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.