New report looks at Kentucky education progress, challenges

Citizen's Guide to Education COVERFRANKFORT, Ky. – A new report from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence provides an overview of education developments that began with the 1990 passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act and continue today.

“Sometimes it is hard to believe that so many years have passed since Kentucky initiated the groundbreaking work that has garnered national recognition for the state while, more important, improving education for thousands of students,” said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee. “Reviews such as this can be very helpful in reminding us how far we have come and in providing context for the work ahead.”

Kentucky Education: Reform, Progress, Continuing Challenges looks at the education landscape that preceded the enactment of the landmark legislation that redefined the way education was delivered and financed in Kentucky. It also addresses changes in postsecondary education prompted by the Postsecondary Education Reform Act of 1997.

“We think this report will help Kentuckians – whether they are policy leaders, employers or interested citizens – gain a better understanding of the state’s efforts to improve education through the years,” said Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber. “It provides a historical perspective while emphasizing the need to continue to push for excellence.”

The report points out that Kentucky was described by Business Week as “an unlikely place” for the comprehensive 1990 reform that President George H.W. Bush subsequently identified as “creative thinking (that) is government’s best role in education – setting goals, providing incentives, and then demanding accountability.”

KERA instituted reforms prohibiting nepotism practices that were prevalent prior to its enactment as well as changes in the way schools were governed – shifting more control to the school and district level, where it remains today. Kentucky’s landmark initiative also included, among other elements:

  • Academic expectations reflecting high standards that were created by teachers, parents, business leaders and other citizens
  • An assessment and accountability system to measure schools’ progress
  • School-based councils to ensure local decision-making about school operations, curriculum and teaching
  • Investments in technology
  • Preschool programs for 4-year-olds whose families meet income guidelines and 3- and 4-year-olds with disabilities

Progress points featured in the report include improvements in the state’s overall ranking in education, moving from 48th in 1990 to 33rd in 2011, according to a study by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Business and Economic Research. The center, in a January 2016 study, concluded that Kentucky was 29th across all states in education and achievement factors.

At the postsecondary level, the report noted that the 1997 legislation was built around a theme of using higher education to drive improvements in the state’s economy and quality of life. A key element was the creation of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, building from the system that had been governed by the University of Kentucky.

Initially, Kentucky showed relatively rapid progress in improving education attainment, according to a study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. For instance, the state had the nation’s second-highest change between 2000 and 2009 in the percent of 25- to 44-year-olds with associate degrees and higher. That declined to 24th-highest between 2009 and 2013.

Similarly, Kentucky recorded the nation’s highest change between 2000 and 2009 in the number of undergraduate credentials awarded per 1,000 18- to 44-year-olds with no college degree. Between 2009 and 2003, the state’s performance had slipped to 32nd highest in the nation.

Education officials attributed the decline to reduced public funding for postsecondary institutions.

Looking ahead, the report stressed the need to continue working in all areas of education to ensure progress but also noted several focus areas that warrant greater attention in the near future:

  • Career and technical education
  • Closing achievement gaps between groups of students
  • Teacher and administrator effectiveness
  • Alternative paths to graduation that lead to postsecondary success in college and career

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