In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Kevin Noland, Deputy Commissioner and General Counsel for the Kentucky Department of Education. Noland, who has been with the department since 1991. He has served three times as interim education commissioner, most recently from September 2006 through December, 2007. He is retiring July 31.
Q. You were in the interesting position of having helped draft the Kentucky Education Reform Act when you were with the Legislative Research Commission and then joined the department of education when it was being implemented. What was that like to be on both ends of this historic event?
A. It’s been a great experience to watch a massive change in education in Kentucky and be a part of helping to draft that and then being a part of helping to implement it. It has been amazing to me to see how hard people have worked and how successful they have been in trying to ensure that what we’re doing with education really makes a difference for the students and for Kentucky.
Q. Has KERA turned out the way you thought it would?
A. For the most part, yes. Any time you have a massive change and all the right intentions, there are unforeseen issues that require adjustments, and I think we should always be open to making improvements because we can’t anticipate all the potential issues and challenges that come with implementation. As knowledge is gained, as experience is gained, and as technology changes occur, I think the legislature and the department of education have been open to try to make adjustments when needed.
Q. If you had the chance, is there anything you would change now about KERA?
A. The one thing I would change is to ensure that there are adequate resources for teachers, administrators, local school boards and others to deliver the educational opportunities and to meet the needs of each child to reach his or her potential. I think originally one area that was not adequately funded was professional development for teachers, administrators and others to be able to learn, internalize and use the kinds of changes that were called for in KERA. It took several years for some initiatives to be institutionalized in our schools and school districts, and more money for professional development would have helped that.
Q. What has it been like to come to the department as general counsel and wind up serving three times as interim commissioner?
A. It has been an interesting learning process and quite a challenge. I feel like I have been the lucky one, getting to work with so many people who are dedicated to teaching and learning. I have seen over the years definite improvement in the function of school districts as well as the skills of the people in each role. Whether it be a teacher, principal, superintendent or local school board member, I have seen a change over time for the better. And what you hear discussed these days are issues related to student learning as opposed to other issues that we as adults can focus on sometimes.
Q. What has been the best thing about serving as interim commissioner and what has been the most challenging?
A. The best has been being able to serve in a role in which I could try to have an impact for the better for students and for school districts around the state. The most challenging has been to keep the focus on the most important issue, which is getting all students to proficiency and beyond and prepared for success, because we are often faced with putting out fires and being reactionary. It’s always a challenge, whether you’re a superintendent, school board member, a teacher, or an interim commissioner of education, to try to keep the focus and the majority of your attention on what moves us forward with student learning.
Q. In recent years there have been a number of retirements in the department, which has been a tremendous loss of experience, expertise and institutional memory. How has the department handled that challenge?
A. In the summer of 2007 we had quite a bit of turnover and several new people coming in, including three new associate commissioners and a new deputy commissioner. But all of these folks came with school district experience and have shown success in their roles in school districts. Those folks have a year under their belts, they have learned a lot and are great contributors. We are also facing quite a few retirements this year in the department and I think one of the most important things we can do is search out, recruit and hire the best people we can who have experiences that make a real difference for students in Kentucky.
With the budget cuts and having the challenge to replace persons as they retire, it is one of our major challenges because the people we have really make a difference although they have so much to do and with less staff. It’s critical that the new staff that we get on board have a short learning curve and are able to hit the ground running.
Q. Because of retirements, attrition and budget reductions, the department has had to streamline its programs. How have these reductions affected services the department can offer?
A. Over the last seven years I have seen a series of budget reductions in the department of education. In fact, when I came here in 1991 we had over 900 employees and now we’re down to around 640, which includes around 220 in our Kentucky School for the Blind and School for the Deaf.
We have seen a reduction in staff and yet over the years, we have had bills enacted
that require us to do more and more. The good thing about working here is that
we have a lot of dedicated people doing everything they can to help school districts to succeed.
The challenge has been that we are facing the reality that we can’t do it all. The last few cuts have seen us take a hard look at what we must give up, at what we can no longer do. That is a gut-wrenching process because when we get a call or e-mail wanting folks to do things, we want to help others, we want to do whatever we can. But we find ourselves in a position of trying to broker help from others and have found it very challenging sometimes to provide the direct services that we are asked to do.
Q. What is the department’s greatest need in terms of continuing to move students and schools toward proficiency?
A. I would say our greatest need is for more resources to enable highly skilled educators and other well-trained staff to be able to assist lower-performing schools and districts, especially the ones that have been low-performing for years. We need them to be able to go in and implement strategies we have found to be effective in high-performing schools and school districts.
That would be the greatest need because we know from early examples in Kentucky that getting students to proficiency is doable regardless of the challenges that are faced with certain students or certain areas of the state. It is doable, and we would like the resources to be able to provide more direct services in those lower performing schools and districts.
Q. How do you see the state of education in Kentucky today?
A. I feel great about what Kentucky educators and everybody involved in the process, including local school board members, have been able to accomplish since 1990. Kentucky used to rank near the bottom in a number of indicators. Just about a month ago, the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center issued a report that showed that although Kentucky ranked 36th in the nation in per-pupil spending, the state ranks as high as eighth nationwide in the area of cost-effective educational spending. In other words, we are doing a lot with the money we have. With already tightened belts, we are making efficient use of the money we have. When you look at the indicators – NAEP, CATS, NCLB - Kentucky students have made significant gains in learning since the ’90s.
Folks are really focused, working hard and producing results and I feel good about it. I think our challenge is to continue and in some cases increase the momentum, and one of the biggest things we can do to accomplish that is to ensure there are adequate resources.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
KSBA sat for a chat with outgoing KDE general counsel, former three-time interim commissioner Kevin Noland.