In recent years, Kentucky’s public schools have found themselves in a classic good-news, bad-news situation.
The good news: Over the last 10 years or so, schools have improved significantly. Test scores are higher and all students, on average, are achieving more.
The bad news: Black and Brown students, and poor children are falling further behind their wealthier and Whiter peers. While they’ve made some progress, middle-class White students have made substantially more. The achievement gap in schools is getting wider in Kentucky, not narrower.
That doesn’t sit well with a lot of people in the state, especially Louisville Urban League’s CEO and president Sadiqa Reynolds.
“The concern from our perspective is to do everything to close the achievement gap as quickly as possible,” says Reynolds. “Kids doing well now shouldn’t be brought down. We need to pull kids up in a way that is fast and effective.”
Reynolds isn’t only representing families of color in her community. With two of her own kids in Jefferson County Public Schools, she’s also representing her own family.
“We’re invested in this completely,” she says. “You have to set really specific goals. Strong goals. Stretch goals. Business as usual isn’t good enough. You’ve got to set goals that will make you do things differently.”
Kentucky is in the midst of developing a new education plan for its schools. The plan is a requirement of the updated federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Part of that law says state leaders have to decided what goals to set for schools, how they’ll measure school progress and quality, and how they’ll get all that information to parents and anyone else interested in how schools are doing.
When state officials released the first draft of the plan in June, many felt unsatisfied. It didn’t set concrete goals. Instead it simply gave examples of the types of goals the state might set. It also didn’t inspire a sense that anything would change with the achievement gap, or the focus given to those who are struggling the most.
In July, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington-based education advocacy group, drafted a letter and gathered signatures from the business community, civil rights groups like the Urban League, and others to call for stronger school accountability and clearer, more ambitious goals.
“The gaps have increased,” says Cory Curl, Associate Executive Director at the Prichard Committee. “It’s imperative to reverse course.”
Reversing course is possible, but not easy. Reynolds says educators are put in a difficult position where they’re called on to think big, but never get a big enough budget to make big ideas happen.
“We have the funding, but we’d have to move it from other places,” Reynolds says. “Look at rising crime, poverty, and other challenges. All of these are tied to education.”
Positioning Parents as Leaders
Advocates say a big part of improving schools is getting parents and others involved. If parents don’t know how to find information on their schools, or if they don’t know how to make sense of it once they do find it, they can’t really be a part of the conversation.
“Parents are overwhelmed by the info we receive from schools,” Reynolds says. “It’s a lot. And trying to interpret it all is complicated for even the most educated.”
Reynolds says a five-star school rating system is fine, but the challenge is what’s behind the star, and whether it will actually give parents an accurate picture of what kind of school kids are attending.
Curl echoes the sentiment.
“We want parents to be positioned as leaders to advocate for their kids and all kids,” she says. “Data and information are central to that process.”
By law, the state must submit its plan the federal government by September 18. The Kentucky Board of Education is still sorting through questions and concerns over the revised draft.
The Prichard Committee, the Louisville Urban League, and others say they’ll continue to work to help Kentucky schools move forward. But seeing how responsive state leaders will be, and whether they can accelerate achievement for kids who need it most, remains to be seen.