This time, Kentucky must deliver to serve every student

Susan Perkins Weston
Susan Perkins Weston

Kentucky’s future depends on all our children and all their talents, but we currently underserve huge numbers of our students.

Children with low family incomes have sharply lower scores than their more comfortable classmates. Our children of color lag behind their white peers. Our students with identified learning disabilities are even worse off.

And while we can report gains for each group, the improvements are too slow and too far from developing the full potential of young Kentuckians in our public schools.

What students need is clear: They flourish with challenging, engaging, responsive learning opportunities in a context of respect and welcome. Teachers can only create that kind of learning by trying thoughtful approaches, checking results, revising their plans and trying again. That kind of sustained work will require a deep transformation of school cultures.

Kentucky called for that transformation in 2002. We passed Senate Bill 168 to create shared responsibility for tackling gaps.

▪ School councils and superintendents were to agree on targets for each student group and then seek school board approval.

▪ Councils were to revise school improvement plans to meet those targets.

▪ When new data came in, boards were to decide if targets were met, and local superintendents were to report to the state commissioner if schools missed their targets twice.

▪ After that, school improvement plans would be subject to Department of Education review and approval.

If we had done all that, we could now have an education culture dedicated to excellence for every student and skilled at delivering that excellence in ways that work for each unique learner.

Kentucky called for transformation, but we did not follow through.

The department decided its approval role was optional.

Superintendents decided not to send notices of missed targets, so the department says it has no reports on file.

Few school boards vote on SB 168 targets or on whether those targets have been met. Check their minutes and note the silence.

Most recent school improvement plans do not even list targets for the groups addressed by SB 168. At most, they have goals that lump together all the underserved groups, so that a little progress among low-income students can hide problems with other groups.

SB 168’s key lesson is this: Legislation does not matter without implementation and integrity.

If we learn that lesson, we have a chance to do better.

The Department of Education is working on a new approach to accountability and a new approach to serving all learners. I hope the new plan includes frankness about the scale of change we seek.

To engage students, parents and citizens fully, we need:

▪ A short statement of each student group’s results at each school. Many data points can go into that rating, and all the data should be shared, but we need a single rating to show who is on track, improving too slowly, or losing ground.

▪ Collaboration to study problems and design solutions. School councils must engage students, teachers, parents and community members to get their advice and support, and districts should post every school’s plan online.

▪ Escalating support when schools miss targets, from council planning to board oversight to Department of Education action.

▪ Adequate resources for the work. In schools, priority must be given to finding time for teachers to analyze learning evidence, design next steps, and check results. In Frankfort, the department must have the staffing to monitor local efforts and implement needed interventions.

Most of all, I hope the new plan remembers SB 168’s main lesson: The only promises that matter are the ones we keep.

Delivering for the rising generation will take ongoing work.

Not just plans: plans supported by communities and implemented in classrooms.

Not just data: data studied and discussed by educators, legislators, state board members, the media and the public.

Not just talk: regular analysis and consistent action year after year after year.

Each member of Kentucky’s rising generation has important talents to share, and we need them all. African-American students, Hispanic students and students with low incomes and learning differences can play crucial roles in building a more prosperous, more united Kentucky.

We must commit to better, steadier work for those students. And this time, we must deliver.

Susan Perkins Weston is an education consultant and activist based in Danville.