Saturday, November 24, 2007

New commissioner to carry on reform efforts

Tomorrow afternoon the Kentucky Board of Education plans to announce their pick for the next education commissioner. Assuming there are no last minute changes of heart about defying the advice of Governor-elect Steve Beshear their choice ought to be Jon Draud. Of course, this is exactly the kind of thing one hates to say out loud, given the board's contrary nature and propensity for choosing the wrong path.

Mark Hebert reports the chatter:

This Kentucky state lawmaker from northern Kentucky has heard rumors that he's the favorite to be the next School Commissioner. And Jon Draud isn't the only one hearing that. The other rumored favorite for the job, former Florida state school chief Jim Warford has also heard Draud is the favorite. But both candidates say school board members and Chairman Joe Brothers haven't tipped their hands, only telling them what they're telling me.

“We will vote and select a Commissioner, to be announced Sunday afternoon,”
says Brothers.

This recap and look ahead from Joe Biesk at the Associated Press as reported by WHAS TV.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Kentucky’s new education commissioner, unlike predecessors who were chasing distant goals, will face the looming task of leading the state closer toward completing its education reform movement started nearly 20 years ago.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1990, called for sweeping changes and accountability within the state’s system of educating its youngsters. Its goal of having all Kentucky students reach the level of proficiency is targeted for 2014.

To reach those goals, the next commissioner needs to help re-energize an education system that still has many schools consistently lagging behind, said Bob Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee.

“The biggest one (duty) is kind of energizing the movement that we’ve had here for many years, giving it a big boost of forward motion—particularly aimed at reaching the goals that have been established for 2014,” Sexton said. “The commissioner will be challenged to find ways to help move forward the schools that are chronically not moving forward—the ones that are not making progress that will get them to or very close to their goal.”

The Kentucky Board of Education was expected to settle on a new commissioner Sunday.

Kentucky, a state that has been known nationally for its school reform efforts, has been without a commissioner since Gene Wilhoit left last year for a job with an education organization in Washington. Wilhoit’s departure sparked a year of upheaval.

First the board, with the help of a search firm, hired Illinois educator Barbara Erwin. She accepted the job, but bailed out shortly before she was supposed to start because of “noise by the media” concerning her work background.

Shortly after, the 11-member board appointed by Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher installed Wilburn Joe Brothers as chairman over Keith Travis who remains on the board.

Most recently, the panel ignored Gov.-elect Steve Beshear’s request to reopen its search so that more candidates could apply. Beshear, a Democrat who defeated letcher earlier this month, thought the state’s recent uncertain political climate may have discouraged some potential candidates from coming forward.

Nevertheless, the board opted to continue its search and select from a group of four finalists that included: Republican state Rep. Jon Draud, a retired superintendent of the Ludlow school district; Richard Hughes, a retired Hardin County school superintendent; Larry Vick, the Owensboro school superintendent; and Jim Warford, a former chancellor of the Florida Department of Education.

Kentucky has had three education commissioners since the General Assembly passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990.

Thomas Boysen was the first, holding the post from 1991-1995. Wilmer “Bill” Cody was the second, before Wilhoit who was the longest-serving appointed commissioner.

Kentucky’s first three commissioners started their tenures in the early stages of the reform effort when the target date for proficiency was still many years away, Sexton said. It’s possible that Wilhoit’s successor could still be commissioner when 2014 finally rolls around, he said.

KERA came about after a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling found the state’s schools were inadequate. The General Assembly overhauled Kentucky’s school system, seeking to even out school funding throughout the state.

It implemented, among other things, an accountability system and gave more power to local education officials.

Melissa Evans-Andris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville, said Kentucky is still perceived as a one of the “leaders of the pack” nationally about 17 years after KERA passed.

The education reform set Kentucky up for some of the provisions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Evans-Andris said. A strong commissioner is necessary to be a public advocate for Kentucky schools and carry out the board of education’s direction, she said.

“The primary goal for the new commissioner is to get a grip on what agenda has already been established,” Evans-Andris said.

Results from the Kentucky Core Content Tests released last month showed many students scored well in reading, most of the more than 428,000 students scored either “proficient” or “distinguished.”

Seventy-two-percent of the elementary students scored either proficient or distinguished in reading, while about 21.5 were apprentice and 5.8 were novice. High school students didn’t fare as well, as the percentage of pupils scoring either proficient or distinguished dropped to 60.1 percent, with 34.9 percent at the apprentice level and 5 percent as novice.

But in math and science, only 39.3 percent of high school students were proficient or distinguished in math and 41.7 percent in science.

According to the latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Kentucky’s eighth graders were performing near the national average in math and above the national average in reading.

Still, not all schools are on a trajectory to reach proficiency by 2014, said Stephen Miller, an associate professor of educational foundations, at the University of Louisville. If schools are still off course three or four years from now, that could prompt questions such as whether the goals are too high or are more resources needed, Miller said.

“Time is of the essence,” Miller said. “We can’t wait. We need to start thinking about those things now and the new commissioner is going to have to address those things pretty early on.”

A new commissioner, along with the new governor, need to work together to bring in a refreshed sense of urgency to help the consistently lagging schools turn around, Sexton said.

“We need some new energy and some new thinking,” Sexton said. “Every state is struggling with the chronically underperforming schools and we really need to pay
attention to that.”

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