By Dave Adkisson, Terry Holliday, Robert King and Phillip Rogers
This year’s back-to-school season marks the beginning of a new era for Kentucky’s public education system that offers great promise for moving our state forward.
Kentucky’s teachers and students will have their first experience this fall with new academic standards that are designed to significantly improve students’ preparation for college and the workplace. Kentucky was the first state to adopt these new learning measures – known here as the Kentucky Core Academic Standards – and nearly every state in the nation has followed suit. Testing on the new standards will begin next spring to determine how much progress we’re making toward creating top-flight schools that educate students to become successful students and productive workers.
These developments are of great importance to every Kentuckian because of the impact they will have on three interrelated aspects of our lives: education, employment and the economy.
Here is a sobering statistic. In Kentucky’s public schools today, there are 50,000 8th-grade students. If we don’t make changes, only 17,000 of these students will be ready for college and/or career by the time they graduate from high school. In addition, more than 6,000 of those 50,000 could drop out before they even graduate.
Those figures are very disturbing. Adding up the number of students not ready to succeed after high school and the number of potential dropouts shows that we are falling short in engaging and preparing nearly half of our high school students.
What does this mean for the state’s employment and economy? It means decreased tax revenue as a result of an unskilled labor force. It means higher public assistance expenditures, higher rates of incarceration and a dampening of state competitiveness when prospective employers look for areas in which to locate. It means a $10,000 gap in the average yearly salary of a high school graduate compared to that of a dropout. And the earnings gap is just as pronounced at other levels, according to the U.S. Census. A high school graduate earns $8,000 less a year than someone holding an associate’s degree and a substantial $27,000 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.
Still, there are reasons to be optimistic.
Kentucky has embarked on an ambitious plan that began in 1990 with the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA). We’ve seen improvement in our public schools since 1990, particularly at the early grade levels. We’ve maintained momentum and support through tough times.
We needed a recharge, though, and we got it with the 2009 passage of legislation mandating new academic standards, a new testing system, improved college/career readiness, enhanced teacher preparation and more. The law requires collaboration among P-12, higher education and teacher preparation agencies to ensure students and their schools get the resources they need.
The ultimate goal is for every child to graduate from high school prepared for college and/or career. With this preparation, our youngest citizens will be productive, and Kentucky’s economy will improve.
Why is this important to all Kentuckians? Because we are now educating the future workers, earners and leaders of our state, and we’ll all pay a painful price if we fail to prepare them well.
Parents, employers and community members can help simply by becoming informed – learn about the new academic standards, pay attention when school test scores are released and support teachers and administrators as they navigate through the upcoming school year.
Most important, Kentucky’s children need our help and support. Communities must rally around their schools to ensure they have what they need to succeed.
We challenge every Kentuckian to focus on what’s important this school year: making sure that our children are able to move from one grade to another and then out of high school ready to succeed no matter what path they choose toward adulthood. The bottom line is clear – Kentucky’s future is at stake.
Dave Adkisson is the president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Terry Holliday is Kentucky Commissioner of Education. Robert King is president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. Phillip Rogers is executive director of the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board.