After 10 Years, Landmark Ky. Law Yielding Dividends
Ten years along, Kentucky’s singularly ambitious overhaul of its K-12 schools has shown solid, if not yet adequate, results for students, says a report from a statewide citizens’ group.
The Prichard Committee for Educational Excellence, based in Lexington, found plenty of evidence that Kentucky headed down the right road with its landmark 1990 legislation for school improvement. But reform has been slow to penetrate the classroom, leaving too many children, especially poor ones, behind in their achievement, the report asserts.
"When you put all the improvements in one spot we’ve made a lot more progress than we thought we had," said Robert F. Sexton, the group’s executive director. "There are strong gains in achievement, particularly at the elementary level—but we don’t think it’s enough."
The Prichard Committee, made up of about 95 business people, civic activists, and other prominent Kentucky residents, played a leading role in passing the reform law nearly a decade ago after the Kentucky Supreme Court, ruling in a school finance case, invalidated the state’s existing system of education. The group continues to keep a watchful eye on improvements.
It unveiled the report, "Gaining Ground," last week, and is sending 5,000 copies to educators, policymakers, media outlets, and parent volunteers, among others.
Once "pathetic," Kentucky’s schools have moved from among the lowest-achieving on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to the middle ranks, the group points out. Mathematics has been a particular bright spot, with elementary and middle school students outpacing in their rate of improvement their counterparts in most other states.
Those gains took place in the context of a host of positive changes, the authors say. They include: a revamped formula for distributing state aid more equitably; altered rules for school governance that prohibit nepotism and endow individual schools with more powers; major investments in technology; and new preschool and after-school programs.
But perhaps the most important changes, the report suggests, have been attitudinal. The state’s high-stakes tests and the consequences that flow from them reflect the belief that all but a very few students can become proficient in reading, writing, and math if their schools are good enough.
Still, new attitudes and a sound framework alone won’t do the job, the report says. "We’re saying we had those reforms in place, but still, now, it is very evident from the results that it’s classroom teaching that’s the hardest and slowest to change," Mr. Sexton said. "That wasn’t so prominent when you didn’t care that all students learn."
Test scores show gaps between the performance of African-American and white students across the board, according to the report. Performance has also been weak among children with disabilities and those living in urban and Appalachian areas. Boys improved less than girls. The committee called middle school results "discouraging."
To get more schools on track to meet the learning goals set for 2014, the report recommends a new focus on reading, especially in the early grades so that children don’t fall behind in all subjects. Linked to that is a call for higher teacher quality, to be achieved, the report says, by increasing teachers’ salaries, raising graduation and licensing standards, and providing more and better professional development.
Finally, the report urges the community as a whole to accept more responsibility for public schools, including support for programs that will give Kentucky’s infants and toddlers—among the poorest in the nation—a better start in life.
The report notes that efforts are already under way to improve teaching and help the youngest children. A legislative task force on teacher quality recently finished work, and a task force on early-childhood initiatives, appointed by Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton, released its report last week. Both efforts are expected to lead to legislative proposals in the session that begins in January.
The report generally got it right, agreed a spokesman for Wilmer S. Cody, the state education commissioner, and David L. Keller, the executive director of the Kentucky School Boards Association.
"Their priorities are compatible with those set by the state board and the education department," said Jim Parks, Mr. Cody’s spokesman.
Mr. Keller said that while the report was on target, he would add two priorities to those the Prichard Committee mentioned.
"One issue that they are not addressing is the critical role of the school principal," he said. "What we’re finding is that in schools not achieving well, where there’s not a good model of a very effective principal or a strong leader to back them up, school councils are not consistently selecting strong principals." School councils are the building-level governing groups.
He also said that state leaders should take the learning goals already in place and use them to spell out a state curriculum.
"It’s expected that school councils and local administrators will create curricula, but that’s very hard and time-consuming work," said Mr. Keller, whose group represents all 176 Kentucky districts. "Teachers would rather spend the time teaching."
Vol. 19, Issue 12, Page 18