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.