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Op-ed: Kentucky Education Summit Provides a Clear Path Forward for Education in the Commonwealth

The following was Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) Chair Lu Young’s closing remarks at the 2021 Kentucky Education Summit, which took place Nov. 1-2 at the Kentucky International Convention Center.

I have always admired that our Commissioner of Education, Jason E. Glass, often refers to himself as the Commonwealth’s chief learner. As chair of the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE), I also held a similar title while attending the 2021 Kentucky Education Summit – chief listening officer.

As I reflect on those two transformative days in Louisville, I now find myself with pages and pages of notes and inspiring quotes I captured. These notes, coupled with the Kentucky Coalition for Advancing Education’s “United We Learn: Hearing Kentucky’s Voices on the Future of Education” report, are evidence that a powerful path forward for the future of learning in Kentucky has clearly emerged.

That path forward includes a united effort that keeps this dialogue alive as we move headlong into the work of transforming teaching, learning and assessment to reimagine the learner experience for every public school child in Kentucky.

Throughout the summit, I heard so many valuable messages and I want to highlight some of those takeaways as we begin to illuminate our path forward.

To our teacher leaders, engage your students in authentic learning like project-based learning, passion projects, outside-school learning experiences, internships and community service. These richly relevant, high-quality, equitable instructional experiences will prepare them for a new assessment and accountability system designed to inform teacher practice and school performance, not to blame and shame students, families and educators.

Support your students as they engage in deep learning and inquiry across disciplines. Lean into the development of critical thinking, communication, problem-solving and creativity. Know, without a doubt, that those skills can be taught and can be learned.

Tony Wagner, a senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, suggested, for instance, that we have students keep question journals, a powerful tool for self-reflection and goal-setting. Our 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr., talked about the application of learning and the power of performance assessment. Both ideas help amplify the voices of students and build opportunities for them to take ownership of their learning.

To our administrators and school board members, now is not the time to wait. Engage your communities and business and industry partners to reach a consensus about what all learners should know, be able to do and be like when they matriculate from primary to intermediate, to middle, to high and on to postsecondary. If you haven’t already done so, undertake the development and implementation of robust, community-informed profiles of a graduate.

Keep a close watch on the work of our Local Laboratories of Learning (L3s) districts as they take action to build broad community partnerships to strike a new balance between the teaching of content with the teaching of those critically important skills and dispositions that will prepare every learner to be innovation-ready graduates and productive citizens of our Commonwealth.

Now is the time for you to model and lead the way as we engage all children and youth in substantive decision-making about their own schooling experiences. I’ll never forget a time when I was presenting with student voice team members at a national event, and one student on the panel commented that she did not wait to be offered a seat at the table. She just pulled up a chair. I encourage you to open up leadership opportunities for students of every background to sit at your school or district table. If you don’t invite them, I hope they will, in fact, pull up a chair.

To our policymakers, we urge you to listen deeply to educators, local boards, our agency leaders at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) and the hopes and aspirations of communities across the state, as together we build local consensus around the future of learning.

Resist the temptation to “manage down” as you consider legislation about teaching and learning in the next session and beyond. As Rep. Ed Massey admonished, “don’t legislate from three hours away.”

Lean on and lean into the voices of education professionals. We respectfully urge you to oppose any effort to limit students’ exposure to a diverse range of cultures, history and perspectives, thereby stifling their ability to think deeply and critically about the world around them.

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight that we heard from legislative leaders, keynoters and other panelists who called for increased funding for schools to increase teacher salaries, provide mental health support for students and educators, and provide differentiated, equitable resources for students based on their unique needs. It was encouraging to hear those commitments of support.

To our community and business partners, it is time for you to lock arms with schools and districts to co-design a student-centered public education system that works for everyone, starting with a community-informed portrait of a graduate.

I urge community and business leaders to find consistently effective ways to support schools in their efforts to provide deep and authentic learning experiences for our students in real-world settings. Actual conversations matter, and local discourse matters most. Communities must commit to a sharing relationship among families, educators, business and industry partners, and local leaders that leads to improved learning experiences for all learners – experiences driven by innovation and collaboration.

And to our students and families, pull up a chair or build your own table. If you don’t already have an active student voice team at your school, reach out to the Kentucky Student Voice Team and get started. Apply to be a part of KDE’s Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council.

Students and family members, when you speak, speak up not only for yourself, but for those around you who have not yet found their voice. It is time for Kentucky’s students to take charge of their own learning as they follow their passion and purpose.

As attendees left the summit, we felt a charge to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionize the learner experience in each and every classroom, schoolhouse and district in Kentucky.

One of the KBE’s goals is to leverage this work to co-create a vision with communities, foster local innovation and advance policy recommendations aligned with this work. At the 2021 Kentucky Education Summit, we took giant steps toward this goal.

Let’s take this work to the next level, statewide, by valuing and empowering educators, students and families from rural, suburban and urban communities as we take collective, affirmative steps to realize a future of learning characterized by personal independence and community prosperity.

This is a truly unique moment in time as we emerge better than normal from the darkness of a global pandemic into a place where we have a track record of deep, productive educational transformation, the executive leadership and the legislative will to set a new course for the future. We have a commissioner and state board who embrace a bold new agenda for teaching, learning, assessment and equity.

The confluence of all these forces presents us with a unique mandate to reimagine the experience of every learner in the system; shame on us if we squander this gift. United we learn as we invest in Kentucky’s future, one student at a time.

-Lu Young is the Chair of the Kentucky Board of Education