Teacher pay, tech subjects, leadership are keys to education’s role in Eastern Kentucky's economy

By John James Snidow

PAINTSVILLE, Ky. -- Those with competing visions of the economic future of Eastern Kentucky agree on at least one thing: education is central. Almost every county school district in the state’s eastern coalfield has test scores below the state average, and the region has Kentucky’s lowest share of high-school graduates.

Even when they do attend college, Eastern Kentucky students often lag behind, especially in science and mathematics. In Carter County, “Two of our valedictorians went to UK last year, and both of them had to take remedial math,” Rep. Robin Webb of Grayson says, looking annoyed. “They're brilliant children, and there's just no excuse for that.” (For a story on a Kentucky academy for gifted high-school children, click here.)

There are such stories all around the state, but East Kentucky remains the biggest challenge for educators, says Gov. Steve Beshear. And he and others point to an exception that gives them hope for the region.

“Johnson County,” he says. “There's a group of people there that are dedicated to delivering quality education to their kids, and they’re making a huge difference.” Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, calls it the “finest school system” in Kentucky.

Johnson Central Elementary has the second-highest test scores in the state; U.S. News and World Report named the high school one of America’s best last year; and the county’s academic teams have dominated state competition for years. The teams are the New York Yankees of academic competition in Kentucky: not just well-trophied, but well-funded.

“We pay our academic-team coaches as much as the head football and basketball coaches” for their non-classroom work, says Supt. Steve Trimble. “And that made people think, ‘Well, academics must be important to the folks in Johnson County.’” (For a commentary on Trimble, click here.)

The county high school regularly finishes in the top five of the Governor’s Cup academic competition, and the middle school has won seven state championships — including the last four years in a row, beating out selective schools in much wealthier districts.

In Johnson County, income is $14,051 per person, 22 percent less than the state average. Two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and 36 percent of children live below the poverty line.

Such figures usually forecast under-achievement. Asked why Eastern Kentucky schools lag, Kentucky Education Association President Sharon Oxendine replies with a single word, “poverty.” But at Johnson Central High, students from poor families do slightly better on reading and math tests, defying the conventional wisdom.

Why? A conversation with Trimble turns up three main reasons: valuing academics, maintaining strong leadership, and keeping bad teachers out of the classroom. “You have to instill a sense of pride in everyone and stop making excuses,” he says. (Encarta map)

The main reason for success, he says, is a culture change. “We created a situation where it’s as much an honor to be on the academic team as it is to be a football star. … I’d rather win a state championship in academics than in basketball or football,” he says, grinning.

Trimble says every academic achievement should be celebrated, and in Johnson County, that happens quite a lot: “We treat them like kings,” he says. “We even had a parade. We’re talking more than a mile of vehicles.”

This kind of culture is no accident, but is consciously forged through classroom leadership, Trimble says: “Every school district has good kids, but the people you hire to work with those kids are really crucial.”

Trimble takes a hands-on approach to teacher hiring and retention, sitting in on hiring interviews. “Sometimes we make mistakes, but we make sure to get rid of them, because those people hurt kids,” he says, and while tenure rules must be followed, he says a zero-tolerance approach to underperformance eventually “weeds them out until you get a whole team of people who want the system to be successful.”

The teenage son of one East Kentucky school superintendent says he has seen one principal’s hands-on approach motivate faculty members to do better. “There are no bad teachers,” he said, “only lazy teachers.”

But many think getting the best teachers has become more difficult because teaching no longer attracts the best students. “We’re drawing from the bottom 30 percent instead of the top 30 percent of college graduates,” says Cindy Heine of the statewide Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

Heine says a focus on teacher quality must be the centerpiece of future education reform. “The top students in Kentucky tend to go into business or law or medicine,” she says, “and some of them should. But if we can draw even some of those kids back into teaching, we can really make a difference.”

Johnson County gets better teachers by paying them more than surrounding counties, but most districts find it hard to get good teachers for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which are called STEM subjects to signify their collective importance in an information economy.

Speaking to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce July 15, Memphis tycoon Bob Compton said “Economic growth is correlated with one thing: the level of math and science education in a population,” and Kentucky’s kids aren’t getting what they need to compete. “The result,” he told the audience of Kentucky’s business elite, who listened in sobered silence, “is that your children will have a lower standard of living and may have to emigrate to China and India to find jobs.”

Efforts are being made to improve teaching and learning in STEM subjects. The East Kentucky Science Center at Prestonsburg, created by locals and adopted by the state, houses rotating exhibits and conducts programs in schools to promote science-related careers. L ocal lawyer John Rosenberg, a founder, says the center’s goal is to create “silicon hollows,” small, concentrated pockets of high-tech jobs like those in California’s Silicon Valley.

The National Science Foundation gave the University of Kentucky $22 million for math education in the region. The program is run by math professor Paul Eakin, who saw the need first-hand. “I have had shocking experiences with what was going on – and not going on – in classrooms,” Eakin says. “There was this one clown who had a TV in his desk drawer and had his students doing mindless worksheets all day.”

Many think the STEM problem boils down to teacher pay. “I’m an engineer by training,” says former Gov. Paul Patton of Pikeville, “and I think that teachers and engineers should have about the same education and intellect to do their jobs well – but teachers make $35,000 to an engineer’s $65,000.”

Gross, of the education department, says she “gets a lot of emails and phone calls from people interested in moving into Kentucky, and their question is always ‘Well, what’s the average salary?’”

But while many highlight the importance of increased salary in creating good schools, Governor Beshear says the experience of Johnson County tells him “that while funding is important, it’s the people that really make the difference.” After all, if Johnson County, why not the rest?

UPDATE: New Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday wrote us after reading this story that the quality of instruction "is my number one priority. All other results will be impacted if we focus on the quality of instruction. Especially on the quality of instruction in science and math. I know we have many excellent teachers in Kentucky who could share their expertise with beginning teachers and others. I look forward to finding ways to support and coach teachers and classrooms so that our children (all over Kentucky) are prepared to compete for the jobs of the future."

John James Snidow is a researcher for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. He is a graduate of Paul Blazer High School in Ashland, Ky., and Harvard College, with a degree in economics. Reach him at Snidow@gmail.com. This is the second of a series of articles about economic development in Appalachia, distributed by the Institute. Reach Institute Director Al Cross at al.cross@uky.edu.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 08/16/2009