Kentucky Rethinks Learning, Classroom by Classroom
Test scores are up, more kids have computers, but seven years after a court-ordered reform, problems remain
Stanton Elementary School looks like any other school that is busy engaging young children in learning. Walls are decorated with bright shapes of cut-out construction paper, rooms are plastered with student artwork, and giant ABCs hang over the blackboard.
But the traditional facade masks sweeping changes that have reshaped education here and across Kentucky since 1990.
They are changes that Faye King, principal of this one-story school in Stanton, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains, rattles off easily. Whereas funding for basic essentials was almost nonexistent, the school now has money to install technology and buy better teaching materials. Pupils are grouped in multiage classrooms instead of single grades; a greater number of parents participate in school decisionmaking; and students have made dramatic improvements in writing and math. The result has been better test scores and a community that places a higher value on education.
"The eastern Kentucky Appalachian region has been characterized as the most undereducated population in America," Ms. King says. "You would not project from that that we'd be successful."
King has the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) to thank. In 1989, the state supreme court ruled that Kentucky's education system was unconstitutional, because of inequitable funding, and ordered it to create a new public school system from scratch.
The decision was a legal landmark. No other state has ordered its school system to start over, and Kentucky's effort prompted educators around the country to herald the state for its radical move. Since then, dozens of states have embarked on reform efforts - ranging from instituting tough standards to creating charter schools.
Kentucky educators say that despite much progress, the state has a long way to go before realizing its goals. "We're further along than I would have expected," says Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit citizens' group instrumental in shaping the state's education reform. "But I've changed my view on how long it would take. I might have picked 10 years to implement this. Now it's apparent that ... it could easily take a generation."
Administrators are aware of their limitations. "The idea was to get the system moving in a positive direction and focus on fundamental improvements in performance," says Jim Parks, spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Education. "It's doing that - not in every school, but it has created a whole new vision for Kentucky educators."
Kentucky's effort came after 66 property-poor school districts filed a lawsuit against the state charging that funding for school districts was inequitable. The courts found glaring disparities in funding, salaries, materials, curriculum, and class size, and ordered the general assembly to design a new system. In 1990, it signed KERA into law.
At the time, Kentucky ranked 50th in the nation in adult literacy; 50th in the percentage of high-schoolers who'd received a diploma; 49th in percentage of college graduates; and 48th in per-pupil expenditure.
The reform aimed to decentralize the system and make schools accountable for student performance. It sought to create equitable funding; develop assessments that included performance evaluations; start school-based decision-making councils; put technology in the classroom; and offer preschool for at-risk four-year-olds.
Advocates say the seven-year effort has yielded a number of successes. The funding gap between poor and wealthy districts has decreased by 50 percent. Classrooms, even in the isolated mountains of Appalachia, now have computers; the preschool program reaches many at-risk preschoolers.
Teacher salaries have also improved, and parent-teacher school councils, which make decisions at the school level, number almost 1,200. Individual schools have shown improvement, and test scores, particularly in elementary schools, have risen.
Still, many problems linger. Kentucky officials cite the need for greater parental and community involvement, improving the assessment and accountability process, and boosting student achievement, particularly in middle and high schools.
Outside observers concur. "If you buy into the fundamental model of education reform that Kentucky bought into, which is a top-down, state-driven accountability model ... I think it's reasonable to see improved results," says Chester Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Indiana. "The evidence I've seen is not very awesome."
While elementary schools have improved the most, middle and high schools have lagged. "Elementary schools are more oriented toward what's expected," Mr. Sexton says. High schools are like colleges, he says, "extremely conservative institutions." Many "didn't take the reform seriously."
Resorting to sanctions
But schools whose test scores fail to improve over two years are slapped with sanctions, ranging from firings in severe cases to state assistance in the form of a "distinguished educator": an experienced teacher who helps develop an improvement plan. In the most recent round of testing, 180 of Kentucky's 1,300 schools were found in decline and eligible for distinguished educators, and eight were considered in crisis.
Schools that improve qualify for bonuses, which can be doled out to teachers and staff. At Stanton, for example, teachers last year received about $1,800 each. But the carrot-and-stick approach is controversial. "I think it's a good incentive, and it was great to get that for our hard work," says Geneva Pence, a teacher at Stanton. "But it did make me feel bad when friends in other counties didn't get anything. I don't know if it's a good thing."
Educators say the reforms have deeply influenced how teachers teach and how students learn.
Principal King at Stanton says while basics are still stressed, teachers have become more facilitators than lecturers, and pupils now work more often in groups. Students in all schools are evaluated in part on a portfolio of their work that they build throughout the year.
Many parents are pleased with the results. "I've seen significantly more writing, some ambitious social-studies projects, and a terrific set of science homework," says Susan Perkins Westin, a parent of two primary-school students.
Still, Ms. Westin, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Councils, wishes the reform effort had moved faster. "There has been a feeling of a really long series of warm-up exercises on the hard core issue of: 'do Betty and Billy know A,B,C,D,E, and F, and can they do N,O,P.... We have got to zoom in very concretely on the standards.' "
Kentucky students have taken the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests for the last four years as part of the state's reform effort - and showed some improvement in scores. The test puts Kentucky students on par with Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland - states that score in the middle range of the 50 states.
Kentucky officials say two factors account in part for the discrepancy between these scores, which place the state about average in the US, and the state's rankings at the bottom in terms of high school and college graduates and adult literacy. They say rankings show socioeconomic background, not student achievement. The rankings are also based on data from the 1980 census.
Many Kentucky educators are convinced the reform has yielded dramatic improvement. "It's had an enormous impact. This is a systemic process that's permeated every facet of school life," King says.
Kentucky's Learning Goals
The Education Reform Act of 1990 requires schools to develop their students' abilities to:
1. Use basic communication and mathematics skills for purposes and situations they will encounter throughout their lives.
2. Apply core concepts and principles from mathematics, the sciences, the arts, the humanities, social studies, and practical living studies to situations they will encounter throughout their lives.
3. Become self-sufficient individuals.
4. Become responsible members of a family, work group, or community including demonstrating effectiveness in community service.
5. Think and solve problems in school situations and in a variety of situations they will encounter in life.
6. Connect and integrate experiences and new knowledge from all subject matter fields with what they have previously learned and build on past learning experiences to acquire new information through various media sources.
7. A statewide assessment system that includes a test made up of multiple-choice and essay questions, as well as math and writing portfolios, is used to determine if students meet the goals. Goals 3 and 4 are not assessed.
Dramatic Change Across the Nation
Many educators give Kentucky good grades for its reform efforts. But the state is not alone in its effort to bring about dramatic changes in children's classrooms.
Kentucky schools "still have very little budget authority; teachers still have very little autonomy over the way they teach; they're still beholden to master or union contracts; parents don't have any choice of where their kids go," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. "It's become clear there's not as much of a holistic approach as there needs to be."
Ms. Allen cites Arizona, Texas, and Michigan as states where significant education reform is also under way:
*Arizona has charter schools, new academic standards that are more rigorous than most other states, and school choice.
*In 1995, Texas rewrote its education code to scale back the role of state government in schools, a move that has freed districts from rules and regulations. The state also gives a strenuous graduation test and allows charter schools to be formed.
*Like Texas, Michigan schools have undergone deregulation, and the state has a strong charter-school law. It also has public school choice, standards, and equalized student funding.
These are the biggest [reform efforts] you could possibly do, and they're all going on in those states," Allen says.
But Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, says it's impossible to compare state education reform efforts.
"States aren't setting out to do the same thing, therefore their speed of doing it is not directly comparable. Yes, they're all trying to cause kids to learn more and improve achievement, but they're using fundamentally different strategies."
Allen agrees. "There's no one criterion that fits all reforms - it's just how you're getting there, and I think states such as Texas, Michigan, and Arizona are leading the way."