Kentucky educational reforms show successes and pitfalls

January 08, 1995|By Holly Holland | Holly Holland,Special to The Sun

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Six years ago, the best you could say about Kentucky's schools is that they weren't in Mississippi.

For most of its 200-year history, Kentucky stood with Mississippi near the bottom of nearly every measure of educational success. Today, Kentucky is considered a national model of education reform. Spending and test scores are up substantially, as its schools are in their fifth year of implementing the country's most comprehensive state plan for improving instruction, including:

* Primary classes that drop traditional first-grade, second-grade

structure for multi-age, multi-ability groups.

* New statewide tests that trigger rewards and sanctions for teachers based on how much scores improve. The rewards include money (up to $3,690 per teacher this year) that can be used for school projects -- or as cash bonuses. The sanctions, which will not take effect until 1997, could include loss of tenure for teachers and the right for students to transfer to successful schools from those not meeting standards.

* School-based decision-making councils that have assumed much of the responsibility of school boards.

* A higher state sales tax and improved property tax collections to pay for it all.

The revolution started with a lawsuit -- 66 poor, rural school districts claiming the state had failed to provide an adequate, equitable education system.

And as Maryland contemplates the potential fallout from a similar legal challenge concerning Baltimore public schools, it may be worth studying a few pages from Kentucky's school reform textbook.

Maryland's school finance suit won't necessarily produce the same results as Kentucky's. And some elements of Kentucky's reform act -- such as new state tests and potential state action against failing schools -- are already being done in Maryland.

But Kentucky offers the best example of what can happen when a court aggressively deals with the question of whether a state is providing adequate education for all its students. The Kentucky case was one of the first decided on the adequacy issue, and the resulting reforms have been the most far-reaching.

"What makes Kentucky so unusual across the nation is that it's doing so many new things at once," said Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit citizen's advocacy group based in Lexington, Ky. "I don't think anyone could totally predict what would happen . . . because we haven't done this before."

Clearly, Kentucky's experience has been one of extremes. When the state Supreme Court considered the adequacy lawsuit in 1989, it was just one of many legal challenges across the country stemming from spending disparities among school districts. But the Kentucky court didn't just do what some other state courts have done -- spread the wealth around. It ruled the state's entire public school system unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to rebuild it within a year.

That deadline, more than anything else, produced the sweeping changes that are now known as the Kentucky Education Reform Act. In fact, strict mandates and time-lines, from the court decision and the resulting legislation, have been responsible for producing both the broad changes and the deep tensions the reform law left in its wake.

Beyond the procedural and policy fixes -- and there have been plenty -- the reform law forced fundamental changes in the way people do their jobs. Teachers, in particular, have had to juggle a heavy load of new responsibilities while figuring out how to help students meet higher academic standards.

Irmgard Williams, for example, a 32-year veteran who was a semifinalist for Kentucky Teacher of the Year last fall, said she has relished the opportunity the reform law has given her to develop more hands-on activities for students. She's happy with an integrated curriculum to help the children think and make connections, not just memorize isolated facts. But the pace and preparation have been grueling, said Ms. Williams, who teaches a mixed age class, made up mostly of 6- and 7-year-olds, at South Heights Elementary School in Henderson, Ky.

Where once she could take activities straight from the teachers' guides that accompanied textbooks, Ms. Williams now has to pull materials from multiple sources each day. All the lessons have to support the state's learner goals, relate the themes that her school and teaching team have chosen for the year and, most of all, make real-life connections for the students.

"Time is the tension," she said. "We need time to plan. Before, when we just used textbooks, it was easy to put a page number down in the planning book. I could plan weeks ahead. Now, I want to take my students higher. I'm not lazy, and I do use my time wisely, but they have got to do something to give teachers time to plan."

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