When I was first appointed to the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) in 2016, I mused on the irony. As a professor of education administration, I was accustomed to telling my students (all aspiring school principals) to pay little attention to education policy or the workings of the state legislature or state board. School leaders spend way too much time fretting over the state accountability system or other mandates, all of which have an extremely indirect impact on student learning, and not nearly enough time on the building-level factors that actually make a difference in student achievement. That’s where I want my students to focus their efforts.
And then suddenly I was a member of the state board of education, helping make the policies I was telling practitioners not to worry with so much. At the time I argued that of course I believe policy does matter, but its function is in creating an environment where educational excellence can flourish by unleashing the innovative capacity of empowered teachers, parents, students, and local school and community leaders.
In the two years that have followed I’ve had many opportunities to reflect further on the tension between what we do at the state level and what happens at the local level in the larger effort to improve student learning. For example, when KBE was reworking the statewide school accountability system to conform with new federal guidelines, I cautioned fellow board members and education stakeholders that while we should build the best accountability system possible, we should not overestimate its capacity to actually accelerate student achievement. Only the work of local actors could make that happen, and the accountability system exists primarily to provide feedback on their efforts.
In April of this year several new members joined KBE as the terms of members appointed by the previous governor expired. These new members (several of whom I had worked with previously in their role as governor-appointed advisors to the board or in other capacities) have a refreshing and passionate urgency to press our educational system to much more rapid levels of improvement. While I am the only member of KBE to have served as a professional K-12 educator, these new members draw on their considerable experience as business and community leaders to provide new perspectives and ask demanding questions about our lackluster progress and how we can do better.
In our discussions about policy, I often find myself trying to explain the complexities of what educators do and the confounding, immeasurable, and often uncontrollable variables at work in the results. I anticipate that, as we move forward with our board agenda, I will often urge caution and careful consideration of sweeping policy ideas that, while well-intentioned, may not achieve the desired results and may ultimately do more harm than good. I expect to frequently advocate for giving educators more flexibility in their work and greater consideration of their perspectives and frustrations.
This is all good. I am grateful for board members who are fiercely dedicated to educational improvement, because no one should be satisfied with the results we are currently getting. Like everyone who has spent decades in a professional environment, I have my own blind spots where perhaps I have grown accustomed to the way we do things. I can readily admit that I’ve been wrong about certain educational ideas in the past and therefore I’m likely to be wrong about some of the ideas I currently hold as well.
But I also don’t want my reservations about state-level policy to come across as a defense of the educational status quo. Read virtually any post on my blog from the last eight years and it should be clear that I don’t endorse business as usual in education. I believe I was appointed to the KBE in the first place because of my advocacy for education reforms that might seriously disrupt the way we have traditionally thought about schooling. So I want to be clear, both for myself and others, what guides my thinking about the role of state policy, student learning, and the work of K-12 education.
In this extended post I’d like to unpack some of my thoughts about all this, first as an intellectual exercise for myself, but secondarily as a help to any education stakeholders interested in how we balance all the tensions we encounter while trying to make K-12 education far more effective than it has been in the past. As always, let me be clear that I speak strictly for myself, and no one else affiliated with the Kentucky Board of Education or my employer, Western Kentucky University.
We’re not getting better fast enough, for many reasons
The first thing to say is that the education system is, indeed, not getting the results we need. I won’t go into great detail about this as I’ve presented this argument elsewhere with data to demonstrate that, while Kentucky may be having some modest progress in certain areas of student achievement, the rate of improvement is so painfully slow that vast swaths of children will still be lacking in basic academic proficiency for generations to come. Of course there are serious limitations to what test scores can really tell us about student learning, but even with those limitations, our rate of progress (or lack thereof) is simply unacceptable.
Why are our schools not successfully meeting this challenge? The reasons are legion and no single cause accounts for a measurably larger explanation than others. Poverty certainly has a key role to play. There is overwhelming evidence that students who grow up in low-income homes face a multitude of learning challenges. A few bold voices have recently started naming the role of family breakdown (a phenomenon closely, but not exclusively, linked to poverty) as an enormous obstacle to student achievement. Sometimes educators want to blame low student performance exclusively on poverty and family instability, but this ignores the reality that there are schools serving high percentages of low-income students that are nevertheless getting strong results (updated: see this new New York Times piece on how Chicago schools are beating the odds with high percentages of students living in poverty). In my own experience, there are qualitative differences between high and low-performing schools in terms of learning processes and leadership decision-making that can explain more than poverty. But even when all those best practices are in place, it is demonstrably harder to accelerate learning with at-risk kids and schools have not been able to scale up a more rapid improvement in overall student achievement.