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Closing Kentucky's Academic Achievement Gap

Cronkite News

The recently released Kentucky Department of Education’s accountability scorecard shows that the state’s public schools continue to make significant gains. College and career readiness scores increased to 68.5 percent, and more than 800 schools are now classified as either proficient or distinguished.

And while student proficiency scores also increased across a range of subjects and grade levels, significant disparities in performance persist.

“How well the school is doing is only determined by how well your lowest-achieving students are doing,” says Rev C.B. Akins, co-chair of a Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence study group on achievement gaps.

Akins and the Prichard Committee Executive Director Brigitte Blom Ramsey appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss achievement disparities and the group’s call for a refocused commitment from lawmakers, educators, and citizens to address the problem.

Ramsey says achievement gaps can occur among students based on race, socio-economic level, learning abilities, and whether English is their native language. Those factors combined with Kentucky’s high poverty rates put 70 percent of Kentucky students at risk of poor educational performance, according to the Prichard Committee’s Excellence with Equity report.

The study also found that achievement gaps become apparent as early as the first days of kindergarten. Akins says a child’s vocabulary and desire to read and learn are both based on the child’s home environment. So when they enter kindergarten they may already start at a disadvantage. He says their teachers must be able to identify the challenges each child faces as well as the strengths that their home and cultural backgrounds may give them.

“That’s what a good educator does,” says Akins. “We start with every child where he or she is and emphasize their strengths and teach them to overcome whatever weaknesses they may have.”

A screening test should be administered to all children shortly after they enter kindergarten, according to Ramsey. She says poor performance on the test should alert teachers that a child may need further assessment to determine what may be needed to be successful in school. She says even kindergarteners can recognize when they lag behind their peers, and that can impact their emotional and educational development.

“If we allow that to persist, then it’s going to be natural that the achievement gap is then going to not only persist but widen over time,” Ramsey says. “It’s going to snowball.”

As a student advances through school, their progress may be hindered by challenges at home as well as stereotypes in the classroom. For example the report says African American students are suspended four times more often than white students and three times more likely to be given in-school detention.

“We don’t have the same expectations for black boys that we do for white boys” Akins says. “So those expectations cause a teacher to have some presuppositions about learning abilities, and so we’ve got to try to remove those.”

Instead of labeling a child “at risk,” Akins says teachers should learn to see their students as “at promise” and provide them with a learning environment that will allow them to move at the pace they need to reach excellence.

Diversity – or lack thereof – also comes into play in how students see themselves and their future life opportunities. While 21 percent of Kentucky students come from minority populations, only 5 percent of teachers in state classrooms do, according to the report. That means many students never learn from a teacher of color. As a result Akins and Ramsey say children miss out on a broader range of cultural experiences and they rarely see themselves reflected in their instructors.

“Whether that is a white girl from Appalachia or an African American boy from western Kentucky, children should be able to look at adults and see themselves and see themselves realizing their potential,” Ramsey says.

Diversifying Kentucky’s public school teaching corps will take intentional effort, according to Akins. The Prichard Committee report says state schools would have to hire nearly 3,000 African American teachers and more than 3,900 teachers of Hispanic and other racial backgrounds to equitably reflect the diversity of the student population.

How children learn and whether they speak English as a second language also impacts their educational success. Akins says all children are able to learn and that it’s wrong to assume that students with a learning difficulty cannot be successful. The report also notes that African American and Hispanic students are far less likely to be identified as gifted and talented.

Akins recommends that a greater range of students be allowed into advanced placement programs (AP) because students tend to achieve more when more is expected of them.

Ramsey points to such an effort called Advance Kentucky, which seeks to let students participate in AP classes based on their desire to do so. She says the five-year old program also seeks to give those students the tools and attention they need to be successful in those classes.

The Prichard Committee offers a lengthy list of recommendations to help schools and teachers get back to what the report calls the BASICS: Bold leadership, accountability, school climate and culture, instruction, community support, and sustainability. Their suggestions include a call to set ambitious goals to achieve excellence more equitably, better supports for Kentucky’s most vulnerable students, more culturally response teaching techniques, and more high quality early child care and education opportunities.

Akins says it will take a collective effort of educators, parents and citizens, the faith community, and business leaders to make the changes outlined in the report. Ramsey says she’s encouraged that Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt and state legislators are committed to reversing achievement gaps. She says doing so will benefit all Kentuckians.

“There’s clearly a moral imperative,” Ramsey says. “But beyond that moral imperative, there’s an economic imperative. If Kentucky were to increase all students up to a basic level of proficiency in the state, it would result in $335 billion [added] to our gross domestic product. So lifting all children up and ensuring that they are ready to be successful and have the support to do that is going to serve us well.” 

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