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Kentucky: Building a Bumpy Road From K-12 Through College

Louisville, Ky.

Kentucky is widely seen as a model of how K-12 and higher education can work together to make sure teenagers are prepared to succeed in college. Folks are pretty happy about that distinction here, and they're putting on a forum to celebrate their work and respond to other states' clamoring for clues and guidance.

And many interesting examples of K-12 partnerships with higher ed. are being discussed, especially those with an eye toward implementing the common standards. They're being discussed in equal measure, though, with the very heavy lift involved in making the common standards more than a set of bound documents.

Before we get into examples, though, a quick refresher:

Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards, and it made a more-than-symbolic move when it did so: It had top officials of precollegiate and postsecondary education pledge their commitment to the common-standards vision.

When it made that move in February 2010, it already had a fire at its back, because the state legislature had passed a sweeping education reform measure, Senate Bill 1, which required, among other things, that higher ed. and K-12 work together to prime students for success in college. That requirement, and the Commonwealth Commitment in the fall of that year, sparked dozens of pacts across the state between school districts and universities in response to the law's new demand for what the wonks like to call "intersegmental collaboration."

And there has been lots of buzz of the intersegmental-collaboration type in Kentucky. It has, for instance, created a common set of college-readiness indicators and outcomes that students can meet to skip over remedial work in the state's college and university system. What this means is that beginning this year, students who meet certain reading, writing, and mathematics cutoff scores on the ACT, SAT, ACT's Compass exam, or Kentucky's own online placement exam can enroll in credit-bearing courses once they are admitted to state colleges and universities.

There are knots of cooperative K-12/higher ed. activity all over the state, too. Western Kentucky University, for instance, showcased its partnership with the Shelby County school district, in which it trained district teachers to run a monthlong summer reading academy for rising 8th and 10th graders who were weak on their reading skills. Sixty percent of the students who took it improved by the equivalent of three months to a full year of instruction, and teachers who were trained to teach in it took many encouraging new ideas back to their own classrooms, said Kerry Fannin, the district's assistant superintendent.

Murray State University has created a program in which its faculty members team up with high school teachers from three local districts to discuss college-level expectations and share student work, said the university's Debbie Bell English.

In clusters of sessions all day long, however, participants in the forum kept identifying the challenges of getting students—and teachers—to the place envisioned by the common standards. The biggest single obstacle that participants in a session about the math standards identified was teachers' skills and content knowledge.

"The sheer quantity of stuff teachers have to teach [with the new standards] is a big change, and they're going to have to brush up on stuff they might not have been doing," said Michael Shires, a former math teacher who is now an elementary school principal in the Erlanger district. Several other participants in the workshop said that since some math topics have been moved into lower grades than they've typically been taught in, many teachers are now faced with teaching topics in which their own content knowledge isn't up to par.

Yes, said Jonathan Thomas, an assistant professor of mathematics education at Northern Kentucky University who was co-facilitating that session, "there's a lot of mathematical growth that has to happen very quickly, and I'm not even sure it's manageable." He noted the "mathematical fragility" of many candidates in teacher-preparation programs, who "go off the rail" when they reach fractions. "We're talking about doing fractions, not even teaching them," Thomas said. And yet gearing professional development for in-service teachers to content instead of instructional strategy might meet with resistance, he said.

In other sessions, participants identified yet another challenge to the common standards: getting statewide agreement on what college readiness means. While Kentucky is proceeding with an agreement that hangs on the scores and descriptions in its college-readiness indicators and outcomes, state department of education official Karen Kidwell acknowledged that getting widespread agreement on the interpretation of the common standards is a work in progress.

As one former higher education official said in one of the sessions: "We have multiple deans, departments, people, department chairs that all have their own ideas of what college readiness means."


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