Tom Eblen

Want better test scores? Try supporting teachers instead of fighting them.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin Michael Reaves | Herald-Leader

“This is not about shaming schools, leaders or teachers,” Wayne Lewis, Kentucky’s interim education commissioner, said in announcing statewide school test score results that show little improvement over the past five years.

“But these schools can neither continue doing what they have always done, nor make only minor adjustments,” he added.

Taken literally, Lewis’ comments make sense. But few Kentucky public school educators will take them that way. That’s because they see Lewis as a leader in what they call Gov. Matt Bevin’s “war on public education.”

Bevin and the Republican-controlled General Assembly have continued a decade of school funding cuts that began during the Great Recession. One study showed Kentucky’s schools have faced the third-steepest cuts in the nation, with basic funding down 15.8 percent in a decade.

Bevin has spent the past year trying to cut educators’ pension benefits in ways that not only hurt current teachers and retirees but make the profession less attractive to future teachers. When educators protested, Bevin repeatedly insulted them.

Bevin’s appointees to the Kentucky Board of Education ousted a respected commissioner, Stephen Pruitt, and replaced him with Lewis, a charter-school advocate. Most public educators oppose charter schools because they have shown mixed results in other states, take away scarce resources from other public schools and sometimes funnel public money into corporate pockets.

Lewis used phrases like “extremely troubling” and “incredibly disturbing” to describe some of the latest test scores. He has a point. Many Kentucky students are under-achieving in reading and math, with only half of elementary and middle school students at the level of proficient or higher. Students of color or with learning disabilities performed especially poorly in many schools.

“Instead of being discouraged, this is a call to action for schools, districts, educators, parents, students, and community and business leaders,” Lewis said. “We must take bold and immediate action for the benefit of our students.”

What kind of action does he have in mind? That’s what makes Kentucky educators suspicious. Asked at a news conference if Lewis’ characterization of the test scores was a step toward creating charter schools, he called that “ridiculous.” We’ll see.

Fayette Superintendent Emmanual Caulk explains how he plans to implement additional support to Fayette County public schools categorized with CSI and TSI.

Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, agrees that some schools’ test scores need a lot of improvement. But in a Facebook video to members Wednesday, she added: “No student and no educator is defined by a test score. We have to keep this in perspective.”

Winkler also noted that Bevin and the General Assembly this year made further cuts to education and provided no money for textbooks, teacher development and school improvement programs “that are geared specifically toward closing achievement gaps and helping us to do our jobs the way they need to be done.”

What should taxpayers make of all this? Here are a few thoughts:

Test scores don’t show the whole picture. Some argue that all of the time spent testing and teaching students to take tests distracts from learning. Still, test scores are important, because they provide some useful measures of student proficiency and point out areas that need improvement.

The key to educational achievement is great teachers — teachers who are well-educated, well-trained and highly motivated. Closing achievement gaps requires a lot of individual attention to some students. That means more teachers and aides and smaller classes.

To attract and retain the best and brightest teachers, Kentucky needs to improve compensation, not cut it. Oddly, this is a concept Bevin seems to understand when he tries to justify big salaries for his top officials. Teachers are motivated when a governor supports and encourages them; not when he insults and demeans them.

It also is important to consider that public schools are a mirror reflecting the economic and social conditions of their students and communities. Poorly performing schools tend to be in poor places. There are notable exceptions, and state officials and educators should study them for tips and insights.

But reality is that it is harder for a student to learn if he or she is hungry, doesn’t have adequate medical care, has an unstable home life and doesn’t have access to technology and enrichment activities that other students do.

There is a lot more to solving those issues than creating jobs. It also is about what those jobs pay, access to health care, access to food, family support services and other aspects of a social safety net Bevin has actively worked to shred.

Lewis is right: These test scores are a call to action. Improving public schools will require more teamwork, trust and money, all of which are sorely lacking. Kentucky must improve performance in classrooms — and the state Capitol.

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