News Release: ‘Reform SBDM, restore chain-of-command in schools,” BIPPS CEO urges committee


BIPPS LOGOFor Immediate Release: Monday, August 28, 2017

(WILLIAMSBURG, Ky.) — Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters urged the Interim Joint Committee on Education to return balance to the process governing Kentucky’s public schools by reexamining the scope, authority and impact of School-Based Decision Making (SBDM) councils.

The SBDM policy, implemented as part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990, has, in its current form, failed to demonstrably meet its mandate of improving student achievement in schools statewide, Waters told the committee in a hearing on Monday at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg.

“Considering this approach toward school governance is more than 20 years old and yet federal tests indicate that fewer than three out of 10 Kentucky eighth-graders do mathematics at a proficient level, where’s the evidence that the SBDM model in most schools statewide fulfills the mission envisioned for it by KERA of creating an environment where students achieve at high levels?” he asked in prepared comments taken from this testimony submitted to the committee.

Waters also remarked on the lack of demonstrable impact these councils have had in turning around persistently failing schools, now known as “Priority Schools, noting:

  • Of the 47 schools now in “Priority” status, 31 lost their site-based council authority somewhere during the “Priority” process; only two have gotten their SBDM authority back.
  • While nine of the remaining schools currently are eligible to get SBDM authority back this fall – depending on their academic performance during the 2016-17 school year – it’s revealing that each one had actually exit-ed “Priority” status in October 2015 yet did not have their site-based authority restored at that time.

“Were these schools given a ‘Get Out of Priority Status’ card too soon – before they re-established the ability to govern themselves?” Waters wondered. “Or, do those conducting the management audits of these schools and determining their status believe the councils themselves hindered needed reform?”

He pointed to the situation at Maupin Elementary, which, while being one of the first two “Schools of Innovation” in the Jefferson County District’s “District of Innovation” program, was a place “where the council and even the principal were unable to maintain control and keep a focus on the curriculum and many other important areas of school governance.”

The chaos in the curriculum in different classrooms shows the council failed in these major areas of responsibility,” Waters said.

Along with the need for updated research on how SBDMs function in Kentucky schools –no known significant study has been conducted since 2001 – Waters said policymakers need to question whether the KERA-mandated makeup of the councils, consisting of the principal, three teachers and two parents, is good for either teachers’ workload or parental involvement.

“Do teachers really have adequate time and training to satisfy all of the council demands and responsibilities while teaching a full class load?” Waters asked. “The six hours of training required for new school-based council members hardly seem adequate to prepare them to make informed decisions regarding finances, much less guide complex curriculum options, which are becoming more intense as digital learning programs replace traditional classroom approaches.”

He stressed that reforming the scope and authority of SBDMs is not an anti-teacher proposal. Rather, he said, it’s about recognizing important roles other stakeholders play.

“We believe a reestablishment of a clear chain-of-command within each district and school would result in schools where teachers are focused on teaching, kids on learning, principals on leading schools, superintendents on leading districts and school-board members on being accountable to the citizens in their communities who chose them for this oversight duty,” he said.

For more information, please contact Bluegrass Institute Staff Education Analyst Richard G. Innes at or 859.466.8198. 



Valley High School exits Priority Status????

Last week the media in Louisville trumpeted the announcement that Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt had declared the Valley High School in the Jefferson County Public School District was no longer in Priority School Status (see WDRB’s coverage here).

That sounded interesting, so I decided to take a quick look at the latest performance in this school for math and reading testing. I looked at math and reading because performing in the lowest five percent of all schools for these two subjects was supposed to be the primary cause to enter Priority Status back in 2010 when these low performing schools, which originally were called “Persistently Low-Achieving Schools,” first started to be identified.

Well, my quick look turned up a puzzle.

This first table shows the lowest 20 performing standard (Class A1) high schools on KPREP End-of-Course testing in Algebra II and English II. These two KPREP tests are used to gauge reading and math for federal reporting purposes. The table shows the combined percentage of students who were rated either Proficient or Distinguished in Algebra II in the first data column and then lists the combined percentage of Proficient and Distinguished students in English II in the middle data column. The next column, on which the table is ranked, shows the average of these two percentages.

Table 1

Valley High KPREP Math-Reading Combined Ranking 2016

As you can see, Valley High School ranked in the bottom five percent of all high schools in Kentucky that had data reported, ranking at 218 out of 227 reporting high schools.

But, the original testing that got Valley High in trouble (it was named a Persistently Low-Achieving School in the spring of 2010) was the now defunct CATS Kentucky Core Content Tests. Since those tests don’t even exist in 2016, I decided to give Valley another chance by looking at its performance on math and reading in the 2016 ACT testing of Kentucky’s 11th grade students. Table 2 shows how that turned out.

The first data column in Table 2 shows the percentage of students in each school that reached or exceeded the Benchmark Score set by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) for ACT testing that indicates students will not have to take remedial courses in math. The next column shows the percentage of students that met the CPE’s ACT Benchmark for reading, which also avoids a requirement for college remediation in that area. The two Benchmark percentages are then averaged together in the next column and the table is ranked on this combined average column.

Table 2

Valley High ACT Math-Reading Combined Ranking 2016

Incredibly, if we look at the average of the percentages of students meeting the CPE’s College Readiness Benchmark Scores for the ACT, Valley High ranks even lower than on KPREP!

So, this is a real puzzle. I know the actual method used to determine Priority Status uses a more complex approach than just looking at a single year of data, but when we see Valley High’s latest performance in both Tables 1 and 2, something just doesn’t feel right.

Should Valley High be off the hook?

In any event, based on its latest year’s performances on both KPREP and ACT math and reading, Valley High remains a very low-performing school. I think the public deserves to know that even if our educators are letting Valley off the hook.

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Is there more educational genocide in Louisville’s school system?

Dr. Dewey Hensley
Those of us at the Bluegrass Institute are still reeling from the shocking announcement yesterday that Dr. Dewey Hensley, one of the real educational stars in Kentucky, is quitting his post as the chief academic officer at the Jefferson County Public School District (JCPS).

For sure, Hensley’s resignation letter makes it very clear: he isn’t leaving on happy terms. He fumes about “indecision” plus “marginalized voices, eroded credibility and a great deal of time devoted less to developing quality schools for children and more about managing perceptions for adults” that he sees in the obviously troubled JCPS. Hensley bristles about the “pseudo-innovation” going on in Kentucky’s largest school district and the fact that he feels set up to be the scapegoat for continued failure when he clearly has not had the ability to make real change.

Hensley certainly had a positive track record with the challenge of a seriously under-performing, inner city school. As the principal of the J.B. Atkinson Elementary School in the heart of Louisville, he produced dramatic improvements despite his school’s way above poverty and minority enrollment. He did that at a time when most educators seemed clueless about what works for these children.

Without question, Hensley was highly regarded by many.

He received a number of key awards, such as the Dr. Johnnie Grissom Award, for his performance at Atkinson, and for good reasons. He was a fan of innovative techniques like digital learning. He was willing to take Jefferson County to task for questionable school staffing decisions and was not afraid to challenge “the culture of can’t.”

In fact, when he ran Atkinson Elementary, it was far more than just a rapidly improving elementary school. It was a place that brought everyone, staff members, union leaders, and even college professors and students together to learn what worked for kids and how to carry that message out to a wider audience.

But, the JCPS can be a grinding, disheartening place to work. When the district hired Hensley away from the Kentucky Department of Education in 2012 to become its chief academic officer, I expressed concern that Hensley might not survive the do-nothing politics that seems to infect the district’s central office, writing at that time:

“It remains to be seen if the Hargens/Hensley team can overcome strongly entrenched adult interests in Jefferson County to effect real change for the system’s students.”

Sadly, it looks like those entrenched adult interests have won, again. And, the latest victim of the continuing academic genocide there is one of the few adults who showed some promise as a way to end the mess.

Of course the real losers in all of this are the students in Jefferson County. Their interests are being subordinated to the selfish concerns of adults in their school system – adults that Hensley clearly feels are more interested in the status quo and looking good than in actually doing good things for kids.

If ever there was a great argument for parents to have more school choices in Louisville, this has to be it.

State reviews of Jefferson County Persistently Low-Performing Schools raise questions about the reviews

New “Diagnostic Reviews” of what is happening in four troubled Jefferson County Public Schools have been released, but the findings seem inconsistent. While the principal in only one school, Doss High, has been recommended for removal, test data for another school seems essentially the same, and just as dismal.

Overall, one is left wondering if it’s the reviews themselves that need some reviewing.

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2014 Priority (Persistently Low-Achieving) Schools report not that encouraging

When it comes to judging school quality, we know that parents and legislators want to know how schools are doing with the “bread and butter” subjects of reading and math.

We got more evidence of this priority when No Child Left Behind came along with its heavy focus on those two, pivotal subjects.

So, my interest was piqued when the Kentucky Board of Education received its annual report on February 4, 2015 on the progress of Kentucky’s “Priority Schools,” which used to be called the “Persistently Low-Achieving Schools.” How did things look for the bread and butter stuff?

As expected, the department tried to make as good a show of their data as possible. In fact, the Power Point used to brief the board was titled, “Priority Schools, Kentucky’s Success Stories.” There were a lot of figures from Unbridled Learning including a “hurrah” that five of the Priority Schools, once among the lowest performers in Kentucky, were now “Distinguished” schools. That sounded pretty amazing.

The presentation included hardly any negative comments. Most notably, there was no information on the math and reading performance. You have to dig into the full report to find that. And, you have to go to the very end of the full report – Page 40 and on, to be exact – to find out how the Priority Schools are doing with reading and math.

I slugged through that information for you to set up an Excel spreadsheet, Percentage of Students Rated P or More in Reading and Math Combined in PLAs for Gap and All Student Groups, so I could see what is happening. Here are some summaries of what I found:

• In 2014, out of the 39 schools still in the Priority Schools program, only 13 – just 33 percent – got a combined math and reading average proficiency rate above the statewide average for their minority and disadvantaged students (the department collectively calls these students the “Gap Group,” a term some of my friends in the minority community don’t like).
• All but one of the 39 Priority Schools had sufficient data to compute a desired 2014 target reading/math proficiency rate for their students who traditionally have under-performed. Only four of the 38 schools met their target in 2014.
• There also are average student scores for all students in each school. All 39 Priority Schools had reported scores in 2014, but only seven schools scored above the statewide average.
• There were targets for the all student scores, as well. Only five of the 38 schools that had data reached their combined reading/math proficiency rate targets.
• If we are going to move forward in these schools, it is obvious that proficiency rates in reading and math need to improve. So, I was particularly disturbed to find that 15 of the 39 schools actually experienced a decline in their combined reading/math proficiency rates for their traditionally under-performing student populations between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school terms.
• Even if we include the non-disadvantaged students in the Priority Schools, a total of 15 out of the 39 schools, or 38 percent, experienced a drop in their combined reading/math proficiency rates between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school terms.

There was one more bit of information. More than half of the 39 schools, 24 of them, did see a reduction in the gap between their disadvantaged students’ reading/math proficiency rate and the overall average reading/math proficiency rate for all their students. That seems impressive until you learn that 11 of those 24 schools only saw their achievement gap decrease because their “all student” scores decreased between 2011-12 and 2013-14. That’s not the way we want to reduce gaps.

The bottom line is that when we look at basic, bread and butter scores for Kentucky’s Priority School students, things don’t look that impressive. In far too many cases the math and reading performance is weak and even trending in the wrong direction. Clearly, we need to try something else.

State School Board about to get misled about Priority (Persistently Low-Achieving) Schools

We used to call them “Persistently Low-Achieving Schools,” but that sounded too negative.

So, the state’s educators renamed them “Priority Schools” when Kentucky got its waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). They are still the same schools, and for sure they need close tracking. After all, they were the bottom 5-percent performers in Kentucky over a multi-year period, and we are spending a lot of money in them trying to boost student performance.

Some of that close tracking is supposed to take place tomorrow when the Kentucky Board of Education gets a briefing on what has been happening in the Priority Schools. That briefing package includes a slide containing the following statements:

KBE Briefing Slide w Dubious Data on Priority Schools

This sounds pretty good. According to Kentucky’s new Unbridled Learning school accountability system, six of the Priority Schools have moved up all the way from bottom of the heap to the “Distinguished” category, ranking them in the top 10-percent of all Kentucky schools. Eight more of these troubled schools are now “Proficient” performers, placing them in the top 30-percent category.

Unfortunately, I have some problems with that characterization.

This table, which is slightly shuffled from one I published on the 16th of December, raises serious concerns about what Unbridled Learning is telling us (click on the table to enlarge, if necessary).

Priority Schools KPREP 2012 to 2013 in Read and Math

In this shuffled table, the six “Distinguished” Priority Schools are listed first along with their reading and mathematics proficiency rates from the first two years of KPREP testing. I show scores averaged for all students, for whites only, and – where enough of them are present – for blacks only, too. Those scores came from each school’s report card, as noted in the table.

Notice that when scores declined for a student group between 2012 and 2013, I shaded those score sets in pink.

There is an awful lot of pink in this table, and too much of it is associated with those supposedly top 10-percent performer Distinguished Schools.

Three Distinguished Schools saw declines in reading scores across the board. An additional school, one of only two Distinguished schools that reported black scores, saw a decline in its black reading scores.

Things look much worse when we move down the table to the “Proficient” schools.

Half of the eight Proficient Schools saw across the board score declines in reading.

Three-fourths of the Proficient Schools saw declines in math.

Three of the Proficient Schools saw declines in BOTH reading and math!

If NCLB were still in force in Kentucky, a drop in either math or reading scores in the second year of a revised testing program like KPREP would lead to those schools being identified for sanctions.

But, NCLB is under waiver.

So, despite clear decreases in performance in the key areas of reading and math in many Priority Schools, shortcomings in the functioning of Unbridled Learning means the Kentucky Board of Education is going to be told tomorrow about progress, instead.

I’m sorry, but that will not be doing right by the students in these schools.

It’s time for the board to take a serious look at the messages we are getting from Unbridled Learning versus what is actually happening in those schools and to start making some changes – NOW!

And, it’s time for a careful review of the impacts of a waiver from NCLB that some in Washington have continually criticized as inappropriate, as well.

Unbridled Learning and Priority (Persistently Low-Achieving) School Performance

There is considerable interest in the performance of Kentucky’s “Priority Schools” under the state’s new school accountability program called Unbridled Learning. These schools were originally designated “Persistently Low-Achieving Schools” based on their absolutely bottom in the state CATS testing results in reading and math before Unbridled Learning took over in the 2011-12 school term.

Because of the interest, I decided to take a look at how these lowest-performing schools during the last days of the CATS assessments now perform on the new KPREP tests in reading and math. I focused on those two subjects because they were used in the original process that identified the state’s persistently low-achieving schools. I also took a look at the overall school performance classifications Unbridled Learning awarded each school versus each school’s performance in math and reading.

The table below shows what I found (click in the table to enlarge, or click here for a printable PDF version, and contact me at if you want an Excel spreadsheet version).

First, let me explain the table. It shows each of the 41 Priority Schools along with the type of reform model being used in each to try to improve performance. I next list the 2013 Unbridled Learning school classification information for each school. Following that, I show the two years of reading and mathematics proficiency rates each school posted in late spring testing in 2012 and 2013. Those rates are listed for all students in the school and for whites and blacks only. When the proficiency rate stayed flat or declined for a group, I shaded the cells with the relevant scores in pink.

The Table is sorted by the transformation model used in each school. The top part of the table shows schools that used the “ReStaffing Model,” and the bottom section shows those schools that chose the “Transformation Model” (Briefly, the ReStaffing model required massive replacement of teachers and the principal in each school [unless the principal had been in place less than 2 years]. The Transformation Model required a number of changes including a principal replacement and holding teachers more accountable for student performance).

Priority Schools Reading and Math in 2012 and 2013

If you look at the pink shading for declining scores, it becomes very evident that schools that chose the ReStaffing reform model have not performed well in the past two years under KPREP testing. Almost all of these schools, 11 of 14, or 79 percent, experienced a decline in their white students’ math scores. In notable contrast, only 11 of the 27 schools (41 percent) that tried the Transformation Model saw a decline between 2012 and 2013 in their math scores.

In reading, six of the 14 ReStaffing Model schools (43 percent) saw score declines. In the Transformation Model schools, 10 of the 27 schools saw white reading proficiency slide between 2012 and 2013 (37 percent).

Of note, all schools that chose the ReStaffing Model are in Jefferson County. However, four other Jefferson County schools chose the Transformation Model, Only 2 of those 4 saw a decline in their white math scores, and none dropped in reading. That tends to indicate the lower performance for the ReStaffing schools is a model problem more than a district wide issue.

Now, let’s discuss some problems in the table for the school classifications awarded by Unbridled Learning for these schools. This will extend a discussion we started with our new report, “Kentucky’s ‘Unbridled Learning,’ Unrigorous School Accountability for African-American Students?” which we released on December 6, 2013. In that new report, which focused on achievement gaps in every school in the state, we said:

“Unbridled Learning isn’t getting the right messages out….”

Now, let’s examine how some of the Unbridled Learning school accountability classifications also obscure continuing problems in reading and math instruction in some of the Priority Schools.

Consider Lee County High School. Unbridled Learning identified this school as “Proficient” and “Progressing” in 2013. That claims Lee County High ranked among the top 30 percent of high schools in Kentucky.

Well, it may be that Lee County High made improvements in areas like science and social studies (which still use old, inflated CATS tests), but the unfortunate truth is that Lee County High saw a decline in both math and reading proficiency between 2012 and 2013. Even worse, the school’s 2013 proficiency rates for math and reading were well below statewide averages for high schools in 2013. For example, the All Student reading proficiency rate for Lee County High was only 46.7 percent in 2013 while it was 55.8 percent statewide. In math, Lee County High’s All Student proficiency rate was only 25.6 percent in 2013 but statewide the high schools posted a rate more than 10 points higher at 36.0 percent.

Lee County is far from the only disconcerting example of Unbridled Learning issues. Fleming County High and Lincoln County High also saw across the board declines in math and reading proficiency rates between 2012 and 2013 but were still rated “Proficient” under Unbridled Learning. In 2013, Fleming County posted both math and reading scores below the statewide high school averages, as well. Lincoln County also posted reading scores more than 10 points below the statewide averages, as well. Lincoln did slightly exceed the statewide math averages, but only by a point or two, which raises questions about Lincoln County High’s top 30 percent ranking per Unbridled Learning, as well.

There are other bothersome issues for Unbridled Learning.

Six Priority Schools got a superb school classification of “Distinguished” in 2013. However, three of those six schools saw declines in all their reported reading proficiency rates.

Several Unbridled Learning “Distinguished” schools in the table, including Hopkins County Central High, Leslie County High and Metcalfe County High, posted reading proficiency rates below statewide averages for high schools.

And, Pulaski County Central High, another “Distinguished” school in 2013, posted a reading proficiency rate for its whites below the statewide average, too.

There are even issues when we look at the schools that still “Need Improvement” according to Unbridled Learning. We are told that 13 “Needs Improvement” schools are “Progressing.” Really?

Not so much in math – Eight of the 13 schools saw declines in math proficiency rates between 2012 and 2013 for all the racial groups in the school. Several saw declines in reading for some of the listed student groups, as well. Except for blacks in reading, Doss High and Iroquois High saw proficiency rate declines for all student groups in the table in both subjects. Fern Creek Traditional High saw declines in every area except for white reading. Somehow, that just does not square with the idea that these schools are “Progressing.”

To sum up, just as we found in our “Kentucky’s ‘Unbridled Learning,’ Unrigorous School Accountability for African-American Students?” report, an examination of the math and reading proficiency rate trends since Unbridled Learning took over raises a lot of questions about the overall classification of schools from this new public school accountability program. With Unbridled Learning’s focus on only an overall average score from all subject areas in a school, we are losing sight of some rather disturbing performance problems in individual subjects. That loss of focus is something the federal No Child Left Behind Law, despite its faults, managed to keep centered in the crosshairs fairly well. Most importantly, it’s a loss of focus that serves our students very poorly while – once again – just as we experienced with both the now defunct KIRIS and CATS assessments, the state plies us with school performance ratings that imply all is well.

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Education Week: Analysis of big federal grant program for lowest-performing schools sends mixed signals

About 1/3 of the schools getting massive federal funding didn’t improve

Conversion to charter schools outperformed other models

Legalize School Choice Several years ago, the US Department of Education started the massively funded “School Improvement Grant” or SIG program to identify and improve what came to be known as the nation’s “Persistently Low Achieving Schools” (recently renamed “Priority Schools” in Kentucky).

SIG schools got massive infusions of dollars, sometimes as much as $1.5 million over three years, to bootstrap their performance using one of four turn-around options:

• The “transformation” model, which called for extending learning time and gauging teacher effectiveness with test scores.

• The “turnaround” model, which required replacing 50 percent of a school’s staff members.

• The “restart” model – where school management was turned over to a charter-management organization, often converting to an actual charter school in states that allow that option.

• Or, actual school closure and transfer of the students to other, better performing schools.

In each SIG model, the principal was usually removed if he or she had been on the job for more than two years.

Given the major funding and the significant, but very different, turn-around models required, there has been considerable interest in how the SIG program has performed in the impacted schools.

Now Education Week reports in “Latest SIG-School Snapshot Mixed on Improvements” that new data from the US Department of Education indicates the bang for the many SIG bucks has been uneven.

But, one comment really stuck out for me. EdWeek summarizes from the report, saying:

“Schools that attempted dramatic interventions, such as conversion into a charter, generally saw greater gains than schools that took more flexible approaches.” (Underline added for emphasis)

Here in Kentucky, all our Persistently Low-Achieving/Priority Schools didn’t choose the “dramatic interventions” of closure or restarting, of course. In part, that is due to the simple fact that the tool that seems to work best across the nation in the SIG process, conversion to a charter school, has never been allowed here.

How does the Kentucky legislature’s continued refusal to allow the important tool of charter schools square with the mounting evidence that these schools of choice work well in turning around really troubled schools?

Ky Education Chief: Louisville schools’ ‘academic genocide’

Sunday’s Courier-Journal article about the latest problems in the Jefferson County Public Schools, “JCPS blasted in what education chief calls ‘academic genocide,’” has to be one of the most inflammatory articles about education that I have seen in the past 20 years.

It’s past time for such reporting to occur. It should wake a lot of people up about what is really happening in JCPS schools.

Some of the most ‘interesting’ comments in this news piece come from Brent McKim, head of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, the local teachers union.

McKim claims:

“As president of the union, I know we have been doing everything we can possibly do to support these schools. Everyone in the priority schools is cooperating with the requests from the state.”


Let’s talk about an official report on teachers union collective bargaining agreements from the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA), which is on line as Legislative Research Commission’s Research Report #377.

This report shows the union was definitely involved with the restaffing of the Persistently Low-Achieving Schools (PLAs) (Now Called Priority Schools), a process which left a number of the first round of schools with huge numbers of highly inexperienced teachers.

Want to see what the OEA had to say about this?

Just click the “Read more” link.

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