Friday, December 18, 2015

It really is a wonderful life

As we come to the end of the calendar year, I always take time to reflect and rejuvenate, and this year is no different. 

This time last year, I was preparing for another joyous Christmas with my family. My son was home from his first semester in college; my daughter was midway through her sophomore year; and my wife and I were proud and so thankful for a healthy and happy family. We were happy; we did not sit and fret about the future, but we always were ready for what life brings us. We had no idea what was in store for us in the coming year, especially the last few months. 

My favorite movie is It’s a Wonderful Life.  I know some of you think it is really cheesy.  But I have always loved it.  As a family, we watch it twice each year.  I am not sure that the rest of the family likes it as much as I do, but it is a family tradition.  I suppose in some ways, I have always identified with George Bailey.  No, I have not ever lost a lot of money or had to deal with anyone as evil as Mr. Potter, but I have always been aware of how important it is to realize a person’s life impacts others. 

The impact that teachers can have on their students is one of the things that drew me into the profession. As with most educators, I did not teach for the money, the notoriety, or the fame, because as we know, that’s just not part of the profession.  I did it because I felt I could help make a better life for my students, not just by teaching a subject I loved, but by preparing them to be good people.  My career took so many twists and turns from the classroom, but it is the classroom where I find my center and my value.  I really have had a wonderful life, and I am so glad that it has brought me to Kentucky.

My second favorite movie, also a Pruitt family tradition, is A Christmas Carol.  I am glad to report that I do not have a Scrooge in my family however, the three ghosts of Christmas do provide some important lessons in education for us as we move into 2016. 

The Ghost of Kentucky’s Education Past should not be forgotten or revert a simple reminiscent trip down memory lane. Rather as in the book, it should be carried with us as a light that guides our way now and into the future. Our past has made us what we are.  I have joked that we cannot have an education meeting in Kentucky without mentioning the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) and Senate Bill 1 (2009). Yet, those two very important legislative measures set us on a course to make incredible progress over the past 25 years and are much to credit for the reasons we have done so. 

From the Rose decision and KERA, through Senate Bill 1 and federal waivers, Kentucky’s progress did not happen by accident. It happened because of the commitment and dedication from many shareholders to work together to improve the lives of our students. 

The Ghost of Kentucky’s Education Present allows us to renew our commitment by coming together to work on our new accountability system and seek the best methods for moving our system forward.  We have made incredible gains in graduation rate and in the system in general.  But we are not perfect. We still have large achievement gaps and we still see inequities in opportunities for our students. We recognize it here and now, so we must embrace the opportunity presented to us at this time to work together to develop a system that will ensure every student receives a quality education.  It is our obligation, our moral obligation, to guarantee a quality education for every child. 

Charles Dickens recognized the danger of ignorance and the greater danger of ignoring it, when in A Christmas Carol, Christmas Present revealed to Scrooge two wretched, frightful, miserable children, about which he asked,
“Spirit are they yours?"
“They are Man's,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” 
Finally, we come to the Ghost of Kentucky’s Education Future.  Rather than being a dark specter full of foreboding, I believe this ghost is bright and full of opportunity and promise.  To be clear, if we do not listen to the Ghosts of the Past and Present, our future will dim.  I believe our best days are ahead of us.  Why?  Because we have the shareholders across the state who are willing to work together to build a better future and because we see the need in the eyes of our students.  We will take on this quest not because it’s easy, but because it is the right thing to do. 

I am so thankful for the opportunity to live in Kentucky and to work with such passionate people to improve the lives of our students. 

I wish you the happiest of holidays and encourage you to take time to reflect on our education’s past and present, as well the future. By doing so, I hope you will better understand the “wonderful life” we have and the even more wonderful life that our children will enjoy as the result of our efforts.  

Friday, December 11, 2015

A banner week for education

We had two big events in education this week. The first was the observance of the Hour of Code – part of Computer Science Education Week. The second was the passage and signing into law of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In this week’s blog, I will touch briefly on both. 

The Hour of Code is a global movement that gives students and others the opportunity to learn computer coding – another name for programming. Students in Kentucky, the U.S. and in more than 180 countries around the world took part in the Hour of Code this year. This is a great thing for several reasons. First, we live in an increasingly electronic age. We all benefit from technology and I think most of us would feel lost if our devices stopped working or did not improve over time. 

Additionally, the need for careers in the computer sciences continues to grow, yet we do not have the skilled workforce to meet the needs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by the year 2020, there will be more than one million unfilled jobs in the computer sciences. 

Part of the point of the “Hour” is to bring awareness of coding to our students. Unless they are lucky, students generally do not have access to learning to code through their school experience. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we add another requirement for graduation. However, coding is a career that students need to know is available to them and they will benefit from have some experience with it, even if they do not pursue computer coding as their life’s ambition. Coding presents a unique blend of content and thinking, and allows students to explore or tap into their creative abilities. 

Like a lot of things in education, despite the need in the field, the access to computer sciences and specifically coding is limited. I hope all of our students had an opportunity to experience the Hour of Code and further hope that as we move forward with our education system in the Commonwealth we will give serious consideration to how we can help fill the jobs of the future by giving our students the tools to do so.

Now to the other subject of this week’s blog. On Thursday of this week, around 11 a.m., the world of public education changed. The President signed the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) – the long overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I previewed the law in this blog several weeks ago and will delve into the 1,061 page measure in more detail in a future blog. For now, let it suffice to say this is a big opportunity for Kentucky. 

As I said to the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents this week, we are entering the most exciting and most challenging time in education. 

I think we need to pause to ponder the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.” Since the last reauthorization of this law (No Child Left Behind, 2001), many of us have complained about the unrealistic nature of some of the requirements and the lack of the ability for states to set their own course. The waiver process helped some, but it also brought additional accountability from the federal level. 

ESSA allows a great deal of flexibility for states, but that means it is time to put our money where our mouth is. I think we can do some great things as an education community to develop an accountability system specific to Kentucky that will do more to benefit children. There are some things we will need to consider before we can do this well. 

This will require all hands on deck. We will need all shareholders engaged and helping to craft a system that both celebrates the good things in education and holds us accountable to ensure EVERY student does succeed. 
I look forward to working with you as we move Kentucky into this new era. My biggest hope is that we can shift the mindset of accountability to a tool that we can use to improve education for our students in all areas. This will require a team effort, and I am proud to be a part of that team at this time in Kentucky’s history.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Board of education members critical to future of public education

The boards of education in our state and country share a tremendous responsibility. They are critical to improving the lives of students, and in turn our state and nation. Although we officially celebrate their contributions next month in Kentucky, in advance of that, I think it is important to highlight the significance of their work as we prepare for a new legislative session and to take on increased state and local control of public education should the federal Every Student Succeeds Act become law, which it likely will be by the end of the year.

I want to start with my thoughts on my own state board. I believe that some of the most important work I do is with the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE). Our work together forms the basis of the vision we have for education in Kentucky. Our relationship is critical to progress and our working together helps us come to the best answer. That does not mean they always agree with each other, or with me. What it does mean is we that work hard – together – to consider every possibility and develop policy that will result in a better educational experience for our students. In my opinion, I have the opportunity to work with the best board in the country. The members understand the need for their leadership, commitment, focus on policy and taking action based on what will provide the greatest benefit for our children. They are a great model for the Commonwealth and the nation.

This is an interesting time in Kentucky and if there has ever been a need for the leadership of our local boards, it is now. We know from research across the country that the best boards work well together, with their district offices, and focus on policy. I know this can be tough given all the demands and information board members receive on a daily basis, but it is critical that we all focus on children and make it a priority to act in their best interest. 

In the face of new accountability, lower budgets and shifting priorities, our local board members stand between the policies at the state level and implementation at the school level. Local board members play a special role in our communities. Unless they have served on a local board, I do not think people realize that being a board member is a full time job – with little or no pay. They do not get to turn off being a board member at the grocery store, the mall, or even church. They listen to the concerns of the community, their superintendents, their parents and their community at large. They then have to take those concerns and determine the best course of action for students given the resources at their disposal. I applaud their work and their dedication.  

As we move into our legislative and budget session, it will be critical that our local board members provide leadership on policy work at the local and state level. Their constituency does not only elect them to manage the school system, but also local board members are entrusted with providing the conditions by which our students can achieve the American Dream. 

I am excited about our work ahead. With the expected approval of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, we are about to embark on the huge task of developing a new accountability system for the Commonwealth. I am honored to do that work for our students with our local board members and our other education shareholders.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Every Student Succeeds

On Thursday, November 19, a potentially historic event occurred. A bipartisan conference committee made up of members of the U.S. House and Senate, including Congressman Brent Guthrie from Kentucky’s 2nd District, agreed on a framework for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), most recently known as No Child Left Behind.

This is a big deal for so many reasons. In fact, I was doubtful it could happen this year. But, if things go as planned, the actual bill, known under the compromise as the Every Student Succeeds Act, will be filed by the end of the month, with a House vote the first week of December and a Senate vote shortly thereafter.

Another reason this is a big deal is that, if passed, it will give a lot of accountability control back to the states. The framework includes some significant changes and some things that will hold steady. Annual assessment in English/language arts and mathematics for students in grades 3-8 and once in high school remains the same as the old law. So does testing once per grade band in science along with a few more items. However, determining big pieces of accountability – including how we determine our lowest five percent of schools – will be left in large part to the states. This is both exciting and scary. We, and when I say “we” I mean all shareholders in Kentucky, have a moral obligation to develop a system that represents a quality education for all students.

We do not yet know the timeline for implementation, but it will be my intent to take our time and take deliberate steps to gather feedback before, during, and after development of the system. I am not saying I know how we will do this – that is why shareholder engagement and guidance is so important.

However, there are a few things that I think are non-negotiables. First, we cannot back away from disaggregating the data to ensure all students, including our at-risk and struggling students as well as our gifted and talented students, are getting a quality education. This cannot only be just in mathematics and reading. Another non-negotiable for me is that the system must not narrow the curriculum in a way that does not support the whole child or a student pursuing his or her interest. If our goal is to ensure that every student has the opportunity to choose his or her own direction after high school, we must provide them with all the opportunities we can including the arts, career-technical education, science and social studies, just to name a few.

As I said in last week’s blog, the opportunity gap is a major issue that must be addressed if we hope to close the achievement gap. I do not believe we should develop a system that looks only at outputs (state assessments) and does not look at inputs. So, we have to consider how we will evaluate the quality of the student experience. This means we will need to find ways to leverage collected data and evaluation at the school level in a way that supports good decision making for students.

Finally, I think it is critical that we create a system that holds districts and schools accountable, but also it should celebrate schools that are innovative and are finding creative ways to meeting their students’ needs.

Again, I am not saying I know how to do all of this. I have some ideas, but we as an education community have a moral imperative to ensure a quality education for ALL students. For me, that means that every child that walks across the stage at graduation has the choice of where their life will take them. I believe we have the intellectual and compassionate capital to do this.

In my first month on the job, I have been validated in my reasons for wanting to be a part of the Kentucky education community. I do not know of another state with a group of educators and partners who are more committed to the welfare of our students than we have in Kentucky. I am looking forward to all of us uniting and working together for all of our children and the good of the Commonwealth.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Eliminating the Opportunity Gap

There are a lot of dedicated and passionate people working to educate our children in the Commonwealth. Education is not an easy job, at times I would say it is one of the toughest jobs around. Kids come to us with a diversity of needs, even greater than the diversity we see in our classrooms. Yet, educators rise to that challenge each day to try to level the playing field for all our students.

Despite the improvement we have seen, we, as a state, still have a lot of work to do. We have a significant achievement gap that needs to be addressed. In this blog, I’d like to look at a root cause of the achievement gap – something I call the opportunity gap.

There is a ton of quality education research that shows that students presented with rigorous opportunities to learn rise to the occasion. While our intentions may be good, sometimes students are not afforded those opportunities for one reason or another, none of which serves the child. We may mistake a child’s lack of preparedness for lack of ability. We confuse course content and course names. And too often, our attempt at rigor gives way to an educational rigor mortis.

Our students come to us at many different levels of preparedness and sometimes that is mistaken for ability. One example is mathematics. Math and science actually are two subjects that we have convinced ourselves we can get better at by doing less. Nationally, struggling math students often are given less math content over a longer period of time. What they wind up doing is more “drill and kill” to prepare for tests. That, in my opinion, is the worst thing to do. Experience shows time and time again that struggling students excel when presented with challenging and interest-driven projects or instruction. We often take this approach with our advanced students. But we must challenge our less advanced students as well. We can narrow the opportunity gap and help close the achievement gap by ensuring that every student is provided with a rich learning environment.

On the issue of content vs. course names, we turn once again to mathematics. In several national studies, we discovered that a course named Algebra I contained content as vast as the number of schools in which it was taught. Even across states with the same standards, course content varies widely. We tend to have Algebra I, Algebra I lite, and Algebra I low carb. Well, this type of low carb is not healthy and diminishes students’ opportunities to learn. To be clear, I am not saying that every course should be the same. In fact, quality standards-based education is big on standards and short on standardization. Teachers should have the freedom to meet students where they are and engage their interest, but also hold them to a high standard. When this doesn’t happen, in my opinion, it is a major contributor to the opportunity gap.

Finally, the idea of rigor must be part of this discussion. The research on how students learn has made clear that worksheets don’t stimulate learning and development. So-called rigor often leads to apathy and a lack of motivation – you might call it rigor mortis – when a child is disconnected from his or her learning. Rich engagement through applying knowledge generates opportunities to learn and experiences on which a child can build. But when a student lacks those experiences and it is not addressed in the classroom, then an opportunity gap is created which leads to a greater gap in achievement. So, I think a key way to close the opportunity gap is with quality instruction.

To ensure all students have the same opportunities, it will take all of us in the education community working together to make a difference for our children. I am excited about the challenge and for what we can do for the children of the Commonwealth to eliminate the educational opportunity gap and close the achievement gap once and for all.

Friday, November 6, 2015


This week, I was able to get out of Frankfort and do what I most like to do, visit with students, teachers and administrators. I travelled to Warren County. It was a great start to my visits to schools and districts throughout the state. Superintendent Rob Clayton hosted me at the central office and then accompanied me to two Warren County elementary schools.

Superintendent Clayton is a dedicated and committed educator, intent on focusing on children. You may ask how I know this. The strongest evidence was my very visit. There was not fanfare for my arrival. The attention was where it should be – on the schools and what was happening in them. To me, it speaks volumes when people recognize that the real stars of public education are our students and educators.

First, we visited with the principal of Briarwood Elementary, Lori Morris. Despite being in Focus status, Briarwood just earned recognition as a Distinguished/Progressing School. It was easy to see why. Students were the priority. The whole school environment was inviting and conducive to student learning at its best.

At Briarwood, students and teachers begin each morning in the gym with an assembly. This day, Superintendent Clayton presented every student and teacher with a window sticker they could proudly display in celebration of their accomplishments. It was remarkable to see their excitement. You could tell the students liked going to school here. You could tell Principal Morris along with all the teachers and support staff I met, loved their jobs and were dedicated to the students. So, congratulations to Briarwood Elementary, not only for their accountability designation, but for the nurturing environment in the school.

My next stop was Warren County Elementary, a traditionally struggling school. It has a high percentage of students in poverty and a significant number of English Language Learners who speak about 30 different languages. Principal Josh Porter has developed a similar environment to what I saw at Briarwood Elementary. I had the occasion to see several teachers in action. Without exception, each one had the students engaged in meaningful learning activities. This is an important distinction. It is not enough simply to have students engaged. Unless the content is meaningful to the students, their engagement will wane and they will not have a quality learning experience. Clearly, the students I saw were learning.

I was honored to visit Kristin Johnson’s second-grade class and have the opportunity to read to her students. From the moment you enter the classroom, you feel the kids are in a warm, inviting and exciting environment. One mark of a good teacher, in my opinion, is cultivating a comfortable environment. These students did not know me, but they took to me immediately. There was no hesitancy or shyness with a new guy in the room. They were talkative and wanted to be involved.

I chose to read the book, I Like Myself, to the class, which has a great message for our students. No matter who you are, where you live, what you look like, be proud of who you are. In fact, the book discussion generated a Twitter hashtag, #beproudofwhoyouare, which I think I will try to use on a regular basis. I am so grateful to Ms. Johnson for letting me have some time with her students. I had fun, the students had fun and hopefully they learned a little about self-esteem in the process.

I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to share about my time in JaMarvin Durham’s fourth-grade class. What I wouldn’t do to have this guy’s energy! Whether it was his way of keeping his students’ attention with his call, “Classity class” and their response of “Yesity, yes” or the “whoop whoop” that they use to celebrate student participation in the class – he exuded an energy that was contagious. You could see that his students worked for him as well as themselves. It was not just a show either, they were engaged in the work of the day and he was really pushing the students not just to regurgitate material, but to put it in their own words in order to illustrate their level of understanding. It was a joy to watch.

I’m sure as I venture out more, which I plan to do, I will find stories like these repeated in schools across the Commonwealth. I have no doubt that there are a lot of dedicated and passionate people who work tirelessly to educate our children. Education is not an easy job, at times I would say it is one of the toughest jobs around. Yet, Kentucky’s educators rise to the challenge each day. So, to all of our educators, #beproudofwhoyouare and what you do every day for the kids of Kentucky.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A tough, yet passionate bunch; and thoughts about testing

Week two is complete and it was another exhilarating week. I am still learning about the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), our various initiatives and listening to our shareholders.

Over the past week, I had an opportunity to meet many district superintendents. At the Kentucky Education Development Corporation (KEDC) Board Meeting, I met more than 60 superintendents, provided an introduction and listened to the biggest issues facing them today. In addition, I was able to share in the victories as KEDC gave banners to celebrate their districts’ and schools’ achievements from the past school year. On Wednesday, I met with 16 members of my Superintendents Advisory Committee. Also, I had the chance to meet briefly with some new superintendents as they were undergoing training.

Superintendents are a tough bunch, but they should be. They have the responsibility for every child in their district. They also are not a shy bunch. During these meetings, I heard a lot of concerns and challenges that superintendents are facing every day and their priorities as we move into our biennial budget legislative session. I appreciate that input.

Later, when I was talking with a completely different group of people, I mentioned these three meetings. The people I was meeting with asked if superintendents gave me a tough time. My answer was simple, ‘No, they are just taking care of their teachers and kids. Isn’t that what we should all be doing?’ 

You see, when in meetings with people passionate about their work, sometimes you hear things that are not very comfortable or that you do not want to hear. And if those people have lost sight of the end goals because they have their own agendas, it makes for a painful meeting. But that was not the case with these superintendents. They love their students and their educators – and that leads to them loving a very tough job. So, it is my privilege to work alongside superintendents who work hard to make sure their district will improve the lives of their charges. In taking the position as commissioner, I had hoped that would be the case, and now after spending time with them over the last week, I am sure of it. I am excited about spending time with more superintendents next week at the Green River Regional Education Cooperative.

As a final note for this week, I feel the need to address the issues raised last weekend at the federal level regarding testing time. There is no doubt our students participate in many tests during an average school year. From a philosophical standpoint, I believe we must focus on instruction first, then use assessments to aid the teacher in making the instructional changes necessary to support their students. Quality, focused instruction that engages the students’ ability to think, apply and build their knowledge in a way that supports understanding of concepts is paramount to a student’s ability to be college-, career-, and life-ready.

As with all of our programs in the coming weeks and months, we will be discussing the state assessment system and how we can best support our districts and teachers. I believe this is something we should all do. Simply testing students does not tell us anything if we are not confident that any assessment administered is aligned to the standards of a particular grade or subject area. So, as we move forward, I hope we will all evaluate our assessment systems to ensure that teachers are allowed to be the innovators they were born to be and work to cut down on testing that does not give us the information we need to support a child’s learning. We must not forget, that is why we are here. 

As always, I am honored to be your Commissioner.

Stephen Pruitt

Friday, October 23, 2015

Kentucky’s commitment to education unsurpassed

My first week as commissioner has been incredible. In many ways it is what I expected, learning something new at every turn, meeting new people and drinking from the proverbial fire hose. However, I had the opportunity to participate in two events this week that confirmed for me that, as Kentucky’s commissioner of education, I have the second coolest job in the world. 

At the first event, we celebrated what I consider to be the coolest job in the world – classroom teacher – during the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year Awards ceremony. For me, having the opportunity to honor and get to know the Ashland Teacher Achievement Award winners was a treat beyond compare. These extraordinary teachers are smart, funny, innovative and dedicated professionals who are making students’ lives better. While teachers love their content, the great ones teach because they love their students. The passion for their students as well as their craft that these teachers shared makes me proud to be an educator and a teacher. 

On this day, 24 teachers had the chance to shine their light as a beacon of hope and leadership to their 41,500 colleagues across the state. I am grateful for that light and for the key role that teachers play in our children’s lives. So, congratulations to all of our Ashland Teacher Achievement Award winners. Special congratulations to Elementary Teacher of the Year, Joshua DeWar; Middle School Teacher of the Year, Karen Mallonee; and our High School and Overall Teacher of the Year, Ashley Lamb-Sinclair.  

The second event I attended was called Early Childhood – A Wise Investment in Kentucky’s Future, an event sponsored by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Governor Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear, four former governors, members of the Kentucky General Assembly and many shareholders from the business and political world attended. The meeting focused on helping everyone gain an understanding of how a quality early childhood education translates into better prepared K-12 students and eventually a qualified workforce. You see, when we understand how the brain develops, we can better prepare our students and close achievement gaps by providing every student a quality learning experience before they even start kindergarten right on through high school graduation.

Attending these two events made me glad to be a Kentuckian. I have been asked by friends and colleagues, why Kentucky? The level of commitment to education shown in these two events are prime examples of why I wanted to continue my educational career here.  

First, the Teacher of the Year Awards were a big deal, held in the rotunda of the capital – not in some hotel with little fanfare. Governor Beshear, Secretary of Education Tom Zawacki, and members of the General Assembly were on hand to recognize these teachers and celebrate their accomplishment. None of these dignitaries had to do this, but they were all pleased to do so because they recognize the value of quality teachers to our students. 

The Prichard Committee event had five governors in attendance. This is unprecedented in other states. Governors Beshear, Fletcher, Patton, Carroll and Collins all gave up their time to attend, which speaks volumes about their commitment to education. 

Yet, this commitment to education extends beyond the state’s top elected office. Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Dave Adkisson, Toyota Motor Manufacturing President Wil James, and Northern Kentucky University President Emeritus Jim Votruba also shared their commitment to education in their remarks. Prichard Executive Director Brigitte Blom Ramsey and staff did a great job of putting this event together. Clearly the opportunity for Kentucky children to get a high quality education from the beginning is paramount to all who attended.  

So, as I conclude my first week, I am honored to be your commissioner of education and excited to be a Kentuckian. Since being here, I have shared with many that I begin each day with the thought, “Today is an excellent day to make a difference.” With Kentucky’s commitment to high quality education for all students, I believe we can and we will make that difference for our kids.