Journal Issue: Financing Schools Volume 7 Number 3 Winter 1997
Jacob E. Adams
Kentucky's Experience with Reform
The great number and variety of changes embodied in KERA pose substantial challenges. However, the scope of this reform also is its promise. Kentucky policymakers and practitioners alike describe KERA as a "fabric of reform," suggesting that its components are interconnected and reinforcing.Funding Changes
Kentucky's reform produced 34% more school district revenue (19% adjusted for inflation) between 1990 and 1993, as well as marked improvements in system equity. KERA revamped equalization aid, introduced pupil weighting factors to support students with special needs, and capped the amount of funds any district could raise locally. It also created a number of new categorical grants to ensure support for high-priority activities. Tables 1 through 3 show changes between 1990 and 1993, and are not adjusted for inflation.
Under KERA, school district revenues increased, as illustrated in Table 1. During the first three years of reform implementation, state and local revenues increased from $3,076 to $4,107 per pupil, or approximately 34%. The state and local shares of support for education did not change, however. Before and after reform, approximately 71% of nonfederal revenue came from state sources, while about 29% originated locally.
These revenue increases are consistent with the state's intent: members of the legislature addressed the supreme court's admonition to improve the adequacy of the state school system by providing more resources to school districts. They did this through an increase in the state sales tax and by raising the required minimum local contribution to school funding.
Expenditures Increased but Spending Patterns Changed Little
With new revenue available, school districts increased spending across all functions except debt service, as illustrated in Table 2. Moreover, resource allocation among Kentucky school districts after KERA was virtually identical to the pattern before reform. After reform, Kentucky school districts allocated, on average, 3.6% of expenditures to administration, 70.3% to instruction, 5.9% to transportation, 9.3% to operations and maintenance, 4.2% to fixed costs, 4.2% to capital outlay, and 2.2% to student services. Spending changed less than one percentage point in administration, student services, transportation, operations, maintenance, fixed costs, and debt service. Capital outlay increased from 1.7% to 4.2% of the budget. The percentage of total spending allocated to instruction decreased from 72.4% to 70.3%, though the actual dollars allocated to instruction increased substantially.
Teacher, district administrator, and principal salaries increased (23.5%, 25%, and 28%, respectively), but not as fast as total school spending increases (37% overall). Proportionately more money was devoted to nonteacher and nonadministrator certified salaries, instructional aides and clerical support, instructional materials, services, and buildings.
System Equity Improved
The state's reconstituted school system is more uniform and provides more equal educational opportunity than the state system prior to reform (see Table 3). One way to examine equity is to note the revenue differences between percentiles of pupils. Prior to KERA, the highest percentile of pupils received over 2.5 times more revenue than the lowest percentile; after reform, the top received 1.6 times more revenue than the bottom.13 Similarly, if the upper and lower extremes of the distribution of pupil revenue are removed (top and bottom 5%), a similar narrowing of the distribution of revenues is evident. This "restricted range" decreased from $1,424 to $1,045, or almost 27%. Dividing the 95th by the 5th percentile allows us to express the restricted range in percentage terms (known as the federal range ratio). In Kentucky, the prereform per-pupil revenue at the 95th percentile was 77% larger than at the 5th percentile, whereas postreform per-pupil revenue at the 95th percentile was 38% larger.
Another, perhaps more useful, way to assess equity is to make a judgment about the entire distribution of pupil revenue, not just two points in that distribution. Analysts use a measure called the coefficient of variation (COV) to describe a state's whole distribution of pupil revenue. The COV indicates how closely student revenue (across all percentiles) is clustered around the average amount. School finance experts have postulated that, in an equitable system, 68% of all students (equal to one standard deviation) will be clustered within 10% of the average, on either side.14 Before KERA, Kentucky's spread was 22%; after KERA, it was 11%.
Equally important, KERA reduced by 55% the relationship between a school district's wealth and the amount of revenue its students received. The absence of such a relationship indicates a more equitable school system. More revenue and greater equity support the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability's contention that "in the area of finance, tremendous progress has been made."15
KERA's school finance policies created financial opportunities for all districts by providing increases in general purpose funding and by offering restricted-purpose grants to support new activities such as weekend and summer tutoring and Family Resource Centers. The new funding formula also included $100 per pupil for capital outlay.
A detailed examination of expenditures in four Kentucky school districts (two high- wealth and two low-wealth)16 showed that all four districts increased spending on teachers' salaries, with increases ranging from 16% to 43%. Superintendents described these salary increases as important components in strengthening teacher morale, recruitment, and retention. Similarly, all four districts spent new resources on teachers' professional development. Also, in low-wealth districts particularly, reform dollars purchased instructional materials and educational technology. In fact, one low-wealth district increased its instructional materials budget from $15 per pupil to $100 per pupil. Additionally, facilities construction garnered a share of reform dollars. Unmet need in this area was particularly troublesome in districts without a property tax base of sufficient size to support their emerging facilities needs. Finally, reform dollars allowed districts to initiate supporting programs focused on school readiness and family support, such as preschool, family resource and youth service centers, and extended school services.Program and Governance Changes
School finance concerns played a central role in initiating Kentucky's educational reform. KERA, however, ranged beyond finance issues, initiating changes in accountability, governance, teacher professionalism, school organization, and supplemental services.
Under KERA, schools are expected to do more and to do it better. They are to teach more complex skills and to teach in better ways. Nationally normed tests (such as the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills [CTBS] and the California Achievement Test [CAT]) measure basic skills and some content mastery but are not sufficient to measure the "more and better" expectations of KERA. To hold schools accountable for achieving goals under KERA, the Commonwealth established a new assessment system—the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System (KIRIS)—at grades 4, 8, and 11. 17
The first KIRIS assessments were administered in 1991–92, to establish a baseline against which future performance would be judged. Since then, two accountability cycles have been administered, in 1992–94 and 1994–96. Each school's performance is aggregated into a single score on a 100-point scale. Five-sixths of the score represents cognitive aspects of performance; one-sixth represents performance in noncognitive domains—student attendance, dropout, and transition to college, work, or the military.
KIRIS ranks student performance in four levels: novice, apprentice, proficient, and distinguished. KIRIS similarly utilizes six levels to rank school performance: reward, successful, improving, improving category 2, in decline, and in crisis. School performance rankings lead to rewards and sanctions. Based on students' performance on state assessments, high-achieving schools qualify for monetary rewards, while poor-performing and declining schools face sanctions ranging from mandatory improvement plans and outside assistance to outside control, even closure.
In 1994, $26 million in rewards for improved performance was distributed to 36% of the state's schools. In 1996, some 46% of the state's schools received monetary rewards. In almost every instance, the teachers voted to use the funds to give themselves bonuses ranging from $1,300 to $2,600. Researchers found no evidence that rewards actually functioned as incentives, and the use of the rewards created resentment among parents, nonteaching staff, and at schools that did not qualify for rewards.18
Schools "in decline" must develop an improvement plan, work with a distinguished educator, and qualify for improvement funds. Schools that drop below their baseline by more than five points become schools "in crisis." These schools must develop improvement plans, a distinguished educator is assigned, improvement grants are available, teachers and principals are evaluated every six months and can be transferred or dismissed on the recommendation of the distinguished educator, and students have the option of transferring to more successful schools. Results from the second accountability cycle, released in fall 1996, indicated that nine schools (0.73% of the state's schools) faced sanctions as a result of being "in crisis."
Measuring "more and better" is not easy. For example, KIRIS originally included a performance element that has been particularly subject to criticism. In fact, two independent evaluations of KIRIS highlighted several technical and programmatic deficiencies in the system. The Commonwealth is now revising KIRIS to improve its reliability at measuring higher-order skills and also plans to reintroduce nationally normed tests such as CTBS and CAT to ensure that KERA's emphasis on higher-order skills does not result in any losses in the areas of basic skills.
A 1997 study of a sample of schools which administered both KIRIS and CTBS or CAT found (1) some schools showed solid gains on both tests (for example, at the fifth grade, 38% gained on both tests in reading, 11% in math, and 35% in language), and (2) there was no overall relationship between scores on the two tests. Schools with rising KIRIS scores might have either rising or falling CTBS/CAT scores, and the same was true for schools with falling KIRIS scores.19 Based on these preliminary findings, researchers suggest that schools which focus on KERA expectations do well on both KIRIS and standardized tests, while schools that focus only on traditional academic expectations do well only on standardized tests.
New Governance Structure
As the supreme court dictated, the school system was redesigned at all levels from the statehouse to the schoolhouse. The state department of education was dissolved and reformed, with a shift in emphasis from enforcement to technical assistance. Regional centers to provide teacher training were established throughout the state. And school districts were instructed to delegate considerable authority from the school board and superintendent's office to newly created school site councils composed of teachers, parents, and principals.
Site-based decision making (SBDM), that is, the delegation of authority to a school site council, forms a central mechanism of KERA. According to a research synthesis conducted by the Kentucky Institute for Education Research (KIER),20 site-based decision making in Kentucky is providing benefits but also exhibiting operational problems.
In terms of what is working well, KIER concluded that SBDM has been sustained for six years, that SBDM has been adopted in schools statewide according to the legislated timeline, and that this level of implementation is unparalleled in the nation. Moreover, there has been minimal corruption of the process, and conflicts among councils, superintendents, and school boards have been less serious and less numerous than anticipated. Teachers and parents, including minority parents, have greater voice in decision making, the process of hiring principals is more systematic and open, and most SBDM participants do not want to return to the previous governance structure.
In terms of what is problematic, the KIER study concluded that the extent of implementation and quality of school site council functioning vary considerably, and the roles and responsibilities of councils, principals, superintendents, and school boards remain somewhat ambiguous. In addition, councils tend to focus more on details and ad hoc decision making than on policy. They suffer from quick turnover of council members, and they do not have adequate access to the kinds of training, assistance, and resources needed to operate effectively. Many principals tend to dominate the councils because of their authority and responsibility. Moreover, many superintendents and school board members perceive hiring practices and decisions as divisive. Full parent participation in decision making and adequate minority representation have not been attained.
Looking ahead, KIER concluded that it is important for the state to keep the basic legal structure of SBDM in place but to clarify school and district roles. The state also must take steps to increase school site council continuity and development over time.
Teacher Pay and Professionalism
KERA sought to compensate teachers with adequate, competitive, and progressive salary levels and advancement opportunities throughout their careers. However, in terms of statewide teacher compensation policy, little has changed. Kentucky still operates a statewide minimum salary schedule. In 1993, the Kentucky Board of Education took no action on a department proposal for performance assessment and teacher pay. Research is evolving now that supports skillbased pay, team and school performance awards, and other pay structure changes.21
Professional development for teachers is a priority under KERA, with funding increased from $1 to $23 per student. Two-thirds of professional development funds are controlled by the school site council so teachers can determine what training they need.
KERA also recognizes "distinguished educators" with a one-year special assignment to work with teachers across the state and a 35% salary supplement. In the first six years of implementation, 120 persons have been designated as distinguished educators. As noted above, distinguished educators are also assigned to work with schools in decline, and they evaluate and make recommendations on firing or reassigning principals and teachers in schools found to be in crisis.
Mandatory Ungraded Primary Program
KERA mandates that schools provide multiage, multiability grouping for grades K–3. Some exceptions are allowed: this grouping need not apply to all students for every activity, though the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's position statement encourages such grouping in most situations. The General Assembly defined seven components of the primary program, the most controversial of which has been multiage and multiability classrooms.22 Implementation of the elementary program varies statewide. Some teachers have implemented more of the seven attributes, and some have implemented them better than others. Inclusion of five-year-olds in multiage classrooms remains controversial.15
Restructured High Schools
KERA stipulated one-sixth of a high school's accountability score be based on student graduation rates and successful transition to work, postsecondary education, or the military. In addition, KERA mandated that the state board of education review graduation requirements in light of the new expected outcomes for students.
The proposed core components of high school graduation include an individual graduation plan; an integrated academic portfolio, including a transcript, recommendations, test data, and activities; culminating project; activity related to service learning, school service, work-based learning, or student-initiated enrichment; and exit review. Expectations may be modified for students with special circumstances.23
Approximately 100 high schools, or about one-third of the state's high schools, have implemented some aspect of the proposed core components. Based on these demonstration experiences, the department of education will make recommendations for high school restructuring and revised graduation requirements.
More Extensive Supplemental Services
KERA launched extensive efforts to (1) better prepare at-risk children for kindergarten, (2) provide after-school and summer academic assistance, and (3) integrate educational and social services for students and families.17
KERA requires schools to offer a developmentally appropriate preschool for four-year-olds who qualify for the federal free lunch program or have disabilities. Coordination of KERA preschools with Head Start is encouraged. In 1995–96, more than 29,000 children were served, which included 74% of those eligible due to poverty and 90% of those eligible due to disability. All children in preschool received at least one meal; parent education, with a minimum of two home visits; health screening; developmental screening (including cognitive, communication, self-help, motor, and social-emotional skills); and coordination with medical, health, mental health, and social services agencies.
KERA's extended school services (ESS) program provides free academic assistance outside regular school hours. After-school tutoring and summer school are the prevailing models, with most students seeking improvement in reading, math, and writing. These services are widely utilized: about 150,000 of Kentucky's 578,000 K–12 students enrolled in ESS in 1993–94. Because of such wide utilization, the legislature increased the ESS budget from $21.4 million in 1991–92 to $33.9 million in 1996–97. The majority of students enrolled in ESS enter with a grade of D or F in their referring class and raise that grade at least one letter by the end of the term.
In fiscal 1997, 560 family resource or youth service centers operated serving 912 schools (approximately 80% of eligible schools). These centers served more than 400,000 students. The most utilized service is referral and coordination of health services. Other prominent services include educational and recreational summer camps, antidrug and alcohol seminars, parenting skills training, employment and career counseling, pregnancy prevention programs, child care services, and family crisis counseling.
Table 4 provides a summary of selected major elements of KERA and experiences in implementation.Overview of Implementation
In a real sense, and with due regard for the importance and difficulties of the legislative process, policymaking is the easy part of educational reform. As one careful observer concluded, the overarching lesson from empirical research on policy implementation is that "it is incredibly hard to make something happen."24 Kentucky lawmakers established a six-year implementation peri-od for KERA. During these half dozen years, the actions of state officials, local educators, parents, and students would determine the practical effects of Kentucky's school reform.
On the broader dimensions of reform implementation, substantial progress is evident. Structural elements of reform are largely in place, and concomitant changes in practice are developing slowly. However, several controversies arose which illustrate the challenge of large-scale change.
Progress on Structures
All mandated governance changes have been implemented, including a new state board of education and appointed commissioner. The state department was reorganized, regional service centers opened, an education professional standards board appointed, and an Office of Education Accountability (reporting to the legislature, not the department of education) created. At the end of 1996, school councils were in place in 1,184 of Kentucky's 1,365 schools (98 schools are exempt). These numbers represent more than 93% compliance on this dimension of reform. Collectively these councils have hired more than 500 new principals.
In terms of accountability standards, academic expectations were published for reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies, arts and humanities, practical living, and vocational studies. Moreover, a new performance-based assessment and accountability system was created and implemented. The first baseline assessments and two accountability cycles have been administered. Rewards for high performance were distributed, and several schools face sanctions for poor performance.
By fall 1996, 120 distinguished educators had been designated, most districts offered summer school or after-school programs, 560 family resource and youth service centers serving 912 schools were operating, all 176 school districts provided preschool services, and all 837 elementary schools offered ungraded primary programs.
Practices More Problematic
With change of this scale, implementation problems are all but assured. The state's experiences with assessment, the ungraded primary program, and site-based decision making illustrate implementation difficulties and highlight problems of technical and political legitimacy.
Kentucky's performance-based student assessment, for example, requires teachers to use and interpret a new form of assessment and, potentially, to change teaching and learning in their classrooms. Implementation statewide has varied among and within schools. On one hand, implementation studies indicate that the new Kentucky Instructional Results Information System (KIRIS) is having a major impact on the use of performance assessment in Kentucky classrooms, with multiple forms of assessment used by 70% of teachers. On the other hand, confusion exists among teachers regarding types and uses of performance assessment, and 30% of teachers still do not use curriculum frameworks or assessment reports.25
The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' group supporting and monitoring Kentucky's reform, identified challenges in the form of complex technical problems in testing, disagreements over whether financial rewards provide effective incentives, confusion among parents and public, some educators' objections to the concept of giving financial incentives on the basis of student performance on tests, and teachers' lack of knowledge about how to reach new or higher standards. The group concluded that assessment "is the part of reform where the most divisive politics and the most thorny technical problems come together."26
The ungraded primary program also has experienced statewide variation in the quality of implementation. Implementation reports have identified persistent problems. Parents are little involved, and the integration of five-year-olds remains controversial. Some parents and teachers express concern that hands-on, cooperative, whole language instruction poorly serves less verbal students and that older children are not sufficiently challenged. Reporting is confusing and provides no information about a child's progress relative to his or her peers. However, as researchers have noted, "as teachers became more knowledgeable about the elements that comprise the primary program and as they became more experienced in implementing the changes, their attitudes toward [primary program components] were more positive. However, the questions about multiage grouping remain."27
Site-based decision making constitutes a central support in KERA's reform framework. Control over critical educational decisions has been transferred to site-based committees of parents, teachers, and principals. Still, most council decisions focus on student discipline, extracurricular activities, and facilities rather than on issues more central to teaching and learning, and the number of parents participating remains small.28
The frustrations associated with these changes are apparent in the comments of observers. For example, "The initial legislative hope that knowledgeable, empowered teachers and parents would know what to do was overly optimistic. [and] Engaging the broader parent community in schools does not occur simply because a school council exists. Increasing parent involvement remains a major challenge."28 And "it is extremely difficult to accurately identify the dynamics that cause one faculty to enthusiastically embrace an initiative while another faculty will expend great effort to avoid it."29
Barriers to Change
Why does reform implementation take so long, if it even occurs at all? A group of researchers and reformers identified five challenges to Kentucky's systemic education initiative: (1) to create capacity at all levels of the educational system, (2) to implement the various components of reform in a reasonable sequence, (3) to avoid re-creating a stifling top-down bureaucracy, (4) to foster the public and professional support needed to sustain change over time, and (5) to develop mechanisms for continuous learning and adaptation.30
National Governors' Association analysts Jane David and Paul Goren have identified more generic barriers to large-scale educational reform efforts. These hurdles include weak incentives for educators and students to change their expectations and practices; a regulatory and compliance mentality stemming from existing school regulations and union contracts; limited opportunities for teachers and administrators to learn new ways of teaching and organizing schools; and poor communication across levels of the education system, within schools, and between schools and communities.31
At the local level, school boards contested the new authority of school site councils, arguing that actions taken by site councils must be consistent with board policy. The issue was resolved by the Kentucky Supreme Court in 1994,32 in favor of the school site councils. The Office of Education Accountability, however, notes that most councils still operate within the framework of local board policy.33
After six years of implementation experience in Kentucky, with the continuing challenges of educational reform before him, Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee, commented, "It's becoming clear that making school reform work will be the toughest challenge this generation of Kentuckians will ever face."34 Still his comments note the substantial progress the state made in those six years and the potential of these actions to move the state further toward its goal of higher student achievement: "In many ways, 1996 will mark the real beginning of reform—the first point at which all the key pieces are launched. Much of the current discussion about reform is focused on important issues of educational substance. As long as the debate focuses on substance, where the will exists, differences can be accommodated. This is the real groundwork for profound change."35