Recent media stories, editorials and letters-to-the editor noting the academic performance of students in Jefferson County call to mind the need to look carefully at progress in education and to remind ourselves of the importance of setting high expectations for all Kentucky schools and students.
The clamor about the state’s low-performing schools, and the number of Jefferson County schools on the list, has drawn attention to important issues of student achievement. But it also carries implications that Jefferson County’s students are different from the rest of Kentucky’s students and that different expectations should apply in the state’s largest urban community. As a clear example, low expectations were among the deficiencies cited in the most recent school audits.
First, it is important to note what we at the Prichard Committee have said so many times that it has almost become a cliché: Kentucky, including Jefferson County, has made significant progress in education through the years. But the progress isn’t enough, and too many students are still waiting to experience it. Fourteen percent of Kentucky’s students reside in Jefferson County, so what happens there is of great interest to the state as a whole.
Jefferson County has fallen behind in recent years on state assessments. The percent of Jefferson County students scoring at the lowest levels (called novices) went up from 2007 to 2010 in all five elementary school subjects. At the middle and high school levels, novice performance increased in every subject except writing.
Over the same period, the percent reaching state standards went down. That is, proficient and distinguished results declined in three of five elementary school subjects, four of five middle school subjects, and four of five high school subjects.
The measurement that determines the state’s low-performing schools has been characterized by some as being too narrow in scope and flawed in other ways. But, whether you like the measuring stick or not, it’s the same one used to measure all schools in Kentucky. And the students in many of those schools, located in districts throughout the state, face significant challenges due to extreme poverty, rural isolation and other factors.
But many of those schools deliver at high levels for students. For example, 46 Kentucky schools are in the top 25 percent for reading results and also in the top 25 percent for low-income enrollment. Another 47 schools are in the top 25 percent for both math results and low-income students. These schools are finding ways to deliver success despite facing the challenges of serving student populations who range from 74 percent to 98 percent participation in the federal school lunch program, a standard measure of poverty.
The message from these schools is that all students can learn, and most at high levels, regardless of where they come from or the circumstances of their lives. This reflects the fundamental belief that framed the Prichard Committee’s early and continuing advocacy on behalf of all Kentucky students and that, in our view, should underscore the commitment of every educator and school district in the state.
The respected Education Trust annually awards its “Dispelling the Myth” recognition to four schools that narrow achievement gaps between student groups, exceed state standards or rapidly improve student learning. Award-winning schools in the past two years have been located in New Orleans, Atlanta, East Harlem, New York, and other communities.
In announcing the awards in 2009, the Education Trust noted that the winners “remind us that low-income students and students of color can achieve at high levels and that schools can make an enormous difference in the lives of all young people and thus in the country’s future.
“These schools challenge the insidious belief that student achievement has more to do with who the students are than how and what they are taught. Each award-winning school is different, yet their success stories have common themes—high expectations, rigorous curricula, high-quality instruction, and regular tracking of student progress. The result: Virtually all students attending these schools meet or exceed state standards.”
The Prichard Committee remains confident that all Kentucky students can achieve the same high goals. Expecting anything less is a disservice to our students and to our state.