While the legislature debated public schools this year, a significant accomplishment went mostly unnoticed: Kentucky was singled out as uniquely successful in school turnaround.
The Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) got this news in February, delivered by Dr. Susan Lusi, President and CEO of Mass Insight, a national group that focuses on education reform.
“As national experts in school turnaround, we see Kentucky as a leader in establishing a system of continuous improvement,” said Dr. Lusi. “We talk about turnaround being dramatic, systemic and sustained, and we believe in many ways, Kentucky has achieved this.”
While school turnaround efforts often don’t work, they do here, she said. In January, a separate evaluation of the Obama administration’s school improvement grant (SIG) program called it a failure, and that report made big national news.
“That’s not what we see in Kentucky,” said Dr. Kelly Foster, head of the Office of Continuous Improvement and Support at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). But, she added, “You can’t just get handed a bunch of SIG money and immediately be successful.”
Kentucky broke the mold, Dr. Foster says, because “we believe in a continuous improvement model in our work. We try to be reflective and always improving. It is important to build sustainable systems.”
So, this isn’t a story about test prep drills yielding quick one-time results; it is a lesson in building systems that support student learning.
As bureaucratic as that might sound, a systemic strategy is key. Think of it using the phrase coined during early space flight: “all systems go.” It means that you’ve looked into every area critical to overall performance.
Just as NASA develops a solid system, then checks all the boxes before blastoff, that’s what Kentucky developed – an “all systems go” strategy for Kentucky’s schools.
Kentucky was judged using what Mass Insight has designated as the crucial components that must be strong in a state-level system to impact low-achieving schools – from diagnosing weaknesses, to staffing and training and involving families.
It praised the historic Kentucky Education Reform Act along with the state laws and policies that followed to support education reform, which have “created a culture of continuous improvement and clear theory of action to assist focus and priority schools.” It said there is a clear and strong accountability system for all schools that spells out how and when KDE offers support.
Furthermore, it commended the department’s strong commitment to working directly with its low-achieving schools, focusing on three key priorities: academic focus, school culture and use of data. These have been coined the “Big Rocks.”
KDE and school/district leadership roles are clearly defined in school intervention, with resources provided for diagnostic reviews, explained the researchers, along with school leadership development assistance and implementation of the Baldridge continuous improvement model.
Mass Insight said KDE has received adequate resources over the years to address school performance, but questioned whether there would be enough for future work. And it pointed out the challenge of effective staffing, but recognized Kentucky’s attention to this issue and its efforts in employee training and retention in struggling schools.
Dr. Lusi said that of the low performing schools receiving state support and exiting priority status in Kentucky, 74 percent are performing at a proficient level or above. Schools are designated as “priority” based on various measures including test scores and graduation rates.
And in March, there was more good news with the exit of Louisville’s Valley High School from priority status. It has now met its improvement goals for four years straight, with a graduation rate of just shy of 80 percent. That consistent upward trend indicates “all systems go” in how the school operates.
The report says public support has been key to our success so far. “Over the years, a consensus emerged that schools should be preparing students for college and the workforce. The expectation was that school improvement would help Kentucky produce more skilled workers to compete in the future, with school accountability a key strategic priority. A changing political environment, however, has made this work challenging.”
With implementation of a new federal law – the Every Student Succeeds Act – and the new state law – Senate Bill 1, the report says, “It is important that KDE finds a way to maintain its commitment to continuous improvement during the transition and ‘stay the course.’”
The consensus that emerged years ago to support all Kentucky’s public schools is still essential to continue the systemic reform that has made a solid difference.
That public support depends on us to get the message out about the record of public education excellence in Kentucky. Citizens will more likely support investing in something that has shown to be a success.
So, next time you hear someone criticize public schools, this is a story to tell. Kentucky leads the nation in school turnaround.
You can read the report by going to the link within KDE’s press release.