Commentary: Improving Education: What is the Right Approach?

Kentucky – Executive Director of Kentucky's Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Stu Silberman, offers a reflection on Improving Education: What is the Right Approach.

Kentucky has made great strides in education over the past 20 years. This progress is the result of a tremendous amount of hard work by teachers, students, parents, advocates, policymakers, administrators and countless other citizens committed to building a better future. It is important that we recognize and celebrate this work and the difference it has made - moving Kentucky from 49th to 33rd among the states in one recognized index that combines national education rankings.

An especially exciting set of data comes from the science scores on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress - often called the nation's report card. Kentucky's fourth-graders ranked 4th among the 46 participating states, and our eighth-graders ranked 15th. Results like that tell us that we have cause for pride in past work even as we realize there is plenty more to be done.

The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan group of volunteers who have worked since 1983 to improve education, has been at the forefront of this work, a position the committee plans to maintain as it enters the next phase of advocacy and citizen engagement on behalf of Kentucky's schools. The committee's goal of Kentucky being in the nation's top 20 states by 2020 is an ambitious one (Link:, and it is good to know that we are moving in the right direction in some areas. But we continue to come up short in others, and we must acknowledge that we have a long way to go before we see high levels of achievement for all of our students.

It is our intent to continue monitoring Kentucky's progress closely, to keep Kentuckians updated on successes and continuing challenges, and to point out areas where we believe change is needed. We also think it is important to acknowledge and shed light on the escalating debate about education and what really is best for the future of kids in Kentucky and America. The bottom line is whether we are preparing our children to succeed in their communities, the state and the world. Knowing whether this is actually happening is critical. So is taking the right steps to make sure it does.

But anyone who follows the discussions about education reform or reads any education article or publication knows there is a growing intensity across the country about education policy and practice. Many experts are far apart in their thinking, at best, or diametrically opposed to each other's proposals, at worst. Understandably, when it comes to our children, we all are very passionate about what we believe is best for them.

The purpose of this writing is to put some of these issues on the table in a broad way, and we'll follow up with more detailed reviews of each of these issues in the weeks and months ahead. The goal is to keep Kentuckians up to date as the education agenda for the state and nation is established and programs are put in place. The Prichard Committee's blog also is a good resource for anyone wanting to know more. Below is a brief description of the issues and topics that are the focus of current debates in education with more questions in each area on our blog,

Student Achievement: It is 2011 and we still have significant achievement gaps. How do we address this issue? For example, will high quality pre-school for all students eliminate these gaps in the future?

Curriculum and Standards: What should we be teaching our kids? Forty-four states have adopted what are called the Common Core standards. Should there be a consistent set of standards that guide teaching and learning?

Accountability and Testing: How much should we be testing students? Should standardized testing be used for accountability? How do we measure student progress? Are teachers teaching to the test, and is that good or bad? Teachers: How should teachers be evaluated? Are salaries and benefits too low or too high? Should teacher pay be linked to student performance? Is tenure good or bad?

Factors Outside the Classroom: How do we address problems we have in our society, like poverty, to ensure all students receive a high quality education? How important is the role of the parent/guardian and what should that look like? Are extra-curricular activities important?

School Choice: Charters, vouchers, private schools, magnet schools, home schools, digital schools, schools of innovation.....Does having choice make a difference? Funding: Are the current levels of funding for our schools adequate? Is Kentucky's funding formula equitable? Is it time to mobilize citizens around this issue? Governance/Leadership: Do we need site based councils, boards of education, state departments of education, or are there other governance structures that would work better?

We will address each of these issues in more detail, starting with student achievement, in the weeks and months ahead. Meanwhile, we must celebrate our progress but do it as we continue to speak out as strong advocates with high expectations for our kids, our schools and our future. Time is of the essence. To paraphrase an infamous general: we must stop looking at our calendars and start looking at our watches!

Stu Silberman is Executive Director of Kentucky's Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Learn more at Prichard Committee dot org.