IS “THANK GOD FOR MISSISSIPPI OR ARKANSAS” FINALLY BEHIND US?
Dr. William E. Ellis
We have come a long way since education at a “Dame” school atFortBoonesboroughand the earliest days ofTransylvaniato the expansive system we have today with all the beautiful preschool, elementary, middle, and secondary schools with their bright metal roofs, the thousands of yellow busses, and the gleaming facades of colleges and universities scattered across the state.
For all the furor and hard work over and aboutKERA, the implementation of Senate Bill 1, the ups and mostly downs recently of the economy, let me add some thoughts, precautions, and a few “revolutionary” suggestions.
Thomas D. Clark, who, before his death, encouraged me to write my most recent book, urged: “we need to get off the front pages” such behavior as recently exampled by the allegations of vote-buying by aBreathittCountySchoolsuperintendent. Politics has been as hurtful as helpful in forming theKentuckypublic educational system.
As Clark and so many others over the years have suggested, we have far too many counties in this state resulting in an unneeded multiplicity of government officials and political fiefdoms. This often translates into public school superintendents being political animals first and educators almost as an afterthought. We have far too many county school systems with independent “city” schools nestled within them. In the 20th century, school consolidation served a valuable purpose in combining one-room schools [originally called districts] into a more coherent system.
The time has come to combine county and the independent systems therein into a district of several contiguous counties. Some of these counties have always been small in size and population. This would be a particularly cost effective method in the counties with declining populations. The tax base in the “Problem Crescent” of most of those counties from eastern Kentucky to the Mississippi River are declining as are those of some smaller counties along the Ohio River. School populations are also declining.
Often times building a larger consolidated high school has been driven by the desire to have more competitive sports teams at the expense of giving more students opportunities in smaller schools. I advocate having smaller schools while consolidating districts.
Information from the State Department of Education, legislators, and governors often tout how much education has improved. And it has. The problem is, we still do not adequately educate all the school children of this state for all the intricacies of the 21st century world.
As I say early and often in A History of Education in Kentucky, it has always been true that if a child came from a middle class family in a more affluent part of the state, this usually has resulted in an adequate, if not always superior, education. The reverse has all too often been true for poor whites and blacks.
Historically, the problem has always been equity and equality. We seem to have licked the equality issue. Girls and women in all the studies I have seen are thriving in the opportunities they are now given. Studies indicate that Kentucky leads the country in integrating its schools. However, poverty is now and has always been the stumbling block of not onlyKentuckyyouth but those of the nation.
If we are to make monumental changes in not only Kentucky public school education but also in higher education, we have to remedy what one educationist calls “the leakiest segment of the education pipeline,” which is the dropout rate for grades 10-14 (with the freshmen and sophomore years as grades 13 and 14).
Simply put, too many Kentucky kids do not graduate from high school, and many who attend a college or a university are ill-prepared for higher education. Nearly half of Kentuckians who enter higher education must take one or more remedial classes. In 2007, 40% ofKentucky students did not make the required 2.5 grade point average in their freshman year to keep their Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarships funded by the lottery.
Some proprietary [for profit] schools of post secondary education in Kentucky qualify as “dropout factories,” and nationally, including the entire public and private spectrum of higher education, only about two-thirds of entering freshmen graduate in six years. A 2010 study indicated that only 37.5 percent of EKU’s entering freshman graduated in that time frame. Even atUK, our flagship university, less than 60 percent did so.
Coupled with high numbers of young adults who do not complete their college education is the high default rate on student loans. Student debt accumulated while in institutions of higher education is so alarming as to suggest to some that it will be the next economic “bubble” to burst. As many of you parents and grandparents know, the reality of graduating in four years with little or no debt passed with our generation. Public and private higher education institutions must get control over escalating costs and pass those on to their students. It has been too easy for institutions of higher education to simply pass escalating costs to students by substantial annual tuition increases.
The key to improving education nationally and in Kentucky is addressing the high school drop out rate, improving high school education, and increasing higher education performance while keeping all of this affordable.
Many innovations are already at work initiated by national and state educational leaders. There efforts must be redoubled. The old traditional views of education by “seat time” must be replaced by more and more “defined competencies” in all levels of education. More students should be encouraged to graduate from high schools and colleges in less than the required four years of “seat time” at each level if they show evidence of competencies beyond those of their peers.
Here are some specific changes that I believe will moveKentuckyeducation forward. Most of these suggestions are almost revolutionary rather than the evolutionary path we usually follow in improving education. Many of these are already traditional across the developed world and working in some parts of theUnited States.
A longer school day and school year, including year around schools, will make better use of resources and give more instruction time. I favor the movement toward Common Core Standards for all America’s school as well as using national achievement testing, possibly even opting for the international Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, to more aptly compare how we fare with other industrial countries of the world.
It is time for more classroom instruction time, even at the hazard of deemphasizing athletics.
It is time now for an 18 year old attendance law inKentucky. Studies indicate that with more education, the rates of crime, teen pregnancies, and other social problems decrease.
This does not mean “seat time,” but a law that will, at least, until age 18 keepKentuckyyouth in meaningful educational possibilities, even work-related paid apprenticeships.
The colleges and universities of the commonwealth, public and private, need to develop more flexible schedules, even year around schedules. The old first semester-second semester regimen, and much smaller summer classes no longer is cost effective, nor does it fit the lifestyles and work schedules of many students and their parents. Making better use of online classes will also expedite better-spent student time.
Readers of this piece will say thatKentuckyis already doing some of this. I am asking for a more revolutionary approach. What we have been doing is incremental. We now rank, by several measures, at the top of the bottom third of schools, or looking at it another way, the bottom of the top two-thirds.
Is “Thank God for Mississippior Arkansas” finally behind us? Will we just settle for that? Or, are Kentuckians, including the governor, state legislators, educators, chambers of commerce and other state boosters, parents, and the young and old alike, ready to take the steps necessary to move Kentucky forward into a true 21st century education role of leadership.
The goals should be a longer meaningful school day combined with a twelve month school year for public education. When students enter institutions of higher education they should be competent, confident, and motivated for the work that faces them. They should be confident that theCommonwealthofKentuckywill assure that their money is well-spent and that they do not have burdensome loans that will inhibit the early or middle years of their professional lives.