What Big Thinking Did for Kentucky’s Schools, and Can Do Again

We’ve got to think big again in public education.

It’s a new day in Frankfort, in Washington, and the world, with big thinking and small thinking in education.

Kentucky public schools have shown how to raise student achievement by designing grand plans and sticking to them. That’s thinking big.

Hot education topics in politics shun education expertise in favor of an ideology that promotes vouchers, charter schools, or even dumping the higher common core standards. That’s thinking small.

Other countries are thinking big. Finland chose to invest in teacher quality and support over decades. It has paid off by putting that country on top of the global achievement charts. And, lookout, here comes China launching a strategy to close its rural-urban achievement gap across that huge continent by embracing universal preschool.

This month the Kentucky Board of Education met on charter schools. It lasted all day, went in-depth, and was time well spent. For me, the headline came when Commissioner Stephen Pruitt summed up by declaring the answer to the achievement gap is for “all of us” to own it.

I want to tell you what I think he means by that, but first, some background.

When Kentucky Commits, It Succeeds

At the charter study session, Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, summarized Kentucky’s legacy of reform, and presented the group’s study of charter schools.

She pointed out that when the first charter school law was passed in 1991, Kentucky had just chosen a different path to education reform. “Kentucky did not inject competition into its public school system…Rather, it set up an accountability system and common academic standards to increase the quality of all schools” along with strong supports like family resource centers.

Since then, she noted, “Kentucky has made significant progress in achievement for all students.” In fact, “gains since the 1990s place Kentucky in the top quarter of all states for positive growth in 4th and 8th grade reading and math.”

She highlighted the significance of the long-term commitment: “In 1990, when we set ourselves on a standards-based reform path, Kentucky was at the bottom on nearly all measures of education success. We are now at the middle and even above on some indicators.”

Kentucky’s Progress Required a Commitment to Resources

At a state board meeting, Roger Marcum, a board member and public educator, called on the other members to remember that commitment made 25 years ago embodied in the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA).

He said, “I’ve been involved in public education for 43 years. The only time we have really provided the necessary resources was during the years from 1990-1994.” That coincided with the passage and early implementation of KERA.

It’s amazing to look back at the leaps in public education support and vision. From the 1989-90 academic year to the 1993-94 year, per-pupil spending from state and local sources rose by 40 percent, and the gap between spending in rich and poor districts narrowed dramatically.

“The most comprehensive overhaul of public education the nation has ever seen,” wrote the New York Times during the early years of Kentucky’s reforms.

Compare that big commitment to the time period between 2008 and 2014, when, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, state and local resources for public education in Kentucky declined by 7 percent.

“Cuts at the state level force school districts to scale back education services and/or raise more local revenue to cover the gap. They also impede reforms to boost student achievement, such as improving teacher quality, reducing class sizes and increasing student learning time,” according to the Center.

China is Guaranteeing Preschool and Increasing Resources

Marcum also commented that he wished the board would prioritize universal preschool, something that has been shown in study after study to make a real difference in student achievement over time.

Do you know what China is focusing on in public education? Preschool. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) just released an in-depth report of education in that country and says “to meet the needs of pre-school children, the Chinese government plans to universalize pre-school education by 2020.”

It’s one way the country is addressing its gap between rural and urban populations. That’s thinking big and doing more, a lot more.

In an analysis of OECD member countries’ performance on international tests, it reports that students exposed to pre-primary school do significantly better than those who do not have that opportunity.

The OECD says that China is prioritizing resources, too. Education law in China now stipulates that government appropriation for education as a percentage of GDP should continue to grow in accordance with the country’s economic development and revenue growth.

Prioritizing resources for all of public education, and investing in preschool for all students is thinking big.

Kentucky’s Education Gains Continue

Kentucky continues to see gains in achievement. The percent of students scoring at the proficient and distinguished levels has increased in nearly every subject and at every grade level since 2012, the first year of the K-PREP testing.

There are great examples all across the Commonwealth. Just this year, Robertson County “boosted its gap score by more than 30 points, while the school itself advanced from a needs improvement/progressing classification all the way to distinguished/progressing,” according to a report in the December issue of the Kentucky School Advocate, the magazine of the Kentucky School Boards Association.

How did it do that? The system was part of the state’s novice reduction pilot, an initiative to improve the lowest performing students. It also began using a new, rigorous math curriculum, a new reading program that “keeps pushing” students, and extra work with small groups toward raising kids at all levels.

But what was really essential was this, according to Dr. John Burns, school board chairman: “It’s been a group effort, I think, from the teachers, the students, the staff, everybody really putting out a tremendous effort.”

Mission Driven or Ideology Driven

Dr. Margaret Raymond from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University summarized its study on charter schools at the state board meeting, saying success is largely found only among low-income African-American students. She attributed the success often to the “mission-driven” focus and extra time staff puts in to achieve that progress. The flip side to that was the admission that mission-driven young teachers burn out. Sustaining that high energy and drive is a challenge.

In Kentucky, it has been a challenge to sustain the historic commitment to KERA. But, renewals to the ambitious goal have occurred along the way, including legislation in 2009 that introduced higher academic standards and new assessments aligned with those standards, along with a system of ensuring professional educator growth.

Our mission can’t burn out; it needs to be renewed regularly.

I am concerned about the voices of our national leadership, whose mission seems to be minimizing commitment to quality education for all, and favoring heightened competition as a driver of progress.

President-Elect Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has had little involvement in public schools. And, while she has been in business and education philanthropy in Michigan her whole life, Kentucky has continually outperformed Michigan on national tests, and Louisville outperforms Detroit.

Is this the leader to whom we are going to listen? I hope not. It is even more crucial now to listen to successful public education leaders, the ones who have made a difference in Kentucky.

What’s Next for Kentucky?

Prichard Committee Director Ramsey said Kentucky’s challenge now is to move from the middle to the top in achievement, using tools that have shown to be effective, adding that the Prichard study committee chose not to take an official position on charter schools because of mixed results overall.

“Charters could be one tool in the utility belt,” Commissioner Pruitt said, “but no one thing is going to address our achievement gap, unless maybe every single person in the Commonwealth decided, ‘this is my problem.’ We could wipe out achievement gaps, we could wipe out low-performing schools, but that is going to be a hard lift.”

Kentucky is used to hard lifts. And, its hard work has paid off. But a recommitment to thinking big and doing more in public education is needed. That attitude would buck the ideological trend, but it has made the difference. I think that’s what Commissioner Pruitt is talking about.

Ramsey and Marcum called for commitment to big goals for all children. What will take the Commonwealth to the top? Commit to globally-benchmarked high standards. Provide adequate resources. Embrace our professional educators’ recommendations like novice reduction that have proven results. Invest in preschool for all Kentucky kids now.

But also don’t forget that your words matter. Be the positive voice that will propel our public schools forward and increase community support, not weaken it by adopting the negative messaging that some have chosen.

The system is in place. We need “every single person” to think big and embrace public schools as the answer for every child, no matter who they are or where they are.

That’s the big thinking that will take us to the top.

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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