Kentucky has come a long way since it was described as a “Third World country with the nation’s most uneducated workforce.”
That distressing assessment was made by MIT economist David Birch in 1983, seven years before Kentucky started on its steady if challenging climb toward educational excellence.
Excellence is not yet our statewide reality, although it has been achieved in some pockets of progress. But the positive trajectory that began with the 1990 passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act has moved the state’s education system from the national cellar on performance indicators to the middle level of states and above in some instances.
It is sometimes hard to believe that so many years have passed since Kentucky initiated the groundbreaking work that has improved education for thousands of students while garnering national recognition for the state. That is why our organizations decided to take a look back in a review that both reminds us how far we have come and provides context for the work ahead.
Kentucky Education: Reform, Progress, Continuing Challenges looks at the education landscape that preceded the enactment of the landmark legislation that redefined the way education was delivered and financed in Kentucky. It also addresses changes in postsecondary education prompted by the Postsecondary Education Act of 1997.
As the review notes, KERA instituted widespread reforms that prohibited nepotism practices, changed the way schools were governed emphasizing greater school-level control, instituted an assessment and accountability system to measure schools’ progress, defined academic expectations reflecting high standards, created preschool programs for children whose families met income guidelines and made other changes.
At the postsecondary level, the review points out that the 1997 legislation was built around a theme of using higher education to drive economic and quality of life improvements. A key element was the creation of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
The review includes such progress points as improvements in the state’s overall ranking in education – from 48th in 1990 to 33rd in 2011, according to a study by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Business and Economic Research. The center, in a January 2016 study, concluded that Kentucky was 29th across all states in education and achievement factors.
At the postsecondary level, the review points out the steady increase in the total degrees and credentials that public institutions have awarded (with a slight decline in recent years).
It also notes that Kentucky initially showed relatively rapid progress in improving education attainment in the years that followed the 1997 legislation. According to a study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, the state had the nation’s second-highest change between 2000 and 2009 in the percent of 25- to 44-year-olds with associate degrees and higher.
However, the state’s rate of change declined to 24th-highest between 2009 and 2013, a step backward that education officials attribute to reduced public funding for postsecondary institutions.
As Kentucky continues to make progress in education, there undoubtedly is much to celebrate. We hope the review will help Kentuckians – whether they are policy leaders, employers or interested citizens – gain a better understanding of the state’s efforts to date to improve education and the need for a continued push for excellence.
That is true in all areas but particularly so in those related to closing achievement gaps between groups of students, career and technical education, and teacher and administrator effectiveness.
As the review concludes, appropriate support for and emphasis on these critical areas will equip Kentucky to build on its foundation of progress to create an education system that spurs individual success for Kentuckians and workforce quality and economic prosperity for the state as a whole.
Brigitte Blom Ramsey is executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
Dave Adkisson is president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.