Friday, February 26, 2016

Making good on the Commonwealth Commitment

Five years ago, my predecessor, Terry Holliday, asked superintendents and local board of education chairs to sign a pledge. It was called the Commonwealth Commitment to College and Career Readiness and the goal was to dramatically increase the number of high school seniors who graduated equipped with the knowledge and skills to take the next step in their life journey, whether that be attending a 2- year or 4-year college, or postsecondary training program that would lead to a lifelong career.

Each district had a specific goal – to increase its 2010 college and career readiness rate by 50 percent by 2015. Every one of the state’s P-12 school districts signed the pledge and started work to encourage and support students to achieve the goal of graduating college- and career-ready.

This was not just some public relations stunt, but a real collaborative effort to develop a stronger economy for our state and a brighter future for our children. The effort grew out of legislation, Senate Bill 1 of 2009, that had a defined focus – to improve postsecondary student success, and create a more educated and skilled workforce that could compete with the best and draw new business and better paying jobs to Kentucky.

In 2010, only 34 percent of Kentucky’s public high school students were considered ready for college and careers, as measured by student performance on the ACT – the only measure Kentucky had at the time. In subsequent years, other measures such as student performance on college placement tests, military and career-readiness tests, and obtaining an industry-recognized certificate were added. The Kentucky Department of Education took some heat for this – claims that with a change in measures, the numbers from year to year weren’t comparable. But critics were missing the point. The bottom line was about kids, options for their future and improving the quality of the state’s workforce.

In 2015, the state’s college and career readiness rate stood at 67 percent. What that means is that at least 15,000 more kids a year have a better chance for success in life than they would have had in 2010. Our districts stepped up to the plate and delivered. A total of 111 out of 168 districts met their Commonwealth Commitment goal. They are being recognized at the Kentucky School Boards Association annual conference this weekend. A good number of the rest made dramatic improvements, but came up a little short. Still there is reason to celebrate!

A recent report from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education pointed out that in the past five years, there was a 19 percent increase in the total number of degrees and credentials awarded in Kentucky. This occurred at a time when tuition was at its highest in history. Some might claim the improvement is coincidental, but I have to believe that the concerted effort that elementary and secondary education has made to improve the readiness of our students over the past five years has had something to do with it. I’m sure the students who saved thousands of dollars in tuition because they did not have to pay for remedial classes for which they didn’t earn credit would think so.

While the 2015 deadline for the Commonwealth Commitment has come and gone, and many of the school, district and state leaders involved in it have moved on, the Kentucky Department of Education and school districts statewide must not become complacent in their efforts to continue the push for even more students to graduate college- and career-ready. The focus needs to continue to be on students.

I implore our districts to continue to support ALL students, encourage them to work hard and take the rigorous courses they want and need to achieve their dreams. And when they struggle, we must be there to help. Every student should graduate from high school ready for college or to step into the world of work. If they do, we know we have done our jobs well.

Friday, February 19, 2016

If you are from Frankfort, bring evidence

What constitutes evidence? As a former science teacher, this question has always been an important consideration for me. The dictionary defines evidence as the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.

So why am I writing about evidence when this is an education blog? Well, when we talk about policy it is a critical point – one that we, as a society and as a Commonwealth, need to embrace.This will be essential as we embark on creating a new accountability system for our schools.

First, there is a difference in data and evidence. Data are the things you collect. They can be qualitative or quantitative. They can be descriptive and even predictive. However, all the data in the world does not constitute evidence. Evidence is only achieved when the data are put into a logical order that reveals patterns or trends AND reasoning is applied to address the phenomena.

I am a pragmatic guy who likes things simple. But I am also a person who does not accept the things people say as true without data AND evidence. In education, we have heard too many times, “Research shows….” What research? Who did it? Was there bias? What does the data say? WHAT is the evidence?

I believe evidence is a key principle to make one’s thinking visible. Evidence explains not just the data, but how decisions are made and the logic behind them.

I have a sign in my office that states, “In God we trust, all others must bring data.” I love my sign and its intent, but I think we may need to amend it to include providing evidence.

So, what does this have to do with what is going on in Kentucky education? It is about our education shareholders holding everyone in Frankfort accountable, including me. I challenge you to hold our policymakers, educators and all of our partners accountable by demanding evidence. I call on our citizenry to not respond to education work based on hearsay or rhetoric, but to require that we present evidence that backs up the reasons for proposed and final decisions.

In short, it is my belief that in all we do in Frankfort, we should make our thinking visible. We should not be allowed to stand on anecdote or just data. We cannot be allowed to give simple one liners that attempt to justify our decisions. Rather we should be able to provide data that shows patterns or trends toward the things we value in education. But again, the key is that we make our thinking visible. It’s said the devil is in the details. So also, I would call on all Kentuckians to inform themselves with the facts and thoroughly read everything that is produced regarding proposed changes in education.

We have an incredible opportunity ahead of us in developing Kentucky’s new accountability system. It will be hard work with a lot of feedback and moving parts.

Shortly, you will see announcements about my town hall tour to hear from all Kentuckians about what we value in schools so we may begin shaping Kentucky’s vision for accountability. I am looking forward to meeting a lot of people, hearing their views on what we value in education, and developing a system that will be the envy of the country.

If we are to build Kentucky’s public education system on equity, achievement and integrity, we need all of our shareholders to hold Frankfort accountable for providing evidence and visible thinking about all of our decisions, but especially this one.

Data is valuable, but evidence is critical to good and transparent decision making. So, perhaps every Kentuckian needs a sign that states, “In God we trust; if you’re from Frankfort, bring evidence.”

Friday, February 12, 2016


In 2015, Valentine’s Day moved beyond the traditional roses and chocolates that are associated with February 14 and the celebration of love. A number of national and state Teachers of the Year started a Twitter movement called the #LoveTeaching campaign. The point of the campaign is to celebrate the profession of teachers by talking about the positive impacts teachers have on their students.  

I cannot think of a better thing to “tweet” about. Not a day goes by that I do not miss my classroom. I think back to 1991 and my first year at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia. I loved being there. I loved everything about it. I loved the opportunity to teach science to students. What I quickly realized was that I was teaching far more than chemistry. As much as I helped shape my students’ lives, they too shaped my future. #LoveTeaching should be a time for our educators to share those experiences with others. 

The 1995 film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, touchingly portrays the relationship between a teacher and his students. While many of my performing arts friends might say the music played in the final scene was far from perfect, to me the scene was more about the man, Mr. Holland, than his music. It was about an individual who selflessly gave of himself to help his students excel. It was about a person, a teacher, who became a compass for his students, and in the process unknowingly changed their lives, as they did his.  

While perhaps not as poignant as was portrayed on the silver screen, I too have experienced this reality of teaching. I think of a young lady who took my ninth grade physical science class. She was into all sorts of things that she should not have been. She hated school, hated everything about it really. She sat in front of the room and over time I was able to build some good will. She went on to graduate and I always wondered what happened to her. Several years ago I got a Facebook request and an incredible note from her. She was studying to be a nurse. She told me that as much as she complained about my class at the time, there was something that stuck with her – I believed in her and that she could be better than what she was. Wow, for me, that defines gratification!

Other situations come to mind – like the student who comes up to you at the grocery store and hugs you for no reason. Or the student who leaves the card on your desk declaring, “You will never die. The character, integrity and drive you have given me will be passed to my children and throughout the generations. You are immortal.” 

Then there’s the 6’4” cross country runner who ran his first 5k in 48 minutes and his last race in his senior year in 23 minutes. As he crosses the finish line, he whispers, “Thank you for never giving up on me.” 

And who could forget the student who became a teacher because she saw in you the passion for providing a better future for your students. 

These are the stories that make me #LoveTeaching. There are millions of them that we must celebrate.  

Teachers impact future generations each and every day, and we form the only profession that leads to all others. I hope you will join me in celebrating the profession of teaching every day, but especially in the coming week.  

While I am proud to be the Commissioner of Education in Kentucky, for the next week I plan to participate in #LoveTeaching and show my pride first and foremost that I am a teacher. 

#LoveTeaching lasts from February 14-22. I encourage Kentucky teachers to share their stories, videos and blogs for the entire state and the world to see. Teachers are members of the greatest profession on Earth, and it is time for the light that guides our students to be seen by everyone. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Need inspiration? Visit a Kentucky public school

This was a busy week for education in Frankfort. Everyone is still trying to determine the impact of potential budget reductions and proposed legislation, and the Kentucky Board of Education met for its bimonthly meeting.

Yet, every day is a busy day in our public schools and districts with the time spent focused on educating our children and inspiring them to do great things. I had the opportunity to visit several schools this week, and doing so inspired me too.

First, I spent my Monday morning at the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville. It was a wonderful time –meeting the staff, interacting with students, and seeing some pretty incredible instruction. While there is work to do to improve, it was a great reminder for me of the incredible power of education and the role I play in that for these students. As most of you know, in addition to being commissioner of education, I also act as the superintendent for the Kentucky School for the Blind (KSB) and the Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD). There is much potential in each of these schools and we are working to move both schools to the next level by setting higher expectations for them. At the center of this work are the kids. It was great to see how excited the students at the Kentucky School for the Deaf are about their school.

On Thursday of this week, I spent the day in Hickman County with Superintendent Casey Henderson. For about an hour, I talked with him and central office staff about their needs and my vision for the future. But the real exciting stuff was still to come. Principal Richard Todd took me on a tour of Hickman County Elementary School. This guy’s personality and leadership style are infectious. It is clear that his kids and teachers love him. He could not go more than five steps without a student saying hello or giving him a big hug.

From the time you walk in to the school, you know kids are the focus. The halls are decorated with student work and the teachers’ classrooms are reflections of their personalities. In Jenah Blalock’s class, the desks are arranged in a most original way that allows her and her special education teacher to easily move between students. The room was filled with productive noise – meaning the students were hard at work in groups, but were very focused on the task at hand. They kept working when we entered the room, which told me they are used to outsiders coming in to watch class.

In Emily Smith’s  first grade class, all of the students had worked hard to achieve their goals in reading. They were excited and it was great to see how proud they were of themselves when I spoke with them about it. The students were inviting, engaging and confident. You could see a clear relationship of respect between the students and Ms. Smith. They were willing to work hard for her and did not want to disappoint.

My next visit was to the high school where Kevin Estes is principal. What an incredible experience! Again, leadership is key. He and his staff have developed a culture of achievement in which students know they are cared for and held to a high standard. I spent an hour with about 25 juniors in Jeanna Kimbell’s Non-Profit Leadership Studies dual credit class offered through Murray State University. They asked questions of me and I had a few of my own for them. We learned a lot from each other. Well, I learned a lot from them anyway.

Finally, I had the opportunity to participate in the Falcon Academy Celebration and Partner Recognition. Through this program, the high school partners with Murray State and Western Kentucky Community and Technical College to provide students with dual credit opportunities. Students are graduating from high school with enough credit to be considered college sophomores, and doing so with fantastic academic performance.

There are a couple key elements of the program that must be noted. First, it is open to all students, not just a few or the brightest, but all students. Second, this student opportunity is made possible by community partners who, several years ago, decided the schools could be better if they helped. And helped they have. No student in the Falcon Academy pays for books or tuition. Community partners cover the cost of tuition; the Hickman Co. Board of Education covers the cost of the books. Also, the university and community college are full partners with the school, so there are no turf issues or concerns with the level of instruction. It is an incredible model.

Weeks like this inspire, recharge and focus me, despite having to deal with things like potential budget cuts. In fact, several people have asked me, if I had known the budget situation prior to taking this position, would I have made the same choice? Absolutely! I am proud to be Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education. Why? Because in Kentucky, we care about ensuring a better life for our students. If you ever doubt that, or need some inspiration of your own about the future of our Commonwealth, all you need do is visit your local school and observe public education in action.