Perhaps it was by design that the Lexington Herald-Leader, monopoly newspaper in Lexington, Ky., ran two articles on 27 November by education-establishment pooh-bahs, one by Richard Day, a former high-school principle and the other by Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonpartisan group of volunteers dedicated to improving education in Kentucky, founded in 1980 in behalf of improving higher education and reconfigured in 1983 to affect all education, according to its self-identification.
The usual statements were made in the articles about improvements made in recent years, the need to do better, the need to close the learning gap between blacks and whites, and a warning that districts are not progressing rapidly enough to meet by 2014 the goals set by the legislature in 1990 (Kentucky Education Reform Act). Day did mention that home atmosphere plays an important part (as he knows, the MOST important part) in a student’s achievements, but placed prodigious blame on Presidents Reagan and Bush for somehow torpedoing educational effort.
Therein lay the main complaint in both articles, to wit, that stingy conservatives have waylaid education both nationally and locally by not adequately funding it. Embodying the largest tax increase in Kentucky’s history (also incorporating an inordinately huge “pork” component), the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 was meant to “fix” Kentucky’s education system once and for all, its main thrust being that all students realize self-esteem and be proficient in their subjects by 2014.
The 1990 legislature bought into the “outcomes-based” concept and attempted mistakenly to mandate pedagogy, thus seriously damaging KERA, but subsequent legislatures have dismantled much of the Act, though it is still terribly flawed. For instance, while testing is standardized throughout the state, each school council has almost absolute authority over everything, including curriculum, meaning there is no standardization with regard to subject matter or treatment.
Results are mixed. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Kentucky 4th- and 8th-graders, respectively, rank 16th and 19th nationally in reading for 2005. According to the NAEP, they rank 45th and 40th, respectively, in math, making them average in reading and terribly poor in math, after 15 years of KERA.
According to the Kentucky Performance Reports provided by the Kentucky Board of Education, 27.45% of high school seniors in 2006 were proficient in total writing-trend data, a drop from 2005, while 4.6% were ranked as distinguished. Regarding on-demand writing-trend data, only 13.23% were proficient and less than one percent distinguished, a drop in scores of 30% from 2005. It has been clear for years that achievement levels drop significantly as students progress through the grades, middle school level being a quagmire.
According to the state Council on Postsecondary Education, 53% of freshmen at Kentucky universities and colleges had to take one or more remedial courses in 2004. These students were part of a whole generation of KERA-educated classes. Remediation is a term referencing the fact that students had to take courses involving what they should have learned in public schools. Indeed, 25% had to take a course in reading. In a recent year, 40% of the graduates of Kentucky State University who planned to teach could not even pass the “teacher’s test,” and therefore were automatically barred from immediate teaching positions.
The student-per-teacher ratio nationally is 15.5-1. In Kentucky it’s 16.1-1, 33rd in the nation and not a significant difference. The statistics can be interpreted many ways, depending often on the desired outcome. Kentucky was 37th in per-pupil spending in 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 37th in ACT scores (20.6) in 2006, according to the ACT Institute, which pegs the national average at 21.1. According to the Kentucky Department of Education, per-pupil spending in 2005 was $7,513, up from $6,661 in 2003, an increase of 13% in two years.
Clearly, the state is doing well financially by the education establishment; but just as clearly, the system, if not broken, is badly bent. The answer likely is not in finances and most likely is not because of poor teachers, notwithstanding the inevitable handful of incompetents in every system. It perhaps is time to step back and look at the “outcomes-based” approach adopted in 1990, as reconfigured several times since. Plainly, the KERA goals will not even be approximated at the current achievement-rate, though some schools/systems will far exceed them…but they most likely would have, anyway.