JAMESTOWN, Ky. (June 15, 2012) — Teachers — how to support their work, what they are experiencing in Kentucky’s classrooms and ways to ensure every child receives high quality instruction every year — were the focus of the recent spring meeting of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
Members of the citizens’ education advocacy organization were encouraged to mirror the emphasis that the military and successful businesses put on training and retraining as they focus on improving Kentucky’s schools.
Jerry Weast, former superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and a nationally recognized education leader, told the committee that working to improve teacher quality is the right approach, “but it will be harder than you think.” He advocated a balanced approach that, among other things, allows school districts of different sizes to use different management approaches, incorporates professional development programs that allow teachers to train other teachers and structures the work day to give teachers time to talk with each other.
Weast also outlined what he has defined as the five stages of change in improving schools:
• Discover existing conditions — talk with teachers and others in a school to find out what the problems are.
• Commit to universal college and career-ready outcomes for students and communicate to ensure community support.
• Evaluate the effectiveness of policies, practices and systems for such critical components as student involvement; alignment of curriculum, instruction and assessment; teaching quality; an efficient work organization; and shared accountability.
• Engage and empower employees to foster trust and collaboration.
• Innovate and monitor for continuous improvement.
The committee also heard from a panel of four teachers who shared information about their experiences in Kentucky’s classrooms. All four said they consider their greatest success to occur when their students are clearly engaged in learning. They identified varying challenges:
• Patrice McCrary, a Warren County kindergarten teacher, said teachers need more training under Kentucky’s newly adopted academic standards, particularly training that allows teachers to talk with each other.
• Jonathan Rogers, a Fayette County high school science teacher, said the most significant challenges he faces are the outside forces that affect students before they get to the classroom.
• Rockcastle County language arts teacher Markita Mink echoed Rogers’ comments, noting that students have more problems at home and “that’s what is in their heads” instead of what she is trying to teach them.
• For Fayette County first grade teacher Jenny Sagan, a sense of being overwhelmed gave her many challenging days during her first year on the job.
As Kentucky implements its new academic standards — the subject of testing this spring for the first time — it is important that the public understand that scores will drop due to the system changes, McCrary noted. Since Kentucky was the first state to adopt the new standards, the decline will occur first in Kentucky, and teachers could become scapegoats, she added.
Cuts in state funding have prompted the teachers to spend more of their own money on school supplies or become creative in looking for grant funding or finding other ways to replace diminishing dollars. “It is disheartening for teachers” when they cannot provide the books that students need, Rogers said.
The role of Kentucky’s colleges and universities in preparing high-quality teachers was the focus of remarks by Bob King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education.
For years, there has been “rock throwing” between elementary/secondary and postsecondary educators, King said, with college professors complaining that high school graduates are ill-prepared for postsecondary work, and P-12 raising questions about the quality of postsecondary programs.
To address such attitudes, there is a deliberate emphasis on alignment and collaboration between the levels of education, and the CPE has adopted a specific policy objective – to increase the effectiveness of school teachers and leaders – as part of its strategic plan, King said.
Postsecondary colleges and universities are the gatekeepers for school personnel needs, and King believes there is a greater role for higher education in providing professional development for teachers.
Several reforms have been adopted to improve teacher preparation programs, he said, including a requirement that teacher candidates pass rigorous basic skills tests and have a higher GPA to be admitted to a preparation program.
Additional changes being considered include:
• Requiring elementary teachers to have academic content majors, as opposed to the more general degree now awarded teachers at that level.
• Improving the integration of teacher preparation programs with arts and sciences, engineering, agriculture and other postsecondary academic programs.
• Requiring every teacher to have a year-long clinical experience when he or she starts working.
The committee also learned more about the state’s new assessment and accountability system that was developed to measure progress on the standards. Susan Perkins Weston, a committee consultant, explained the complex new formula during an afternoon presentation.