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State Journal: Getting 'tangled' in Kentucky

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One would think that Kentucky educators and policymakers, who are struggling under a court order to redesign their school system, would be grateful for a few words of encouragement from outside.

So it seems odd that a nationally recognized expert has gotten in hot water in the Bluegrass State for sending this message to its leaders: "Things aren't as bad as you say they are."

Unfortunately for Harold L. Hodgkinson, director of demographic policy for the Institute for Educational Leadership, that message has been clouded by the accusatory tone Mr. Hodgkinson took in a letter to a state education official, and by his use of some questionable statistics.

In a widely circulated letter, Mr. Hodgkinson wrote, "Kentucky seems to want to get people so gloomy and depressed that they will drink (Kentucky) whiskey, play (Kentucky) horses, and forget about the problems."

Mr. Hodgkinson said a study he conducted on Kentucky last year and other data show that the state's educational problems are not as severe as some state leaders have suggested.

He claimed that more adults have high-school diplomas than previously reported, and that the percentage of youths who graduated from high school has increased since 1982.

Mr. Hodgkinson also referred to Robert F. Sexton, director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, as one of the state leaders who paints an unfairly negative picture of Kentucky's schools.

That criticism evoked a sharp response from Mr. Sexton, whose committee has played a key role in school reform.

"Bud, you're getting tangled--most of the data we've used came from you," Mr. Sexton said in a letter to Mr. Hodgkinson.

Mr. Sexton said the Population Reference Bureau--Mr. Hodgkinson's source on the percentage of adults with diplomas--conceded that its data were not necessarily reliable.

Mr. Sexton also noted that Mr. Hodgkinson had erred in taking high-school graduation data from the U.S. Education Department's annual wall chart. The demographer apparently read the wrong line, Mr. Sexton said, giving Indiana's considerably higher rate instead of Kentucky's.

Most of all, Mr. Sexton said, he was surprised by the "combative tone" of the letter.

In response, Mr. Hodgkinson said he didn't want to "get into a shouting match."

"I just wanted to show that the state has made some improvements, and it should build on its strengths."--rrw

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