There is a gap in Kentucky’s system of education, and it’s not the usual achievement gap that we hear about. This one is the gap between high school graduation rates and the skills that students actually need to succeed in postsecondary education, University of Kentucky professor Dr. Justin Bathon told attendees at a Feb. 26 pre-conference session at KSBA’s annual conference.
The state’s graduation rate is 86.1 percent, while 62.5 percent of students are classified as college ready. The challenge, Bathon said, is what happens when those same students get to college.
“Then the picture is not good at all,” he said, noting that many students don’t have the skills they need to succeed at college. Only about a quarter of Kentucky college students graduate in four years and less than half graduate in six years. Just 12.8 percent get an associate degree after three years at a community college.
Dr. Justin Bathon talks to Jefferson County school board
member Stephanie Horne after his clinic session.
Unless school boards are willing to tackle this issue, the gap will persist, Bathon said, urging boards to look at what a diploma means in their individual district. “This is deeply embedded in your role as board members,” he said, adding that boards and educators also should take a good look at the 1990 Kentucky education reform law, which outlines in detail what abilities students are expected to have as a result of their schooling.
Another way of looking at it is in terms of depth of knowledge. Bathon asked attendees to think about what their schools spend the most time on, with activities grouped in levels ranging from the lowest level of recall to the highest level of extended thinking.
School districts are beginning to make changes aimed at exposing their students to learning that promotes more depth of knowledge. Bathon pointed to UK’s Next-Generation Leadership Academy, which is helping districts whose leaders want to develop and implement new approaches.
Bathon, who is also co-director of Fayette County School’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) Academy, listed six critical attributes schools need to properly prepare graduates – attributes that districts participating in the UK Leadership Academy adopt in part or in total.
“The districts in the state of Kentucky that have become the most innovative, there is clear alignment at the top leadership level between board and superintendent and probably a couple of principals, all sort of on the same page. If you can get that kind of alignment, off we go,” he said.
Clear, high expectations
Boards should define what core state standards mean in their schools, Bathon said. He pointed to Danville Independent’s extensive list of the skills and knowledge expected to earn a diploma from that district.
Focus on student agency
“No one knows more about what’s going on in the classroom than the kids,” and educators and board members should talk to them regularly to ask them what they think, Bathon said. “Kids have to begin to take ownership of their own learning,” he added, as opposed to getting a message from adults of, “We own the learning and you do what you’re told.”
Bathon described this as “a system where kids are actively doing,” pointing to project-based learning as a way to do this. Project-based learning taps into the natural curiosity of children, he noted, and standards can be embedded into projects so they aren’t mutually exclusive. He encouraged board members to find out whether – or to what extent – project-based learning is being carried out in their district.
Assessment can’t be ignored, Bathon said, but this attribute focuses on kids demonstrating their learning in a different way, such as performance-based assessments and showing their competence.
Anytime, anywhere learning
This relates to a “tech rich” environment where students can learn anywhere, 24/7, but Bathon emphasized, “Technology is not teaching.”
If teachers are to carry out these transformations in the classroom, they need support at the district leadership level, which includes the school board, Bathon noted.