Cindy Heine: 1990 education reforms put Ky. schools on path to progress

April 14, 2014 

Cindy Heine was a volunteer member of the Prichard Committee from 1983 until 1989 when she joined the staff as associate executive director.

  • At issue: March 30 commentary, "Kentucky can lead and innovate ... KERA's lack of vision wasted time, money, students," by Nina McCoy.

By Cindy Heine

As an advocate working for better schools for more than 30 years, I want to share my perspective in response to a commentary about the missed opportunity offered by the reform of Kentucky's education system in 1990.

When I started working with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in 1983, school board members did not have to be high-school graduates and, as candidates for office, could openly solicit campaign contributions from teachers and staff. We received calls from parents and taxpayers asking whether school board meetings were open to the public and what citizens could do about the misuse of school funds. Little attention was paid to what or whether students were learning.

Passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 created a sea change. For the first time, state policy asked that teachers pay attention to what students learned, not just what was taught. These are two vastly different things.

Under the old approach, if teachers covered the content in the textbooks and made it to the last page by the end of school, they had met their obligations. Under the new approach, teachers were held accountable for what students learned. That required standards to define what students should know and be able to do and measures or assessments to gauge whether students met those standards.

The new law also provided supports for teachers and students that included technology, preschool, family resource and youth services centers, professional development and money for a new equalized funding formula.

Laws were also changed to address the rampant nepotism and cronyism. All too frequently, teachers and principals were hired based on relatives, relationships and political affiliations. The rules changed in 1990, and hiring began to focus on whether teachers and principals had the skills to help students achieve academically.

The performance of Kentucky students, particularly those in elementary and middle schools, began to improve dramatically in language arts, mathematics and science. Kentucky's ranking among the states moved from 48th in 1990 to 33rd in 2009.

Although improving some, our high school dropout rates and the need for remediation in the first years of college remained unacceptably high. To address those areas and accelerate progress, the legislature enacted Senate Bill 1 in 2009. It called for higher standards and cooperation among elementary/secondary programs, higher education and the teacher certification board as Kentucky refocused on improving student readiness beyond high school.

It also asked for standards and assessments that would allow comparisons of our students with those across the country, something not possible with our unique Kentucky standards. The result was a new emphasis on high school performance and the goal of helping all students graduate ready for college and/or career.

We've come a long way since the early days of reform. More students are better prepared to succeed as adults, whether they go on to college or choose another career path. The state is stepping up its work to help all teachers improve their skills with the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System. Colleges and universities are revamping programs to better prepare teachers to deliver instruction based on the tougher academic standards.

We've just seen the governor and legislature restore some of the funding that was cut during the recession, and they chose to invest more money in early childhood programs. And wherever we travel, educators and policy makers in other states continue to ask how Kentucky has managed to make such important progress.

Do we still have much work to do? Of course. But, in my view, we should stop wasting time complaining about how we got here, celebrate the immense progress we have made, and direct our energy to providing support for teachers and students as they do the hard work to meet the demands of the challenging standards that will help ensure our students' long-term success.

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