The Need For A System Change in Kentucky

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This article discusses the need for a system change in Kentucky education.

Why schools fail Kentucky students

In particular…why are Jefferson County schools failing Kentucky students? Of course…the question assumes that our schools are failing our students. Some do not believe that…some – including those entrusted with the leadership of our schools – are in denial.

  • How many Kentuckians know: high school graduation rates; college freshman remediation rates; achievement gaps; including ACT and graduation-rate gaps; how many children are in failing schools?
  • Education a tough issue for reporters to cover: complicated, complex, comprehensive with aggressive political agendas involved. But citizens must be informed.
  • Let me give you some facts about JCPS and the sources from which they came:
    • Bluegrass Institute Fact: in 2008, 22 of the state’s 34 tier 5 schools are Jefferson County schools.
    • -not schools that have failed for one or two years…these schools have failed to make adequate yearly progress under no child left behind for at least six years. Jefferson County continued to have the lion’s share of tier 5 schools in 2009.
    • Bluegrass Institute Fact: in 2008 in more than one-third of the 120 Jefferson County schools with usable data … the academic achievement gap between black and white students is not only not improving … it’s getting worse … it’s widening.
    • Bluegrass Institute Fact: according to the 2009 NAEP trial urban district assessment – that’s the nation’s report card – only about one in 15 eighth-grade black students in Jefferson County is getting well prepared for math…and the number isn’t much better overall – for all students. For i.e.: less than one in four eighth-graders in Jefferson County are proficient in math.
    • The Kentucky Department of Education: answers this question: Who are these JCPS students who are reading below proficiency in 2009? We’ll just look at the eighth grade data…54 percent of black students…53 percent of low-income students (which include low-income … homeless…foster-care and English as a second language students)...and 41 percent of all students.

But it’s not just the Bluegrass Institute…. It’s also the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

  • Prichard Committee Fact: eighty-nine percent of Kentucky’s school districts delivered higher reading-proficiency rates for fourth-grade students than Jefferson County. Eighty-one percent were higher in math.
  • Prichard Committee Fact: eighty-seven percent of districts delivered higher proficiency rates in reading for their eighth-grade … low-income students than Jefferson County.
  • Prichard Committee Fact: eighty-one percent of all Kentucky school districts delivered higher reading-proficiency rates for black seventh-grade students than Jefferson County.

Prichard Committee statement about the facts:

“the trends are not positive.

“From 2007 to 2009, Jefferson County’s percent proficient or above in reading went down for white, black, Hispanic, and Asian students. It went down for students in the free lunch program. It went down for students with limited English proficiency. Statewide, those percentages went up for every group except Limited English.

“In other subjects, proficiency either declined more or improved less than the state in math at all levels, in science at all levels, in social studies at all levels except high school, and in writing at all levels except high school.

“In public education, Jefferson County is not where you want to be and not where you belong in light of your resources or commitment. Your children deserve more. The proud people of Jefferson County should expect more, demand more, and be about the business of creating schools that deliver more.”

When there is such strong agreement between organizations at opposite ends of the political spectrum…and now the State Board of Education is putting pressure on JCPS for improvement – better late than never …there just might be something to this.

Now … defenders of the status quo often claim: not enough money is being spent on education. Or … they blame poverty or parents. These may be convenient explanations, but they are not accurate – for Jefferson County…especially in Jefferson County.

  • Fact: from that same Prichard report: local school taxes in Jefferson County are 25 percent higher than the rest of the state...from the Prichard Committee, I quote to explain this: “you taxed your wealth at a higher rate.”
  • Fact: again…from Prichard: Jefferson County public schools spend 19 percent more per pupil than the rest of the state.

That’s what the Prichard Committee released in January of this year. And it confirms what the Bluegrass Institute has discovered in its research:

  • Bluegrass Institute Fact: in uncorrected dollars … Kentucky's school districts spent 154 percent more in 2009 than when the much-ballyhooed Kentucky education reform act was passed in 1990. When adjusted for inflation … it’s still 55 percent more today in real dollars.
  • Fact from University of Kentucky economists Ken Troske … Bill Hoyt and Christopher Jepson: since KERA’s passage … Kentucky has surpassed all other states in the south-central region in current expenditures per student. (we jumped from fifth to first out of the eight-state region thanks to KERA … which resulted in the largest tax increase in Kentucky’s history.)
  • Fact: Jefferson County public schools will have a nearly one-billion dollar budget during the next school year – by far the largest in the commonwealth. To give you an idea of how much … you will find on FreedomKentucky-dot-org – the Bluegrass Institute’s government-transparency site that Fayette county public schools’ budget for the 2006-07 school year was 256-million. Let’s put this in perspective: although it’s the second-largest school district in the Commonwealth … Fayette is only one-third the size of Jefferson County – with 36-thousand students compared to Jefferson County’s 95-thousand. However…if Jefferson County spent comparably per pupil to what Fayette County does...Jefferson County would be spending only about 670-million … not nearly a billion dollars to meet the educational requirements of their students.
  • Bluegrass Institute Fact: currently…forty out of the 132 schools in Jefferson County are in the penalty phase of no child left behind. These schools have not made adequate yearly progress for at least two years. For many … it’s been much more than that.

Back to Prichard Committee researcher Susan Weston for her analysis of the Jefferson County performance:

“seeing all that – that is the wealth and resources that this district has to work with – I have no doubt that Jefferson County ought to be in a leadership position. Your schools should be delivering results in the top third of the state, and educators from elsewhere should be flocking here to learn about your successful innovations. Unfortunately, that is not what is happening academically in your schools.”

But aren’t our students doing poorly because of poverty or the lack of parental concern?

  • Certainly not discounting the impact that poverty and parents can have. It’s huge. But it’s not an out for a school system … administrators and teachers … that we are paying big bucks to educate our children. If the superintendent of this school system – who’s salary is higher than the governor’s – can’t get the job done they should quit pointing the fingers at parents... Poor kids … and the community and find something else to do!
  • Truth is, charter schools in some of the roughest inner-city neighborhoods in the world – including the Bronx…inner-city L.A. … Houston and Chicago have demonstrated that they can take the very children that have borne the brunt of our education leaders’ excuses and turn their lives around.
  • Not talking here about comparing schools in the west end to those in St. Matthews. We’re talking about the need to see some measurable improvement from year to year.
  • Only 40 percent of Chicago public schools black males graduate. Yet 100 percent of the 107 students in the all-boys Urban Prep Charter School not only graduated but have been accepted at four-year colleges.
  • And these were not the “cream of the crop” students. They came from the city’s tough Englewood neighborhood. As freshmen, only 4 percent could read at grade level.

Conclusion:

Some reasons why KY’s schools fail kids (we’ve touched on each of these):

- lack of accurate information about how our students are performing.

- lack of accountability and transparency.

- lack of leadership – from the state level down to the district and school level

- lack of effective education policy

- lack of choices for parents and communities

The first step in fixing a problem is to admit: we have a problem.

But there are disturbing signs that the leaders of the Jefferson County school district are in abject denial:

Just this week … the results of a leadership audit were released showing severe leadership problems at six Jefferson County schools and called for principals and staff to be fired and site-based councils to be replaced.

We’re talking about schools like Frost Middle School … where only 36 percent of students are proficient readers and only 20 percent are performing proficiently in math.

The auditors also made recommendations that principals and site-based councils at several other schools be replaced.

Yet right there in the coverage of this issue in the Courier-Journal was this quote by one of the district’s assistant superintendents … who said “quote: “our high schools are not broken. They may be obsolete, but they are not broken.”

The Courier Journal had reported that this administrator said he believes the district’s high schools are making gains, quote – “just not at the rate the federal government would like.”

Ill- Dr. Stephen Yarnall, fellow of the American College of Cardiology, wrote in “unpleasant changes – what to do” about the typical process people go through when things don’t go their way:

Begins with denial…anger and blame… and eventually gets to action and new goals.

It’s time to get past the denial...the finger-pointing…the blame…and take positive action to ensure our children get the education they need … deserve and must have if they are to compete in the 21st century global marketplace.

See Also