Kentucky education reform update

In 1989, Kentucky’s public education system seemed to symbolize everything that could go wrong with education in the United States. According to Bill Mallon, a doctoral candidate in Administration, Planning and Social Policy at Harvard Graduate School of Education, there was “rampant corruption and mismanagement” as well as “glaring disparities…across school districts in funding, teachers’ salaries, materials, curriculum and class size.”

Kentucky was ranked between 48th and 50th in the country in the categories of adult literacy, college education, high school diplomas and educational spending.

Seeing a need for a complete overhaul, the Kentucky Supreme Court invalidated the entire public education system and instituted what Mallon calls “the most comprehensive statewide reform effort in the nation” — the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA).

Thomas Boysen Kentucky’s first commissioner of education and experts in the field of education took on the huge task of instituting KERA’s initiatives. The reform plan operated under the assumption that “all students can learn at higher levels and each local school must be the primary unit of change,” Mallon reports.

Clearly, to establish such major change, KERA’s goals had to be far-reaching and ambitious. Among numerous other priorities, the act sought to “lower the disparities in funding between property-rich and property-poor districts; decentralize the Department of Education…develop an assessment system that included performance evaluations and writing portfolios; hold each local school accountable for its students’ performance with a system of rewards and sanctions; start a preschool program for at-risk four-year-olds and children with disabilities; extend technology into every classroom in the state;…and open family resource and youth service centers to put families in contact with needed health and social services.”

By 1995, there were some obvious indications of improvement. The gap in per pupil expenditures had narrowed from $1199 in 1990 to $588 in 1995 and increased spending overall moved Kentucky from 48th to 32nd place.

Research has demonstrated that the preschool program is successfully closing the gap between at-risk kindergartners and others in their classes. In addition, Kentucky was tied for 7th place in computers per student and funding for professional development increased from $1 to $23 per student.

But controversy remained as well. A review of KERA’s testing program judged it to be “substantially flawed” and gains in test scores “substantially inflated.” There is criticism, as well, about the methods used to hold schools accountable for student performance. Sanctions and rewards for teachers are causing resentment and do not appear to be effective motivators. Despite these concerns, the state is persisting in its course in reform. Bill Cody, Boysen’s successor, realizes change this big doesn’t occur overnight. He says, “Our goal is 2012. Kentucky’s reform act is an ambitious plan that might tell us just how much better schools in the United States can become.”

“Starting from Scratch: Kentucky Education Reform”, Harvard Graduate School of Education Bulletin, December 1996, pp. 8-11.

Published in ERN March/April 1997 Volume 10 Number 2

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