Does Kentucky Need Charter Schools?

So Gary Houchens sent me this handy link about ACT scores in the midst of a Twitter discussion on charter schools in Kentucky.  Of course, there aren’t any charter schools in Kentucky right now.  But Gary wants to change that.

Which is fine. There are some very high quality, solid charter operators out there who may offer good options for some families.

BUT: The ACT numbers from the link simply don’t make the case that Kentucky MUST have charter schools to get results.

Houchens and Richard Innes from the Bluegrass Institute suggest that if Kentucky is to improve its results for African-American and Latino students, charter schools provide the answer.

Not so fast.  Let’s look at a comparison between Tennessee and Kentucky.  After all, Tennessee is most similar demographically and it’s right next door (or, below).

Tennessee has also gradually been expanding charter school offerings since 2002.  There are several high quality charter programs in both Memphis and Nashville.  So, if charters really do help urban students and students of color improve performance, that result would be evident in the numbers Innes cites.

Instead, African-American and Latino students in Kentucky perform better than their counterparts in Tennessee.  And in fact, the achievement gap between white and African-American students in Kentucky and Tennessee is identical.

Just having charter schools hasn’t made Tennessee any better at getting results for students of color.

Perhaps even more telling is how Kentucky and Tennessee students on free/reduced lunch perform. For this, we turn to NAEP results. Both states have around 55% of their students on free/reduced lunch.  Initially, Tennessee students on the program were the focus of charter schools, though that has expanded.  So, if the benefits of charters are clear, they’d be showing up here.

Kentucky’s kids score higher than Tennessee’s on 7 out of 8 indicators (4th/8th math, science, reading, writing).

Let’s take 4th grade reading as an example.  In 2009, Kentucky 4th graders on free/reduced lunch scored 10 points higher on NAEP reading than Tennessee’s.  By 2011, the difference was 12 points in Kentucky’s favor, with Tennessee’s number actually dropping a point.

What’s Kentucky doing differently? A focus on high standards and, until recently, investment in schools.  Can they do more? Sure! And charter schools could be a part of that equation.

Let me be clear: High quality, high performing charters should NOT be prevented from coming to Kentucky simply because a few superintendents don’t like the idea.  If quality can be controlled and accountability ensured, Kentucky might want to add charter schools to its arsenal.

But let’s also be clear about expectations.  Simply adding the choice of a high quality charter school will not dramatically change the Kentucky education landscape.  Kentucky shouldn’t be adding charter schools simply because choice is a nice idea.  Or because they are expecting some dramatic new result.  Expectations should be realistic and the focus, in general, should be on investing in the resources that support high quality, rigorous instruction for all students, regardless of what type of school they attend.

For more on education policy in Kentucky, follow us @KyEdReport

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.

For more on education policy in Kentucky, follow us @KyEdReport