Kentucky’s Strong Return on Investment in Public Schools: Tell the Story

The state of public education in Kentucky is strong.  That’s important to emphasize as the state shifts from a statewide campaign mode to one of governing under a new administration.

I watched a brief interview with Governor-elect Matt Bevin on his education policy positions made available on his campaign web site.  In that video, he emphases “return on investment.” That’s a reasonable way to assess public education.

And, by that return-on-investment measure, public education in Kentucky shows increasingly strong performance.

We need to tell that story, loudly and proudly.  Too often, a different story gets told.

For example, we need to counter the outdated mantra that “Kentucky is at the bottom of all the lists” with regard to education, a charge that then-candidate Bevin repeats in that interview.

In fact, on 2013, Kentucky’s four-year graduation rate was 86.1 percent – the fourth highest in the country. In 2014 it increased to 87.4 percent.

Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report of key education indicators, put Kentucky at #10 in 2013, moving up from 34th in 2010.

Gov. Bevin is a lucky man because he is inheriting a wave of public education progress in the state.

The new Kentucky Commissioner of Education Dr. Stephen Pruitt knows this. Here’s his comment to a group at the Kentucky School Boards Association on why he took the Kentucky job: “The commitment that I’ve seen over the years by Kentucky to improve education, the commitment to a solid education for every student – and then just the talent that’s there – it’s been an incredible experience to work with Kentucky teachers, especially around science.”

The foundation was laid for this current wave of progress in 2009 when the state legislature passed Senate Bill 1, setting higher goals for students.  Because of the progress that ensued in education, Commissioner Terry Holliday and the state board of education received national awards for leadership and innovation.

The state’s largest district has made gains, too.  In 2013-14, Jefferson County Public Schools’ overall student performance improved, with the percentage of proficient and distinguished students increasing in nearly every subject. After two years of increases, the 2014-15 performance held steady, as did the rest of the Commonwealth.

The recent JCPS results from the National Assessment of Education Progress – which compares large cities and all states – showed that African American and Hispanic students made significant gains toward closing the gap with white students.

Of this progress, Michael Casserly, head of the Council of Great City Schools said, “JCPS continued to move upwards on the most recent national report card of academic performance. The district’s results outpaced national trends in a number of areas at a time when averages across the country were significantly down. The uptick in JCPS scores indicates that the school system is making substantial progress in implementing new college and career-ready standards and important headway in boosting student achievement.”

While the state of public education is strong here, there are real challenges for sure. In some schools with high-needs populations too few students are excelling. But, the response to those needs should be targeted to the problem, not a wholesale change in the structure of the school system.  Changing the business model for public education isn’t the answer, it’s getting more people with the right skills and resources into classrooms.  That’s true whether it’s a charter school, public or private school.

In a more detailed conversation with KSBA, then-candidate Bevin said his priority for K-12 education was this: “More than anything, we want to make sure that at every level, kids are ready for the next level….we want kids to be able to compete.”

“I think everything we do in education, every dollar we spend, every incentive that we offer, every encouragement that we give, every teacher that we hire, every program that we implement, should be focused on exactly that goal,” he added.

I know Kentucky educators and advocates agree with that statement. Now, we have to work together to continue the great work already underway to realize that important goal.

It starts by advocating from a position of well-deserved strength. The good news will not be told if you don’t tell it.

For more information on the incoming Governor’s thoughts and positions on public education, read this great report from the Kentucky School Advocate, a publication of the Kentucky School Boards Association.


About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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1 Response to Kentucky’s Strong Return on Investment in Public Schools: Tell the Story

  1. “In fact, on 2013, Kentucky’s four-year graduation rate was 86.1 percent – the fourth highest in the country. In 2014 it increased to 87.4 percent.”

    Kentucky’s graduation data is highly suspect due to very obvious and serious social promotion to diplomas.

    For example: If you consider the number of 2015 “on time” high school graduates in Kentucky and apply the reported college and/or career ready rates to those graduates, it turns out that fewer than 60 percent of the students who started the ninth grade with this class survived to graduate with an education that even minimally prepared them for either college or career. That is an “Effective High School Graduation Rate” of less than 60 percent. Do you really think that is laudable?

    There is more. Supposedly, students must take Algebra II to receive a Kentucky high school diploma. If so, how do you rationalize the reported 88 percent high school graduation rate for 2015 with the fact that the reported proficiency rates on the Kentucky Algebra II End-of-Course exam has not exceeded 38.2 percent for any of the past three years.

    Please don’t try to cheer such hollow diploma shenanigans. It is not respectful to students, parents or the taxpayer.

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