School & District Management


By David J. Hoff — September 12, 2006 5 min read

Kentucky, which has a long history of sending skilled educators to the rescue of struggling schools, is expanding that approach to entire school districts.

Seven districts have been working with “voluntary-assistance teams” since early this year. Thirteen more have joined the program for the 2006-07 school year.

Kentucky officials expect that the expertise will help districts head off potential interventions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which for districts can include state receivership or even being abolished if they fail to make achievement targets for four years in a row.

Under the initiative, four educators join the district superintendent on a team with the goal of making changes—either big or small—that will turn lackluster student achievement around.

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The state department of education provides one of its staff members and a “highly skilled educator”; the Kentucky School Boards Association picks a school board member from another district in the state; and the Kentucky Association of School Administrators assigns a retired superintendent to the team. All the members are from districts that have succeeded in raising achievement. The superintendent of the struggling district is the chairman of the group.

For the 2005-06 school year, the state gave each participating district $20,000 to pay consulting fees and the expenses of the superintendent and the school board member on the team. (The state education department pays the salaries and expenses for its employee and the highly skilled educator.)

In the current school year, the state is paying $10,000 and is requiring the districts to match that amount with their own money.

‘Laser-Like Focus’

In Madison County, a rural but growing area in the Bluegrass region in the center of the state, five of the 10,000-student district’s 15 schools failed to meet achievement targets under the NCLB law in the 2005-06 school year. The district’s cumulative scores fell short of its overall goals under the law, and another year without districtwide improvement could subject it to state interventions as drastic as the replacement of the superintendent.

Superintendent B. Michael Caudill says the decision to sign up for the assistance was a good one. “It’s created time for me to focus laser-like on academics,” he says.

Seal of the State of Kentucky

One of the team’s first actions was to hire consultants to conduct a thorough academic audit of the district. The 17-member team identified specific schools where Madison County needed to improve the culture and change the curriculum.

“While I knew that, I needed that ammo to make some moves,” says Caudill.

The team also recommended that the district hire a chief academic officer to take responsibility for all issues in curriculum, professional development, and everything else tied to student learning.

In addition, the assistance team has been active in helping school board members set policy. The outside school board representative on the team attends all of the Madison County school board’s meetings and advises its members. Based on the outside board member’s review, the district board has realized that its meeting agendas are “too management-heavy,” Caudill says, and has taken steps to ensure issues related to student achievement are the center of its discussions.

And it has started to require that staff members report back to the board about the results of certain programs the board has approved.

‘Everyone Understands’

The involvement of the local school board and the leadership role of the superintendent are important ingredients in the process, according to those who helped design the districtwide assistance.

“With this model, everyone understands what the intervention is, and they support it,” says Stephen M. Schenck, the state’s associate commissioner of education for leadership and school improvement. “It’s about everybody having the same plan and supporting that plan.”

And when the voluntary-assistance team finishes its work, the hope is that the district will be able to keep up the improvements set in motion.

“If we’re going to have systemic change in a school district,” says David A. Baird, the associate executive director of the Kentucky School Boards Association, one of the sponsors of the project, “we need to have the intervention all the way from the top down.”

Six months after the team first met in Madison County, it’s too early to measure the impact of the effort on student achievement. But participants say cultural and managerial changes are under way.

Such changes will help Madison County and the other participating districts in the long run, the program’s sponsors hope, because district leaders will have changed the way they approach their jobs and acquired the knowledge and skills needed to sustain any improvements.

“When there’s outside interventions in school districts, the intervention is only effective as long as you’re there,” Baird says. “We want to try to develop a little bit more leadership capacity of the local superintendent because this team has no intention of staying there long term.”

Legislative Support Questioned

The question for the future is whether Kentucky lawmakers will continue to finance state interventions to help schools in trouble.

In this year’s legislative session, the state Senate’s two-year budget plan would have eliminated the highly-skilled-educators program, which the state has run since 1995 under its own accountability framework.

The program is too expensive, and the state-sponsored consultants cause internal conflict because “they have too much authority,” says Sen. Dan Kelly, the Republican majority leader and a critic of the program.

Although the Kentucky House of Representatives won concessions in a conference committee to allot the program $5.6 million for the current fiscal year and the same amount for fiscal 2008, many in the state wonder whether the legislature will continue to back the deployment of highly skilled educators and other state interventions intended to improve student performance.

“It concerns me more than a little” that the Senate voted to eliminate money for the highly skilled educators, says Schenck, the associate commissioner of education.

But as districts start entering the “corrective action” phase of the No Child Left Behind Act, Kentucky—and all other states—will need tools in place to help turn schools around, according to one organizer of Kentucky’s voluntary district-assistance program.

“Whatever they call it, there’s going to be a need in Kentucky, and other states, for highly skilled educators,” says W. Blake Haselton, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, referring to consultants generally, not just the Kentucky program. “It’s very difficult when you have an intervention … and don’t build in general internal capacity to sustain it when you leave.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Kentucky

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