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Let’s refocus on education

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after appearing in publications statewide.

With all of Frankfort’s brouhaha about transgenderism in schools, many policymakers have lost sight of what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has told us for years is Kentucky’s biggest education problem: our public schools fail to teach a large portion of children to read.

Evidence of the problem appeared again in the 2022 NAEP fourth grade reading results. Analyzed by race – the only way to get an accurate view from the NAEP – only 34% of Kentucky’s white public school students performed at or above the proficient level; just 15% of Blacks met similar muster.

Equally alarming, 58% of Black students and 34% of whites read at NAEP’s lowest skill level. These students lack even partial mastery of reading.

After 33 years of the much-ballyhooed Kentucky Education Reform Act, which supporters promised would close gaps in academic performance as well as funding for school districts – these results are inexcusable.

The legislature has made some serious attempts to deal with the failure to adequately teach reading to Kentucky’s kids. In 2022, the General Assembly passed Paris Republican Sen. Stephen West’s Senate Bill 9, instituting a number of overdue reforms such as better screening assessments for reading.

SB 9 also created “Reading Academies” where teachers can learn about what scientific research has established as the best approach to teaching reading. That knowledge has been available for years but it generally has been absent from Kentucky teachers’ training, including their professional development programs.

A series of Courier-Journal articles in October about the state of reading in Kentucky indicated that scientific emphasis was even largely absent in a collaborative research center the legislature established years ago to inform teachers about what works best.

Thankfully, the legislature ended the state’s contract with that reading center in late 2022. During the 2023 session, new legislation was passed to create a completely different center for reading research. But much more is needed.

The great improvement in reading performance we’ve seen in some school districts indicates that teaching reading properly really does work.

In 2010, the Elgin Children’s Foundation – a philanthropy focused on improving life in Appalachia – funded a program to educate teachers in Clay, Laurel and Leslie counties’ schools about what scientific research shows works best for teaching reading.

While an overnight miracle didn’t occur, third grade reading proficiency rates on state tests in these Appalachian school districts solidly improved over a number of years.

By pre-COVID 2019, Clay County’s Goose Rock Elementary School posted a third grade reading proficiency rate of 89.7%, despite 85% of its students coming from low-income homes, making them eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Also in 2019, the third grade reading proficiency rate at Gamaliel Elementary in central Kentucky’s Monroe County posted an astonishing 94.6% third grade proficiency rate despite a 75% school lunch eligibility.

Even COVID didn’t slow another Appalachian district in Elgin’s program. In 2022 state testing, Laurel County’s Keavy Elementary posted a remarkable 91% third grade reading proficiency performance despite a well-above-state-average school lunch eligibility rate of 72%.

There’s been little, if any, reporting by the state’s major media outlets about this major improvement in reading proficiency.

Is that because a narrative they favor – “you can’t hold Kentucky schools where many kids come from poor homes accountable” – would unravel with stories about Appalachian schools leaving wealthy counterparts in richer districts behind?

The legislature created the Reading Academies with 2,400 funded slots for the first phase of the program. However, fewer than 1,900 teachers actually signed up. With statewide reading proficiencies so low, that number needs to rise – quickly.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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