One of the most important tenets of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 is that all children can learn, regardless of race or economic status. However, during the 18 years since KERA’s enactment, serious questions have arisen regarding the performance of Kentucky’s public schools in meeting that goal for all children, especially black students.
Photo: Louisville, 1955, Black students segregated within a desegregated schoolThere was nothing in KERA that should not have already been achieved under Brown. But that didn't happen, and by that time Kentucky was in it's 162nd year of the achievement gap.
Conditions improved over time but relative to other states, not so much. By 1984, investment inequities reached a disproportionate 8:1 ratio between the rich schools and poor schools in the state. If parents wanted a good education for their child, where they lived mattered.
It was only since Senate Bill 168, in 1998, that Kentucky schools began any real effort to ensure substantially equitable student achievement outcomes. Student data was disaggregated and schools were held responsible, not only for maintaining high average performance, but for the improvement of each subgroup of students. Prior to that time if a third of a school's students failed to perform up to expectations, it was considered the parents' or students' fault. This marked the beginning of a philosophical shift, away from "equality of educational opportunity" toward "equity of student achievement outcomes" - a philosophy also inherent in NCLB.
In the face of 200 years of a deliberately created achievement gap - ten years of substantial progress in an under-funded system seems somewhat understandable. It might even be crazy to expect that the intractable problems of poverty might be solved, through legislation, by the schools alone.
Now, I know it is heresy to not swallow the "KERA Kool-aid" that all it takes to produce better schools is strong leadership, a whip and a chair. But I believe we need a broader more comprehensive approach.
Without having read the indivdual school reports referred to in the BGI study, I have no reason to dispute the findings of Richard Innes' report. His analysis shows:
- Blacks remain well behind academically in the key subjects of reading and mathematics.
- In a significant number of Jefferson County schools – 47 out of the 120 schools with usable data on reading and 44 out of 120 for math – the gap between white and black students is widening.
- Graduation rates remain extremely low for significant numbers of blacks – especially black males – in the majority of Louisville’s public high schools. Using a graduation-rate estimation formula created by Johns Hopkins University, black males in only three of the 19 high schools in the study had graduation rates equal to or greater than the statewide graduation rate for all students. The graduation rate also is low for black females and even for white students in these 19 schools. Two of these schools reported abysmal graduation rates of less than 60 percent, qualifying them as “dropout factories” using the Johns Hopkins formula. In both of these Jefferson County schools, the graduation-rate estimates using the Johns Hopkins formula fell well below 50 percent for whites and blacks of both sexes.
Black students do not benefit if achievement gaps in their schools close only because whites also perform poorly.Those who would close gaps by lowering standards perform a disservice to all students.
But I do take issue with his conclusion that:
...the CATS assessment process holds no consequences for poor performance with student subgroups and really does nothing to deal with gaps."
This ignores the part of the process where the superintendent chews some principals' butts off, demotes them to a third grade classroom, and replaces them with the next victims. I promise, that part of the process counts for something.
Innes reviews the graduation rates for Jefferson County high schools noting that,
...Kentucky’s existing NCLB high school graduation-rate reports fail to provide accurate data overall and do not contain information on how races perform.
This well-documented problem exists nationally, and is being addressed nationally. Using a measure from Johns Hopkins, Innes finds that the graduation rates for far too many schools, well, ... suck.
In his closing, Innes takes two more shots at his point:
Jefferson County Schools face a considerable amount of work to raise academic performance and high school graduation rates to acceptable levels. After nearly two decades of KERA, real improvement – especially for the district’s black students – remains a long way off.
Kentucky cannot afford schools with low and declining graduation rates, and with low academic achievement. Clearly, as KERA approaches 19 years in force, the trends outlined in this report raise questions about whether the public school system in Kentucky is capable of meaningful reform for all students.
There it was. That last phrase. And, Innes could have written that conclusion as early as 1994 by which time he was publicly (Kentucky Post) acknowledged as a KERA "foe."
Would Innes have us believe that Kentucky schools (parents, teachers, kids...) are not capable? Would he cure these bad schools with a healthy dose of leeches, called school vouchers?
None of that speculation should mask what Innes gets right.
In too many cases student achievement gains are lacking and reported graduation rates remain a fantasy. If Kentucky is serious about reaching its goals, the state needs to get serious about its investment. It is going to take a comprehensive approach to meet KERA's lofty goals.