Thursday, February 12, 2009

KERA Revisited...Again

The Kentucky legislature, trying desperately to see improvements in student test-scores is again revisiting the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA), which, besides involving the largest tax increase in the state’s history (a huge portion of it in pork), mandated the “outcomes-based” concept, having as its centerpiece the element of self-esteem. KERA was the perfect example of a legislature mandating something in a field in which it possessed nearly total non-expertise. Its aim was/is to have all students becoming proficient in all subjects by 2014.

KERA has been an abject failure. It came about because some school districts depended entirely or almost entirely on state per-pupil allocations for their financing...and naturally, wasted much of that, especially since nepotism was virtually a hallowed concept. Other districts, either by the allowed tax increases or those approved by vote, supplemented education-financing in order to improve facilities and instruction. Indeed, property-values in the complaining districts were not appropriately/legally-assessed for tax purposes because property-valuation-assessors (PVAs), who are locally elected, not appointed, failed to do their jobs.

As a result, the better districts got short shrift financially from KERA, while the complaining districts reaped millions in windfalls all out of proportion to those whose citizens had tried to do right by their young people. Statewide, however, the results of KERA have been abysmal, though some districts have done quite well. In other words, KERA was a huge mistake, the bad results of much of which have been alleviated through corrective legislation. For example, KERA mandated the mixture of kindergarteners with third-graders. Some teachers/administrators knew this wouldn’t work (reading scores in fourth-grade the proof) and simply ignored the law, which was eventually changed.

KERA also mandated “rewards” for schools/districts that attained a proper score on the tests. The rewards could be used any way the local districts decided, meaning that teachers in a given district could get well, especially if they happened to be in a system already doing well, while teachers/administrators in an adjacent district, especially if it was already doing terribly, got nothing. The entirely predictable results: (1) Students were bribed (trips, goodies, time-off) to do well on the tests; and (2) Teachers/administrators simply cheated...stole the money...and why not, since the whole thing was so crass and unfair, in the first place?

Perhaps the worst feature of KERA was in the establishment of school-based councils, mandated to be made-up usually of a principal, three teachers and two parents. The councils were given complete control of the school, even to the extent of choosing their own principals, no matter what the district superintendent recommended. This matter was settled by the state Supreme Court in a Fayette County case in which the school council rejected all the superintendent’s recommendations.

The worst feature of the school-based council lay in its authority to establish its own curriculum. Once the K-3 matter was corrected, fourth-graders improved and couldn’t be necessarily harmed through curriculum decisions. The same was true for all grades 1-5. The individual school curriculums meant that students would arrive in middle school (grades 6-8) from different backgrounds. The problem thus created is perfectly obvious.

It gets worse. Middle schools, on the whole and being impacted by the multi-curriculum problem, have done poorly. Scores have been and are terrible. The middle schools had their own school-based councils, of course, meaning that they set their own curricula. So...the students entering ninth-grade came from very different backgrounds, having been taught under different curricula. The high school test-scores, collectively, have been abominable. There has been no standardization in the system, in other words, and without standardization teachers are up against it. There should at least be enough standardization (and there may be in some districts) to require that the same textbooks be used at least in a given system, perhaps, even, in the entire state.

The ACT is a national college admission and placement examination. It has structured benchmarks indicating whether a student is likely to earn a C grade or higher in first-year college courses. Last year, less than half of the Kentucky juniors taking the test met English benchmarks. One in five met math benchmarks; one in three in reading standards, and only one in seven in science goals. By any standard, this circumstance is intolerable. Not all juniors are going to college, but these scores indicate a system that has gone badly wrong in a country that historically has been a world leader in education.

The legislature will do well to wipe out what remains of KERA, then leave it to the educators to establish a system – along with an enforcement arm – that features reasonable standardization and realistic requirements of its teachers/administrators, especially concerning their academic achievements and abilities.

And so it goes.

Jim Clark

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