Lessons from Kentucky

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The Kentucky Department of Education has been training and sending out its own kind of “probation manager” since 1994. Called Distinguished Educators, or DEs, they are experienced teachers and administrators who leave their jobs for two years to work as consultants at struggling schools, modeling ways to boost student performance.In Kentucky, every school is given an improvement target every two years; schools that fall short are assigned DEs and get a share of a special $5 million state grant, which must be used for academic improvements.

David Allen, the program’s branch manager, says his team is beginning to learn the essential ingredients of successful school intervention.

Don’t spread consultants too thin.

Allen says that in the program’s first two-year cycle, there were 48 DEs for 53 schools; as a result, most schools enjoyed undivided attention. In the second cycle, 175 schools entered the program, but the Kentucky Legislature did not increase funding to increase the number of DEs. With three to four schools each, DEs now have less time to collaborate with individual teachers, communicating instead through school administra-tors. Allen says that in many cases, such top-down communication was part of the problem to begin with.

Give schools the time and personalized approach they need to succeed.

Of the 53 schools that joined the program in 1994, 17 failed to “graduate” by 1996. With one more year of assistance, 16 of the 17 were poised to leave the program, Allen says. “We have learned that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to school improvement,” he says.

Allen notes that two of the state’s best schools landed in the program in 1996. “The faculties went through very strong periods of denial,” Allen says. To heal bruised egos, DEs had to emphasize enhancement, rather than remediation, he says. Both schools have since met their improvement goals.

Make sure school staff understand how the program works.

Allen says some schools expected DEs to tell them what to do rather than to work with them to come up with solutions together. “They wanted the educational Green Berets,” he says with a laugh. Allen says instances of hostility were “minimal” once teachers understood that the process would be collaborative. Detractors tended to be teachers with rigid ideas about education and little interest in improving, he contends.

In the October 1997 issue of Louisville, veteran education writer Holly Holland profiles one of Kentucky’s distinguished educators. The article, “The Brown vs. the Department of Education,” can be found online at http://www.louisville.com/loumag/oct97/brown.htm.