Kentucky’s Economy and Workforce Demands Have Changed, Most High Schools Have Not

In generations past, a sizable percentage of young men and women graduated high school with education and skills sufficient for getting a job and earning a wage adequate for supporting themselves and a family. Truthfully, the jobs they walked into typically didn’t require much skill, at least not upon entry. And many of the skills they would need for the job could be learned relatively quickly on the job. But that reality is no more. Our economy has changed. Many if not most of the jobs high school graduates of generations past walked into with minimal skill levels no longer exist. In fact, both nationally and in Kentucky, there are many more low skill workers looking for jobs than there are low skill jobs for them.

Most conversations about America’s and Kentucky’s over-supply of low skill workers and under-supply of middle skill workers lead to a single conclusion: Because the high school diploma is no longer adequate for preparing workers for high demand, decent wage jobs, all of our students must go on to college to earn a postsecondary credential, preferably a degree of some sort. But even with substantially increasing the percentage of young Kentuckians who go on to successfully earn certifications and degrees in high wage, high demand fields at postsecondary institutions, there will remain a significant minority of Kentucky high school graduates who do not pursue further formal education and training. So in addition to increasing enrollment and success at postsecondary institutions, we must also demand much more of Kentucky’s high schools.

As Kentucky’s economy and workforce demands have changed, most of Kentucky’s high schools have not. But they must.  It’s not that hard to graduate high school in Kentucky today. And while it’s great that Kentucky’s high school graduation rates have increased considerably in recent years, and a lot of hard work has gone into improving that rate, in comparison to many of its neighboring and nearby states, Kentucky’s minimum graduation requirements are not very rigorous.

Kentucky has no minimum testing requirement for graduation. High school students are required to take End-of-course (EOC) examinations in a few subject areas, but those exams have minimal to no impact on students’ course or high school completion. Scores on those examinations tell that story. In the 2014-2015 school yearly, just under 57% of Kentucky high school students scored Proficient or Distinguished on the English II EOC. Those percentages are 38% for Algebra II, 39% for Biology, and 57% for U.S History.

Further, Kentucky is one of the states that has retained a single pathway and set of requirements for high school graduation. With that single pathway for all students regardless of their intended post-high school plans, Kentucky’s minimum requirements are neither academically rigorous enough to prepare students for success at a four-year college, nor rigorous enough in career and technical education to ensure that students graduate with an in-demand certification or skill.

Even with Kentucky’s relatively watered down definition of what it means to be career-ready, in the 2014-2015 school year, only 67% of Kentucky’s high school graduates reached the state’s college and/or career ready benchmark. Here’s what that means:

  • Many of the students in that 67%, even while designated as career ready, had no industry recognized certification or skill that would lead to gainful employment.
  • Even more disturbing, 33% of the students who earned Kentucky high school diplomas didn’t meet the state’s low bar for career readiness. That means Kentucky is granting high school diplomas to students who we acknowledge have little more than a hope and a prayer of landing a job that pays a decent wage. That means Kentucky’s high school diploma is little more than a certificate of completion; and absolutely not a marker of quality academic and/or career preparation. While many Kentucky high school graduates are well prepared for college or a career, such preparation is not an expectation for graduation in Kentucky. That’s unacceptable. Kentucky’s high schools must better prepare students for postsecondary and workforce success, and expect more of its graduates.

Postsecondary training and education are critical to preparing a competitive workforce for Kentucky, but high schools have to do their part as well. High school curriculum, experiences, and expectations must change with the state’s workforce demands. Kentucky’s high schools must change if the Commonwealth is to reach its full economic potential.

Reflecting on Teacher Appreciation Week, 2016

I could not allow Teacher Appreciation Week, 2016 to pass without sharing a brief reflection on just how important teachers have been in my life. Throughout my academic career, from preschool through doctoral studies, I was blessed to have outstanding teachers. At nearly every stage of my academic career, I can identify specific teachers or professors who were incredibly influential in my academic, social, emotional, and spiritual development. And even as an early career teacher, my mentor teachers we so very crucial to my development as an educator. I make no exaggeration when I say I wouldn’t be the professional, the husband, the father, or the citizen I am today without the loving instruction and guidance provided by so many very special teachers. And for what they have given me, I will be eternally grateful.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not also acknowledge that many children across our country and across the Commonwealth of Kentucky, have not enjoyed the benefits of consistent, loving, caring, and effective classroom instruction. And unfortunately, across the U.S. and across Kentucky, having consistently effective classroom instruction is often dependent on where students live. Middle class and affluent students often have access to more highly effective teachers. It’s one of our dirty little education secrets.

So as we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, I am more committed than ever before to do everything within my power to move the needle on getting a highly effective teacher in every classroom in Kentucky. Every child in Kentucky, every child in America, deserves to have the opportunities so many of us have had. But that can’t happen until we get our children the teachers they deserve.

Should We Pay Teachers More? Let the Market Decide

“Teachers don’t make enough money.” It’s a refrain we’ve all heard over the years. In fact it’s a song that’s been sung so often that few people question its truth. The truth is the song is partly true, and partly false. It is certainly true that we do not pay some of our teachers nearly what they are worth. It is also true, however, that we pay some of our teachers entirely too much.

Salaries for the vast majority of public school teachers in the U.S. are determined based on salary schedules. Salary schedules are not incredibly complex. [Click here to access the the most recent version of the teacher salary schedule in Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville).] A teacher can identify how much she will earn by locating her years of teaching experience and her education level. For example, in Jefferson County, KY, a teacher with zero years of work experience and a bachelor’s degree (Rank III, Kentucky) will earn an annual salary $41, 767.35. A teacher in Jefferson County with 10 years of experience, a master’s degree, and an additional 30 credit hours of coursework (Rank I, Kentucky) will earn an annual salary of $65,008.03.  That same teachers with 10 years of experience would earn $67,446.26 if she had a doctoral degree.

With a salary schedule, a teacher knows exactly how much she is going to earn in annual salary based solely on how long she has taught and how much education she has; there is no consideration of what she teaches, the demand for teachers in her area of specialization, the scarcity of teachers in her geographic or content area, or how effective she has been in the classroom. So a teacher with 10 years of experience and a masters degree who is highly effective and teaches AP physics in a school district where there are only two physics teachers, earns the same salary as another teacher in the district with 10 years of experience and a masters degree who is minimally effective and teaches family and consumer sciences, a content area where there is no shortage of teachers.

I propose paying teachers what the market says they are worth. In my estimation, a teacher who is highly effective has a higher market rate than an teacher who is mediocre or minimally effective . A teacher who teaches in a highly specialized content area where it’s difficult to find teachers ought to be paid a premium. A teacher who teaches in a hard-to-staff geographic or content area, or in a school district where it is difficult to attract and retain high quality teachers ought to be paid a premium. The truth is there is enough money in public education to pay highly effective teachers a much more competitive salary. There is not enough money, however, to pay all teachers a premium, regardless of what they teach and how effective they are.

Further, the idea of paying a teacher more or less based solely on their years of experience and education level is outdated. Seriously reconsidering teacher pay can be quite helpful in our quest to attract and retain the absolute best and brightest to the teaching profession.

Community and Technical College: A First Choice for Kentucky Students

Community college can be students’ first choice. And for many students, community or technical college should be Plan A; not because those students are less academically capable than their four-year college going classmates, but because their career interests are better aligned with career and technical programs and credentials offered at community and technical colleges. For too long, parents, teachers, and school counselors have sold community college only as the option for students who struggle academically, or who come from families without the financial resources to make four-year college a first choice right out of high school. While both of  those reasons are valid for considering community college, those are not the only reasons.

As high school students consider postsecondary education and career options, they should think seriously about jobs and careers they feel most drawn to, the kinds of careers they believe they can find happiness in, and where they believe their strengths to be. As well, students should make use of available data when making postsecondary education and training decisions. What data? Data about the employment and earnings outcomes for academic majors and certificate programs they are considering. Students should know whether or not those who have completed such programs were able to find employment in their field. Students should also know in very concrete terms what the earnings are for completers of programs they are considering. Students should not have to guess about whether program completers find jobs within their field and how much they earn.

As thoughtful and informed young people going through this exercise, I am confident that many students will consider community college as a first choice; not based on their academic abilities or deficiencies, but because programs offered at community colleges are best suited to get them into the jobs and careers that interest them. Enrolling in programs at the local community college does not mean that a student is not cut out for four-year college, or that s/he could not have made it academically at a four-year college. Enrolling at the community college is a choice; and quite honestly, it’s a choice that not nearly enough high school graduates are making. As a nation, our failure to enroll larger numbers of high school graduates at community and technical colleges is crippling our economy. We are not producing nearly enough workers with the skills that many American employers need. I’m talking primarily about middle-skill jobs.

Middle-skill jobs are those that require education and training greater than a high school diploma but less education than a bachelor’s degree.  Middle-skill jobs make up the largest part of America’s and Kentucky’s labor market. According to the National Skills Coalition, between 2010 and 2012, 54% of job openings in Kentucky will be for middle-skill jobs. But Kentucky has a pretty significant middle-skill gap. While middle-skill jobs account for 58% of Kentucky’s labor market, only 48% of Kentucky’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level. That’s a significant difference from what we see at the high-skill and low-skill job levels. Kentucky’s high-skill and low-skill workers outnumber the high-skill and low-skill jobs available. There is tremendous opportunity, however, for workers at the middle-skill level. And these are good-paying jobs. Truth be told, many workers at the middle-skill level have earnings that surpass those of workers at the high-skill level.

So regardless of whether students are academic stars or need a little extra help, I advise all students to take a look at the programs their community and technical colleges have to offer. Not only is there tremendous career training opportunity there, but it might just be the place where they find their passion.