School Reform: Kentucky's Class Act

How a court order produced real improvement

It's early afternoon at Ross Point Elementary School, just off Kingdom Come Highway in the Appalachian coal country of Harlan County, Ky. Eight-year-old Meredith McCue sits cross-legged in a reading loft, mesmerized by Moby Dick. Next to a window, Aaron Huckleby aims a telescope at a ridge above the school, while nearby a classmate studies insect larvae under a microscope.

There are no rows of little chairs or rigid drills at Ross Point, and descriptive assessments have replaced letter grades. The children, who elsewhere would be assigned to grades one through three, here share the same classroom. Older pupils help younger ones, and everyone learns at their own pace. Veteran teacher Flora Shell likes the arrangement. "All the flowers don't bloom at the same time," she says.

ANALYTICAL THINKING. These 21 students, like youngsters across the state, are key players in what may be the most important laboratory for public education in the nation. In six years, impelled by a court order and spurred by big business, Kentucky has transformed its schools, turning a bargain-basement embarrassment into an increasingly effective system. It has upended curriculums, putting new emphasis on writing and analytical thinking. Rich and poor districts get the same financing, and everyone is measured against strict performance goals. "It's the [most thorough] and most coherently designed reform in the country," says Michael Timpane, vice-president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Princeton, N.J.

Now, at the end of the first phase of Kentucky's reforms, results are coming forth. They are compelling, if not uniformly stellar: Test scores of elementary school pupils have improved sharply, though older students are gaining at a much slower rate. Once lumped with education losers such as Louisiana and Mississippi, Kentucky now ranks in the middle of the pack, "among a group of states we've never been with," says Robert R. Sexton, director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington civic group that spearheaded the reforms.

Kentucky is providing critical intelligence as the nation sorts through a hodgepodge of largely unproven local strategies to shore up education. Most states are testing some form of charter schools, which free administrators and teachers from most local regulations. Some towns, such as Chelsea, Mass., have contracted out their systems to independent operators. Virginia is putting together writing standards for fourth and fifth graders, while Prince Georges County, Md., employs special tutors and Saturday classes to help minorities perform better in math.

All the efforts are driven by intensified public awareness, amplified by President Clinton and other politicians, of America's educational shortcomings. Test results released last autumn showed that in math and science, U.S. students rank below those even in Bulgaria. Although national scores were up modestly in the last decade, many educators and corporate leaders worry that an eroding skill base could retard U.S. economic growth and competitiveness.

Such concerns helped fuel Kentucky's transformation. More important, though, the Kentucky Education Reform Act, or KERA, was born of a 1985 lawsuit brought by 66 poor school districts against the state over funding inequities. The action touched a nerve, inspiring state business leaders, news media, and civic groups to press for broader changes. "This was the last golden opportunity to get Kentucky out of its agrarian past," says Jack Moreland, now the president of Northern Kentucky University, who then was superintendent of schools in Dayton, Ky.

The State Supreme Court found for the plaintiffs in 1989, and ordered equity in funding--which the state achieved as it lifted overall school spending 60% by last year. Unexpectedly, though, it also declared the state's entire educational system unconstitutional. The court demanded that legislators come up with a plan for a top-to-bottom remake within nine months.

The result, KERA, borrowed liberally from strategies being tested elsewhere: It has employed Vermont's scheme, for example, requiring fourth graders through seniors to keep yearlong portfolios of their work; merged grades, too, had been tried elsewhere. But Kentucky was the only state to "put all of the pieces together," says Dr. Helen F. Ladd at Duke University's Sanford Institute of Public Policy.

And in many areas, it broke new ground. To improve accountability, Kentucky handed over local hiring and budgeting authority to newly elected councils of parents and teachers, who in turn select principals. Nepotism among school board officials, common especially in the state's isolated mountain counties, was outlawed.

Most important, each of the state's 1,300 schools was given a benchmark grade, based on tests of fourth, eighth, and 11th graders, and ordered to improve its rating each year until 2012. If a school improves, its teachers can earn bonuses of up to $2,300 each--and so far, teachers in 53% of schools have done so. If scores decline, the bonuses end, and an independent expert can be sent in to push remedies. "This test is supposed to drive pretty much everything," says David R. Johnson, schools superintendent for the city of Harlan. Harlan High School's scores fell in 1994 but have come back up since.

Kentucky's business community has helped shape much of the change. Tired of retraining new hires and worried about losing employers to states with stronger labor pools, 50 companies led by Ashland, Humana, and United Parcel Service backed the reform movement with money and lobbying. Since then, they've had a hand in curriculum reform, too, pressing for courses that teach practical, job-oriented skills.

The payoff is distant. "This was to be a 10-year-long effort," says David A. Jones, Humana's chairman. "We know that changes of this magnitude require it." One persistent area of weakness: Kentucky's high schoolers. Dropout rates haven't budged, and test scores aren't close to meeting goals. National college admissions test scores remain flat. In part, that's because the first crop of reform-era primary school graduates are just now entering 10th grade. Still, "no matter how good the students coming into the high schools are, the high schools need improvement," admits Wilmer S. Cody, commissioner of the Kentucky Education Dept.

"ELITIST." Predictably, other elements of KERA have drawn attack. Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change in Minneapolis, says the state's "elitist and top-down" strategy doesn't let local districts pursue alternatives such as charter schools that could spur more substantive improvement. Some parents, meanwhile, complain that the state's labyrinthine testing consumes far too much of their children's time. Others are dubious of the consolidated primary grades. In Ross Point, Tim Stevens worries that his son, Timothy, an 8-year-old at Ross Point Elementary, may not get the attention he needs in reading.

Even as they express concern, though, most Kentuckians acknowledge that their bold experiment is, at least, far better than the alternative. "I left high school in 1982, and I couldn't read," admits Stevens, a gravel-truck driver. Now, adult literacy rates are up, a trickle-down effect, officials say, of the heightened educational environment. Statewide, high school completion rates are improving. And in 1996 National Assessment of Education Progress tests for math, Kentucky eighth graders scored an average of 10% higher than in 1990; fourth graders were up 4%. Strikingly, poor districts now perform as well on most tests as wealthier ones.

Does Kentucky provide a viable model for schools elsewhere? Susan Traiman, director of the education initiative for Business Roundtable, says "there are some who feel the Kentucky story is too unique to be transferable, because it was launched by a court case and swept out the old system."

But that may be its very strength: Improving America's schools may demand radical surgery rather than piecemeal experimentation. By dumping an inadequate system and starting from scratch, by investing more and tying funding to performance, Kentucky has boosted its children's academic prospects. Arguably, that has lifted its economic prospects as well. Those are important lessons from an unlikely place.

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