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Kentucky Education: Dumbing Down or Gearing Up for the Future



Big Education, like big government, is broken. It doesn’t work anymore to do the right thing. The art and science of teaching in modern America is about teaching to the test, not about teaching to the self or the individual.

Somewhere in the past 60 years, we have forgotten how America works, how America learns, how America grows. The demarcation point probability can be traced to the vast influx of baby boomers to a national and local school system not prepared for such numbers of new students. 


The date was 1957. The event was the successful launching of a Russian space vehicle named Sputnik. The result was overnight the Russians had projected themselves far ahead of America in the education game. America had no space probe. It didn’t have a space program, period. All of a sudden, America was behind in the Cold War with its ideological enemy, Russia. 

20th Century Education: More Money, More Buildings

It took several years for American leaders in Congress rushed through money for new missiles, new weapon systems and somewhere along the way passed the National Defense Education Act. We, as a nation of teachers and learners, began to fight back. The NDEA paid for a new generation of scientists and other specialties that would close the education gap we had with the Russians.

This was the time I graduated from Hickman County High School, having transferred into the County from Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Going from an urban high school of 3,800 into a rural high school of 425 was quite a learning experience in itself. During my last semester of high school, I was made to take three study halls and two driver’s education classes. The system didn’t have a way to let me take college courses or prepare for college as long as I was still in high school.

In the fall of 1965, I, and several million of my generation, invaded higher education in America. This is much the same story as before in high school. There had been little or no planning for our arrival. There was little or no space to handle the thousands on each campus across America. 

We ceased to be students and became numbers during our four years of college. I was lucky. I secured a National Defense loan to major in geography. The subject was listed as a science and therefore was of great need.

As numbers, we were easier to handle and administer. With each day, there were many pounds of potato cooked each day for the school cafeteria. So many warm bodies for cold wooden chairs in dark old buildings that were call historic. Within these old buildings were large classes where teachers took refuge in knowing us only by our numbers, not our names.

It seemed to matter little to the system what or how we learned, as long as we paid our fees, made no trouble and graduated on time to make room for the next batch of paying customers. College teaching, as a concept for many of us, was reduced to three steps (1) endure large classes (50-150 classmates), grab as much information as possible (2) find library, free books, read as much as possible for your own education and  (3) design you own path for learning the last two years of your college experience.

Learning became an individual quest to some how get good grades, party hard, find comfort in new place or new people, and mange to become new maturing interesting people, ready to enter the work force of America. We were lucky that as many of us made it through as we did. 

Educating the Boomers' Children

Educating the children of the boomersBy the 1980s and 1990s, we were sending our own newly minted children into the public school system. As new parents, most of us were not prepared to deal with the demands of job, family and homework. But we managed. Grade school seemed to flash forward into high school. High school parent teacher conferences, emotional crisis’s, proms, learning how to drive, set the stage for college.

Our kids met a new type of college campus. This campus wanted much more money for what seemed to be less value. It had more ways to have fun (frat parties) as well as more emphasis on big name sports programs. However, somewhere in the revolution of Ronald Reagan’s America (1980’s), our Kentucky colleges began to hollow out and dumb down.

In the name of centralized management, many excellent majors and courses were dropped or eliminated for good. College missions were now to teach toward the center with little space, staffing, or majors for the extra or uncommon subject. This was the age that geography at Murray and most of the Kentucky colleges was thrown out the door for not having the hundreds of majors to warrant it to stay.

Teaching and thinking about the world was now being pushed more into little boxes within other broader arenas where defusing became a new good thing in teaching. Teaching and learning was now officially a part of our national experience of moving federal and state social programs being pushed into a Block Grants mentality.

Much like the old standard block box of USDA cheese within the monthly food box for the poor, there was no room for difference, excellence, species, or colorfulness. Cheese came in one color, yellow. It tasted the same from box to box from county highway barn to county highway barn (For years, the USDA box was distributed from the local state highway office or road barn). It was solid and tasted good. It was basic. And it was easy to cut the proportions down when needed. After all, it came in one box and was easy to slice.

This was how our education system staggered forward, for years, in the late 1990s.  Money was always an issue. Higher fees added to the students at every turn. Make them pay more for campus upkeep, professors, and administration. These were the years that college education for most state legislators became the same thing as (1) status of Big Blue in basketball (2) getting tickets to the BIG GAME (3) square footage of the next large campus building to bear the name of a revolving door president or retiring legislator or governor.

Bonding Roulette: Discovering Public Debt

Millions went into massive bricks and mortar building campaigns. These buildings were bonded out through a trick or treat strategy of hiding the debt from the public.

With this sanctioned public finance template, high schools soon followed in massive numbers. High school education became a race to build empires of thousands of students in one location. No one in Frankfort stopped to study the rationale of high schools with 1,000 to 3,000 students, doing away with community schools of 400 to 800 students.

Right along with the educational system bonding up public debt has been the race to build over seventy new large judicial centers across Kentucky. This added millions more to Kentucky’s long term debt.

Now Kentucky is faced with massive public debt from (1) educational construction (2) judicial centers construction and (3) retirement of state and count workers. Kentucky pensions are behind by a factor of 23 billion dollars. These will be the driving issues for the next three General Assembly of the state legislature.

In more blunt terms, Kentucky cannot afford its educational system. Health costs, public pension commitments, jails financing, will dwarf all other costs within the 2014-2015 budget.

Fighting For Our Future

To go forward into this new century, we as adults, as grandparents, as citizens of this state, must decide just how to pay for our debts as well as our obligations for our opportunities. WE must find ways to create or grow more jobs in Kentucky. That is priority number one. So too is the education for our children who hopefully will stay in Kentucky to work those new jobs.

We must seek new methods for solving old problems. We must allow the spirit of innovation to bring new jobs into Kentucky. Above all else, we must act as one people, with one common sense agenda.

In our past, we as a people carved out this state from the wilds of a frontier. We now stand before yet another frontier where our common spirit can once again make this a great state. Kentucky can work and became yet again a great state.

 It is all about leadership to do the right thing.

We have done it the past. We can do it yet again for the future.

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