How does Kentucky's education system stack up against other states?
A high school diploma that really means something

Let's move past the "Happy Talk" about education in Kentucky

For All KidsLast week Johns Hopkins University's Civic Engagement and Everyone Graduates Center released a report recognizing Kentucky's improved graduation rate.  According to its authors, Kentucky is especially doing a better job than other states in helping low-income students graduate.  The report was widely circulated and celebrated in the state's education community.

Obviously it's a good thing that our graduation rates are improving.  Educators and policymakers should be congratulated for that.  If kids aren't staying in school, then we have no chance to educate them.  But like so many other state-to-state comparisons of education, this report has some methodological problems that challenge its validity, and draws conclusions based on unsubstantiated generalizations.  Terry Brooks, executive director of the Kentucky Youth Advocates, calls this "happy talk" and he's right; it distracts us from some of the significant problems our educational system needs to confront with more rigorous reform.

The Johns Hopkins report, called For All Kids: How Kentucky is Closing the High School Graduation Gap for Low-Income Students, uses a comparison of graduation rates for students receiving free and reduced lunch to draw its conclusions about Kentucky's performance against other states.  But in 2010 the U. S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal free lunch program, started implementing a provision that allows schools with at least 40 percent of students participating in the program to offer free lunch to all students, regardless of income level. 

Kentucky still collects free lunch eligibility data from parents to ensure we have accurate numbers, but some states or local districts do not.  This means we can no longer tell for sure if students receiving free lunch across the country are actually from low-income families.  This is a big problem for education research in general, and it undermines the validity of any cross-state comparisons using this metric.

But an even bigger problem with the For All Kids report is that it makes some generalizations about the possible reasons for Kentucky's improved graduation rates that are not backed up with any empirical evidence and actually contradict existing data.  For example, the executive summary of the report suggests that Kentucky has managed to improve its graduation rate because we don't have charter schools:

Kentucky has no charter schools.  Many education leaders credit the lack of this option with strengthening the public schools and districts because parents are more invested in their community schools, and there is greater impetus for districts to improve their schools.

This statement, besides citing no actual data and quoting unnamed "education leaders," makes no logical sense and defies existing evidence.  How does denying families an educational choice make parents more invested in the only option available to them?  How does not having any source of competition for all but the most affluent families give districts an impetus to improve their schools?  Furthermore, research indicates that charter schools actually graduate students at higher rates than traditional schools do.  The For All Kids report reflects a bias on the part of the authors that has no place in an ostensibly objective work of scholarship.

For All Kids also contains factual errors, such as claiming that Beechwood Independent and Burgin Independent school districts have low-income student graduation rates of 75%, among the lowest in the state.  This statement is simply untrue, as a look at the Kentucky school report cards for both districts will confirm (and staff at the Kentucky Department of Education have also confirmed).

The report includes case studies of several districts that have been successful in improving their graduation rates.  This is perhaps the most valuable part of For All Kids as other schools might glean insights about how similar strategies would apply to their contexts.  But unfortunately the usefulness of these case studies is overshadowed by other problems in the report.

Additionally, what isn't mentioned in the celebration of Kentucky's improved graduation rates is the large number of students who are graduating but aren't demonstrating any meaningful readiness for college or careers.  Recent and forthcoming research from the Bluegrass Institute (where I serve on the Board of Scholars) shows that some districts do a much better job than others in guaranteeing their diploma means something.

Again, it's a very good thing that more kids are graduating.  If they don't persist until graduation we have no chance of making them college or career ready.  But now that we've made some progress on this issue, let's turn our efforts to making sure that our diplomas aren't just a form of social promotion and actually guarantee a student has met learning goals.

Everyone needs to indulge some happy talk now and then to keep us encouraged.  But the rate of education improvement in Kentucky, however real, is so slow we don't have the luxury of much celebration (especially celebrations fraught with the errors of the For All Kids report).  Let's reserve that energy for ramping up our reform efforts.

Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University or the Kentucky Board of Education.

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