their athletes,” according to the article by The Economist. Compare this to Finland, where “winning acceptance to take an education degree…is about as competitive as getting into MIT.”

Once in a teaching program, participants frequently lack the hands-on instructional experience and preparation to be effective classroom managers. This creates a learning curve in which new teachers struggle to master crucial skills during their first few years in the classroom. This compounds the inequity discussed above: the least experienced teachers often wind up in front of the students most in need of highly effective teachers.

Furthermore, at all experience levels, teachers often lack the support and guidance needed to hone their craft and constantly grow and improve. Requisite professional development, which is both time consuming and costly, should also be effective and of high quality. Too often this isn’t the case. Some estimates suggest that less than 5% of professional training courses result in better classroom practice.

We must work to better train and support all individuals going into teaching by giving them the necessary tools to become highly effective teachers. And we can help existing teachers grow, while recognizing and spreading the best practices of the many highly effective teachers currently serving students in the classroom. But, first, we must recognize that all teachers matter.

The following blog was also published by Education Post and can be found here: http://educationpost.org/before-you-brag-about-your-graduation-rates-make-sure-the-kids-are-learning/

 

Nebraskans are proud of our state’s high school graduation rate, which, at 89.7 percent, is the second highest in the nation. Graduating from high school is a clear measure of achievement and indicative of future success. That’s why this year’s annual ranking of America’s best high schools is catching many in the Cornhusker state by surprise.

 

According to the recently released report by U.S. News & World Report, Nebraska comes in last in the country for percent of high schools receiving a top rating, with only 0.8 percent earning a gold or silver medal. In contrast, in the top-ranked state of Maryland, 28.9 percent of high schools earned a top rating. Interestingly, this year’s rankings include graduation rates for the first time.

 

So, how can Nebraska be near best in one measure of school quality and last in another?

 

The most likely explanation is that neither provides a full picture of student learning. We ought to consider the respective strengths and weaknesses of each and neither should be discounted altogether. Instead, Nebraska’s high-low ranking contrast should spur needed dialogue regarding how to best measure—and promote—student learning and success.

 

ARE THEY MASTERING THE CONTENT?

 

At the same time, those in education policy should be wary of the ramifications associated with over-reliance on any single measure as proof of school quality. For instance, the pressure to raise graduation rates, without adequate attention to maintaining or improving standards, has potentially harmful consequences.

 

Consider what’s happened in Nebraska’s largest school district, Omaha Public Schools (OPS), which serves nearly 52,000 students.

 

In tandem with a statewide push to increase graduation rates, in 2010, OPS revised its grading scale. Since then, teachers have expressed ongoing concern that the revisions resulted in students passing to the next grade, and, eventually, graduating, with minimal proof of content mastery.

 

In 2014, an OPS school board member echoed the concerns first raised by teachers in 2010, calling for an independent investigation into the district’s grading policies.

 

According to a 2015 OPS teacher survey40 percent of high school teachers disagreed or strongly disagreed that school report cards accurately represent a student’s mastery of skill or knowledge.

 

Although less than 10 percent of students are proficient in math or reading in OPS’ lowest-performing middle school, in 2012, out of 3,347 seventh-graders in the district, only one was retained. This represents a significant shift in retention policies from prior years. It also means more students enter high school without having mastered middle school or even elementary level content.

 

Once in high school, some students in OPS advance despite not completing any major assignments or passing course exams. In one instance, a high school student advanced despite submitting only 1 of 4 summative assignments (the equivalent of a major test or exam). That student scored a zero on all four assignments, yet still received a passing grade.

 

SUCCEEDING BEYOND HIGH SCHOOL

 

What’s happening in districts like OPS has immediate post-secondary ramifications, too. At Omaha’s Metro Community College, 66 percent of first-time students require remedial math and less than 13 percent graduate on time.

 

According to one post-secondary educator in Nebraska, local community colleges “need to compensate for the lack of academic standards across the state” because “some students come to us and they can’t do basic math or can barely read.”

 

Call it low standards, grade inflation, or something else—we know that school districts across the country are graduating students despite little evidence that those young people can succeed beyond high school. While this contributes to the appearance of improved outcomes in the form of higher graduation rates, one must discern illusion from reality.

 

More importantly, we must constantly ask whether students are the benefactors of the policies and practices spurred by adults’ desire to land higher in the rankings.

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Last week, U.S. News and World Report released their annual ranking of the nation’s best high schools. Schools were awarded gold, silver or bronze medals based on student performance on state assessments, preparing all students for success, graduation rates, and college readiness indicators. Click here for more detailed information regarding the report’s ranking methodology.

 

The top 500 ranked high schools in the nation received gold medals. No high school in Nebraska fell into this category. Of the 267 Nebraska high schools included in the report, two earned a silver medal: Elkhorn South (#650 in the nation) and Elkhorn (#1785 in the nation). Eighty-nine Nebraska high schools received a bronze medal. Click here to see the Nebraska high school rankings.

 

The report ranks states overall based on the percentage of high schools receiving a gold or silver medal. South Dakota did not provide enough data to be included in the state by state comparison. Of the remaining 49 states and the District of Columbia, Nebraska ranked last, with 0.8% of the state’s high schools earning a top ranking. Strong education reform states, such as Florida and Massachusetts, had among the highest percentage of gold and silver medal high schools (21% in both FL and MA). Click here to see the state by state rankings.

 

Of the roughly fifty million students attending public K-12 schools in America, more than 2.6 million attend a public charter school. While this accounts for only 5% of all students, public charter schools account for 34 of the top 100 high schools in the United States, according to the report. Nebraska is one of only seven states in the country without a charter school law. 

 

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The following post is by Educate Nebraska’s Executive Director, Katie Linehan.

 

Last winter, I treked across the 145th street bridge that connects Harlem to the Bronx to pick up a few items at a store near my apartment. Waiting in line, I began a conversation with the little girl standing next to me. Dressed in an orange and blue plaid jumper and matching orange polo shirt, with navy blue tights and black dress shoes, she stood admiring a book that would soon be hers. I asked her about the book and about her school. I learned that she was in first grade, she loved her school, and she especially loved her teacher. Her uniform gave the rest away.

When I told this little girl’s mom that I worked for Success Academy, her face lit up. She told me how her daughter was reading on her own less than a year after starting kindergarten at her Success Academy school. Then she told me of her son, the little girl’s brother. “He never won the lottery. I couldn’t get him into a charter school,” she said, “Now my first grader is teaching my fourth grader how to read.”

Despite compelling accounts from parents and educators about children thriving in charter schools, some would prefer that this mother enroll her five-year-old daughter in a school that was failing her eight-year-old son.

The Success Academy public charter school network, which predominantly serves low income children of color living in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City, started as one school in Harlem in 2006. Today, more than 10,000 children attend a Success school. On average, Success students perform better than 97% of all students in the state on annual assessments in math and reading. As evidence of effectiveness mounts and failure in the traditional system persists, more and more families want in. This year, more than 20,000 students applied for less than 3,500 available seats. One out of every two kindergartners living in Harlem applied.

While Success Academy has the capacity, will, and demand to expand, political forces, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and the teacher’s union (Success schools are non-unionized), work to curtail the network’s growth. They do so despite the overwhelming evidence that the schools are working for kids and wanted by families.

That charter schools cream the “best” students from traditional schools, making outcomes between the two systems incomparable, is a common myth used to excuse failure, explain away success, and prevent charter school expansion. The theory goes that only the “good” parents will take the necessary steps to enter a charter school lottery, leaving the “hardest-to-teach kids” in traditional district schools.

What’s happening in Harlem puts this theory to rest. Less than one in six kindergartners applying for a seat in a Success Academy school will win the lottery this year, meaning a significant number of the children attending a failing district school do so despite their parents’ best attempts to provide them with better opportunities.

Entry into a high performing school, versus a school that fails year after year, changes the entire trajectory of a child’s life. The odds, dictated by chance and circumstance, rather than children’s potential, can mean the difference between college or incarceration, a life enriched through learning or hampered by its absence. These odds are stacked against low income children of color, making schools like those in the Success Academy network transformational and the need for more schools like them profound.

When fourth graders cannot read at a first grade level, who is responsible? An antiquated and bureaucratic system that recurrently fails to educate children? The adults who put politics and special interest groups before kids? Or parents like the mom I met that night, a woman who, when it came to a choice of schools, overcame the odds for one of her children but not the other?

The growing demand for high performing public charter schools, particularly in communities flooded with failing schools, goes a long way in exposing the truth. Yet, from New York to Nebraska, rather than embracing success, some aim to block it.

 

Today the Nebraska Legislature will debate LB 930, a bill to make the ACT exam the standard 11th grade assessment for Nebraska students. This is a wise move that will benefit Nebraskans for the following reasons:

 

  • Standards vary from state to state. According to Education Next, since 2011, Nebraska is only one of two states in the country to lower standards (and the standards were already low). The current Nebraska state assessments (NeSA) started during the 2010-11 school year. If standards decreased since then, any change in outcomes must be weighed with that in mind.

 

  • The ACT exam will create consistent, high standards for all students in Nebraska. Because students across the country take the exam, and in many states all students participate, we can compare performance across state lines, as well as across school and district lines in the state. We will know how well prepared students in Nebraska are compared to students in Michigan, for example, and if students in Millard are as prepared as students in Kearney. Until we have 100% participation, any comparison based on ACT scores is unreliable.

 

  • High standards are good for students. Children suffer when expectations are low. Every teacher, every school, and every district should have high expectations for all students. Unfortunately, disadvantaged students frequently face lower expectations, which contributes to less learning and lower performance.

 

  • College access will become more equitable. Some students are not encouraged to think about college, or are led to believe it’s not a realistic option for them. As a result, many students never take the required entrance exam. This has a larger impact on students whose parents did not attend college, minority students, and students attending chronically low performing schools. The cost of taking the exam can also be a limiting factor.

 

  • Related to the previous point, when students do not take the entrance exam, they may miss out on opportunities for financial assistance. Many scholarships go unclaimed because students do not take the ACT on time, or do not take it at all. While college may not be the right option for every student, that decision should be left up to students and not a system that is sometimes flawed.

 

For these reasons, the Nebraska Legislature should pass LB 930 and move towards higher, consistent standards for all students.

Teachers are transformative: not only responsible for imparting academic mastery, a great teacher also builds self-confidence and character in her students. Most people can name at least one teacher that made a major difference in their life. Few, if any, jobs are as important.

Those choosing a career in teaching should be recognized for the importance of the work and prepared to do it well from the start. This starts with attracting highly qualified individuals into the profession and ensuring preparation programs are of the highest quality.

To attract and retain great teachers, as in any profession, salaries should also be competitive. Yet, Nebraska pays starting teachers less than all but four states. This discrepancy in pay cannot be explained away by low spending on K-12 education alone. In fact, Nebraska spends more per student than most states and more than the national average.

As an example, according to the National Education Association, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, and Wyoming, all pay starting teachers more than Nebraska:

Starting teacher salaries:

Nebraska – $30,844

Colorado – $32,126

Kansas – $33,389

Iowa – $33,226

Wyoming – $43,269

Of these states, only Wyoming spends more per student than Nebraska.

These figures are troubling. New teachers, particularly in the most rural parts of Nebraska, are often drawn to neighboring states based on pay alone, compounding teaching shortages in high need areas. Many young people entering the profession also choose to leave the state for programs that recognize effectiveness, allowing young teachers to earn higher salaries earlier in their career.

In recognizing the importance of great teachers for every student, Nebraska should move towards policies and practices that not only ensure the most qualified individuals enter and remain in the profession, but also that these individuals are well compensated for the crucial work they do.

 

Today marks the last day of the Nebraska State Basketball Tournament. Hats off to the participating teams and all student athletes throughout Nebraska as this season comes to an end, as well as the families and coaches who make it all possible.

Organized sports are a great American tradition. In Nebraska, drive by a soccer field on a Saturday in the spring, a baseball field in the summer, or a football field in the fall, and you’re sure to see swarms of kids as young as four and five years old running around, bleachers full of families cheering them on.

Only a fraction of those five-year olds are likely to play at the high school level. Even a smaller percentage will play college sports. And a very finite number of students may go on the play at the professional level. And, inevitably, all athletic careers come to an end.

Unlike in sports, all five-year olds will go on to attend high school. Each should be prepared to enter and succeed in college. And all must be ready for life after school. Just as great coaching and rigorous training leads to success on the court, great teaching and rigorous standards lead to success in the classroom. We owe it to students to provide the necessary conditions for such success.

Coaching and Teaching:

Imagine that a coach who failed to win a single game for years was guaranteed that job for life. Would you want your child to play on that team? Imagine if a young Tom Osborne was fired because a different coach with a lousy record who had been coaching for a few more years wanted the job. Would you still go to Husker games? Would you even be a fan?

Just as coaches are critical to success on the field, teachers are critical to success in the classroom. Like great coaches, teachers push students to be their best. They recognize each child’s individual strengths and build upon them. They inspire students to reach their full potential through hard work and determination. They give students the tools necessary to achieve at high levels, celebrating success while encouraging continued growth.

Yet, in Nebraska, unlike coaches, teachers are compensated and retained based on years of service, not effectiveness. A teacher whose students gain only ½ a year of learning in one academic year will keep his job even when a teacher with one year less experience attains two years of learning. This is not a fair way to treat teachers and it’s not an acceptable way to treat students.

Teachers, like coaches, deserve to be treated like professionals and celebrated for leading students to success. We would not keep our children on a team with an ineffective coach, so we should not accept that some children attend schools where some teachers show little ability to teach.

Rigorous Preparation:

Imagine shortening a field or widening a net: athletes are more likely to score, but will be less prepared to do so under regulatory conditions. The same goes for success in the classroom: when K-12 standards are low, students are more likely to receive a passing grade, but will be less prepared for success in college and career.

Today, Nebraska has among the lowest academic standards in the country. From 2011-2015, Nebraska was one of only two states to lower K-12 standards. Whereas the Nebraska Department of Education reports that 81% of 4th graders are proficient in reading, the National Assessment for Educational Progress reports that number at only 40%.

High standards, like great coaching, improve performance and, ultimately, lead to better outcomes. We would not want our children to prepare for basketball tryouts using a hoop at 40% regulation height, so we should not accept it when schools tell students they’re prepared to graduate from high school, knowing they’re unlikely to succeed in college.

Winning off the Court

Nebraskans must value every child’s opportunity to succeed through access to a high quality education more so than a high performing sports team (yes, even in the land of the Huskers). We can tolerate losing a championship game from time to time, even grow from it, but we should not tolerate keeping children from receiving the education necessary to become champions off the court.

 

Today’s Omaha World Herald editorial, “OPS broadens leaders’ bench,” highlights exciting changes in the district. A new focus on principal placement strategies and training will improve the quality of education students receive. School leaders impact teacher effectiveness and parent engagement, leading to improved student outcomes.  

As OPS Superintendent Mark Evans remarked, “Without a high-quality principal and good teachers, it’s really hard to move a school forward.”  The story also notes that districts in cities like Denver have improved as a result of such practices.

While certainly a step in the right direction, the urgency to improve the quality of education for all students must remain. Though preparing future principals early is important, all educators should be hired, evaluated and retained based on effectiveness. Currently, the system values length of service over quality. This means that less effective educators get preference in hiring and retention policies, while also getting paid more.

Union imposed salary rules also make it more difficult to attract highly effective educators into the district and harder still to attract them to the highest need schools. As a result, educators working in Omaha’s suburban districts earn more. And OPS employees with seniority often move to less challenging schools. This means that the schools with the most need of drastic and swift improvement are the least likely to have high-quality principals and good teachers.  

In comparing OPS to Denver, we must also consider other changes that have impacted student outcomes in that city. According to a recent interview with Denver’s Mayor, Michael Hancock, school improvement can be traced to the following:

  • Improvement in how the city recruits teachers and administrators. Hancock credits this, in part, to partnerships with programs like Teach for America.
  • Becoming a national leader in how district schools work collaboratively with charter schools.     
  • Recruiting more teachers of color.
  • Creating a unique pay system for teachers that rewards performance.

Nebraska law currently prohibits programs like Teach for America, which places highly qualified individuals in high poverty schools, from operating in Nebraska. Opening the door to such programs would ease staffing shortages and draw effective educators into the system.  

Nebraska law also prohibits charter schools. This prevents families from choosing a high performing alternative immediately. As a result, many families in Omaha have no choice but to attend a failing school. While overall improvement is good, children cannot afford to wait. The prohibition on charter schools also limits opportunities to share best practices and collaborate with district schools.  

By expanding opportunity to enter the profession, and rewarding effectiveness, as well as opening the door to high performing charter schools, students in Omaha will benefit and the Omaha Public School district will continue to improve. At a time when most schools struggle to meet proficiency rates of more than 25%, students deserve urgency.

This week the Nebraska Legislature will tackle the Learning Community. The debate has been ongoing since the controversial policy became law nine years ago, with repeated calls to repeal the law altogether.  The law has withstood such criticism and remains in place today.

Addressing disparities in K-12 education, the purpose of the Learning Community, is essential. However, the achievement gap in Nebraska has only grown in the past two decades and is now among the largest in the nation.

Originally, the Learning Community’s plan included opening innovative schools, expanding school choice, and creating a common and more equitable financing structure between multiple school districts (the common levy). Yet, since its implementation, not one new and innovative school has opened and choice has been rolled back (and was critically flawed from the start, often giving preference to privileged students over lower income students).

The Learning Community still requires a unique taxing structure, the purpose being to direct funds towards high poverty districts, but those districts are not required to direct those funds to high poverty schools. For example, the 2013 OPS needs analysis showed that OPS spent more at Alice Buffett Middle School in West Omaha than it did at middle schools with much higher free and reduced lunch rates in North and South Omaha. Meanwhile, districts like Douglas County West struggle to maintain basic building maintenance needs.

The Learning Community resulted from a threat of litigation against the state by OPS’ former superintendent, John Mackiel.  He argued that Nebraska was failing to meet its constitutional requirement to provide students with a K-12 education.  Today, attention has shifted away from implementing K-12 reforms and instead focused on expanding early childhood education and social services to families. While early childhood education is important and needed, the state has no constitutional duty to provide it. And the Department of Health and Human Services may be a more appropriate entity to address social services.

Like many conversations about K-12 education quality, funding and spending dominate the debate.  This arguably distracts policymakers from needed conversations regarding other policies proven to address inequity and the achievement gap. And, in the ten years spent debating the Learning Community in the legislature, little focus has been on outcomes.

Meanwhile, many states have adopted reforms to address the achievement gap and improve overall K-12 education quality.  Expanding school choice, raising standards, focusing on teacher quality, and increasing transparency and accountability are examples of reforms proven to close the achievement gap and improve K-12 education overall.

Students in Nebraska have one opportunity to receive a high quality K-12 education. Today’s high school seniors were in kindergarten when the debate ignited that ultimately led to the creation of the Learning Community. We must ask whether the policy is meeting its purpose or whether we should direct attention towards policies with a growing track record of closing the achievement gap and improving K-12 education for all students.