Digital learning: Not always pleasing parents

Before getting into this, I want to stress that I believe digital learning has strong potential to improve K to 12 education. I base that opinion on my own experience when I was an Air Force instructor pilot and an instructional technology program developer for the first generation of automated teaching machines to go operational in the Air Force pilot training program. Good equipment, properly used by well-trained staff, and – perhaps most importantly – loaded with good instructional programs, can enhance learning.

With that said, I also believe that just loading up a school with lots of digital equipment and then rapidly grabbing ahold of a digital learning program can prove problematic.

A case in point seems to be surfacing now in the Boone County Public School District in Kentucky.

In “Facebook program at school causes controversy,” the Kentucky Enquirer points to a growing controversy in the Boone County system over a digital learning program called Summit Learning, which was originally developed in California. Summit is being supported online by Facebook.

For sure, Summit, at least in its Boone County incarnation, is controversial. The Enquirer says the squabble is “so fierce that at least two families have yanked their children from Boone County Schools and other parents are accusing the district of treating students like guinea pigs.”

The Enquirer continues, “There are questions about how classrooms should be structured, how students should be graded and how much homework they should get. And there are questions about privacy – who collects what data and how it is used.”

There have also been questions about implementation. For example, Summit is supposed to be a “Blended Learning” approach where students spend part of the day on computers but are also supposed to still get classical teacher led instruction, as well. However, determining exactly what the computer-to-classical-approach mix should be is a challenge even in well-ordered systems.

In my Air Force days there was still a large amount of instructor-to-student interaction after our instructional technology came along. Having observed some Summit classroom activity, my initial impression is that the Boone County model is more heavily weighted towards computer time. I don’t know if the Boone mix is right or not; I am not sure at this point that anyone else really knows, either.

Without question, parents have been speaking out about their concerns with Summit. Long before the new Enquirer article came out, it was public knowledge that parents were upset.

For example, parents took considerable time to criticize the Summit program – on the record – at the November 10, 2016 meeting of the Boone County Board of Education. Parent Jeremy Storm said his child was supposed to have teacher interaction, but it seemed like the child was only working with teachers about 10 minutes a week, at best. Myrna Eads echoed this 10-minute teacher contact comment concerning her child. She also said that, as of this November school board meeting, some students had already finished the entire year’s program with Summit and were now just playing video games.

Jeremy Storm also said teachers were not really aware of what was in the Summit program because the adoption wasn’t taken slowly. Stacie Storm, his wife, added to the concerns saying her school’s School Based Decision Making Council didn’t handle the Summit adoption correctly and said Summit is not fully aligned to the Kentucky Core Academic Standards. Other parents were upset that no alternative to Summit was offered in some Boone County middle schools. That could be problematic for students who need more direct teacher contact.

Permission Slip Controversy

The Enquire article echoes comments I’ve heard about controversy over a permission slip parents are required to sign before their students can participate in the Summit Learning program. The Enquirer talked to parents and writes, “They said the permission slip for Summit was buried in a mountain of back-to-school paperwork, which was sent home with a threat: sign and return these, or your kid gets detention.” There was no opt-out option available on this permission form.

Parent coercion is just not acceptable.

Furthermore, there are concerns about sharing of private student data with Facebook/Summit, which may or may not prove to be a major problem.

I think more answers on Summit are coming. I am advised that complaints have been raised with the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA), which is the responsible agency to investigate claims regarding SBDM activities and some of the other issues parents have raised. The OEA is usually detailed and thorough in its investigations, so I don’t know how soon their findings will be made public.

However, multiple sources confirm that several parents were so upset that they have pulled their children completely out of the Boone County system. That, by itself, is a major attention grabber.

C’mon Prichard, let’s get this right

I just ran across an article in the Messenger-Inquirer (subscription) where the Prichard Committee claims that based on its “A Citizen’s Guide to Kentucky Education:”

“In 2002, Kentucky was given $6,316 per student; the U.S. average per-pupil spending was $8,206, and at that time, Kentucky ranked 42nd among the other states. Compare that to the 2013 spending, which says that $9,266 was spent per student in Kentucky. The U.S. average was $11,254 spent per student, and Kentucky ranked 37th out of 50 states, the report indicates.”

So, according to Prichard’s numbers, in 2013 Kentucky would have spent $1,988 less per pupil than the national average.

Going to page 5 in the Citizen’s Guide, I learned the ultimate source for these financial figures is supposed to be the annual Public Education Finances documents from the US Census Bureau.

OK, we use those Census documents, too.

But, Prichard’s 2013 numbers didn’t look right. So, I went to Table 11 in Public Education Finances 2013 where this data and ranking information is found.


Kentucky’s “Current Spending” for 2013 was actually $9,316 per pupil while national average spending was just $10,700. That is a spread of only $1,384 per pupil. That difference is over 30 percent lower than Prichard’s numbers show. That’s a pretty big difference.

Oh, the real Census information also shows that Kentucky ranked 35th, not 37th, for its spending in 2013.

Prichard’s numbers don’t agree with the 2002 Census report, either.

But, I guess a 30 percent error is OK when you want to push the state to spend a lot more than it can afford.

You see, Table 12 in the 2013 Public Education Finances edition shows how Kentucky supports education in relationship to taxpayer average income. We ranked 15th in the nation in 2013 for education spending once you allow for the fact that we are not exactly the richest state in the country!

Wow! In 15th place!

You’re not hearing that from Prichard, sadly.

Do Kentucky’s KPREP school assessments do what they are supposed to do?

If so, why is the evidence not available after five years of KPREP testing?

The Bluegrass Institute has discovered a rather extraordinary January 6, 2017 letter from the US Department of Education to Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt.

This letter says evidence provided by the Kentucky Department of Education only shows that the state’s public school assessments just partially meet requirements of federal education legislation.

The letter lists the following general comments:

  • Reading/ language arts (R/LA) and mathematics general assessments in grades 3-8 (Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP)): Partially meets requirements
  • R/LA and mathematics general assessments in high school (ACT QualityCore EOC for R/LA and math): Partially meets requirements
  • R/LA and mathematics alternate assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in grades 3-8 and high school (Alternate K-PREP for R/LA and math): Partially meets requirements

The letter continues:

“The partially meets requirements designation for a component means that it does not meet a number of the requirements of the statute and regulations, and Kentucky will need to provide substantial additional information to demonstrate it meets the requirements. The Department expects that Kentucky may not be able to submit all of the required information within one year (underlined emphasis added).”

Keeping in mind that the Kentucky KPREP and End-of-Course tests have been in place since the 2011-12 school term, the letter’s expanded details about the missing evidence are very disturbing.

For example, Under Critical Element 1.2, the US Department of Education says Kentucky needs to provide:

“A description of State stakeholders involved in the development and/or adoption process for the R/LA, mathematics, and science content standards that includes detail on subject-matter expertise, individuals representing English learners (ELs) and students with disabilities.”

This might be really hard to do. Kentucky basically just adopted the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics (CCSS) at a high level. State stakeholders really had no say in the final decisions about what went into the CCSS. The adoption was made by the Kentucky Board of Education, the Kentucky Educational Professional Standards Board and the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. Subject matter experts were not involved in this widely televised, media event joint meeting of these three boards.

In fact, the adoption of Common Core took place about 3-1/2 months before the final version of the Common Core was even published. It is hard for experts to have looked at something that didn’t even exist at the time of adoption. In fact, the public comment draft of the Common Core didn’t even come out until March 2010, weeks after the three Kentucky boards had already adopted the Common Core, sight unseen.

Under Critical Element 1.5, Kentucky still needs to provide:

“Evidence that the State has procedures in place for ensuring that each student is tested and counted in the calculation of participation rates on each required assessment.”

How’s that? Kentucky can’t provide evidence it really is testing all students with KPREP? Not even after the test has been in used for five testing cycles? That is a real problem.

And, the letter doesn’t stop there. To learn still more, click on the “Read more” link.

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Alabama’s educators lied about high school graduation rates

Education Week reports that “Alabama Officials Admit to Lying About Graduation Rate.”

In an apology announcement the Alabama Department of Education says:

“The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) is involved in a review of recent graduation rates by the Office of Inspector General, which resides within the United States Department of Education (USDE). The ALSDE has determined, after completing an initial audit, that the graduation rate was misstated to the people of Alabama – policymakers, educators, parents, students, all citizens – and to the USDE.”

One inflationary factor Alabama admits is:

“Low Oversight of Local School Systems’ Awarding of Credits – The ALSDE did not increase oversight as needed of local school systems’ awarding of earned class credits. In some cases, local school systems misstated student records and awarded class credit, resulting in diplomas that were not honestly earned.”

Well, maybe US Ed will be coming to Kentucky, too.

As we have pointed out in several blogs, the Bluegrass State also claims very large high school graduation rates, but many students might not really meet the stated requirements.

In particular, while Kentucky regulations stipulate that students must be proficient in math through Algebra II to graduate, a number of school districts recently reported graduation rates well above 90 percent but only have single-digit proficiency rates on the state’s Algebra II End-of-Course (EOC) Exam.


In fact, as shown at the bottom of the table above, even in the district with the least disparity, there still seems to be a notable gap between the graduation rate and the Algebra II EOC Exam proficiency rate.

See our latest series on high school graduation rate quality control problems for more.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

So, don’t be surprised if US Ed comes calling on Kentucky after they finish up in Alabama and in California, which also seems to have some grad rate credibility issues.

Kentucky’s high school diploma quality control problems continue in 2016 – Part 2

I’ve been writing about obvious quality control problems with the award of high school diplomas in Kentucky for several years. Now, I am updating that work with results from the 2016 Unbridled Learning reports, and the situation remains very serious.

I opened this blog series yesterday with comments about how Kentucky’s official high school graduation rates compare to a more realistic appraisal of the proportion of those graduates who actually got an effective education, one that made them either college or career ready. This discussion makes it clear that Kentucky continued to hand out a lot of rather empty diplomas in 2016.

Today, I add more 2016-based evidence from a different sort of analysis based on the fact that Kentucky regulation 704 KAR 3:305, “Minimum requirements for high school graduation,” specifically requires all graduates to have competency in math through Algebra II.

This blog looks at the discrepancies between each district’s officially reported Four-Year Adjusted Cohort High School Graduation Rate for 2016 (ACGR) for all students and the district’s proficiency rate for all students during Algebra II End-of-Course Exams (EOC) in the 2014-15 school year.

As you will see, again in 2016 – just as we found in the 2015 data – the regulatory requirement for Algebra II mostly seems to get just a wink and a nod in many of Kentucky’s public school districts. Thus, the case that Kentucky’s high school diploma needs some serious quality control is strengthened by this alternate analysis.

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Mark Twain MIGHT have been writing about some current school board members

I always get a perturbed when school folk seem to be misleading me. I think others do, too.

A case in point is a back and forth going on in Elizabethtown. On September 25, 2016 the News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown wrote an editorial about “School Boards see silence as golden.” The editors at the News-Enterprise were upset that local school board members operate under the principal that if no one shows up to protest a tax increase, then everyone approves of that increase. The editors clearly disagree, saying:

“Taking a position that a lack of turnout and input equals an endorsement to increasing tax rates isn’t leadership.”

To be sure, the newspaper also criticized the public for not showing up at board meetings.

Still, the editors said enough to rile one Elizabethtown Independent School Board member into submitting a critical guest column with the title “School board must answer the challenge.”

Perhaps silence on the board member’s part would have been more golden.

The board member’s response strangely opens with a quote from Mark Twain:

“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.”

It is at best an odd beginning because Twain certainly isn’t complimenting school boards with this. If you doubt it, just read Twain’s comments following this quote in his book, “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World.” Twain’s discussion about school boards begins on Page 370.

While Twain’s quote seems very clear to me, I’m not sure the Elizabethtown board member gets it. After all, Twain basically says that school boards are God’s perfected idiots.

More importantly, Twain might have been prophetic because something else this in this board member’s guest column really didn’t sound right. The board member writes:

“The funding school districts receive from Frankfort for each student — often referred to as SEEK funding — has not been effectively increased since 2007.”

First of all, local districts receive more than just SEEK money from the state, and the amounts are all reported annually for each district in the Kentucky Department of Education’s Annual Financial Revenues and Expenditures reports. You can access these reports from 1989-90 all the way to 2014-15 by clicking here and scrolling down to the Annual Financial Revenues and Expenditures section.

I accessed the reports for 2006-07 and the latest one for 2014-15. Back in 2006-07 the Elizabethtown Independent School District got total state funding of $10,131,119. In 2014-15 the total state funding for the district was much higher at $16,681,294.

That looked like a much larger increase than inflation would account for, but I checked to be sure using the really neat “CPI Inflation Calculator” tool from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics web site. The calculator says that $16,681,294 in 2015 works out to be worth about $14,592,500 in 2007 dollars.

So, in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, Elizabethtown got about $4,461,381 more state money in 2014-15 than it got in 2006-07. That is a real funding increase of 44 percent.

Even if we only look at the SEEK money and “overlook” the other millions of state dollars that the district receives, Elizabethtown got $8,184,500 in the 2006-07 school year and $10,214,695 in 2014-15. After we adjust the 2014-15 number for inflation, it would still be worth $8,935,190 in 2007 dollars. The extra $750,690 the district got in 2014-15 represents a real spending boost of 9.2 percent just in the SEEK amount alone.

Somehow, the local board member from Elizabethtown doesn’t see that as a real spending increase on the part of the state. Or, maybe he thinks no one else will check his claims.

Or, maybe, Twain really was a prophet.

Johns Hopkins gets honest about altering federal data – sort of

It took a lot of questioning and independent research, but the authors of a recent report from Johns Hopkins University called “For All Kids, How Kentucky is Closing the High School Graduation Gap for Low-Income Students” finally admitted – only after we collected some rather compelling evidence – that they altered high school graduation rate data in a federal report. The Hopkins researchers did that without initially being up front about what they did.

The impact of this tardy admission coupled with a number of other problems – such as the continuing flaw in the report’s fundamental assumption that high school diploma awards in different states indicate comparable academic achievement – significantly undermine the value of the report.

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Physics? Forget it in more than half of Kentucky’s high schools!

Education Week just reported on an astonishing study of the proportion of high schools in each state that offer high school physics. With all the “Happy Talk” we’re hearing from educators about getting kids ready for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and given that physics is essential to enter those STEM careers, you’d think virtually every Kentucky high school would offer this course.

Well, not so!

This map from Education Week’s article tells the sad story, and the numbers look even worse than those several college professors in Kentucky shared with me a few years ago.

EdWeek Physics Course Map

According to the way the US Department of Education classifies physics courses, fewer than half of Kentucky’s school kids even have an opportunity to take this vital STEM subject!

Of course, as I have discussed before, Common Core and NextGen Science standards don’t include standards for either high school physics or the supporting math subjects required. So, don’t expect Kentucky’s use of these standards programs to help fix this big problem of inequitable opportunity.

This sure is a lousy way to push more STEM!

Credibility gap for Johns Hopkins graduation report deepens

Erroneous data in report misrepresents performance in several Kentucky school districts

I have already written here and here about credibility problems with the recently released “For All Kids, How Kentucky is Closing the High School Graduation Gap for Low-Income Students” from Johns Hopkins University and Civic Enterprises.

This week the report’s credibility slipped even more.

Page 16 of the report includes this slam on Kentucky’s Beechwood and Burgin independent school districts for their 2013-14 graduation statistics:

“The number of low-income students served by different districts is not correlated with their graduation rates for those students. For example, Beechwood Independent and Burgin Independent both have low-income populations under 30 percent, but both have low-income graduation rates of 75 percent, at the low end of the Kentucky graduation spectrum.”

As soon as I saw this, I wondered if the claim for the generally very high-performing Beechwood was correct. It didn’t take much searching in the “Data Sets” part of the Kentucky School Report Cards database to find out that Beechwood and Burgin actually posted superior graduation rates for their school lunch eligible students of 92.3 percent and 100 percent, respectively, in the 2013-14 school year (you have to dig all the way to Page 52 in the Hopkins report to learn that what they call “Low-Income” is actually based on students eligible for the federal free and reduced cost school lunch program).

Obviously, neither district’s true performance for low-income students was even close to the 75-percent graduation rate figure alleged by Johns Hopkins.

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KY education is required to be Efficient!

It’s not just a law; it’s actually found in Section 183 of the Kentucky Constitution!

Kentucky is supposed to have “an efficient system of common schools.”

However, it looks like that news isn’t getting out – not to legislators and not to state and lower-level school officials, either.

Click the “Read more” link for some examples of how state and local school leaders don’t seem interested in making efficient use of our tax dollars in their school systems.

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