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Kentucky's New Commissioner of Education Outlines Priorities


Growing up in Georgia, Stephen Pruitt thought he wanted to be an ophthalmologist and help people see better. Now as Kentucky’s sixth Commissioner of Education, he’s the man charged with setting the vision for the state’s public primary and secondary schools.

Pruitt started his new job in October, and he is already deeply immersed in budget issues as well as a review of the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards. He appeared on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw to discuss those and other school issues.

Pruitt spent 12 years as a chemistry teacher before rising to various posts in the Georgia Department of Education, and serving as senior vice president for a nonprofit education policy organization in Washington, D.C.

He says he was familiar with and impressed by Kentucky’s education reform efforts over the years, but he says he hadn’t considered applying for the commissioner’s job until he was approached by a head-hunting firm about the position. Pruitt says the more he and his wife thought about what the commonwealth had to offer, the more sense it made to pursue the job.

“How do you pass up an opportunity to work with shareholders around the state that really want a better life for their kids,” Pruitt says. “How do you say no to that?”

The commissioner says communication is a key part of his job, to help parents, lawmakers, and citizens understand how well Kentucky’s public schools are doing and what challenges still remain. For example, he notes that the state now ranks ninth in the nation in high school graduation rates, and that 86 percent of those graduates are leaving high school college-and-career ready.

“It’s not because we’ve lowered standards, it’s actually because we have higher standards – but yet students have risen to that, our districts have risen to that, our superintendents, [and] our teachers,” Pruitt says.

Pruitt arrived in Kentucky as the debate over the Common Core standards for math and English/language arts began to escalate. Gov. Matt Bevin says he wants to end the state’s use of the national standards, and Senate Republicans have made repealing them a top priority for the 2016 General Assembly session.

Kentucky adopted Common Core in 2010, and the Department of Education, under former Commissioner Terry Holliday, recently completed a review of the standards. Pruitt says some 5,000 Kentuckians submitted their feedback on Common Core, which the department is using to revise the standards for the first time in five years.

“I don’t know that at the end of this revision if we can actually call them Common Core anymore,” Pruitt says, “because there have been changes, and some good ones.”

Those updates, according to Pruitt, include clarifying guidelines that help teachers develop curricula to meet components of the standards, and ensuring that learning activities are matched to the appropriate grade levels. Pruitt says he will put the standards up for public review again so that the department can continue to refine them and maintain high performance expectations for students.

“Everybody [should have] an opportunity to tell us what they think about the standards because they need to be Kentucky standards,” Pruitt says. “We need to own them.”

Pruitt adds that new federal legislation called the Every Student Succeeds Act is a “game changer” in how it grants states more flexibility to customize their standards and accountability systems.

Another priority for the Bevin Administration is to bring charter schools to the commonwealth. Charters are usually publicly funded, privately run schools that have autonomy to embrace new or innovative learning techniques. Kentucky is one of seven states that don’t have charters.

Pruitt worked with charter schools during his tenure at the Georgia Department of Education. He says that charter schools have been around nationally for more than two decades with mixed results. Some have been failures, Pruitt says, while others that were created with deliberative plans and specific accountability measures have greatly benefited their students.

If Kentucky does implement charters, Pruitt says the education department should administer them, but he says the state wouldn’t be involved in the day-to-day operations of the schools. He also wants oversight of the admissions criteria to ensure that charters don’t create what he calls “legalized segregation” among their students.

“For me there’s an exchange of flexibility for accountability,” Pruitt says. “What charters can do, if done well, is give students a different type of education, especially in some of our low-performing schools… I do, though, think this is where oversight has to come in, because just because you say it’s a charter doesn’t mean it’s actually going to do better for kids.”

Pruitt contends that if a charter school fails to meet the goals its operators have promised, the state should have the authority to close it.

The state board of education has requested $349 million in new funding for the next biennium. Pruitt says he understands the budget pressures facing the state and realizes that their request will likely be reduced by lawmakers. He says that figure includes money for better career and technical training opportunities for high school students, and new assessments for science courses.

“A good test matters,” says the former chemistry teacher. “We want to develop one that’s not going to be so overbearing on schools but at the same time one that will tell us if students are really going to be scientifically literate.”

The department’s budget request also includes bonding for new construction at the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville and the School for the Blind in Louisville. Pruitt says new facilities are “sorely needed” by those institutions.

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