Kentucky and Tennessee — Football and Schools

My column that appeared in the Hendersonville Star-News on Friday, December 2, 2011:

As I watched UK claim its first football victory over UT in 26 years, I began to ponder what might happen if the tables were turned. How would Tennesseans react if Kentucky beat Tennessee in football 26 years in a row? Already, the first coach to lose to Kentucky in 26 years is facing some griping from Vols fans. Lose to UK two years in a row and there will certainly be talk of a coach on the “hot seat.” While Tennessee certainly owns football supremacy, at least Kentucky has basketball.

There is, however, one arena in which Kentucky consistently beats Tennessee: Education. Since the 1991 passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, Kentucky schools have been on a tireless forward march. Indicator after indicator demonstrates that Kentucky has far out-paced Tennessee in education results over the last twenty years. And, Kentucky keeps moving forward. Meanwhile, Tennesseans watch as reform efforts here get off to noble starts only to fizzle out when the going gets tough (Career Ladder, BEP 2.0).

Let’s take a look at the indicators to see just where we stand in relation to our neighbor to the north. For starters, eight states test 100% of high school graduates on the ACT. Of those eight states, Tennessee ranks 7th in statewide average score. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tennessee spends less per pupil than all of the states ahead of us. Kentucky is one of those states and spends $1000-$1500 more per pupil (depending on the source) than we do.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the one test that students in all states take in 4th and 8th grade. It measures proficiency levels in math, reading, science and writing. Year after year, Kentucky’s students demonstrate greater proficiency than Tennessee’s. The most recent results in math and reading showed that Kentucky’s students tested 8 points ahead of Tennessee in reading and 10 points ahead in math. These numbers held even when looking at those students on free and reduced lunch. In Science, Kentucky’s 4th graders hold a 13-point lead over Tennessee’s; by 8th grade that lead expands to 18 points.

Finally, in terms of college degree attainment, nearly one in three Kentuckians holds a 4-year degree. On the other hand, barely one in five Tennesseans has a college diploma. An individual with a college diploma has been shown to earn $1 million more over a lifetime than a high school graduate. Moreover, if you’re a business deciding where to locate, you’ll find Kentucky has more college graduates available. If you took 1000 Tennesseans and 1000 Kentuckians to a job interview, 100 more of those Kentuckians (300 vs. 200) would have a college degree. That makes it difficult for Tennessee to compete.

So, let’s assume we don’t want to keep on losing to Kentucky. And, we should certainly be outraged by the consistent beating we’re taking. What do we do?

Over the last twenty years, Kentucky has maintained a focus on bold reform with three essential components: 1) Invest in schools 2) Invest in teachers and 3) Invest in students. As I noted, Kentucky spends $1000-$1500 more per student than Tennessee. Teachers there also make about $2000 more per year than Tennessee’s.

Kentucky’s success is not just about more money, though. It’s about smart investments that get proven results. Kentucky invests in teachers by way of the Kentucky Teacher Internship Program (KTIP). KTIP is an intensive first-year teaching experience during which new teachers are assigned a mentor and an advisor from a local university. Those two individuals along with the school’s principal form the new teacher’s internship committee. The teacher is observed at least nine times in that first year and given constant feedback. At the end of the year, the teacher is either recommended for a teaching license, recommended for an additional KTIP year, or not advanced to a full teaching license. This focus on the critical first year of teaching, while certainly not perfect, does emphasize teacher development and demonstrate Kentucky’s commitment to ensuring that proven teachers stay in the profession. While Tennessee has adopted new evaluations, there is no support structure similar to Kentucky’s for new teachers.

Kentucky has also committed to extra learning time – providing targeted tutoring to students most in need of extra assistance. Again, this research-based approach is paying dividends as can be seen by Kentucky’s solid NAEP and ACT performance. Smart investments, not just throwing money at the problem, pay off in the long term.

For 26 years, the last Saturday in November has meant certain victory for Tennessee football. I have no doubt that UT will again claim victory over Kentucky – maybe for another 26 years. While the folks on Coach Dooley’s staff focus on getting the football right, we have a more important challenge – building strong, effective schools. Tennessee children should have more to look forward to than singing Rocky Top in Neyland Stadium as UK heads back to Lexington after another loss.

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