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Ky. Study Reveals Public Resistance to School Change

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Kentucky policymakers and education advocates have a long way to go in convincing the public, especially teachers and students, of the central premise that all children can learn, according to opinions expressed in focus groups brought together by a state reform group.

The opinions were contained in a report released this month by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens'-advocacy group that has been an outspoken supporter of Kentucky's three-year-old school-reform law.

The participants generally agreed that different students will perform at different levels, the study found. When confronted with the need for change, participants were more likely to assign blame than to envision change.

Even once reforms are imposed on classrooms, issues of student motivation, respect, and discipline prove a serious distraction from meaningful change, the report concludes.

"If all Kentuckians now believed that all children can learn at high levels, schools would soon make a fundamental change in the way they are structured to deliver learning,'' the report says, while conceding "that the number of Kentuckians who support the philosophy now is likely to be small.''

The report paints a complicated picture of the extent to which the public and local educators are accepting change and touches on difficult social issues that also color the fate of reform.

Finger-Pointing Arena

Rather than an invitation to consider new strategies, the report suggests, school reform has often become an arena for pointing fingers over the unsatisfactory performance of schools.

The focus groups--which involved 92 people in three Kentucky towns--found striking similarities in how residents place blame for the condition of schools.

In general terms, most adults--including teachers--blamed uninterested parents for poor school performance. When asked about their own school experiences, however, respondents tended to criticize or praise individual teachers or administrators.

Students tended to fault themselves, citing the problem of apathy, while school officials often tried to steer the conversation from blame to solutions.

Adults outside the school structure also voiced increasing frustration with school employees, citing their tenure at a time of growing job insecurity. Many adults said such work conditions are a more prominent issue than reform.

Complicating efforts to turn local discussions toward solutions, the report suggests, is the attitude of many local residents, who see themselves as consumers of school services rather than as part of a community that must band together to make a change.

"Although the Kentucky Education Reform Act is a powerful effort that touches on the community's role in public schools, KERA implementation so far has not interrupted the typical pattern of school-community relations,'' the report says.

That sense of apathy is magnified in school buidings, the report suggests, where teachers feel disrespected by students and teenagers feel disconnected from the school's goals.

Respect and discipline are among the chief issues distracting educators from pursuing the state's reform goals, according to the report.

Schools No 'Kind of Island'

"All of this points to conditions that are pretty deep in society and confirm the feelings we've had all along that we're talking about changing the social structure here,'' said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee. "In a pretty brutal way, this says schools aren't any kind of island and that we have our work cut out for us.''

Among the most glaring of the public-opinion consultants' findings was that most people do not agree with the basic notion that all students can learn at high levels.

Members of the focus groups argued that schools should respond to the innate talents and abilities of students through tracking, adding that differing expectations should be expected in a stratified society. Teachers and students, the report found, were the most likely to disagree that "all children can learn.''

"Here we are talking about a policy that runs smack up against these quotes,'' Mr. Sexton said.

The report found a more hopeful sign, however, among teachers. While complaining that their reform efforts have been driven by a fear of sanctions, they also are starting to view learning in a new way.

"Some say they see learning more now as something children generate, instead of just a demonstration through objective tests of knowledge of facts and ideas that others have generated,'' the report notes.

Participants familiar with the law's ungraded-primary program, expanded preschool, and family-resource centers are also beginning to show enthusiam for change.

The report urges the Prichard Committee to push for greater public outreach from other education groups, "who may find it easy to forget that all Kentuckians are not yet informed enough even to support KERA enthusiastically.''

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