FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – In his second — and potentially last — State of Education Address, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis challenged school leaders on Tuesday to improve outcomes for Kentucky’s oldest and youngest learners.
Too few high school graduates have been ready for college studies or the workforce, diminishing their opportunities to earn decent wages in the modern economy, he said. Recent K-PREP results show elementary students across the state, particularly black youth, have not made much progress in reading and math proficiency.
Overall proficiency rates have dipped slightly in reading and math since 2015.
Even more alarming for Lewis: The percentage of students testing in the novice category, which he says indicates that the students have little to no understanding of grade-level material, has been relatively flat in reading. Even worse, the share of students testing in the novice category in math has grown by nearly 1 percentage point.
Just 31.1% of black elementary students scored proficient or better on the 2018-19 K-PREP reading assessment, compared to the overall proficiency rate of 54.6%. And while 20.4% of all elementary students tested in the novice category in last year’s reading test, 40.2% of black elementary students fell into that category.
“Income is a factor, but we are going to have to have the courage to acknowledge that we have to do something different to better meet the needs of kids of color in this state,” Lewis said in his speech, which lasted more than an hour.
“The first thing we have to do is have the courage to acknowledge that what we’ve been doing isn’t working," he said. "That’s not an indictment of anybody. That’s not an attack on public education. That’s not an attack on teachers. It’s common sense."
Lewis told reporters after his speech that there is “no one-size-fits-all solution to anything in education" and that schools face multiple problems in their effort to improve academic outcomes for minority youth in elementary schools.
Many students, particularly black males with disabilities, face “systematic” barriers to receiving “equitable access to high-quality curricula and effective instruction,” he said.
“That’s something that we’ve created as adults over time that we have to change,” Lewis said. “It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s not just that because you come from a low-income background, that you have disabilities, that your parents can’t provide the types of resources that we want kids to have, it’s not fair that that kid should be less likely to have high-quality school experiences.”
While schools cannot change the societal issues that many kids bring with them to classrooms across the state, they can ensure that such students do not “draw the short end of the stick” when they walk through the doors, he said.
Lewis said, however, that his comments shouldn’t been interpreted as an endorsement of charter schools and other school-choice measures as “magic” solutions.
Lewis, who supports such reform initiatives, said observers don’t hear him discuss charter schools because there are none in Kentucky. While the General Assembly legalized public charter schools in 2017, lawmakers have not passed a permanent funding mechanism for them.
“It makes no sense that we’re talking about hypotheticals all the time rather than spending our time focusing on improving learning conditions for the schools kids are in right now,” Lewis said.
The education commissioner also touched on areas where Kentucky schools have demonstrated progress, such as gains in middle school reading and math proficiency rates on K-PREP tests since 2015 and honoring districts and groups that have tried innovative strategies to improve outcomes for students.
Lewis recognized the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative for its iLead Academy, Laurel County Schools for its Center for Innovation, Meade County Schools for its efforts to provide greater access to career and technical education, and Owensboro Public Schools for its Owensboro Innovation Academy.
He also highlighted schools that serve high-need student populations that received high marks in the five-star accountability system unveiled in this year’s release of K-PREP scores, including Cochran Elementary in Jefferson County Public Schools. The three-star school scored “very high” in academic growth for its largely minority student population, 82% of which was classified as economically disadvantaged.
While Lewis urged Kentucky education leaders to do more to improve outcomes for kids, he may not be around to lead that effort in the coming days.
Gov.-elect Andy Beshear has pledged to completely reorganize the Kentucky Board of Education by executive order on the first day of his administration and has said he hopes the new panel replaces Lewis as the state’s education commissioner.
Lewis said he doesn’t plan to resign but has met with members of Beshear’s transition team to discuss day-to-day matters at the Kentucky Department of Education. He said any board overhauls likely will be met with a lawsuit from current board members, all of whom have been appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin.
Lewis hasn’t met with Beshear, but has taken issue with being characterized as a public education opponent, saying he has been dedicated to the field and that he pays tuition for his daughter to attend Woodford County public elementary school.
“I am insulted by the insinuation that I am not a supporter of public education,” Lewis told reporters. “Every day in this job for the last two years, I’ve worked hand-in-hand with superintendents and school districts to improve learning outcomes for kids.”
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