Kentucky Moves to Enact Reform Plan
It's 8:30 A.M. and 45 children, ages 5 to 7, gather in a bright open space at South Heights Elementary School to begin their day with calendar exercises. "Five-year-olds, let's count together,'' a teacher commands, and the youngest members tally up the days of the month thus far. An older child digs through a packet of cards and selects one with "Wednesday'' written on it in large block type.
"Let's spell it together,'' the teacher says. And the whole class chants in chorus. Over the next hour, the students sing songs about the days of the week, identify colors and patterns tied to the calendar activities, and chat about Dr. Seuss, the "author of the month,'' with a second teacher also working with the cluster of 45 youngsters.
Down the hall, nine educators--five teachers, two student teachers, and two aides--convene to plan next week's activities for another group of 5- to 9-year-olds. In the school's conference room, three teachers spend a day away from their classes to score the 4th-grade writing portfolios required by the state.
The building also houses a preschool for disadvantaged children; an extended-day program that provides after-school tutoring to students who need extra help; and a family-resource center that provides short-term counseling, parenting workshops, and social-service referrals to more than 400 neighborhood families.
Overseeing the entire program is a school council composed of three teachers, two parents, the principal, and the head custodian (on an ex-officio basis).
Welcome to Kentucky, where schools like South Heights Elementary are struggling to implement what many describe as the most comprehensive and integrated piece of school-reform legislation in the country.
The Kentucky Education Reform Act, or KERA, was signed into law in April 1990, after the state supreme court ruled that the entire system of public education in Kentucky was unconstitutional and ordered lawmakers to start over.
The act weaves together changes in school governance, finance, curriculum, assessment, and teacher licensure to support strong, new learning outcomes for students. It also takes aim at pre-school and out-of-school factors that affect achievement.
Financed with a $1.4 billion tax increase in its first two years, KERA is the most ambitious effort in the nation to use a comprehensive approach to state policy to bring about radical change in individual schools.
"Whether you agree or disagree with its underlying philosophy, it is a major attempt to change a very big system,'' observes Jane L. David, one of the dozens of researchers scrutinizing the progress of the Bluegrass State. "And, whatever happens, there's a tremendous amount to be learned from it.''
Three Years and Counting
But as the law completes the third year of a six-year phase-in, its policies are colliding with the hard realities of life in school, earning it such unflattering acronyms as the "Kentucky Early Retirement Act'' and "Keeping Everyone Running Around.''
"Will Rogers summed it up best when he said, 'Liberty doesn't work as well in practice as it does in speeches,''' jokes Marnel Moorman, the president of the powerful Kentucky Education Association. "We're finding that KERA doesn't work as well in our classrooms as it did in the law.''
Today, Kentuckians are grappling with problems common to school reform everywhere: How rapidly and in what order should changes that will take years to complete be phased in? How should the capacity and leadership for reform be built into the system? How should the state education department shift from its traditionally bureaucratic role to one based more on being supportive? And how soon before students, parents, and policymakers can expect that true changes in the classroom will no longer be the exception to the rule?
Since the act was passed, more than 10 court cases have been filed challenging various portions of it. The attorney general has issued nearly 50 opinions directly related to education reform. And the legislature's Office of Education Accountability, created as the watchdog of reform, has logged approximately 3,500 phone calls.
Slumping revenues threaten the law's continued funding. And a growing chorus of teachers and administrators is demanding that the legislation be modified, despite staunch opposition from its creators.
Yet, as Pam Coe, the principal investigator for a study of the reforms by the Appalachia Regional Laboratory, points out, "KERA is having more of an impact than anyone would have anticipated at this stage.''
Despite resistance, changes are visible in some districts and schools. The public and educators generally back the direction of the reforms. And a much-feared backlash to the large tax increase that was passed to pay for the reforms has not materialized. Instead, much of the grumbling may indicate that the reforms have struck home.
'Second-Greatest Revolution' in American Education
The Kentucky legislation is based on two simple assumptions: All children can learn at high levels, and schools are the locus for change.
It follows naturally, then, the measure's architects and supporters say, that schools should be given the necessary resources to help students succeed and that they be held accountable for the results.
Thomas C. Boysen, Kentucky's commissioner of education, describes the law as the "second-greatest revolution in American public education.''
In the early part of this century, the common-schools movement gave every child the right to attend school. "KERA,'' Mr. Boysen says, "has the intention of giving every child the right to succeed in school.''
The law specifies six learning goals that all Kentucky students must meet. (Since the law's passage, those goals have been elaborated into 75 "valued outcomes.'') It then orders the state to develop a new system of portfolios, performance assessments, and paper-and-pencil tests to measure children's progress. Schools are to be held accountable for how students do on such tests, as well as for attendance, retention, and graduation rates; students' health; and their postgraduation success.
If schools do well, they are rewarded. If they do poorly--and their proportion of successful students decreases by 5 percent or more--they are punished. For example, parents may be given the option of transferring their children to another school, and teachers and other school employees may be placed on probation and possibly dismissed.
In exchange, the law creates an equitable funding formula for schools in the state. It also creates school-based decisionmaking councils to give schools substantial control over how they operate.
In addition, the law mandates some instructional strategies and support services to help educators succeed with students. It requires that nongraded-primary programs be established in every elementary school by next fall; that high-quality preschool programs be provided for all 4-year-olds at risk of educational failure; that a network of family-resource and youth-service centers be created at or near schools in which at least 20 percent of students are eligible for free or subsidized school meals; and that extended-school services, such as before- and after-school tutoring, be provided for youngsters in need of extra help.
The state also anticipates spending $200 million to bring technology into the schools, and it has substantially increased its commitment to professional development and training.
'Let's Make It Work'
Such changes would be radical anywhere, but no more so than in Kentucky. According to the 1990 Census, only Mississippi had a lower percentage of adults who had finished high school. Nineteen percent of the state's residents lived in poverty in 1989; the poverty rate among children was 25 percent.
That same year, no district in Kentucky--including the wealthiest--spent at least the national per-student average on its schools.
"What Kentucky supplied to the Rust Belt for years was a highly committed, hard-working, uneducated group of laborers,'' one observer says. "Detroit, Michigan, was designed for dropouts from Kentucky schools.''
Henderson, home to South Heights Elementary School, sits in western Kentucky on the south bank of the Ohio River, overlooking the neighboring city of Evansville, Ind.
An old river town surrounded by flat agricultural fields, its Victorian mansions still house tunnels used to help slaves escape to freedom.
The 7,800-student Henderson County district, which serves outlying communities as well as the city, is the 14th-largest district in the state. In 1990-91, the school year after the reform act was passed, Henderson received more than a 13 percent increase in state funding.
Measured by traditional criteria, Henderson County does pretty well. More than 60 percent of its graduates go on to college. Its dropout rate hovers at 2 percent. And the community is generally supportive of its schools.
"We did a good job with the upper half of our kids,'' Gayle W. Ecton, the superintendent of schools, explains. "And yet, those of us who had looked at it knew there was a whole group of kids with whom we weren't doing very well.''
Several years before KERA passed, Henderson began pushing a school-reform agenda of its own: promoting participatory decisionmaking throughout the district, investing in leadership training for its principals, and shifting greater control over resources to the schools.
It has also formed a partnership with the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville to help it navigate the change process.
As a result, school officials here were ready to commit themselves to the law, despite some reservations. "We've never agreed 100 percent with KERA,'' David McKechnie, the chairman of the Henderson County board of education, says, "but basically our attitude is, 'It's the law. Let's make it work.'''
Glimmers of Change
Today, traces of the reform act's passage are everywhere, both in Henderson and beyond:
- From July 1990 to July 1992, state and local funding of precollegiate education in Kentucky each increased by almost 25 percent. The gap between the state's richest and poorest districts was reduced by one-third.
- All elementary schools, including those in Henderson, have already or are preparing to make the shift to ungraded-primary classrooms.
- More than one-third of Kentucky's schools, and all 16 of those in Henderson County, have school-based decisionmaking teams.
- Major progress has been made in developing the first stage of the state's new assessment and accountability system.
This winter, every school received a baseline score indicating how far it must improve to qualify for rewards or avoid penalties.
- For the first time, extra educational and social services are available at the school site for large numbers of children and their families.
- The Kentucky Department of Education has undergone a wrenching reorganization in which all of its employees were forced to reapply for their jobs.
Law's Comprehensiveness Is Taking Its Toll
To many politicians and educators, KERA's strength lies in its comprehensive and interconnected nature.
"We've learned ... that, if you work on one problem at a time--piecemeal--you never get it done,'' Superintendent Ecton says.
But the sheer pace and number of reforms have left many schoolpeople overwhelmed and unable to focus on the larger picture.
"Our teachers are exhausted, to be quite frank,'' says Jim Young, the superintendent of the Russellville Independent School District in southwestern Kentucky. "And I think this is a statewide phenomenon. They are just worn out.''
Principals complain that it's impossible to keep up with all of the paperwork and reading materials generated by the law.
Phyllis Becker, an English and Latin teacher at Henderson County High School, says, "I've been taken out of my classroom so much for meetings and committees and workshops that I don't feel I'm doing as good a job as I have done in the past.''
And Steve Garner, a 4th-grade teacher at South Heights Elementary, says: "We need the reform. But they want to see a lot of results so fast that it's putting too much pressure on us to get things done.''
Aggressive Time Lines
The biggest debate centers on whether the state's time lines are realistic.
Most lawmakers argue that the tight deadlines keep everyone motivated and focused on the task at hand. But schoolpeople complain about doing too much at once--and not always in the right order.
Political wrangling at the state level, for example, has held up money to buy new technology. And educators are scurrying to revamp their instructional content and methods even before the state's new assessment system and draft curriculum frameworks are in place.
"There're a lot of people who argue a lot of our time lines were a little too aggressive,'' State Sen. David Karem of Louisville says. "I'd argue if you don't make aggressive time lines, it isn't going to happen.''
The pressure is greatest in the elementary schools, where teachers charge that it's impractical to demand that ungraded-primary classrooms be fully in place by next fall.
Even in schools that embraced the requirement ahead of schedule, researchers have found that educators vary considerably in both their support for the program and in their ability to teach in the desired ways.
A study released this winter by the National Governors' Association and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' group that has been a driving force behind the reforms, concludes that the deadline is not realistic for most schools.
"We've got teachers who've been teaching 20 or 25 years,'' Mr. Ecton, the Henderson superintendent, notes. "And then all of a sudden we say, 'Let's do cooperative learning, peer tutoring, and the whole-language approach and use developmentally appropriate materials.' It's overwhelming, and you get more resistance.''
At Longfellow Elementary School in Mayfield, in the far western part of the state, Principal Elsie Jones has told her teachers to take it slowly, regardless of the state mandates. "We're going to do the best we can do for our students,'' says Ms. Jones, who has strong reservations about mixing kindergarten students in with older youngsters. "And we're not going to lie about it either.''
Teachers who question the wisdom of including kindergartners in ungraded programs say they object to the approach on two grounds--both for developmental reasons and because of logistical problems posed by half-day kindergarten classes.
Some of the disgruntlement stems from a feeling among teachers that they were misled. The Kentucky Department of Education originally told schools that they would have until 1995-96 to fully implement the requirement. But lawmakers, who felt that schools were dragging their feet, returned to the issue two years after KERA was passed and clarified their intent to have an earlier deadline.
'Keg of Dynamite'
On the other hand, educators acknowledge that many schoolpeople feel pressured now because they did not begin to make changes soon after the reforms were first passed in 1990. Instead, they wasted two years hoping that the law would be repealed.
Similarly, because schools have until 1996 to form school-based management councils, many have held back.
In the Fayette County school district, which includes the city of Lexington, Superintendent Ronald E. Walton says a number of school faculties have voted several times to reject proposals for school-based management.
"Teachers are saying, 'Look, we've got our plates full, and, if that's not something we have to do right now, we're just not interested in taking on another assignment,''' he explains.
"We all know that there are those people who would never move short of a keg of dynamite,'' Mr. Ecton says. The time lines "were our keg of dynamite.''
Student-Assessment Result Spur Host of New Questions
But if the time lines were the dynamite, the burning fuse that has sent educators scurrying is the state assessment results, released last fall, and the "threshold'' scores assigned to schools this winter.
The scores specify how much each school will have to improve over the next two years to avoid state penalties.
Although Kentucky is still in the process of developing a full-blown assessment system, interim measures in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies were given to all students in grades 4, 8, and 12 last year.
For the first time in the state's history, how pupils performed was compared not against each other but against absolute standards for what students should know and be able to do.
The state determined how many students performed at the "novice,'' "apprentice,'' "proficient,'' and "distinguished'' levels.
The results were startling. Roughly 90 percent of the state's students scored below the "proficient'' level, including many who have traditionally done well on other measures of performance.
But it's not clear whether the gap between where students are and the state's high expectations for them will serve as a rallying point for reform.
Gerald Wischer, the president of the Ohio Valley National Bank in Henderson, says, "Those tests didn't come out nearly as well as the community thought they should.''
"Maybe,'' he speculates, "we're not as good as we thought we were.''
Other superintendents and principals say parents are not particularly upset about the results because they're not sure the tests are valid.
"Quite honestly,'' Mr. Ecton says, "I think that with many of our staff and our community members, too, there's a good bit of denial that our kids aren't that bad.''
Nancy Graham, a parent and a member of the school council at Spottsville Elementary School in Henderson County, reflects the view of many parents when she says, "I don't know that I put a lot of value on the tests.''
'A Sudden Death'
Far more threatening to educators are the baseline and threshold scores released for each school this winter. The baseline scores reflect a combination of how a school's students performed on the assessments, as well as such data as school-attendance and graduation rates.
The scores are based on a scale of 0 to 100, with most schools scoring around 30. Although schools have 20 years to bring all students up to a "proficient'' level, they are expected to improve by a certain percentage every two years, known as the threshold score.
Schools that exceed their threshold goal by 1 percentage point or more are eligible for significant monetary rewards. Those that miss the mark will be required to produce a school-improvement plan and be given state funds and technical assistance to do so.
Schools that decline by less than 5 percent will also be assigned a "distinguished Kentucky educator''--one of a number of experienced teachers and administrators on leave to the state education department--to help them shape up. And educators in schools whose scores decline by more than 5 percent will be put on probation, with the possibility of dismissal. Parents can also choose to bail out of such schools.
This strict accountability lies at the heart of Kentucky school reform, which relies on local educators and parents to restructure their schools so that all students can succeed.
Ed Reidy, the associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and accountability, says that release of the baseline scores and of the thresholds that schools must meet in 1994 have made school reform "real'' to people.
The data reveal, for instance, that many schools in wealthier districts have as far to go in boosting their performance as their poorer neighbors.
"We called in all the school principals the day that we gave the results,'' recalls Ruie Murphy, Henderson's assistant superintendent for instruction and student performance. "It was like attending the funeral home when you walk in and there's been a sudden death. For the first time, I think, the real sobering effect of all this hit the administrators.''
'Haven't a Clue'
But others question whether most schools will be able to reach their thresholds in 1994 and particularly in subsequent years, as the gains rely more and more on pulling all youngsters up to a high standard.
And they note that most teachers, rather than being motivated by the possibility of a reward, are now motivated by fear.
The state has set aside $34 million in a trust fund to pay for the rewards in the years to come. But teachers still remember a pledge by former Gov. Martha Layne Collins to pay them a $300 bonus that never materialized.
"I've heard more people worry about being sanctioned than I've heard talk about being rewarded,'' says Mike Haile, the president of the Henderson County Education Association.
Whether such fear will prove to be a potent motivator in a system where successes are rarely recognized and failures are often overlooked is hard to forecast.
"You don't assume that when people resist, it's because they're unwilling to change,'' argues Phillip C. Schlechty, the president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville. "I think there's been too much made of [rewards and sanctions] and not enough made of the support.''
"People in the schools that we've been observing know what skills kids are going to be required to have,'' Ms. Coe of the Appalachia Regional Laboratory says, "but they haven't a clue as to how to impart those skills.''
"The people who are running scaredest,'' she adds, "are the people who have the least idea about how to achieve the changes.''
Educators also complain that the law includes no consequences for individual students based on how well they perform on the assessments and that youngsters, therefore, have no incentive to achieve. "Students feel no responsibility,'' Michael Bussiere, the coordinator of health and physical education at Henderson County High School, asserts. "We're expecting students to go in and perform to the best of their ability on these tests, and I think that's unrealistic.''
Trading Old Regulations for Even More New Ones?
Theoretically, the tradeoff for such strict accountability was a substantial amount of freedom for schools.
Indeed, since 1990, some of the state's most onerous requirements for schools have been dropped. For example, the state no longer tells teachers how many minutes to spend on reading or math each day. And it has thrown out an accreditation process that once held schools accountable for the number of books in their libraries and the number of guidance counselors on their payrolls.
The department of education has also tried to couch much of its advice to schools in the form of advisories and suggestions, not mandates.
But many charge that the system is still too bureaucratically driven.
"Very frankly, we are finding even more regulations and more restrictive regulations than we were before KERA,'' charges David Keller, the executive director of the Kentucky School Boards Association.
"Local educators are so used to being told exactly what to do, and state officials are so used to telling them,'' observes Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee, the citizens' advocacy group, "that changing those cultures is very slow and difficult.''
"Every time the state department says anything,'' he argues, "it's taken by many school districts as a regulation--which to me demonstrates that they want those regulations.''
But KERA has also generated a lot of paperwork. Under the law, school boards are required to direct every school to develop a school-improvement plan. In order to receive new computers and technology from the state, schools must submit a technology plan.
Each school must have a professional-development plan. And every elementary school must have an ungraded-primary plan as well as a plan for purchasing textbooks and manipulative materials.
Lawmakers have also asked the state department of education to monitor how schools spend their funds for extended-school services.
"I think that accounts for the feeling that this is a lot of monitoring for a deregulated situation,'' Commissioner Boysen says.
"We are thinking as hard as we can about how to simplify the planning and process requirements,'' he adds. "I don't think we've got the right mix now.''
But, he cautions: "This is a planned decentralization. It's not a planned loss of control.''
Educators, blaming Mr. Boysen's reported tendency to micromanage in part, also fault the department for distributing inconsistent information and disseminating it in an untimely fashion.
At South Heights Elementary, for instance, teachers who needed to score portfolio assessments on a Wednesday complained that they first received the forms that Monday.
And at the high school, Ms. Becker says: "We don't feel that the instructions we get from the state are adequate. It's almost like, 'Do it, and then we'll tell you what we wanted you to do.'''
Since December, at least six top officials at the department have moved on--some voluntarily, some not, and several to higher-paying jobs outside the state. Mr. Boysen describes it as "trying to manage the fit in jobs that themselves are evolving,'' and claims, "Morale is good.''
"The number of people who have left or indicated that they're leaving is not unexpected,'' agrees Joseph W. Kelly, the chairman of the state board of education. "This is an extremely high-visibility, high-pressure, stressful environment that the department operates in.''
Many maintain that, under the circumstances, Mr. Boysen has performed admirably.
But communications with the field is clearly a problem. "My personal feeling,'' Ms. Coe says, "is that it may have been a mistake to reorganize the state department so thoroughly at the same time the districts were being required to restructure.''
The law also contains some built-in tensions between top-down and bottom-up reform. For instance, it requires schools to create decisionmaking councils that are designed to give local educators greater control over the reforms. But then it specifies who can sit on such councils: one principal, two teachers, and two parents.
Although schools can appeal to the state board of education to create councils with a different composition, some educators complain that their proposals have been rejected.
In the Jefferson County school district in Louisville, nearly 130 of the district's 150 schools engage in some form of shared decisionmaking, most pre-dating KERA. But only three schools have voted to adopt school-based decisionmaking councils, as defined by the law. And two of those use alternative models that were approved by the state board.
In Henderson, many school councils include teachers' aides and other noncertified employees--who make up more than 40 percent of the district's workers--on an ex-officio basis. "But it's still not the same,'' says Superintendent Ecton, who worries that such employees have been sent a message that they're not important.
'It Can Be Different, And It Can Be Right'
Despite such strains, KERA has begun to spark flickers of change in the classroom--though they have yet to ignite into a full-scale explosion.
The most visible glimmers are in the elementary schools. At Spottsville Elementary School in Henderson County, a teacher leads a mixed-age group of 7- and 8-year-olds through an integrated unit of social-studies and math activities.
The lesson begins with a game: Thirty-four children sit in a circle on the floor and pass a red balloon to the beat of music. When the record stops, the child holding the balloon must describe a time when there was "scarcity'' in his life--only one bicycle and two children, three ice-cream cones and four friends.
The teacher, Janey Couch, then groups the students in teams of four, each of which is given a paper with some drawings on it. Working cooperatively, the children are to look at the pictures and place an "X'' next to those that depict a shortage. "You've got to work together,'' she warns them. "Everybody in the group has got to decide and agree.''
After 15 minutes or so, the class reconvenes, and the teams defend their findings. One picture shows three people and four cookies. Some students identify a shortage, since there are not enough cookies for each child to receive two. Others, noting that each youngster could eat a cookie with one left over, disagree. The teacher accepts both arguments, as long as they are reasoned clearly.
Then she asks the teams to get back together and create math problems that depict each drawing. When the whole class gathers again, students have come up with an impressive array of mathematical equations that encompass addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Although Ms. Couch forces each group to think through its response, her basic message is this: "It can be different, and it can be right, because we asked you to make mathematical problems with these pictures. I didn't tell you what type.''
Throughout the exercises, a second teacher acts as coach and guide to individual teams struggling to reach a solution.
This is precisely the kind of problem-solving, hands-on activity that KERA is meant to generate.
But from school to school and even from classroom to classroom in Henderson and throughout the state, such breakthroughs are fitful and uneven.
"Some schools have made significant and dramatic progress,'' one interim research report observes, "and for others the progress was barely discernible.''
Moreover, as a visitor works his way up through the education system--from elementary school to middle school to high school--the changes become more sporadic and less pronounced.
In the earliest grades, fewer desks have been aligned in rows. Room arrangements are more flexible, and hands-on activities and scads of laminated books, written by students, are evident everywhere. More and more activities also span the disciplines, such as when children at South Heights construct a time line of Dr. Seuss' life after reading his books.
In the 4th grade, where the state has required students to keep writing portfolios of their work--and now math portfolios as well--teachers report more writing going on. And there is a greater emphasis on cooperative learning and teamwork. Particularly in schools where their colleagues have embraced ungraded-primary classrooms, teachers in grades 4, 5, and 6 are beginning to look over their shoulders at what's coming.
At the junior high level, at least in Henderson, teachers are also beginning to explore cooperative learning and mixed-ability grouping.
But most acknowledge that the tough nut to crack is the high schools. With the exception of being asked to do more writing projects, because of the portfolio requirements, Henderson students report little or no difference in their classrooms. The final recommendations of a statewide task force on high school restructuring are expected next fall.
A casual walk through Henderson County High School--a large comprehensive school in a sprawling building--reveals both rays of hope and signs of ennui.
In one English class, special-education and regular students work side by side with a team of two teachers, who enthusiastically describe their use of investigative projects and cooperative learning.
But in another room down the hall, the teacher marches sophomores through workbook exercises on normative-case pronouns, and several students slump at their desks. One student mutters that timeless complaint: "This class is sooo boring.''
Asked about the changes under KERA, Ms. Becker, an English teacher at the school, says: "I don't know if you could tell just by looking. I don't think it would be that obvious.''
Building a Culture to Sustain Reform
The uneven nature of the changes in schools and classrooms underscores the biggest hurdle that KERA faces--how to build the capacity and leadership for reform.
"If we don't build a culture that's going to sustain and support and nurture the changes that we've put in place,'' Mr. Ecton warns, "they're not going to live. I think there's maybe a lack of appreciation for that at the state level.''
Under KERA, the state allocates funds to districts for ongoing training based on their student enrollment. The money amounted to $17 per student this year. In addition, lawmakers have permitted local boards to use up to five instructional days for staff development.
Across the state, teachers say they are getting more and better training than ever before. And in districts that have made the investment, educators report feeling more confident about their ability to implement the law. Henderson, for example, has more than tripled the amount of professional development offered to its employees in the past two years.
"We put more training money into this than we've ever had before,'' Mr. Sexton of the Prichard Committee says. "Over all, a remarkable amount. But it's still not enough. The scale and scope of this thing is so huge that there's almost a bottomless pit of need.''
Although the law created eight regional training centers to assist teachers and administrators, they are staffed at a ratio of one employee for every 1,000 teachers. Many districts have not used the available instructional days for training. And researchers question whether educators are getting the right kind of support and guidance.
Compared with the amount of professional development offered to teachers, there is even less training available to superintendents, board members, principals, and union leaders on how to manage reform.
"The legislature is at fault,'' Senator Karem concedes. "We did not provide enough assistance for training and for professional development at all in this situation.''
But, he adds, "They're hard dollars to provide.''
Moreover, many teachers feel they are already getting more training than they can absorb. The real problem, they say, is not information but time.
Sharon Stalls, a teacher at South Heights Elementary, says some of her colleagues "have reached their saturation point. We really need to go back to the classroom and implement what we've seen.''
'Find Their Niche'
Henderson County's experience also highlights how much district leaders can promote reform. But while KERA is clear about what school boards and superintendents should not do, it is less clear about what they should.
In response to charges of cronyism, nepotism, and abuse throughout the state, lawmakers in 1990 banned school-boards from hiring anyone below the level of superintendent, required that they institute competitive-bidding and other commonly accepted business practices, and made it easier for the state to remove administrators for malfeasance or failure to comply with the law.
The act simultaneously strengthened the hand of individual schools.
As a result, many board members and their chief executive officers perceive KERA as a distinct loss in power. Forty-three of the state's 176 superintendents left their jobs last year; and another 35 to 40 are expected to do so this year. About one-third of school board members in the state have been elected since 1990.
"School boards have yet to find their niche,'' Mr. Sexton notes. "They have a lot to do, but many of them are still saying they don't have anything to do. What that really means is that they don't hire.''
'Pervasiveness of the Problem'
The biggest battles have come in poverty-stricken eastern Kentucky, where state officials are engaged in a showdown with local residents over their right to intervene in districts where corruption has very nearly been accepted as a fact of life.
While reform activists want stronger state action, opponents complain that the state has muscled its way into local affairs without understanding how things work.
In Floyd County, in one of the state's coal-mining regions, an investigation by the Office of Education Accountability led to the ouster of the local superintendent. The removal of a school board member is still pending. But local residents and school administrators have fought back. An anonymous letter mailed from district headquarters and tracked back to administrators there urges an all-out fight against the law's changes.
Mr. Boysen exacerbated the situation when he personally intervened in the search for a new superintendent and reduced the available candidates to one administrator from central Kentucky, who had served on an advisory panel with him. Since then, observers have questioned whether the new superintendent is executing the improvement plan developed by the state.
Tom Gish, the publisher of The Mountain Eagle newspaper in neighboring Letcher County for 35 years and a first-term member of the state board of education, says Mr. Boysen "was slow to grasp the depth and the pervasiveness of the problems in eastern Kentucky, where it's been a matter of using the school system primarily ... as a vehicle for hiring one's friends and relatives--and if a kid got an education out of it, it was more or less accidental.''
In nearby Harlan County, the state has ousted three of five board members and forced the superintendent's resignation on charges of corruption. And it has issued a lengthy improvement plan calling for a host of changes in the district, whose policies it labeled "outdated, incomplete, and inadequate.'' In November, about 100 people gathered at a local high school to applaud speakers demanding that the state "get out.''
Roger Noe, a Harlan County resident and the former chairman of the House education committee, lost his bid for re-election in part because of the board upheaval. Nonetheless, he argues that, as districts like Harlan County are brought to task, other school systems "will take a good hard look at themselves ... and move in a more positive direction.''
'More Than a Law'
But such changes will not come overnight. And it remains to be seen whether state-level intervention can inspire and help those who aren't committed to reform in the first place.
After three years of battling the system, Regina Sizemore, a parent in Letcher County who served on a school council and ran unsuccessfully for the local school board, finally withdrew her children from the public schools and began educating them at home.
"I'm not sure that people want things to change,'' she says. "KERA is good as far as it's written down, but it's going to take more than just a law. The reason that most people in this community are reacting toward KERA is because it's a law--not because fundamentally they think our education system is bad.''
The Need to Create A 'Commitment to Change'
Yet, most agree that if the reform law is to work, it must ultimately win the hearts and minds of not only the state's educators, but of parents and citizens who don't have children in the schools.
"We're still concentrating on overcoming resistance to change,'' Mr. Schlechty of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville argues. "Creating commitment to change is what it's about.''
Until now, the reform act has had some powerful friends, including two successive governors. The Prichard Committee, a nonpartisan group with an 11-year track record of promoting educational improvement, has organized some 60 community committees in local districts to support the reforms. And it has served as a tireless watchdog and critic, hiring out-of-state consultants to monitor the implementation process.
Business support has also "packed a major wallop,'' in the words of one observer. The Kentucky Business Roundtable--led by Ashland Oil, Humana, and United Parcel Service--has made a 10-year commitment to help implement the reforms.
Its support led to the formation of the Partnership for Kentucky School Reform, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 60 public and private leaders from the state's business, civic, government, and education communities. The partnership has sponsored a $1.5 million public-relations campaign to sustain support for KERA. And it has encouraged companies to set up their own programs to involve their employees in the schools.
"We've been doing all we can on trying to educate Kentuckians on the importance of seeing this through,'' says Kent C. (Oz) Nelson, the chairman of the board of U.P.S. and a founder of the partnership. "We can't go tell the teachers how to teach, and we can't go tell the kids how to study. But one thing we can do is generate support for the right kinds of improvements in education.''
In contrast, many observers fault the higher-education community for failing to rally behind the reforms, change their admissions or teacher-education requirements to reflect the new standards, or provide sufficient technical assistance.
'Image Is Missing'
And despite such efforts, public understanding of the reform act and why it is needed remains disappointing. A recent Bluegrass State Poll shows that 55 percent of Kentuckians have not heard or read anything about the changes brought by KERA since its passage in 1990.
Moreover, few people--including educators--see the law as an interconnected whole. Those familiar with the act tend to know only one piece, such as the ungraded-primary program or the family-resource centers.
"I'm not sure how important it is that the person on the street understand how all the pieces fit together,'' says Ms. David, the author of the N.G.A. report. "It's much more important that educators and the public have a clearer image of what challenging curriculum and instruction look like.''
But that image, she maintains, "is missing for a lot of educators, as well as for students, the parents, and the public.''
The state education department has taken steps to alleviate the problem. It published 55,000 "truth in testing'' sheets that provide citizens with examples of open-ended assessment questions, a scoring guide, and samples of student work at different levels of proficiency.
It has also involved some 300 teachers from across the state on "content committees'' that are developing the assessments in particular subject areas. Another 250 teachers have volunteered to become "KERA performance-assessment fellows,'' who have given 20 days of their time to learn about the assessments and their implications for instruction.
But many of these efforts have yet to reach local communities. In Henderson, George Warren, the executive director of the Henderson Area Chamber of Commerce, admits that businesspeople have been minimally involved in implementing KERA "because they really haven't been asked.''
And while parents are more aware of the individual pieces of KERA, they are by no means comfortable with it. Many parents, for example, would prefer letter grades to the more descriptive transcripts of student performance that are now required for primary school students. Some miss the worksheets that their children brought home every night. And others worry that students are being tested too much.
Turnout to elect the parent members of school-based decisionmaking councils in Henderson and throughout the state has been low. And at one school, Jefferson Elementary in the city of Henderson, a small contingent of parents formed a protest group after their children were placed in an ungraded classroom of 6- to 8-year-olds.
Mr. Bussiere of Henderson County High School says: "We have to change student attitudes. Probably more than that, we have to change parent attitudes. If it's a community where parents don't value education, no legislation is going to change that.''
'Right for Kids'
For KERA, the bumpiest roads lie ahead.
Most of the reform act's funding has materialized until now, despite cutbacks in other state services. But times are tough. For this year and next, state funding for education is virtually flat.
Mr. Boysen estimates that to keep the reforms on track would cost about $225 million in new monies in 1994-95, or a 10 percent increase. At the same time, Gov. Brereton C. Jones is pushing a health-care-reform package that would require $50 million in new revenues.
Meanwhile, there still isn't a district in Kentucky that spends at least as much as the national per-pupil average on its schools. But as the huge influxes in funding that accompanied KERA's early years begin to fade, all districts will have to learn how to meet higher expectations with existing resources.
And, because of the equalization formula, the state's property-rich districts are likely to feel the pinch first.
"We're just going to do the best we can,'' Mr. Karem, the majority leader in the Senate, says. "We're going to try to be as aggressive as we know how. ... But God knows if we'll ever make it where it needs to be.''
Against this backdrop, pressure to open KERA up for debate and mid-course corrections is mounting. But legislators remain tremendously reluctant to tinker with the law--based on a fear that picking away at individual threads will eventually unravel the whole cloth.
"I doubt if I would be in favor of changing anything,'' Sen. John (Eck) Rose, one of its architects, says.
Certainly, for many teachers, KERA is not perfect. But as Carolin Abbott, a teacher at South Heights Elementary School notes, "I really think it is the best thing they've done in Kentucky.''
"Finally,'' she says, "Kentucky is really beginning to do some
things that are right for kids.''
Vol. 12, Issue 30