I have now had the privilege of serving as Kentucky’s interim education commissioner for a little over a month. Understandably, I have been asked lots of questions. Most of the questions I have fielded in public settings have been similar. In fact, I can put them into two broad areas: “What is your plan for charter schools?” and “What kind of relationship do you intend to have with KEA/JCTA?”
Those questions are fine. As they are posed, I respond. But I have been disappointed with how infrequently I get public questions about students, student learning, student achievement, and student readiness. It’s no secret that student learning in Kentucky, as measured by standardized achievement examinations, has been stagnant at best, an in some cases has taken a step backward. Incredible racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps either remain unmoved or widen. And despite a pretty impressive state high school graduation rate, we continue to graduate approximately 40% of high school seniors who have attained neither college readiness nor career readiness benchmarks. Given how much work we have to do with improving student learning and how little progress we have made as of late, it surprises me and disappoints me that so little of our current discussion in public education centers on children’s learning.
Honestly, I think we forget sometimes that children and families are in fact the end-users of our public education system. Even more forgotten is the reality that for many years, we have not served large segments of our students as well as we should. According to Kentucky achievement data, students who have the best shot at success in our system are middle income and affluent White students without a disability, planning to attend a four-year postsecondary institution following high school graduation. If you are a low-income student, a student of color, a student with a disability, a student interested in pursuing a technical field that requires less than a four-year degree, or a student with some combination of those characteristics, our track record is pretty spotty. The achievement gap and the skills gap in Kentucky continue to be major barriers to student success and economic development.
To all the questions about charter schools: Public charter schools are simply one of many tools to be used in our public education system to help meet the needs of students we are not currently serving well; either because traditional approaches have not been adequate for meeting students’ unique learning needs, or because there is an insufficient supply of public school options available that align with students’ interests. Even with a healthy charter school sector, district schools will continue to be the vehicle we use for educating the vast majority of students in Kentucky, even in Jefferson and Fayette counties. To the questions about KEA and JCTA: Dialogue and partnership with teachers are critically important to achieving our collective goals for students. There is no more important element of our system than classroom teachers. High quality teachers are worth their weight in gold. But we cannot forget that unions are not the end-users of our public education system; Kentucky’s students and families are. Our decision making must be driven first and foremost by what’s best for children.
As I have spent time in Lexington and Louisville over the last few weeks, the private questions and concerns parents and grandparents share with me are much different from the questions reporters ask me. Most parents and grandparents I have talked with don’t ask me about charter schools or teachers unions. Instead, they express their deep concern about the quality of education their children and grandchildren are receiving, and they ask me to do whatever I can to help ensure their children are being well-prepared for their futures. I assure each one of them that I will do everything in my power to make sure that is the case, and I will.
Let’s take this opportunity to reset our focus and our conversation on improving learning for our children. With children as our focus, together, we can move mountains.