Monday, December 12, 2016

Feeling blessed to work for our children’s futures

As I think back on the past year, there have been many significant events that have taken place for me. I testified on behalf of Kentucky in front of two congressional education committees; we made huge progress on the science assessment system; I had the opportunity to travel to many different parts of the state, see our state’s educators at work, and meet lots of new people; we started work on the new accountability system; we revamped program reviews; and we saw historic changes in our state’s politics.

In the coming year, while we continue to celebrate Kentucky remaining an education bellwether in the country, we also must realize that we have much work ahead of us. We still have achievement and opportunity gaps, which are our highest priority; we have to complete and begin implementation of our new accountability system; we have to change the narrative in our schools to be less about tests and more about quality instruction; and we have to remember that Kentuckians are known for their commitment to making quality change for our students.  

So, with all of this going on, why do I feel I am so blessed? Simply put, I love my job! I am blessed because I get to work with and for the students of the Commonwealth. They are why we do what we do. So, in this wonderful holiday season that is so focused on our children, I ask that each of you recommit yourselves to making the lives of our students better.

The pictures below show some of my past year, but these kids are our future and we must never forget that.

I wish all of you Merry Christmas and the happiest of holidays!


Monday, November 28, 2016

KSB students inspire others

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure to attend a book premier party, but this was no ordinary launch event. It was the kickoff for the book, We Can Hear You Just Fine: Clarifications from the Kentucky School for the Blind, authored by several current and former students of our own state school for the blind and visually impaired. 

As I have said many times before, I am thankful for the opportunity to be the superintendent of the Kentucky School for the Blind (KSB) as well as the Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD). I am particularly proud of the KSB students who had the courage and tenacity to share their stories.

The Louisville Story Program (LSP) played a large role in the production of this book. The program’s focus is to aid in the telling of stories for those who may have difficulty in sharing their own stories. From the LSP website, “The Louisville Story Program strengthens community by amplifying unheard voices and untold stories. We partner closely with overlooked Louisville residents by providing extensive writing and oral history workshops and intensive editorial support, culminating in professionally-designed documentary books, exhibits, and radio programs in which our authors tell the stories of their lives and communities in their own words.” The Louisville Story Program has done just that for our KSB students. 

At the launch event, we heard from LSP Director Darcy Thompson, and LSP Deputy Director Joe Manning. I would like to extend my personal thank you to these gentlemen and others who worked on this project. Additionally, we heard from the authors themselves. They read from the book to more than 200 in attendance, using different techniques from braille to electronic readers. The authors were incredible, and the support from the community was impressive, to say the least. 

Through the partnership with the Louisville Writing Program, authors Matthew Caudill, Haley Hall, Shane Lowe, Madelyn Loyd, Selena Tirey, Kianna Waller, and Cherish Willis poured themselves into writing their stories to inform us of their perspectives and to help those of us who are sighted to understand their world. I am not sure they set out to do more than that, but they did. Their stories, their passion and their commitment, inspire us to move beyond our own perceived limitations. They inspire us to be more, to realize that every student deserves an opportunity, and too really believe that every student can do great things if given the opportunity. 

I am told periodically that we should not penalize schools because special needs students may “bring down the test scores.” I say, who are we to deprive anyone of the opportunity to shine? Who are we, as adults/educators to decide who deserves opportunities? We cannot begin to make the changes we need to make in education until we realize that our job is to create the environment that allows each student to pursue his or her passion. It may be hard for everyone to understand, but all of our students possess abilities that inspire us – if we just provide the opportunity.  

I cannot tell you how proud I am to be the superintendent of KSB and KSD – not just because of their dedicated faculty and staff, but because these students keep me grounded and inspire me to be my best. Thank you Matthew, Haley, Shane, Madelyn, Selena, Kianna, and Cherish. Thank you for sharing the best of who you are to inspire us and awaken us to a future of possibilities.  

For information on We Can Hear You Just Fine: Clarifications from the Kentucky School for the Blind, please visit

Monday, November 21, 2016

Taking time to give thanks

Thanksgiving week is a time for us to pause and give thanks for the past year. I encourage all of my readers to take time and either verbally or in writing share the things you are thankful for.

I have a lot to be thankful for. First, and always first, is my family. I am a proud husband and father.  I have an incredible wife who has been with me through every major life change and in many ways has been responsible for my biggest achievements. I have thought many times that I would not be where I am today, both literally and figuratively, if she had not been there to encourage me and challenge me to think bigger. I am thankful for two children that love their family and friends, care about others and want to pursue bright futures. I am additionally thankful for the friends who have embraced my daughter in the past year. Moving as a junior in high school is tough, but she found great friends that treat her as if she grew up with them.

I am thankful for the people of Kentucky. Time and again, the people here show a great love for the state, each other and a commitment for improving the lives of our children. I have never felt more at home than here. In fact, Kentucky has been so good to my family, we are hopeful my daughter will actually attend college in the state. Trust me, this is a big deal as she had no desire to be in-state in any of our previous states.

Finally, I am thankful for the opportunity I have been given to be the Commissioner of Education for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I am thankful for our Kentucky Board of Education, whose members work tirelessly on our student’s behalf. I am thankful for our students, our teachers, our administrators and all of our shareholders in education. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with and for our Kentucky School for the Blind (that just published a wonderful book I will write about next week) and our Kentucky School for the Deaf. And, I am thankful to work with an incredibly talented staff at the Kentucky Department of Education, that is dedicated to supporting our districts in educating all the children of our state.

As a Commonwealth, we are not satisfied with where we are, but we also acknowledge the work so far. No matter who I come across, there is a real commitment to improving education – not just for the sake of improving it, but in an effort to make it better for our students. We all may not agree all of the time, but we all seem to realize that our focus must be on Our Students, Our Commonwealth. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 7, 2016

An important week ahead

We have a big week ahead of us and I hope you are all preparing. There are decisions to be made, strategies to be set into motion and completed, and transitions to be planned. Yes, this week we celebrate Veterans Day.

You probably thought I was going to spend my blog discussing the election. Well, I figure there are plenty of other people already doing that, and I actually do all I can to stay out of the politics and simply focus on education and our students. Of course, the election will have a big impact on our lives both nationally and locally. The only thing I will say about Election Day is to remind you of how important it is to exercise your right to vote, and to thoroughly consider your vote for local school board members. Those races are not about party or politics, they are about who will make good decisions and policies for children.

Veterans Day is a big day this week – one of the most important holidays on the calendar, in my opinion. It is so much more than a day off work for some. It is a day to remember and reflect on how much we owe to our military members AND their families for the sacrifices that they have made for our country and our freedom.

Who does not love the videos on Facebook or the news that show a soldier’s homecoming? We love it because they are home safely, but I guarantee we do not love it nearly as much as their family, especially the children. As we observe Veterans Day this week, let us not forget that our veteran’s sacrifice is not theirs alone. It is their entire family that makes a sacrifice of time with their loved one and sometimes the ultimate sacrifice of their loved one’s life, which impacts that family forever.

I am pleased that for the past decade, all of our Kentucky public schools have devoted at least one class period to the observance of Veterans Day per KRS 158.075. I believe it is important that our students understand why we appreciate and honor our veterans – especially the young ones who may not understand why mom or dad must leave for long periods of time. They need to understand and see that we all appreciate what they are doing for our country. They need to see that while they are sacrificing time with that parent, they are doing so for a most noble cause.

I would like to express my personal heartfelt thank you to our veterans. We owe you more than we give you credit for and more than we can adequately express in just one day. The election we are having this week is because of you and your sacrifices. You have allowed us to disagree, to voice our opinion and to cast a vote of our own free will. Thank you for providing us with our freedom and without asking for anything in return. I hope you all know how much I appreciate you. And I hope that we will all take time to say thank you this Friday.

Yes, this is a big week not only because we are electing new leaders, but because we celebrate the special men and women who have given us that right and so much more.

Monday, October 31, 2016

All students deserve opportunities to find their passion

In a week that kicks off with many of us participating in trick or treat, I got a real treat on Saturday night. I got to attend the Kentucky Music Educators Association’s (KMEA) State Marching Band Championships. It was an incredible event and I was honored to be a part of it.

I had the chance to watch these bands’ astonishing performances. The sound, the presentation and the sheer majesty of each performance showed all the hard work that each student and adult put into it. It was clearly hard work, but I want to spend a little time on something bigger and more inspiring. These kids and adults (I say adults because in addition to band directors/teachers, the parent commitment is incredible) do not spend time on this just because of hard work. They do it because they love it. And when I say they love it, I do not mean that in the way that the term is overused today. I mean they LOVE it. There is a real passion for what they do. You can see it in their faces, their actions, and in their performance.

One of the most impressive parts of the evening was the closing ceremony. The bands marched into the stadium and lined up across the football field. The pageantry and pride as they marched in and took their positions was on the scale of the closing ceremony of the Olympics. I was struck by the look of pride and joy on each student’s face as they marched past me. They did this because they love it, not just because it’s hard or they wanted something to do.

Some will read this column and think my observations are obvious. I wanted to write about it because it inspired me to think about how important opportunity is for all of our students. As we are working on our new accountability system, we must remember the importance of providing a rich, well-rounded education to each student. We have to realize that a well-rounded education not only shows an increase in assessment scores in tested subjects (which is supported by research), but it also gives students the chance to do something they love, which makes them appreciate and engage in their school and education.

We must move past the test and compliance and into quality education. We owe it to our students across the Commonwealth. Education is about more than a test score, it is time we all realize that.
The days of “if it’s not tested, it’s not taught” must end. As an education professional, I am appalled when I hear this. It is no different than having a brain surgeon walk past a person having a heart attack and refusing to help because “they don’t do the heart.” It is shameful and we cannot afford this attitude any longer.

The reality is we teach children and those children need the opportunity to experience music, art, career and technical education, science, social studies, languages and all the other aspects of school. If we want to see our achievement and opportunity gap close, we must start with a change in mindset.

My time this weekend inspired me. I am thankful to John Stroube and KMEA for allowing me to participate and see some of Kentucky’s best marching bands in action. Those students showed me their passion for their music. We need to keep that enthusiasm in mind as we go about making sure their education and opportunities to excel are second to none.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Courage in the face of adversity

October is a special month. There are lots of things that happen in October – Safe Schools Week; Down Syndrome Awareness Month, Learning Disabilities (LD) Month and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Month; the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens; college football really takes off; and of course, Halloween.

I realize that this is an education blog, but I am going to go a slightly different direction this week. That’s the thing about a blog, it allows you to share messages important to the blogger, and this week is no exception. I suppose my topic does fit the education realm to some extent, as health education is an important part of each child’s education.

October is a special month for me because it is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I hope everyone knows this since there has been plenty of pink around, even NFL referees and players have been wearing pink accessories. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is special to me for very personal reasons. It became important for the first time around 2006. My dear mother-in-law had her first bout with breast cancer that year. It was a tough time. We had just lost my father-in-law to esophageal cancer the previous year. My family, my wife in particular, had more placed on her than any person should. It was hard and grueling. It was sad and draining. But, as hard as it was, as I look back I realize there was good that came of it.

My mother-in-law showed a courage in facing her battle that was more than admirable, it was inspiring. I knew virtually nothing about breast cancer – only that it was treatable if caught early enough. Unfortunately, she had a very aggressive type that returned too soon after she beat it the first time. Through it all, she and my wife faced the challenges head on. She fought and held it off for a long time. She was focused on being with her grandchildren, and focused on doing what she could to help us. She was funny. She was proud. She was loving. She was a great lady.

My wife is the most incredible person I know. After watching her and her mom deal with this horrible disease, I can see why. She came by it honestly. As hard as it was, our family was given the example of strength and courage and reminded of how important life is.

This month is also important to me because a valued member of my staff fought and beat the disease. She found out she had breast cancer on the day of my first interview to become commissioner. She has become a dear friend and I am not sure the agency could run effectively without her. But knowing what I know about fighting breast cancer, it is easy to see why she is so cherished by me and our state education agency – she possesses the same courage my mother-in-law did. I am honored not only to know her, but also to have been Wilma Cannon’s son-in-law.

I realize this is may seem a pretty sad blog. That is not my intent. I simply want to add my own words to the month that is dedicated to awareness of this terrible disease. In most cases, it is treatable if caught early. So I encourage everyone – women and men alike (yes, though extremely rare, men do get breast cancer too) – to be diligent in their own self-examinations and for women, regular screenings. I also want to encourage you to be inspired by these strong and courageous individuals. They are all around us – in our classrooms, in our board rooms and in our communities. They teach us how to live, they teach us what it means to value the important things in life.

Take time this month to be informed and renew your commitment to taking care of yourself. In honor of these and other brave women, I will wear pink each day I can this month, I hope you will too.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Time to flip the script on thinking about achievement gaps

I was attracted to Kentucky by its groundbreaking history of education reform and the tremendous gains it has made in graduation rates and college and career readiness over the past decade. I want to build on those accomplishments and take our Commonwealth even higher, providing each and every child with a world class education that puts them and our state on solid economic footing for the future.

But for all its academic gains, our Commonwealth has fallen short when it comes to addressing disparities in learning among different groups of students. Far too many children are not getting the education they need and deserve to be successful in life. This disparity is called the achievement gap and, despite decades of well-meaning efforts aimed at closing these academic divides, it has not closed in Kentucky or nationally.

We have a moral and ethical obligation to rectify this situation for the well-being of our children, our Commonwealth and our society. A problem this large, this long standing, this entrenched, this so seemingly unsolvable, is understandably overwhelming. Where do we start? What solutions do we employ? Before we can even begin asking and answering these questions, however, I want to suggest that we all – as a state, as parents, as teachers and as community members – undertake what may be the most difficult, but undoubtedly in my mind the most critical step: We must shift how we think about the achievement gap and we must do it in two very specific ways.

First, we need to recognize it is all of our problem, and all of our responsibility to remedy this disparity in student achievement. In this age of accountability, the blame for the achievement gap has often been laid at the school house and classroom door. In turn, educators and others have pointed to out-of-school factors that contribute to gaps and are out of their control. It is time we stop the blaming and finger pointing and acknowledge we all have a dog in this fight. We all contribute to it, and to solve it, we must all share in it and take ownership. I take my part in that ownership and I invite all of you to join me in doing the same.

Secondly, if we are to close gaps, we must own the fact that in the past, we did not offer opportunity or a vision of success to all students. To me, the achievement gap is really an issue of expectations and opportunities. We have to admit that while our standards our good, individual district and school curriculum may be lacking. We’re not holding students to the same level of accountability.

We also have not given our students the same opportunities. For example, a very small percentage of African-American students took an Advanced Placement course last year. We’re not giving equal access to challenging classes for all of our students in the Commonwealth. That is quite simply shameful. Whether that’s because we’re trying to shelter students from the possibility of failure or because educators are trying to shelter their schools from lower passing rates, it isn’t acceptable.

If students are not given a chance to test their limits, then they will never be able to reach their full potential. In this case, it is not the children who are failing; it is the adults who are failing our children by sending the message to some students that, “This is not for you.” It is that kind of thinking and messaging, be it direct or indirect, conscious or not, that creates inequity and disparity in our schools, and until we begin to challenge it and replace it with new thinking and a message of high expectations and equal opportunities, we will never find solutions to the achievement gap.

There is no one size fits all to the achievement gap. Different approaches will work for different students. Before we can begin to try these solutions or create new ones, we need to change our culture and thinking around this issue. As shareholders for Kentucky’s public schools, you are in a perfect position to assist in shifting Kentucky’s thinking about the achievement gap. You can begin sharing the message of shared responsibility and high expectations and equal opportunities for all students at your schools and in your communities. Please join me in helping to spread this message. Together I know we can begin to address these longstanding disparities and inequities, and make a difference for the children of our Commonwealth.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Uniting for a common purpose

This week many of us paused to remember one of the most terrible attacks by a foreign aggressor on American soil. Sunday was the 15th anniversary of a day we now simply refer to as 9-11. Across the internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and every other social media platform we saw the words, “never forget.” Very fitting and I hope the words hold true. 

You may be thinking, why would you pick this to talk about in an education blog? Well, like most things in my career, the answer starts in a classroom; my classroom.

The morning of September 11, 2001 started like any other. I was teaching my first period A.P Chemistry class. At 8:46 a.m., the first plane hit the first tower or the World Trade Center in New York City. Many people thought this was a horrible accident, then just minutes later, the second plane hit the second tower. I was in my first period until 9:15, so I had no clue this had happened. A short time later, our principal came over the public address system to tell us the news. Clearly this was no accident. Little could we imagine, more bad news was to come. 

Needless to say, my class and I were horribly shaken. Our principal made the decision to cut all ties with the outside world. There would be no TV or internet. This was due in large part because we had many students who had family members in the airline industry and we did not know what airlines were involved. About 10 o’clock, the principal came back on to announce a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I remember seeing a dear friend of mine who taught special education sprinting up the hall to get to a phone. Her son worked at the Pentagon. Of course, later we learned a fourth plane had been hijacked and crashed in Pennsylvania.

It was a day of fear, mourning, loss and maybe most of all the realization that as a nation, we were not immune to the evil of the world. While we will truly never forget that day, I am afraid we have overlooked an important part of it. As a result of the tragedy, September 11, 2001 united us as a country.

In the days after 9/11, we saw flags hanging from bridges, neighbors spontaneously hugging, churches filled, Congress from both sides of the aisle singing God Bless America in the Rose Garden. We saw a United States of America disregard what divided us and embrace what united us. We had a sense of country, we celebrated the heroes of that tragic day – from the firefighters to the passengers on Flight 93. Signs of “Let’s Roll” and patriotism were everywhere. There were no agendas and no special interests that superseded our need to protect our homeland. This is what should be celebrated, and remember with just as much reverence as the event itself. The fact that we can put aside our differences for the benefit of our nation is what makes us American.

Now, back to education. It is time in Kentucky that we come together for what should unite us – the future of our children. We need to realize that education is complex, diverse in the public’s thinking, and ever changing. 

What is universally constant however, is that our children are counting on us. They do not always realize they are, but they are. They are counting on us to make good decisions based on data and not on what we think is just a good idea. They are counting on us to do it together regardless of the things that divide us. They are counting on us to provide them with an education that will prepare them to be the next generation of this great country. We have made great progress in many areas, but we have still not provided each child with the opportunity to realize the American dream. 

So, as we continue to move forward with crafting education policy and improving education in the Commonwealth, we should “never forget” the circumstances that started us down the road of education reform, the great strides we have made in the past and the fact that we still have not met the needs of each child. But, we also should make sure we remember what unites us, our children and their future. If we focus on that, we can do just as we did after 9/11. We can forget our differences and do something really special for our children and ultimately the Commonwealth and the world. 

I hope you took time to honor the heroes and families of 9/11. They deserve it and we owe them a great deal. In that spirit, I hope you will join me in uniting for Our Children, Our Commonwealth.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Taking ownership for closing achievement gaps

Achievement gaps have been around for decades. They exist in nearly every school, every school district and every state. The Prichard Committee recently released a report about gaps in Kentucky. And ACT graduating class data released this month confirms gaps continue to persist. Everyone agrees we have to do something about gaps – something that will solve the issue once and for all, but then it grows quiet.

For a long time we have been trying to teach reading and math, testing reading and math, and yet not seeing the gains we want to see. So, what is it that has to change? I have a few thoughts.

First, I think we need to help our most struggling students see they can be successful. They need to see that people like them (in both look and background) are successful. I was very lucky because I had parents who expected me to do well and allowed me to see success. Dad was a first generation college graduate and mom was a teacher, both having come from backgrounds in the copper mining area of Copperhill, Tennessee.

However, I had a high school counselor who did not see the potential in me. She told me at one point that perhaps I was “not college material.” Oh, how I would love to give her my business card. Luckily, her opinion of me did not change my destiny, because I could see where I needed to go. I knew I needed to go to college to achieve my dreams, and I knew I could be a success if I worked hard.

Role models play a big part in students’ lives, sometimes even if they never meet face to face. Several weeks ago during the 2016 summer Olympics, Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win gold in an individual Olympic swimming event. Being the first is a huge accomplishment, but knowing the weight of the future was on her shoulders is just as big. Students of color watching the games saw that if she did it, it was possible for them too.

Last month, longtime educator Bill Twyman became chair of the Kentucky Board of Education. He is the first African-American to hold this position. Bill is extremely modest and I am not sure this was on his mind at the time, but by wanting to do what is right for the students of the Commonwealth and agreeing to serve, he has empowered others to reach new heights in education.

One last example, Senator Ralph Alvarado is the first Hispanic elected to the Kentucky General Assembly. He chose to step up and become a leader. As a result he had the opportunity to speak this summer at the Republican National Convention. Whether you agree with his politics or not, he enabled many students to see that they too someday could achieve this level of success.

So how does this help close the achievement gap? It helps because so many of our students cannot see their way to success. Many may never be exposed to success or may never get the opportunities they need in school to become a success. People like Simone, Bill Twyman, and Senator Alvarado give students hope and courage to move forward. As educators, we must understand these are not flukes, but that each and every child can realize success.

If we really want to see gaps close and diversity increase, we have to own it. I said this at the release of the Prichard Committee report. I publically announced I own the achievement gap and I have to do something about it. I also said if we do not all own it, we cannot begin to see change. It is not just the Commissioner and KDE that has to own it, it’s all of us.

It’s like in CPR training, you are taught to never call out, “Someone call 9-1-1.” If you do, it is likely that nobody will do it, because each thinks the other person will. Instead, you are supposed to point to someone and say, “You call 9-1-1!” In this case there is ownership, and it’s a lot more likely it will be done. This is somewhat like what we have done in the past with regard to the achievement gap – we all agree we have an issue, but everyone thinks it’s up to everyone ELSE to find a solution.
It is time to own the issue of achievement gaps and the fact that a lack of opportunity is at the root of its existence.

There are incredible things going on around our state such as the Black Males Working Academy that I attended in Lexington at the invitation of the Rev. and Mrs. C.B. Akins. They are taking responsibility for guiding greater Lexington’s African-American male students toward success in K-12 and on to success in postsecondary. They partnered with the University of Kentucky to provide scholarships to these young men as an incentive to push them to greater heights. But it is not just the young men who participate in this effort. It also is families and a full network of support.

If we are to see change, we must be that change. If we are to close gaps, we must own the fact that in the past, we did not offer opportunity or a vision of success to all students. Achievement gaps do not just exist for our students of color, economically disadvantaged or our special needs community; they exist in different manifestations across the board. But until we are able to deal with and own the issue, we cannot possible hope that it will change.

Today is a great day to make the difference in the life of a child. We all need to make the commitment to do so.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Keeping the flame of excitement burning

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio have come to a close, and what an Olympics it was for the United States!

The U.S. won medals of all colors, but in particular we won gold after gold. An American won the gold in the 1500-m run for the first time since 1908. Winning a medal, no matter the place it represents, is an incredible achievement and great honor.

During the Rio games, we saw athletes displaying way more than their athleticism. They also showed an incredible dedication, respect and love of their countries. Yes, some exhibited embarrassing behavior, but far more represented their individual countries well. Many winners shed tears on the medal stand during their national anthem. U.S. pole vaulter, Sam Kendricks, stopped in the middle of a full run through to stand at attention for our national anthem. And even Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter and fastest man in history, stopped an interview out of respect for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. It is heartening to know that through the Olympics, every couple of years, the world can come together and people of different nations can forget their respective differences.

Still, this year’s games are over. In some ways, I am glad – I am a complete Olympic junkie. It did not matter what the event was, I was going to watch it. Now that the last lap has been run, the last shot put thrown and the last floor exercise completed, it means I can sleep again. However, it also means we are back to “normal.” How will we handle that? Do we just forget the games happened? How long will the “glow” of the games continue?

As I was watching the closing ceremonies, the focus turned to the future and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think of our schools. The “glow” of opening day and the excitement of our new students was bright, and maybe still is for some. But invariably, as we get into the school year, that opening day “glow” will begins to dim. The flame of enthusiasm for a new school year burning inside our students and teachers may flicker and eventually be extinguished as the routine of homework, grading, teaching and learning sets in.

Our educators have a very difficult job, but I am going to challenge us, and I mean all of us including me, to remember the excitement from the beginning of the year. I am also going to challenge us to focus on the future as they did in Rio. Our future is a little different, it is not four years from now. It is this year. It is the focus on keeping excitement on learning and not on the stuff that can make our jobs feel like a job and not the honor that it is.

Finally, as we go through our year, I believe we will have a banner year in terms of our achievements. Those achievements do not come without three critical things in my opinion. First, no achievement comes without hard work.  Second, no achievement comes without commitment and focus. Third and equally as important, no achievement comes without the competitor (or educators and students in this case) being able to visualize their own success. If they cannot see themselves doing it, they will not be able to do it. We cannot let ourselves be so encumbered by everything else going on that we lose sight of the fact that all students can learn and we can teach them. We must continue to have high expectations for all.

So, have a great year. I am looking forward to working together to improve our system of education in Kentucky.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Dream

Ask any teacher this week if they’ve had “the dream” and most would say yes.

It all has to do with the start of the school year – the most exciting time of the year in so many respects. Whether it is the smell of new school supplies or the excitement around buying them; whether it is students wondering who their teachers will be this year; or parents knowing that yet another year is ticking away; it is a time of new beginnings.

My daughter loves back to school shopping and always has. She buys what she needs and often what she doesn’t. This year she is a senior and oh the excitement! She loves Kentucky and her school, which as a dad, makes me pretty proud. She and her friends have already planned a pep rally and what they will wear to the first football game.

This same excitement was evident on Sunday, as I had the opportunity to meet most of our wonderful students and their parents at registration for the Kentucky School of the Blind. They are so happy to get the school year started.

So, what does all of this have to do with “the dream” you may be asking? Well the dream for our students is generally wrapped up in the excitement of the new year and all the fun ahead. For our teachers and administrators, “the dream” includes that element, but also usually is symbolic of the large responsibility placed on their shoulders.

Seems amazing, but I have been out of the classroom for 13 years. Yet, I still have “the dream” about this time each year. For me, it starts with me teaching in my lab. All is going well, but a gradually increasing murmur begins in the back of my class and spreads across the classroom until all of my students are completely out of control and they are not paying the least bit of attention. They are running around and throwing paper and to my amazement not interested in learning science at all. At this point, I wake in a cold sweat.

The best “dream” or maybe I should say the worst “dream” I have heard lately was from a Lynette Ballard, a 6th-grade math teacher in Estill County, who told me her version. She and her math colleagues went on a vacation and crash-landed on a desert island. While rescuers saved them, they were taken immediately to the school. Their first day back after surviving this horrible ordeal was the day of the district walk through!

I have heard other teachers talk about "the dream.” For some they cannot find their lesson plans; they don’t have any materials; or no one showed up but them; and even some say they realize they left home without an important piece of clothing!

The pattern always seems to be the same. But why? My interpretation is that, as educators, we realize how important it is to be ready and prepared for our students. We realize that their future depends on our preparedness. It is that concern that manifests itself in "the dream." As with any profession, there are those who see education as a job, perhaps having lost sight of the fact that students are why we do this job, and some that are not prepared to do what must be done to better themselves and their instruction. But, I believe this is the exception and not the rule.

Most of our educators are excited about the new year, and realize that the future successes of our students rely on us to be great at our jobs. Each year we should strive to be better than the last, because our students need and deserve it. As educators, we dream our “dream,” so that our students can realize their dreams.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Making the Decision to be Great

As I watched the opening ceremonies and first few events of the 2016 Summer Olympics this past weekend, I was reminded what an incredible experience the Olympics is. 

In 1996, when the summer games were held in Atlanta, I had the privilege to work at the track and field venue. Through the athletes' eyes, I saw both the happy moments, and the moments of sadness and disappointment when things didn’t turn out the way they wanted. 

As we watch this year’s Olympics, we should pause and realize we are seeing greatness. The athletes pursue greatness in terms of medals, but also by dedicating their lives pursuing the opportunity to even participate in the games. The honor to represent your country is overwhelming. We also see greatness in the meaning of the Olympics. It is a time, once every four years, when the world puts its differences aside and comes together to watch and celebrate the hard work of thousands of athletes from across the world.   

So, what do we consider greatness in the world of education? What prompts us to "go for the gold?" Is it high test scores? Is it a school labeled Distinguished? Is it a well-rounded graduate ready for a life and who contributes to society? I suppose it could be any of these things, although I would say high test scores should never be the sole measure. Greatness in education, much like with the Olympics, is based on your point of view. 

In Kentucky, I have seen firsthand the greatness of our educators. Last week, I attended four opening day kickoffs for staff – something I had never experienced before, since my previous states did not celebrate opening day. The teachers in each district I visited were excited, even fired up, for the 2016-17 school year. They inspired me and have me fired up for the new school year. 

For our teachers, greatness is not simply test scores or the number of points they can help accumulate for the school in the accountability system. For them, greatness is embodied in the students they teach and the impact they have. 

In my opinion, what makes our educators great is the determination they have, so that instead of a student saying “I can’t” he or she says “I can.” It is their dedication that prompts a student to seek them out at the grocery store to simply say, “Remember me? I want to say thank you.” It is their care that results in a student who was into a bad scene turning her life around and sending a message on social media to say because of you, she was graduating with a degree in nursing. It is their persistence that results in a student, as he crosses the finish line in his last cross country race, lifting up his coach up in a giant bear hug as he whispers, “Thank you for never giving up on me.” It is a teacher’s greatness that prompts students to leave a note that says, “You will NEVER die. The things you have taught us in class and about life will be passed to our children and our children’s children. Your legacy is us, you will live forever.”

I realize to some, this sounds self-aggrandizing, given all we must do in education to close the achievement gap and provide a quality education for each child. Should we even think about greatness in education? Absolutely we should. 

Educators do what they do because of students. If things do not get done, it is because we lose sight of that. It is time that we allow our teachers to focus on that greatness. It is time for all Kentucky educators to be great. It is time for us, as an education community, to stop doing what we have a right to do and do what is right. It is time to be great! 

That’s right, greatness is a decision. Olympians make a decision each day to work hard in pursuit of a goal so that they can stand atop the medal stand and hear their national anthem. Educators make a decision every day they will provide their students the opportunity that will change their lives. It is time we all make the decision to be great. 

I dare you to be great. I dare you to put students ahead of the day-to-day issues that currently face us. I dare you to put student needs above a traditional approach to content. I dare you to put what is right for students ahead of the state test. I dare you to be a bridge for students that allows them to see a new horizon they have never seen before. I dare you to allow students to see themselves in a future they thought was reserved for someone else. I dare you to be great.

Opening day is here. Greatness is in our reach. Our educators inspire me, but more importantly, they inspire greatness. I challenge us all in education to seek greatness and make Kentucky education great!

Monday, July 25, 2016

We need your help!

Communication, ironically, is something we always seem to be discussing. Whether you are a Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) employee, a teacher, an administrator or in the business sector, communication is a big deal. So, why is it that communication can be so difficult? And quite frankly, how is it that as a whole, the profession of education tends to be so bad at it? 

Perhaps part of the reason is that educators are typically neither taught the art of communication beyond pedagogy, nor are we given a sense of urgency around it. Here at KDE I am lucky that I have a staff that focuses on communication, but admittedly we do not always get it right. I think that sometimes the issue in education is that we tend to think of communication as a one-way street or maybe even a one-party obligation. If the communication is to be effective, it’s not that easy. The communication must be two-way and that, like everything else, takes effort and intentionality on everyone’s part.

The case in point is our new accountability system under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). We have tried to communicate two major issues to this point. One, we are working on a new system with lots of diverse individuals; and two, the deadline for commenting on many of U.S. Department of Education (USED) proposed regulations that would govern implementation of ESSA and a new accountability system is coming to an end on August 1. Kentuckians must comment if we want to do what we believe is right by our students. We have communicated through social media, emails, news releases, the KDE website, articles in Kentucky Teacher, held a dozen town hall meetings (one virtually, available on demand) on the subject, and I have blogged about both of these issues almost non-stop. Yet still, I received a few emails over the weekend telling me about the new ESSA and how they “heard I might be considering making changes to the accountability system.” 

How is that possible? How is it that we are still having Kentuckians who do not know about this work? After some reflection, I think the answer is threefold. 

One, we at KDE, have to redouble our efforts to communicate with the key people who can help distribute our messages, such as the Kentucky Association of School Administrators to whom I had the honor to speak last week. 

The second, we need folks to meet us half way. We need Kentuckians to want this knowledge and be willing to sometimes seek it out, but sometimes simply to open an email. I was told recently when I was being scolded by an educator for not communicating enough that he “doesn’t read email unless it looks interesting.” This is one of the most historic times in our careers, nothing should be more interesting right now than making sure our accountability system is the right thing for our students. We must stop living in a world of “I heard that…” or “Someone told me…” without doing our own research. Rumors only hurt the truth. It was the same in middle school as it is as an adult. 

Third, we need everyone to communicate what they know about the process and eventually the system itself. We are posting PowerPoints that keep everyone up to date on process and key milestones as the work progresses. I have asked all administrators to take 20 minutes at the end of each faculty meeting to update staff on the process, but people do not have to wait. They can go to the website to get all the information they need. 

We all may not be happy when this is over, but at the very least, we all need to be informed. 
Finally, I need to make one more plea about the proposed regulations from USED. August 1 is the deadline for comment on the portion of the regulations dealing with accountability, state plans and data reporting.

I know we are all busy, but this is a critical time. I am challenging Kentuckians to make their feelings known to USED and lawmakers on these regulations – my goal is for at least 1,000 Kentuckians to share their thoughts – positive or negative through the Federal Register website. As the State School Officer for Kentucky, I will be submitting my thoughts, as I have shared with Congress on two occasions. But my comments count as only one voice and hold no more value than anyone else’s. We need everyone to comment by the August 1 deadline. You do not have to agree with me, but if you do, feel free to use a portion of my written testimony. As with everything, if we do not take the opportunity to voice our opinion, we will be stuck with what we have, with no one to blame. 

Thank you all for what you do for our students in your various roles. Now is the time for courage and communication, we can do this together. Remember, it may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a Commonwealth to educate one. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Courage in the Face of Change

Courage, a simple word. Nearly everyone knows how to define it. Many statements exemplify it. It takes courage to rush into battle, to stand before a crowd of peers, to even take a stand for what is right. It takes just as much courage to be patient (especially in a highly charged environment that screams rush), to listen to others, to admit when you do not have all of the answer, and to admit when you are wrong.

In this blog, I’d like to address another type of courage, courage in the face of change. This is a special type of courage. It is about putting another’s need in front of your personal needs. It is about trying to consider the uncomfortable truth, that only through change can we make the lives of our students better.

Change is uncomfortable, it is at times unwieldy. I know that Kentucky educators have seen great change over the past few years, but it has made us stronger and it has made a better life for our students.

Andre Gide said, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

We are at an important and, I believe, historic moment in Kentucky and across the nation with the passage and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Courage will be required if we are to move forward in educating our students. If we are going to actually make change, we are going to have to be ready to lose sight of the shore. In other words, those things that have been the basis of where we are today of which some have proven successful on and some have not. Oddly enough, even when we aren’t successful, we often will still choose comfort over the possibility of change. 

I have named more than 160 individuals to come together and develop our new accountability system. This is going to be hard and intense work, but work that is needed in Kentucky. But they cannot be the only people involved. We need all of our educators and shareholders to be engaged and willing to inform the process.

I have been clear that I am open to a brand new system. There is no agenda here on my part except to develop a system that will drive adults to make good decisions for our students. To do that, it will take courage, but given Kentucky’s history I know our people are up to the task.

All of that sounds good, sounds great actually. However, if we do not first stand up for ourselves as the guidance for ESSA is being developed, we may never get there. We have until August 1 to submit feedback on the United States Education Department (USED) proposed regulations on accountability, state plans, and data reporting. The link to submit comments can be found here. I am not going to tell anyone what to say, but I want to push all to have the courage to send feedback.

Robert F. Kennedy said, “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” 

It is time consuming and tough to stand for what is right. I encourage all of you to send feedback to the USED so that Kentucky’s voice will be heard loud and clear. I would appreciate it if you would support the issues the Kentucky Department of Education has identified as reflected in my congressional testimony, but if you see different issues that is fine too. You can link to my House Committee on Education and the Workforce oral and written testimony from last month as well to the oral and written testimony presented to the Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions last week. While they are very similar, there are a few differences. I just want the Commonwealth of Kentucky to lead the way in providing direction to USED. It is our right to do this, but it is also what is right.

While courage manifests itself in many ways and has many forms, in my opinion, there is no area that requires more courage than education. Everyone thinks they know about it and everyone has a better way to do it. It often feels like everyone is on the attack. However, only through courage in the face of change in education can we make a real difference for students. We must push to “search for a new ocean” and have the courage to “lose sight of the shore.” If we do, our children will be prepared to be a fulfilled and contributing member of our Commonwealth and beyond.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Dr. Pruitt goes to Washington

I am a huge fan of actor Jimmy Stewart – always have been and always will be. One of his movies that I've always loved is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

In the movie, Stewart’s character, Mr. Jefferson Smith, is appointed by his governor to fill a vacant position in the Senate. He is very excited, and likewise very naïve. He arrives in Washington, D.C. from his small rural town with some big ideas that he quickly learns are not easily done in this huge political machine that is D.C. His first legislation was to set up a camp for underprivileged boys near his hometown – a laudable effort, but one on which he would face an uphill battle. He quickly discovers that even his appointment was the result of politics – so that powerful people could get their way on policy. Mr. Smith was told he was alone in his efforts on the camp, it was impossible and to just let it go. Well, he didn’t let it go, and with his friends and colleagues he made a difference for his home state.

Well, I went to Washington last week to try to make a difference for my home state of Kentucky.

No one sets a goal in life that they want to testify in front of a Congressional committee. I am not sure many would even find excitement in it. Admittedly, I did not want to be put into a position to testify, but sometimes you simply have to stand up for what's right. I felt very much like Mr. Smith in many ways when I appeared last week before the United States House Committee on Education and the Workforce, on which Kentucky Representative Brett Guthrie serves.

When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the President signed it into law, I embraced its promise. I embraced with gusto the idea that states can make decisions that best fit the values of their own education shareholders. I may be naïve, but I believe the only way we can move to our next step of ensuring every student gets a quality education is to think about quality and not compliance. Yet, that is not where subsequent conversations have led and I am not comfortable with the federal demands being placed on our state.

Like Mr. Smith, I felt I committed to doing right by our districts, our schools, but most importantly our students and educators. I had to speak up and I ask you to do so as well. Here is a link to my oral testimony and the more detailed written testimony for your review and knowledge.

My ask is that, within the next month, each of you submit feedback on the proposed ESSA regulations. The proposed ESSA regulations are open for feedback until August 1. You may read them and submit comments through this website:

We can make this the right thing for Kentucky, but only if WE take it upon ourselves to advocate – to stand for our children and our state – just as Mr. Smith did, even when we feel inadequate to challenge or change the establishment. As long as we work for students, we are more than adequate.

So, please let the United States Department of Education know that in Kentucky, we understand the need for compliance, but value quality education for all of our children over all else.

Oh, and welcome to Washington. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Overcoming what seems impossible in education

This past week, I, like many others, mourned the loss and celebrated the life of Kentucky native son, Muhammad Ali. He was an incredible individual, showman and athlete. But even more than that, he was an incredible human being.

When you strip away all of the politics and perceptions that often generated controversy, Ali stood for people who often could not stand for themselves. He was a spectacle, and even after Parkinson’s took away his voice and bravado, he still commanded a presence because of his genuine care for people.

Last week, I heard a quote of Ali’s that I do not remember hearing before. I would like to share it because it is not only a testament to the man that Ali was, but also appropriate for what some people say is the impossible job of public education.
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Some say we face an impossible task with the implementation of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and collaboratively developing a new accountability system. Our goal is to create a system that reflects what Kentuckians value in education and moves us past a mindset of competition and compliance with a law, so that we may create an attitude of excellence and improvement in our schools that will benefit of all of our students. Difficult and challenging – yes. Impossible – NO!

I believe, to paraphrase The Greatest, the law gives us the opportunity to “explore the power we have to change” the system. We need greater focus on students, more guidance from research and to change our perceptions of equity and opportunity. Now with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the opportunity to make some of those changes is at hand.

Earlier in June, the United States Department of Education (USED) released draft regulations that would govern the implementation of ESSA. While unlike Ali, I am not a fighter, I do believe in standing up for what is right for kids. That’s why already I have been in contact with USED about several issues that I see as potential problems with the draft regulations for implementing ESSA.

As we move forward, we need everyone to submit their thoughts through this website on proposed ESSA regulations. I’ll be honest with you, the regs are dense, detailed and sometimes their meaning isn’t entirely clear, but we owe it to our kids to plow through, devote the time and understanding, and make sure the regulations reflect the best interest of students.

Also, as the new accountability system develops, we need everyone to continue to provide us with their thoughts on the new system, as you did so well during the Town Hall listening tour. You need to hold us and USED accountable to move past mere compliance with a law to develop a system that will promote an equitable and quality, well-rounded education that will encourage each and every student in Kentucky to reach his or her true potential and graduate from high school ready for college, career and life.

While the task for meeting the needs of our students is huge, as Ali said, nothing is impossible. It is a dare – a dare I embrace. I hope you will all take that dare with me as we push to change an accountability system so that it will be meaningful and bring about genuine school improvement for the benefit of all of Kentucky’s children.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Off to a good start on a new accountability system

Last week, we had our first meeting of the Accountability Steering Committee. It is composed of 37 individuals representing teachers, principals, superintendents, community members, higher education, education advocates – including the business community, legislators and parents. It is a huge group, but I felt it was important to ensure we had the perspective of all shareholders. In the coming weeks, you will learn more about the overall process. The steering committee is just one facet. There are nine other committees that have similar makeups.

At the meeting, the steering committee reviewed the main themes that emerged from the Town Hall meetings held across the state this spring. Department staff reviewed all the comments that were made at the meetings along with submitted emails, which can be found under the Town Hall portion of this webpage, and categorized them into central themes. The themes we most often heard were:
  • Our children must be at the heart of the system.
  • A well-rounded education is important and necessary.
  • All subjects, both tested and non-tested, need to be valued. 
  • Access and opportunity for students are critical. 
  • An emphasis on teaching is needed.
  • Collaboration instead of competition among schools and districts needs to be the focus.
We are continuing to take feedback through a special email box, so keep your thoughts coming. You may join a virtual Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday, June 7 at 6:30 p.m. ET or on demand anytime thereafter by clicking here. I am so glad we decided to do the Town Halls. I learned a lot from them and plan on making them an annual event (although not so many in such a short time).

The Steering Committee agreed on a few principles to guide the work – based on the feedback from the Town Halls and discussions in the committee. The Steering Committee agreed that:
  • The system should be focused on the welfare of all students and promote good decision making for their benefit.
  • The system should promote a holistic and quality education for all students.
  • The system should reflect the Kentucky Department of Education’s guiding principles of equity, achievement and integrity.
  • The system should be simple and easy to understand.
  • Data should be reported in a dashboard that better illustrates school/district progress or deficits than a single number.
So, we are off to a good start. Shortly we will be communicating about the rest of the process. There is much work to do, but I believe that we have an incredible amount of brainpower in our state to make what we are doing a model for the rest of the country. We will need to work together and hold each other accountable. We will need to develop our common vision and stick to it. Most of all, we will need to remember who this is for, our students.

On a related topic, last week, the United State Department of Education (USED) released the draft regulations for the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Some of you may have heard that I am not thrilled with a couple of issues in the proposed guidance including the timing of some issues and the use of a summative number rather than a dashboard for reporting. I want to encourage all of you to be engaged in the public input process by going to the Federal Register website, reading the draft regulations and making your voice heard.

We cannot move ahead as long as we keep a foot in the past. I have already made my thoughts known loud and clear, I need the Commonwealth to do the same. We need to do this to ensure the full impact of ESSA is realized here. If it is, I firmly believe we will continue to build a world class education system for Our Children and Our Commonwealth.