Friday, September 9, 2011

A(n ‘Omissive) History of Education in Kentucky?

I attended a forum yesterday at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) organized around the recent release of a new book, “A History of Education in Kentucky.” It was written by EKU Professor William Ellis’ and discusses the history of education in the commonwealth from 1775 to the present – sort of.

I will leave it to experts on early education history to comment on Ellis’ treatment of schooling in Kentucky pre-1990. Certainly, that part of his book provides interesting reading.

Regarding Ellis’ discussion of the KERA period from 1990 forward, found in the book’s Epilog, I can offer pertinent comments. I have lived – and been involved – in this period of history.

At best, Ellis’ Epilog omits a tremendous amount of important material.

A prime case in point: Ellis’ provides no mention what so ever about the formation and activities of the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA), an absolutely incredible oversight.

From a historical standpoint, the OEA has produced a research treasure trove with its two decades of annual reports on the progress of KERA. That rich, primary source information simply cannot be ignored by any credible attempt to provide an accurate history of education in the state post-1990.

The OEA is also very unique – it’s a legislative organization with investigative and enforcement powers. Why and how that sharp departure from normal governmental organization in the United States came about is extremely important information and deserves discussion in any history of education in this state.

By the way, the complete absence of any mention of OEA in Ellis’ book is especially curious. The first head of the OEA, Dr. Penney Sanders, is well-known to Professor Ellis.

Sanders is also well-known to Professor Richard Day, who clearly did a lot of work to set up and MC yesterday’s forum. However, despite her extensive participation in the early days of KERA, Sanders wasn’t invited to yesterday’s get-together, not even to participate electronically. The current head of the OEA, Marcia Seiler, wasn’t present, either.

Another important face was notably and mysteriously absent at the forum. Retired Kentucky State Representative Harry Moberly – who just happens to be a former Executive Vice President for Administration at EKU (even has a building there named after him!) – was not included on any panel or even just present. Moberly ‘was there’ in the legislature from the start of KERA. He probably played a bigger role in over all education legislation post-1990 than any other single lawmaker in Frankfort. Harry tells me he was available but also was not invited to the forum. His absence yesterday is, at best, curious.

Taken together, the absence of both Sanders and Moberly at yesterday’s forum is astonishing.

The Ellis book’s treatment of key points in KERA is, at best, highly incomplete. He generally glosses over many important details about why Kentucky experienced the failure of not one, but two assessment programs since KERA was enacted. There is a lot of important history in this story that people working on the new Common Core State Assessments need to hear, but won’t find in Ellis’ document. You can read some of that missing information in our “KERA (1990 – 2010); What Have We Learned?" report.

Of course, you won’t find any mention of the Bluegrass Institute or any of our publications in the Ellis work, either.

You also won’t find mention of a number of other groups like the now defunct Parents and Professionals Involved in Education and the still-going-strong Family Foundation of Kentucky, both of which were actively protesting KERA in the early days of the reform. At best, those groups are lumped under the disparaging term “the usual naysayers,” which the book does nothing further to identify.

Of interest, a number of the failures in KERA that those “naysayer” groups predicted later became very expensively true.

By the way, you won’t find a single Epilog reference in Ellis’ book to any works from either the OEA or the Kentucky Department of Education. No legislative or Kentucky Board of Education meeting minutes are referenced, either. The Epilog relies almost exclusively on newspaper reports.

Furthermore, in this period when we are much more adept as using data to enhance our analysis of past and present events, not a single table, graph, or chart appears in Ellis’ book.

I have to ask, what kind of historical treatment is this?

Anyway, over at Professor Days’ blog, he did run an apology along with Dr. Sanders’ independently written brief history of the OEA.

Penney thought she needed to set the record on a bit more even keel. Her short but very pertinent comments are worth reading.

You see, OEA’s history is important to the history of education in Kentucky. It should be included in any real history of the KERA period. But, don’t look for it, or a lot of other important KERA period information such as a reasonably detailed discussion of multiple testing failures, in the Ellis version. Those omissions render Ellis’ comments about the KERA period an “omissive history.” It certainly is not “the definitive account of education at all levels in the commonwealth,” at least not for the post-1990 period, despite what one recent review of the book review alleges.


Anonymous said...

Kentucky education results will never climb to the top until academicians and bureaucrats look in the mirror and acknowledge reality.

Professors are trying to change American history by what they write and teach. Why not do the same for Kentucky's education system?

Appointing Commissioner Holliday to a prestigious committee is wonderful for positive press but what good is it when he won't speak up to reform Kentucky's education system?

The good old boy system continues to take care of their own and reward their failure.

How sad.

Richard Day said...


First, Thanks for attending the Forum. I hope you found the information shared to be useful.

As far as omitting folks from Thursday’s panels is concerned, your list of omissions is way too short. We omitted many more folks than just Harry Moberly and Penney Sanders.

As it was, we pulled together about 30 key folks, which I thought was pretty ambitious. We were not only looking for key figures who made history, but also the scholars and media folks who have written about it (which had the effect of squeezing out even more). We were also concerned with getting folks from outside of central Kentucky and who represent the various state and independent universities. Including every worthy person would have been a practical impossibility.

Also, the decision to go politician-lite was deliberate. With a gubernatorial campaign underway, we wanted to avoid muddling history with current political banter. In that regard, David Williams could also be considered an omission along with David Karem, Eck Rose, Don Blandford, Ray Corns, Bob Babbage, any of the Council for Better Education leadership, Debra Dawahare… The list is long and distinguished.

Maybe that’s why the OEA didn’t come to mind – or maybe because Penney's on the west coast - but still, when Penney wrote, I must admit I thought the OEA was a bad omission too. Of course, we self-reported that. I also felt (and told the group Thursday) that we were underrepresented in Catholic education (which, if it were a public school district, would be the second largest in the state) and rural education.

As for Bill’s book, he can defend himself. I can tell you that it is not perceived to be the definitive history of KERA (Bill has encouraged me to take that little chore on.) and the Epilogue bends the 20-year rule. Historians tend to review history at a bit more distance.

Still, if one is going to write about the period, the OEA is a sizable omission. That Penney is Bill’s former student (and a contributor at Kentucky School News and Commentary) adds a little salt to the wound.


Richard Innes said...


I did find the forum worth my time, and I recognize the challenges you faced in putting it together.

Most of my concerns, as you noted, surround Prof. Ellis' book.

Still, forgetting Penney was an oversight (that could have been managed with an audio or audio/video conference link despite the distance), and I am glad you took yourself "to the woodshed" over at your blog for forgetting our mutual and important friend.

So far as not inviting Harry Moberly goes, he is fully retired from the legislature while Representative Ruth Ann Palombo, who you did invite, is still serving. Harry told me he was available and would have even come on his own if he had just known about the conference. I would have enjoyed hearing his highly informed input.

In any event, if you do plan to write something on KERA, please don't forget us other voices. We played an important part in many events like the sunsetting of two assessments, the departure of a pending commissioner of education, and others (remind me to tell you some time about what happened at the June 1999 meeting of the Interim Joint Education Committee when several folks from the NAEP tried to put one over on our legislators). You won't find that in the Ellis Book, either.

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