Kentucky's education achievement gaps have been in the news recently, with a new report from the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and the latest round of ACT data showing the gaps are about as big as ever. Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt devoted a blog post to the topic, calling for a renewed commitment to address the challenge of achievement gaps.
I commend the Prichard Committee and the Commissioner for bringing attention to this problem. I agree wholeheartedly with many of the strategies they suggest for improving the learning of traditionally under-performing students. But I believe far more creative thinking is needed than many educators and policy makers realize. The way we "do school," both in the classroom and in the way we deliver the public good of education, will simply be unable to help the large numbers of students reach proficiency that our current economic climate demands.
The challenge is not simply closing achievement gaps; it's about vastly accelerating the rate of improvement for all students. While Kentucky student achievement has, in fact, improved in recent decades, the pace of that growth is so slow it would take 50 years to reach 80% proficiency in 8th grade math and over 100 years to reach the same level of proficiency in 4th grade reading. As the Fordham Institute's Michael Petrilli argued recently, failing schools are no longer the biggest education problem for the United States. But widespread educational mediocrity is, and a focus on excellence for all student groups should now be the top priority.
We should pursue many of the goals recommended in the Prichard Committee's achievement gap report, including improving kindergarten readiness, engaging local communities, working for more diversity among Kentucky's teachers and school leaders, and building school cultures that are culturally responsive. But the most important strategies the report suggests - and the ones over which we educators have the most control - have to do with what happens in the classroom, both in terms of what and how students learn.
I didn't see it in the report, but Prichard has helped raise concerns recently about curriculum, especially in the early grades, and how an overly-narrow focus on reading and math can deprive children from underprivileged backgrounds of vitally important cultural and content knowledge they need for long-term reading comprehension. This is an area that needs far more attention and has big implications for improving learning for all students.
One of the topics that was (briefly) addressed in the Prichard achievement gap report, however, is personalization in student learning. And this is where I see the biggest needed changes in classroom practice. The one-size-fits-all model of learning, which served a former time and older set of educational goals quite well, is not designed for the modern mission of educating vastly more children to proficiency. It is also thoroughly incompatible with our deconsolidated culture and economy driven by individualization and choice. Schooling must be reinvented to offer far more flexibility and personalization in the learning process based on student needs, interests, and readiness levels.
There is a lot we can do to advance this vision of personalized learning under our current model of schooling and I thoroughly support the efforts of districts like the Metcalfe County Schools that are pursuing these goals. But the Prichard Committee report makes it clear that, even when we know what to do, change comes at a glacial pace to the field of education. This is primarily because education is a government-run monopoly for the vast majority of families. There is no incentive for schools to personalize learning or innovate in general, or least not the kinds of incentives that exist in virtually every other sector of the culture and economy, because only affluent families have a genuine choice in where their children are educated.
If we are serious about accelerating the rate of learning for all students and closing achievement gaps, Kentucky must join the rest of the country and begin expanding parent choice in education. School choice policies, whether charter schools, education savings accounts, or scholarship tax credits, recognize that education is a public good, but that no school, no matter how good, can meet the needs of every single family. That's why the investment of our education dollars should follow the child to the school of his or her choice.
School choice respects the dignity and individual preferences and needs of every child, consistent with the way other highly personal public goods are provided. And the evidence is strong that choice tends to raise student achievement across the learning spectrum, specially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This is the kind of innovation in education Kentucky needs. Certainly we need to redouble our commitments to addressing the problem of achievement gaps and faithfully pursue those strategies that may make a difference. But we cannot afford to limit our approach to timid solutions that have had a modest impact, at best. Our kids deserve our boldest thinking and meaningful action when it comes to improving education.
- Education in "The Fractured Republic"
- The New Era of Education has arrived
- Let's move past the "happy talk" about education in Kentucky
- How does Kentucky's education system stack up against other states?
- If caring is king, content is queen
- Does school choice "drain money" from public schools?
Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect those of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).