Kentucky is one of the first states in the country to launch personalized coaching for district leaders and teachers through the department of education to further diversity, equity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging in schools.
Starting this fall, 74 districts out of the state’s more than 170 will receive coaching over the next two years through engage2learn, an organization that offers personalized professional development that was contracted by the state education department. Typically, DEI training is offered at the district level. Education Week could not find examples of any other states offering this model of statewide, personalized training on equity issues.
The state’s initiative is set to get underway soon after state lawmakers passed a law that could potentially restrict conversations about race and racism in the classrooms. But educators and administrators said it remains to be seen whether the new law will affect the state’s pioneering coaching efforts.
The new program grows out of an anti-racism resolution passed by the state education department in 2020. It states that Kentucky’s public schools have a history of racial inequity and that people of color, particularly Black students and staff, “are often left out of the conversation and remain unheard.” Since then, the department has launched a range of tools housed within its equity toolkit to help districts and educators continue fostering equity in schools. One such tool is the coaching initiative through engage2learn, which begins next month with assessments of each district’s needs.
“The ultimate goal is for us to have more equity-minded, equity-literate teachers, support staff, administrative staff, and state level staff in Kentucky,” said Thomas Tucker, the deputy commissioner and chief equity officer for the department of education. “Different schools are going to have different areas of improvement and that’s why it’s important that we begin with the needs assessment, and we’re at this point ready to begin the needs assessment stage.”
Starting in September, engage2learn will engage in one-on-one coaching conversations in districts. The organization will work with four to eight educators, depending on the district’s size, and including principals or central office administrators from each of the participating districts. Together, they will identify the areas of improvement and come up with a plan to meet the educators’ goals.
The process involves district leaders identifying areas in need of improvement to better serve all students. After the conversation with engage2learn, they’ll commit to certain changes in practice, and bring back evidence of that change to a next conversation. Districts will log their progress to keep track of the changes they’re making and how students are benefiting from these changes being applied in the classroom.
“Students are going to have a completely different learning experience,” said Shannon Buerk, the CEO and co-founder of engage2learn.
“Their experience in the classroom is going to be very different. It’s going to be more individualized, it’s going to be more strengths-based. And it’s going to be more inclusive.”
The department of education has also hired regional Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging coordinators who will work with both engage2learn and with districts to offer additional training, Tucker said.
‘We’re not restricting what teachers say’
The question is how the new initiative will fit with the state’s new law limiting lessons and conversations about race and racism in school. The legislature passed SB1, a 39-page, vaguely worded law that some free-speech advocates have labeled an “educational gag order.” But the state education department’s chief equity officer said the law would not impact the equity work that the agency is doing, including the personalized coaching.
“Unlike in some states where speech was restricted, free speech was not restricted in SB 1 here in Kentucky,” Tucker said. “We’re not restricting what teachers can teach or say … you’re not going to lose your license and we’re not going to be fined. it’s not punitive the way it is in some of our border states.”
Kentucky’s law does not include any punishments for violating it, and it is worded slightly differently than most other laws of its kind: It leaves out some of the language that has been used in other states against teachers; for example, it does not mandate that teachers are not allowed to make students feel “guilt or anguish” on the basis of their race and sex.
It also includes a long list of required teaching material including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and requires teachers to teach that an individual “does not bear responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race or sex,” and that defining racial disparity solely on the legacy of slavery “is disruptive to the unification of our nation.”
“These laws are as restrictive or as nonrestrictive as the people enforcing them,” said Jeremy Young from PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization that has been tracking and studying these laws. Seventeen states have passed laws restricting conversations about race and racism since 2021. The state education department is “saying as the enforcers, they’re not going to enforce them in a restrictive way.”
Young said that while districts and teachers who participate in coaching and applying what they have learned to make classrooms more equitable might be subject to complaints launched against them by parents or community members, that’s a risk worth taking, especially since the agency in charge of enforcing the law is offering the training.
“There’s a goal, because [the law] is on the books, to keep it from becoming something more than it is,” Young said, “to keep it from mushrooming into administrative censorship and self-censorship based on things that aren’t even mentioned in the text.”
Buerk said she has seen pushback in the form of political opposition to equity work in other districts engage2learn works in and that it’s important during the coaching to talk educators through how to deal with that stress.
“It’s the inflammatory current state of politics that’s causing distress to teachers,” she said. “Teachers have always been about, for the most part, equitable outcomes for learners. That is why you get into the profession if you’re an educator.”