Top-flight schools that educate students to become successful citizens and productive workers have been at the top of Kentucky employers’ wish list for many years.
Although the state has made significant progress in education since the 1990 passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, the forward movement has been frustratingly slow at times. And those of us from the business community who intentionally get involved in education policy issues sometimes struggle not to let the frustration get the better of us.
But developments over the past several months – and particularly the past few weeks – give rise to optimism about what lies ahead for Kentucky’s schools and the students whose knowledge and skills are so critical for our future.
Beginning with and building from the leadership of the 2009 General Assembly, Kentucky has adopted rigorous new standards spelling out what students must learn in mathematics and English/language arts (and leaders are hoping that work will begin soon on standards in other academic subjects).
What is particularly promising for the business community is that these standards are focused on preparing students for both college and the workplace. In fact, it is hard to find a reference to the new standards in materials produced by the education policy folks that does not include the phrase college and the workplace as the focus of student preparation.
Research has shown for years that students coming out of high school need to have a strong foundation of knowledge and skills – whether they plan to go on to college or try to find a job right away. But it has taken a while for that research to be translated into classroom reality – meaning all students must learn at higher levels. This is a very welcome development for Kentucky employers.
Also of great significance is the requirement that these new learning standards for high school students be aligned with postsecondary education. In other words, educators at those two levels must work together to make sure students who successfully complete high school don’t go on to college and find they can’t do the coursework at that level. (This lack of “alignment” has been of great concern and emerged as a top issue during the Kentucky Chamber’s Task Force on Postsecondary Education in 2007.)
Kentucky developed its new standards in concert with 47 other states under an initiative coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
These standards will be consistent across the nation, meaning students will learn the same skills no matter where they live – another plus for employers with multistate operations or interests. They will let Kentucky students, parents, teachers and leaders compare our performance to other states. And they are designed to help improve the nation’s education performance compared with other nations.
Kentucky was the first of the 48 states to adopt the standards during a joint meeting last month of the Kentucky Board of Education, the Council on Postsecondary Education and the Education Professional Standards Board.
Kentucky’s first-in-the-nation accomplishment was due in large part to the 2009 General Assembly’s passage of legislation requiring that Kentucky create new standards to, among other things:
• focus on the knowledge and skills required to succeed in the global economy
• ensure alignment among the different levels of education
• result in fewer standards but ones that are more in-depth to ensure that students master subjects
• communicate expectations more clearly to teachers, parents, students and citizens
It is, of course, important to emphasize that the adoption of the new standards is just the first step – albeit a very significant one. The harder work lies ahead for Kentucky’s teachers, schools and students.
The attention and support of the state’s employers will be more important than ever if Kentucky is to make the most of this opportunity for true and sustained progress in education.