During the May 14, 2019 meeting of the Kentucky Legislature’s Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee, I testified about a number of concerns with a very deficient change to Kentucky’s public school social studies standards. The committee was considering the regulation (704 KAR 8:060) that would actually implement those standards statewide. In my testimony I pointed out that weak standards (Example: History is part of social studies in Kentucky, but Abraham Lincoln is never mentioned in the proposed standards!) create tremendous burdens for each public school’s School-Based Decision-Making (SBDM) council when those councils have to convert vague standards into the detailed classroom curriculum that guides each day of classroom instruction.
My testimony obviously impressed State Senator Stephen West because later in the meeting he directed some pointed questions to Dr. Wayne Lewis, Kentucky Commissioner of Education, about the performance of individual SBDM councils across the state.
In his response, Dr. Lewis essentially admitted that the standards had been made weak on purpose, and the fault rested with Kentucky’s SBDM laws.
Dr. Lewis didn’t get things right, however, and you can click the “Read more” link to find out how and what you can do about it.
Here are some of Dr. Lewis’ responses to Senator West’s questions:
Dr. Lewis: “There is significant variation, to Mr. Innes’ point, significant variation in the quality of curriculum that is adopted at the local level. So, I am not saying what-so-ever that the concern Mr. Innes raises, or that you’re raising, is an inappropriate concern.”
Dr. Lewis: “We have everything from schools that have really researched and done an amazing job of adopting really high quality, rigorous curriculum that aligns with the standards and, unfortunately, we still do have some schools in Kentucky – not just in social studies – that do not have curriculum.”
Dr. Lewis: “But, it’s because Kentucky law vests that authority in SBDM councils.”
Lewis later added: “I do believe, however, to your point, to your question, to your concern, that there is tremendous work for us to do in Kentucky with bringing our SBDM council members – across the board – up to standard, up to the understanding we want them to have when they are making decisions about adopting curriculum.”
Let’s put Dr. Lewis’ comments in perspective.
Kentucky’s basic laws regarding SBDM went on the books with the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. The legislation mandated that almost every school in Kentucky had to form an SBDM council, often just called a “School Council,” by the end of 1996. A few schools, such as those containing all grades from Kindergarten through the 12th grade, and non-standard schools serving special school populations, were exempted. An additional, very small number of schools that scored at the very top on the state’s assessments were also exempt. But, the vast majority of Kentucky’s schools, today numbering more than 1,100 schools, had to install a council. Thus, the SBDM system now has been in place in virtually all Kentucky schools for more than two decades.
The SBDM law gives school councils some pretty impressive powers. Key to this blog’s discussion, once in place, the council has total authority over the creation of the curriculum that outlines what material each day in the classroom will cover.
Also, each school council can operate entirely independently from every other council in the school district, as well.
SBDM school governance is an extraordinary approach only in use statewide in Kentucky. No other state in the union will touch this.
It’s important to note that the local school district superintendent and locally elected school board members have absolutely no control over the curriculum. Board members and superintendents who have tried to influence curriculum in the past have quickly been hit with sanctions from the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability. Furthermore, the makeup of the SBDM councils is mandated in the law to ensure that teachers always form a majority membership on the councils. Parent members MUST never have a voting majority. In essence, the law passed important areas of control in each school to the teachers in that school. Local school board members and the citizens who vote for them, their superintendent, and even parents do not have any real control and except for parents on the school council don’t even have a say in what happens.
Thus, the SBDM approach is an awkward system that is highly resistant to real accountability from parents, local citizens and taxpayers.
If a school adopts a poor curriculum, nothing happens unless the school’s performance on state assessments sinks all the way to about the bottom five percent level in the state. A school performing just above the five percent performance level remains immune from action by either the local board or the superintendent to improve the curriculum.
With that background established, let’s discuss Dr. Lewis’ comments.
Dr. Lewis obviously knows many school councils in Kentucky are not performing well since he says there remains a “tremendous” amount of work to bring many councils up to snuff. But, consider how long the SBDM system has been operating in Kentucky – at least 23 years. Don’t you think if this fad education theory was really going to work well for Kentucky, we would not today still see the need for a “tremendous” amount of work to bring the councils up to snuff? And, how are you going to get councils to improve when the still-in-effect, 1990 law essentially insulates the councils from any accountability?
Lewis’ comments clearly indicate that he thinks the SBDM law needs revisiting (in fact he suggested that the legislature should do this during his testimony).
It is also clear that Dr. Lewis holds an opinion that the SBDM law prevents Kentucky from having meaningful, detailed education standards. He feels the SBDM law will be violated if Kentucky creates the sort of social studies standards it really needs.
Actually, I don’t buy the argument that the SBDM law prevents Kentucky from creating detailed education standards (more on that in a minute), but because Lewis and his staff do believe it – and so do the teachers on the committees that created the revised social studies standards – the end product of that effort was – by intent – excessively vague and incomplete. In fact, Lewis’ testimony actually supports my assertion that the standards are indeed weak. Per Lewis, that happened precisely because of the SBDM law.
This doesn’t render the proposal as good standards, however.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are great precedents to show that the SBDM law was not even a consideration in the adoption of other, more detailed education standards in Kentucky. In 2010 the state adopted, essentially verbatim, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics (CCSS). The English Language Arts part was incorporated as reading and writing standards for Kentucky. Later, in 2013 Kentucky adopted verbatim the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
Both the CCSS and the NGSS were created entirely outside of Kentucky, intended for use in all the states. Special allowance for Kentucky’s unique SBDM law was never considered in either document. But, all of these relatively detailed standards were still OK’ed for use in the commonwealth. So, the notion that the SBDM law prevents detail in education standards ignores actual precedents and also raises concerns that the people who wrote the standards really don’t understand the difference between standards and curriculum. It’s just an excuse for a bad product.
Dr. Lewis and his crew may get another chance to defend their deficient product in a forthcoming meeting of the Kentucky Legislature’s Interim Joint Education Committee. Hopefully, you and many other Kentuckians will get with your legislators before this happens and encourage the committee to find the regulation adopting the standards, 704 KAR 8:060, deficient, thereby sending the entire standards package back to the Kentucky Board of Education for a lot more work.
Otherwise, you will become a de facto supporter of standards that leave out a ton of important things our kids deserve to learn about.
For more on the deficiencies in the proposed revision of Kentucky’s social studies standards, check out these blogs: