Education Week recently released the 21st annual Quality Counts report, which looks at state-by-state education performance on a number of measures, including chance for success, finance, and achievement. Kentucky’s overall grade was a “C” and overall state ranking was 28th in the nation.
Given many of the challenges facing Kentucky’s kids, like poverty, this report is a testament to the hard work and professionalism being applied every day, in every schoolhouse by Kentucky’s teachers and principals. And yet, this report contains more questions than answers.
As an example, we cannot begin to really change the trajectory of student learning without changing the trajectory on non-cognitive factors like economic well-being and family supports. Even the best of curriculum guides are no substitute to economic stability in the capacity of a child to achieve.
Along with the non-school factors are any number of questions that emanate about the school itself. For instance, this report echoes the persistent question of whether children are ready to learn when they enter school. That is an important query to be sure, but no one seemingly asks if schools are as ready for the kids as the kids are ready for the school. We have to ensure that every school is ready for every kid regardless of preparedness on that first day in kindergarten. There is an all too common copout that our 4th graders can’t meet national proficiency because they weren’t ready for kindergarten. We have to ensure that every student is ready to read, to tackle math, and to graduate with a diploma that means something regardless of how they entered the educational system.
This report certainly gives Kentucky’s leaders a lot of food for thought. It invites deeper questions in a number of arenas. For instance, is the issue of inadequate school finance a function of how much money is available or how that money is being spent? How does Kentucky rank in money sent to the classroom as opposed to the bureaucracy? The Kentucky effort around closing the gap on economics is encouraging. Yet, another question that is essential to be answered which is not addressed in this report is around racial learning gaps. If we were to look at achievement through the lens of race, what would the grade be?
The pathways forward are numerable and pragmatic. The application of public charter schools as one of many tools in tackling achievement must be pursued. We have to transform an inadequate and punitive system of accountability into an approach that moves to school achievement and student learning. We have to get smart about aligned issues like child health and invent delivery systems in which schools work hand in glove with other sectors to promote overall child well-being. We have to honor teachers by seriously looking at creative approaches like career ladders and differentiated pay to expand leadership opportunities for those front-line professionals.
The essence of this report is to offer a challenge. If schools count in this state, a “C” is never a win. We can move to the honor roll of states in short order with common sense and research-driven improvements. The state elections in November represent a chance and a referendum to move towards a revolution in public education. Let’s begin.