Tag Archives: economic development

Education Attainment Alone Won’t Transform Kentucky: Reconsidering Policy, Practice, and Attitude

I am an educator. With the exception of a few brief years I spent in law enforcement as a very young man, I have spent all of my career in K12 and postsecondary education. From my earliest days as a high school teacher in the New Orleans Public Schools, to my time in teacher preparation in North Carolina, to my academic home today at the University of Kentucky, I’ve spent my career teaching and supporting students as they advance their education and achieve their academic goals. There’s not a greater proponent of education attainment than me. But education attainment alone is simply not sufficient for preparing the workforce Kentucky needs to retain and attract high wage jobs.

Kentucky has made tremendous strides over the last few decades with education attainment. Our graduation rates are much better than they were a few decades ago. Higher percentages of Kentuckians are literate and have high school diplomas. Increasing numbers of Kentuckians are going on to pursue postsecondary education and earning postsecondary credentials and degrees. In fact, in some years Kentucky has led the South in gains in high school graduation rates and postsecondary degree attainment. Those are all achievements that every Kentuckian should be proud of. Educationally, Kentucky is not the same state it was even 20 years ago. But we still have quite a ways to go. And we won’t get to where we need to be without making a course adjustment.

While it’s great that many more Kentuckians have high school diplomas and postsecondary degrees, we must come to terms with the reality that Kentucky’s significant increases in education attainment have not translated into the economic progress we so direly need. And that’s in large part because the diplomas, credentials, and degrees many Kentuckians have earned have not been aligned with the skills, credentials, and degrees that business and industry are demanding.

If Kentucky is to become what it has the potential to become economically, the state’s workforce has to become its strength, not its liability. To do that, young people and not so young people have to get the skills and credentials business and industry are demanding. It’s no secret what those in-demand areas are. In Kentucky, certifications and two- and four-year degrees in the medical fields, advanced manufacturing, and information technology would well-situate a young worker.

Below are a few changes in policy, practice, and thinking I believe Kentucky should consider for better aligning education attainment with workforce preparation. Better alignment of the two is essential if we are to become the economic engine we have the potential of becoming.

  1. Kentucky’s high school diploma has to be more meaningful. Higher graduation rates are good, but higher completion rates are not incredibly meaningful if the diploma students earn  is useless. The hard truth is, comparatively, it doesn’t take that much to earn a high school diploma in Kentucky. Our state’s current minimum requirements are neither rigorous enough to adequately prepare a student going on to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Kentucky, nor rigorous enough to ensure that a student not pursuing additional postsecondary education will learn a skill she can use to earn a wage sufficient for supporting herself. That’s unacceptable for Kentucky and it has to change.
  2. Kentucky’s postsecondary institutions must produce more students with credentials and degrees that match in-demand job sectors. There are more than a few good paying jobs that go unfilled in Kentucky. Eventually, some of those jobs are filled with skilled workers who come from places outside of Kentucky; and in other instances, the state’s skilled workforce challenges result in businesses deciding to put off expansion in Kentucky or to locate operations in other states with less severe workforce challenges. We have to turn the tide. Further, we need Kentucky’s postsecondary institutions to place greater emphasis on program development and program expansion in areas that lead to high paying jobs in high demand sectors.
  3. Kentucky’s parents and teachers have to change their mindsets about career and technical education. Too many students who would enjoy and be incredibly successful in technical fields that require less than a four-year degree have been inappropriately pushed into four-year institutions and into bachelor’s degree programs. In some cases, those programs have not aligned with students’ interests and/or strengths. An in other cases, those programs have not been aligned with jobs. In either case, the student has been inappropriately advised and shortchanged. The thinking that all high school graduates should go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree after graduating high school, regardless of what that bachelor’s degree is in, is wrong.
  4. Kentucky’s students should know that having a bachelor’s degree in any field will not necessarily lead to greater employment opportunities and higher wages than having an associate’s degree or an industry recognized certification. While on average, bachelor’s degree holders earn more than associate’s degree holders, there is substantial variation in the data across fields and majors.  For example, some bachelor’s degrees are intended to prepare students for further study in graduate school, and are not expressly designed for preparing students for job opportunities immediately following undergraduate degree completion.
    • As students are making institution, degree, and program decisions, they should do their homework. Students should be asking questions about recent degree and program completers, including whether those graduates have found jobs in their fields, where they are working, and how much they are earning as early career workers. Those are legitimate questions; ones which should help to inform students of what their best postsecondonary program options are. With better information, I am convinced that larger numbers of Kentucky students would decide to enroll in programs that are better aligned with their interests and strengths, and more likely to lead to the employment and wage outcomes they desire.

Fundamental Education Reform in Kentucky: An Economic Imperative

I love being a Kentuckian. Our state has been blessed with unbelievable natural beauty and some of the friendliest, good-natured, hardworking people you could ever hope to meet. My wife and I thank God daily for the blessings of our Kentucky home, church family, and friends. But there remains tremendous untapped potential in our state. We have not yet become the state that we can be, that we should be. And central to our untapped potential is a public education system that while much better than it has been in generations past, is still in dire need of reform.

Kentucky has made significant strides in public education since the early 1990s. The passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) and other subsequent reforms have been good for Kentucky’s children. But the academic performance and employment and earnings outcomes for our low income children and children of color is drastically different from performance and outcomes for our middle income and White children. That reality is crippling our state.

Much work remains to be done to improve the education attainment, employment, and earnings outcomes for all of Kentucky’s students, but drastic improvement in performance and employment outcomes for our low income children and children of color is both a moral and economic imperative. We are a state that has for years ranked near the bottom in labor force participation. In 2015 we ranked 47th out of the 50 U.S. states and DC, with a labor force participation rate of 57.9%. We lead only Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia in labor force participation. While those are fine states, we can do better. In sum, not nearly enough Kentuckians are working, and a major factor contributing to our labor force woes is our failure to equip all of our students with the knowledge and skills needed for gainful employment. That failure has in turn led to our challenges with attracting companies with high wage jobs to Kentucky, jobs that require a pipeline of skilled workers. There is no doubt about it, we have to do better.

First, there must be acknowledgement by education leaders and policy makers that current academic and performance outcomes for our students are unacceptable. Period.

Second, leaders must acknowledge that what’s happened and what’s happening in Kentucky’s public schools contributes to the current racial and socioeconomic performance and outcomes gaps. Leaders and policy makers seem content with pointing to out-of-school factors which contribute to gaps, but most leaders seem unwilling to admit that school factors have contributed to the problem as well. While our schools are not wholly responsible for the gaps, our schools have played a role and continue to play a role in the maintenance and in some cases exacerbation of performance and outcomes gaps.

The frequently heard refrain that “we’re working to ensure that all kids learn” is meaningless when what we are doing doesn’t lead to all kids learning. Leaders have talked about public schooling working for all kids in Kentucky for a long time, but low income kids and kids of color continue to be left behind. It’s past time for state and school leaders to acknowledge that what we’ve been doing in the name of all kids hasn’t worked for all kids; and begin exploring what we can do different to ensure that low income kids are learning, that Black kids are learning, that Latino kids are learning, etc.

Third, leaders must commit to fundamental change; not tinkering here and there, but fundamental change in our state’s public education system. The magnitude of socioeconomic and racial performance and outcomes gaps in Kentucky are such that tinkering with the system will get us nowhere. Fundamental reform to Kentucky’s public education system is an absolute necessity. Reform is needed in every area, from the recruitment, selection, and training of teachers and leaders, all the way to the mechanisms we use for holding schools, leaders, and teachers accountable for student learning and outcomes, and everything in between. A system that produces such disparate outcomes for different groups of children is fundamentally broken, and nothing short of large scale reform is worthy of consideration.

We can and we must reform Kentucky’s public education system to be responsive to the needs of our most vulnerable children; reform is both a moral and an economic imperative. The health of our state’s economy is dependent on our ability to better prepare all of our children for success. We cannot afford to prepare only some of our children for gainful employment, and lives as civically responsible, tax-paying citizens of our state. All Kentuckians’ futures are inextricably bound together.