I have seen and learned many things since starting as Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education in October.
I have met with policymakers, community leaders, superintendents, principals, parents and students. I have gotten to know every line item of the Department of Education’s budget, had the privilege of recognizing outstanding educators and school districts and have taken every opportunity I could get to step inside classrooms and see our Commonwealth’s teachers and students hard at work.
It’s those visits to the classroom that re-energize and inspire me. It’s visits to Emily Smith’s first-grade class in Hickman County or handing out medals at the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville that drive home what all of the meetings, the budgets, the policies and the regulations are about – it’s about the kids.
So, I thought I’d use this month’s column to share my education priorities with the parents of those children and let you know how I intend to frame KDE’s response to the many challenges it now faces.
I have built my education priorities on three pillars: equity, achievement and integrity. These three pillars have always been paramount to me because they make a real difference in the lives of children. That is why I plan to also make them the pillars of Kentucky’s education work from this point on.
First, there is equity. Equity really is about opportunity. It’s about every child having the opportunity for a high-quality education. It’s about every Kentucky student being equipped with all the necessary skills to take advantage of any opportunity they may have and make any life choice they want after high school graduation.
While we as a state have provided greater access for students to Advanced Placement courses, higher level coursework and quality instruction, we have not overcome the simple reality that we have a large achievement gap. We must continue to shift our thinking and our instruction to meet the needs of a greater diversity of learners than we have ever had before. Equity means opportunities for all students and I plan to do everything in my ability to ensure this.
Achievement is about how students perform, but it must be more than that. Ensuring all students achieve at high levels has been a hallmark of Kentucky for years. Our students have proved they can rise to the occasion. Kentucky students outperform the nation as a whole at most levels in reading, math and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – also known as the Nation’s Report Card – and have realized greater gains in reading and math in the past decade than students in almost any other state. And in the past five years, Kentucky students have made significantly greater gains on the ACT than the rest of United States.
We also cannot solely be concerned with test scores. We must continue to push for more students to graduate from high school. We have made remarkable progress in this area, with an 88 percent graduation rate, among the highest in the nation. And that diploma means something. Among all the states that have rigorous graduation requirements – four years of English language arts and mathematics through Algebra II for every student – Kentucky is number one in its graduation rate.
But student achievement isn’t just about test scores and graduation rates. More students graduating with a quality diploma has potential for a tremendous benefit to our state’s overall economy. Each high school graduate contributes a net economic benefit to our economy of $209,000 through increased government revenues and lowered government spending. All students achieving at high levels is not just a nice tag line, it is a reachable goal with a big payoff for our students and Kentucky.
Finally, let’s consider integrity. When I was in the classroom, I had trouble giving extra credit because, if I did, the student’s grade would not honestly reflect what he or she knew.
One particular situation stands out in my mind. I overheard a group of my AP Chemistry students talking about me as a teacher. One student, who hadn’t had me before, boasted about how she had made 108 in a regular chemistry class the year before and how I could not be that bad. The students that had me the previous year told her I was not “bad” as in hard, I simply believed in being clear about what a student understood. Needless to say, my new student soon realized she did not know or understand as much as she thought because of the artificial grade she had made the year before.
We must be honest with our students, teachers and parents about achievement. The same applies to our work with low-performing schools. It requires an honest approach and requires our schools to be honest with themselves. The ones who have improved have held true to this notion. We have had 15 schools come off the priority list over the past six years and none of them have returned – one of the best rates in the country. Why? Because the educators in those buildings are honest with themselves and dedicated to ensuring their students get a better education.
These three pillars – equity, achievement and integrity – are my and the Department of Education’s North Star. We will use these ideals to shape how we work with schools and with parents, how we view our successes and how we approach the challenges that remain. And just like pillars can hold up the roof of a house, these three pillars will hold up and boost Kentucky’s most valuable resource – its children.