There are a few things that I consider non-negotiable when talking about education in Kentucky.
First and foremost, I think a diploma from a Kentucky high school should mean something. For the 2016-17 academic year, just 65.6 percent of seniors across the state were college and career ready.
That means that out of the 45,000 students who graduated that year, more than 15,000 of them weren’t ready for what they faced after high school. Sadly, there are students in Kentucky receiving high school diplomas that we know cannot read or do basic math. This cannot continue to happen. We must hold Kentucky’s students – and ourselves as educators and parents – to a higher standard when it comes to what our high school graduates should know and be able to do.
At the Kentucky Board of Education meeting in June, I briefed board members about our work to update the Commonwealth’s minimum high school graduation requirements. For freshmen entering high school in the fall of 2019, we are considering a requirement that they take tests as sophomores to demonstrate proficiency in reading and mathematics. A passing score on the assessment would be a requirement for receiving a Kentucky high school diploma.
We have an extremely high graduation rate right now – around 90 percent – but at what cost to students? Strengthening our graduation requirements will likely result in a lower graduation rate, but I am okay with that if students are ready for the next step, and employers and higher education officials know a Kentucky high school diploma means something. As well, as we raise the bar, I am confident that in time, students will meet that higher standard. We must push the envelope on what we expect of our graduates, ourselves and our state.
Also, we need to continue focusing on ways to reduce the achievement gap – the difference in performance between groups of students. Whether it’s African Americans compared to whites, students in poverty compared to their more wealthy counterparts or students with a disability as compared to those without a disability, we should not accept significant differences in student achievement. All students should perform at high levels. We’ve made very little progress in Kentucky in shrinking those gaps, which means we are not reaching a large number of children. That’s simply unacceptable.
Part of closing that gap involves ensuring our youngest students have a strong foundation in both reading and mathematics. As educators, we’ve talked for many years about making sure a child is reading on grade level by the time they reach the 3rd grade, the time where our emphasis should shift from learning to read to reading to learn. We need to expand that traditional conversation to make sure those same 3rd-graders have a sound footing in mathematics.
The skills learned in mathematics, just like those in reading, build year after year. If a child enters 4th grade without a firm foundation in the language and processes of mathematics, they will have a much harder time grasping more advanced mathematical concepts. As the Commonwealth builds its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors, many of these careers will be out of reach for students if they don’t have a strong background in mathematics.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we need to provide more opportunities for our high school students to pursue early postsecondary opportunities such as Advanced Placement and dual credit classes. These programs give high school students the chance to push themselves academically and possibly earn college credit. We’ve been working to expand these types of opportunities in Kentucky for years, but we must keep a keen eye on whether all students, regardless of where they attend high school or their family income, have the same access to these classes.
We also need to make sure our schools and our parents have choices and flexibility. For our schools, the Kentucky Department of Education will be examining changes to regulations and statutes that can relieve burdensome paperwork and give educators more time to focus on each and every child. We will never back away from any regulations or requirements that ensure the safety of our children, but there are many ways we can provide more flexibility for our schools and districts to be innovative.
For students and parents, we’re going to have to expand the number and type of high-quality public school options – including through traditional public schools districts. Even with a groundbreaking law that allows for the establishment of charter schools in Kentucky, the vast majority of the Commonwealth’s children will be educated in traditional public schools.
We already have some very innovative schools in Kentucky. However, here’s how I know we’re not doing enough in this area. How many families are on waiting lists to get into Kentucky’s innovative schools of choice? How many families want to get their children into a school for the arts, into a mathematics or STEM program? We must do more in Kentucky to encourage schools to be innovative and find new ways to reach children. We’re simply not meeting parents’ and students’ demand for innovative schools and programs of choice.
Moreover, it is important that we begin the work of building a high-quality public charter school sector. While charter schools are not a cure-all for every problem in education, they have been shown to be particularly effective with raising achievement for low income students, especially low-income children of color. These are the same students we have been struggling to reach for decades. We need to do our best to establish high-quality public charter schools that can help our Commonwealth’s most underserved children find academic success and a path toward a secure future.
These are my priorities. These are ambitious goals. We cannot wait until more prosperous economic times to improve our public education system. The future won’t wait, and neither should we.