clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Kentucky became a rare Common Core success story

Kentucky was the first state to adopt Common Core, and has stuck with it.
Kentucky was the first state to adopt Common Core, and has stuck with it.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

It hasn't been a good year for the Common Core.

Onetime Common Core allies ranging from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, have backed away from the initiative. Public support is dropping, and even Common Core supporters acknowledge it's become a politically toxic brand.

But one state has become a Common Core poster child: Kentucky.

Four years after Kentucky adopted the new Common Core benchmarks for what students should know and be able to do in reading and math, about 62 percent of students are considered ready for college or a career when they graduate — up from 38 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, the state has sidestepped some of the political controversy that's become a hallmark of Common Core elsewhere.

Here are three reasons for the state's success, and why it might be difficult for others to follow the same path.

Kentucky signed up for Common Core early

Kentucky began laying the groundwork for Common Core before the Common Core even existed. In 2009, the state passed a new education law requiring new, higher academic standards and adopting new tests. The law also required higher education and K-12 to work together to make sure that what students learned in high school matched up with what they needed to know to be ready for college.

Kentucky became the first state to sign on when the Common Core standards were released. By the 2011-12 school year, the Common Core wasn't just the basis for classroom instruction, it was the standard used on state tests — a move that put Kentucky years ahead of other states.

This early start meant the standards were already in place before the political controversies flared in 2012. In many states, parents got to know Common Core as a political issue, not an educational one. This wasn't the case in Kentucky. Kentucky also adopted the standards before the federal government offered incentives for doing so. This neutralized a common criticism of Common Core: that adopting the standards was federally mandated.

Kentucky talked a lot about Common Core, even when the news wasn't good

Common Core didn't get much publicity in most states until it became controversial. This wasn't the case in Kentucky, where the state started a PR and outreach campaign to explain why they'd adopted the new standards. The outreach effort included parents, teachers, and principals, as well as lots of support for developing new curriculums that matched up with the standards.

The new state tests aligned to the standards were harder, and scores dropped right away. On Kentucky's old state tests, last given in 2011, about 75 percent percent of students were considered proficient in reading and math. When students took the new tests for the first time, fewer than half were considered proficient.

Since then, though, scores have been climbing back up slowly in most subjects. (High school math is the exception; proficiency rates have dropped since 2012.) And scores on the ACT are at their highest since the state began requiring all high school juniors to take the test in 2008.

Kentucky college and career readiness

The state is now asking the public to review the Common Core standards and suggest changes. They have the benefit of years of experience with them in the classroom. There's also still a long way to go: just 19 percent of Kentucky students are considered college-ready in math, science, reading, and English, according to the ACT.

Kentucky kept the stakes for teachers lower

Kentucky's early adoption meant it avoided some of the political controversy surrounding Common Core elsewhere. But the real reason for its success might be that, compared to other states, the stakes for teachers weren't as high.

The Obama administration has pushed states to begin evaluating teachers, and making decisions about promotions, raises, hiring, and firing, based in part on their students' scores on standardized tests. This is a separate project from the Common Core. But it's happened at the same time, which means that the two policies have gotten tangled together — and the changes to teacher evaluation systems are much more controversial among teachers than the standards are.

Many states are putting the standards in place in the classroom, testing students on them, and evaluating teachers based on those test results, all within a few years. That quick timeline has scared teachers unions and other groups that otherwise support the Common Core, and it's made the standards much more controversial.

Kentucky, though, has been an outlier on teacher evaluations.

While the state did create a new way to evaluate teachers, which begins to take effect this year, test scores won't be included until the 2015-16 school year — four years after students first took Common Core tests. And the test scores included in the evaluation will be averages, not individual test scores; the state's reform-minded education commissioner, Terry Holliday, has said he doesn't believe that teachers should be evaluated based on test results.

This has helped Kentucky preserve support for the Common Core among teachers when teachers unions elsewhere have faltered.

But it's also a hard path for other states to follow. The Gates Foundation has recommended a two-year moratorium on using test scores in teacher evaluations, and the Education Department allowed states a one-year delay. But in many states, the Common Core and new teacher evaluation plans are inextricably linked. That makes it more difficult to win teacher support. And the support of teachers is key to the Common Core's success.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.