KIDS COUNT 25 Years Ago and Today: Part 2 – A Look at Education

aecf-kidscountdatabookcover-2014Comedy just may be as much about science as art.  For instance, very specific humor genre have been designed.  “Innovate Me” talks about the comedy genres of puns, tongue twisters, bumper sticker jokes, and professional jokes.  In addition, some genres carry sub-genres; as an example, the genre of good news/bad jokes has sub-genres like “pastor jokes.”  You know:

Good News: The Women’s Guild voted to send you a get-well card.
Bad News: The vote passed by 31-30.

Good News: The Elder Board accepted your job description the way you wrote it.
Bad News: They were so inspired by it, they also formed a search committee to find somebody capable of filling the position.

Good News: Church attendance rose dramatically the last three weeks.
Bad News: You have been on vacation.

Those are at least somewhat funny to me!  But a good news/bad news proposition that is not so funny and instead is so much more perplexing is the Education domain of the 2014 National KIDS COUNT Data Book which was released last week.  This year’s report is the 25th edition of the national KIDS COUNT Data Book and that offers a chance to think about where kids were a quarter of a century ago and where they stand today.  Within that context, I would argue that the most confounding arena is education.

Education is the one domain where single data points show inordinate progress and seemingly insurmountable challenges.  As an example, in 1990 – interestingly the year in which the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act was passed – 90 percent of Kentucky’s 8th graders were unable to perform math at a nationally proficient level.  Think about that – only one in ten kids met the national standard.  Twenty-five years later, that metric shows a remarkable 22% improvement and that progress should be celebrated.  But that also means we are still a state in which more than two out of three 8th graders cannot meet the national standard of proficiency in math.  It’s hard to know how to react to that kind of good news/bad news data point.

And the same story line percolates throughout the other education indicators.  Children not attending preschool.  Fourth grade reading proficiency.  On-time high school graduation.  Click here to view the Kentucky supplemental fact sheet comparing child well-being data from a quarter of a century ago to the present.

You can see that every education metric showed a double digit percentage improvement in the past 25 years.  So the question is, “How do we continue that progress and perhaps even accelerate it in the coming years so that we are facing a good news/good news landscape twenty-five years from now?”

I don’t really believe in silver bullets in any policy arena, least of all education.  Therefore, I want to be careful in promoting education solutions.  I am not suggesting that the following ideas represent an exhaustive (or consensual) list of ways to improve education.  Rather, I share them as ideas to jump start rich discussions on how Kentucky’s schoolhouses can further help create a Kentucky that is “The best place in America to be young.”

  • Recalibrate the role and nature of our accountability system.
    • Talk to any teacher or principal off the record.  Talk to my grandkids about how they see their own school experience.  And they will tell you that fear of high-stakes accountability testing is the driver for what schools do and don’t do.  We absolutely need a strong and rigorous accountability system.  However, we do not need a system that demands conformity; stifles creativity; limits school autonomy; and, within its very nature, creates winners and losers amongst students and schools.  We should honor the KERA commitment to accountability but return to a system in which growth and progress are levers for kids rather than results standing in the way of serving kids.  
  • Community problems walk in the school every day and the community, therefore, must work alongside the school to help solve them.
    • The challenges that schools face beyond the curriculum have never been greater.  Health disparities; radical changes in family structure; child abuse and neglect; and, poverty are illustrative of a litany of issues that impact every school every day.  We cannot nor should we expect schools to tackle these alone and still teach reading, writing and arithmetic!  The good news is that community models abound in which creative mayors and county judge executives; collaborative nonprofits; and, an army of volunteers become part of the school team.  Maybe that means a school-based health center in a school and maybe it means a nonprofit helping children recover from the trauma of abuse in another.  Simply put – every community has unique social problems that affect and afflict learning.  And every community has within itself the means to customize collaborative processes to partner with their local schools. 
  • Innovative reforms will help improve education in multiple ways.
    • We have to challenge barriers that prevent fundamental changes in the ways in which the education system of this state operates.  We cannot be the last state standing that precludes parent choice.  We cannot be the last state standing that does not honor teachers by fundamentally restructuring the teaching career through differentiated compensation, more aggressive alternative certification pathways, and other proven methods of rewarding master teachers and promoting student achievement.  We cannot be the last state standing that continues to operate in ways that diminish the power of local schools while continuing to centralize power on all too many matters.

These are just a few of the many solutions that should be discussed and addressed for our state to move forward in education.

There is an essential axiom to turn the current bad news/good news report card into a good news/good news one.  John L. Clendenin, who served as Chairman of the BellSouth Corporation in the 1990’s, galvanized business support for education reform during that decade.  He was conservative on business and radical on schools.  His mantra was a consistent one – “Stop talking about the floods.  Start building arks.”  There are so many ways that we can build arks for Kentucky’s kids.  Let’s start building!

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