"We also want to provide those outspoken critics of the Common Core
with an opportunity to put up or shut up. What specifically is your concern?
It's one thing to say it's a conspiracy…show us which standard you have an issue with,
tell us why you think that's the case, and we'll look into it.
Give us some evidence, otherwise it's just an opinion."
---Ed Commish Terry Holliday
This from Toni Konz at WDRB:
Five years later, Kentucky education chief Terry Holliday puts reform back on track
It's early morning and Terry Holliday, Kentucky's top education chief, is sitting in front of a video camera, preparing to conduct a monthly webcast for nearly 180 superintendents across the state.
This webcast – to discuss the annual superintendent summit and progress of the state's new teacher evaluation system – is just one of many things on Holliday's schedule for the day.
He will speak in Louisville at a conference at noon, then drive to Lexington to catch a 4 p.m. flight to Washington, D.C., to attend a career-readiness task force meeting, where he will also participate in a teleconference with the National Assessment Governing Board.
“No two days are ever alike, which is a good thing,” said Holliday, 63, who oversees the education of roughly 675,000 public schoolchildren in Kentucky. “It's definitely a job that has kept me on my feet, but I really wouldn't have it any other way.”
In the five years since being named Kentucky's education commissioner, Holliday has put pressure on Jefferson County, referring to slow progress at some schools as “academic genocide.” He's also drawn criticism for being a supporter of new academic standards in English, math and science.
But Holliday's advocates – and even some critics – credit him for getting the state's education reform efforts back on track.
“He has brought stability back to the Kentucky Department of Education,” said Leon Mooneyhan, chief executive officer of the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative and a former school superintendent who has worked with every commissioner since the position was created in 1990 under the Kentucky Education Reform Act.
“There was a period of time where KDE wasn't stable and didn't have strong and focused leadership,” Mooneyhan said. “(Holliday) came here fully focused and engaged and wanting to move the department forward, and I think he has accomplished that.”
Since Holliday's arrival, the state has implemented a new system for assessing its schools and holding them accountable for their students' performance, as well as a new teacher-evaluation system that measures teacher and leader effectiveness.
In addition, under Holliday's insistence, Kentucky became the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards and later was among the first to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards – efforts to update and standardize subjects such as reading, math and science so students are better prepared for college and the workforce.
“Terry is the cream of the crop,” said David Karem, a member of the Kentucky Board of Education – the only current member who hired him. “We were very fortunate in getting the right person at exactly the right time to come on board.”
Richard Innes, an education analyst for the conservative Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions who has often criticized the state's education policies, said he believes Holliday has been “the strongest commissioner we've had.”
“We certainly don't agree with everything he has done, but I think he has been more open to opposing viewpoints than his predecessors,” said Innes, who's known each of Kentucky's commissioners. “He's willing to stand up to people, and that's a good thing.”
Holliday, who sat down with WDRB News for a lengthy interview about his tenure, said he believes Kentucky schools are in a better place than they were a few years ago because of the reform efforts outlined by the General Assembly in 2009.
“I think the state has done extremely well,” he said. “Certainly, I have made a lot of mistakes. But I've relied heavily on teachers and superintendents to help guide the work and Kentucky educators have been very open and willing to do it.”
Under Holliday's leadership, 54 percent of Kentucky's graduating students are now considered ready to take college-level courses or enter a postsecondary training program – that rate is up from 34 percent in 2010.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Thursday the country is at an "incredibly important moment in the effort to improve our schools" and because of Holliday's leadership in staying the course on difficult - yet critical - education reforms, "Kentucky is witnessing higher high school graduation rates, lower college remediation rates and improved college- and career-readiness rates."
Focus on student achievement
Holliday was named Kentucky's education commissioner in July 2009 and began work a month later. He signed an initial four-year contract, which ended last year, and was given a new four-year contract that runs through July 2017. He makes $225,000 annually and has asked the state board to not consider a raise both in his annual reviews and contract renewal.
Before his hiring, the Kentucky Board of Education had trouble keeping commissioners since Gene Wilhoit left in 2006. Wilhoit's successor, Barbara Erwin, left before her first day on the job because of questions about her resume, and former state legislator Jon Draud served for just over a year before he resigned because of health problems following a minor stroke.
Holliday, who had been a school superintendent in North Carolina, came to Kentucky just a few months after the state legislature passed Senate Bill 1, which called for a new system of assessment and accountability for public schools.
“That's what led me to be real interested in coming to Kentucky to work,” Holliday said. “New standards with a focus on college and career readiness, as well as a new assessment and accountability system that was more balanced and not just focused on standardized testing.”
Brad Hughes, a spokesperson for the Kentucky School Boards Association, recalls the interview his organization did with Holliday when he applied for the job.
“One of the points he made as a candidate was his intent to focus on student achievement, and I don't know of anybody who would disagree that in his tenure as commissioner, his laser-like focus has not been on student achievement – both in lifting achievement and how to measure the teaching and learning that goes in the classroom.”
Hughes said Holliday has also done a good job running a department that has lost “hundreds of positions, while at the same time, more is being expected of them with respect to oversight and support of districts.”
He has done it while battling a vocal-cord disorder that makes his voice so scratchy that he can be difficult to understand. He was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, which causes his vocal cords to freeze up, and gets monthly treatments from Vanderbilt University.
“At first, it hurt me to hear him, you felt bad for him,” said Karem. “You wondered – can he overcome that? This is a very vocal job. And quite candidly, he has overcome it 100 percent.”
Common core and teacher evaluations
Four years ago, Kentucky became the first state to adopt the Common Core Standards – a direct result of state legislation that called for new language art and math standards by December 2010.
“The only way we could possibly get that done was to adopt the Common Core,” said Holliday, who has been an avid supporter of the standards, which are a set of academic guidelines designed by states that clearly describe what students need to know before they complete each grade level.
Some conservative groups and other opponents of the new academic standards see the Common Core as an attempt by the federal government to co-opt education.
“The timeline we were working on was legislatively mandated, it had nothing to do with the federal government,” he said.
And now that the standards have been around for a few years, Holliday has called on the public to review the standards and suggest changes.
With the Kentucky Core Academic Standards Challenge, state officials are urging teachers, parents, business leaders and experts to weigh in on whether the standards should be rewritten.
“We've been in it about five years now, it's time to ask teachers what's working and what's not,” Holliday said. “We also want to provide those outspoken critics of the Common Core with an opportunity to put up or shut up. It's one thing to say it's a conspiracy; show me which standard you have a problem with, tell me why you think that's the case and we'll look into it. Give us some evidence, otherwise it's just an opinion.”
Innes says the fact Holliday is “willing to listen to our concerns about the Common Core is admirable.”
This fall, Kentucky also rolled out its new teacher evaluation system. The system, called the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System, is being watched by many other states as they look to create their own teacher evaluation system. “We spent four years working with teacher unions all across Kentucky and have developed a great system,” Holliday said. “Every teacher will use it this year, but it won't be used for personnel decisions until next year.”
Right now, the state is working on fixing software problems – something Holliday apologized for during his Sept. 25 webcast. Teachers were having issues uploading their self-reflections and professional growth plans.
“I worry about the software undermining four years of hard work,” he said. “I don't want any teacher to be turned off to the system because of the software. We are working hard to fix all of the glitches.”
Improving relationships with districts
For the last two years, Holliday said he has been working hard to establish better relationships with local superintendents and districts.
“The best kind of leader is one that has a high concern for task and a high concern for people,” said Mooneyhan, the longtime educator. “I think Dr. Holliday hits the mark on tasks, but I think some of his critics would say he falls short on (communication), although it does appear that he is trying to work on that
When asked what his critics say about him, Holliday is point blank.
“Too much, too fast,” he said. “That's usually the No. 1 criticism. Everything makes sense, it sounds good, but Dr. Holliday, we don't have enough money, it's just too much to do, this is a lot of hard work.
“What I come back with is that the children you have in front of you today, they only pass this way once,” he said. “Are you really going to look at those kids and say you don't really want to work that hard? We have to make sure we make our decisions are in best interest of the children, not the adults in the system.”
In his last evaluation by the Kentucky Board of Education, board members asked him to “continue to concentrate on relationship building and creating an atmosphere of mutual respect with superintendents and education constituents.”
“This is an issue we have asked him to be involved in, and I believe he has done it and continues to work on that,” Karem said, pointing to the success of the second annual superintendent summit held this month in which 167 of the state's 173 school districts participated in.
“He has worked to improve communication, he sends out weekly notes and hosts monthly webinars,” Karem said. “I think all of these things are positive steps.”
In that same evaluation, the state board also applauded Holliday for “going the extra mile to build a strong relationship with Jefferson County and supporting the efforts of that district's superintendent.”
Two years ago, Holliday used the words “academic genocide” to describe the lack of progress being made at some of the district's (and state's) lowest performing schools – words Holliday said he used to spur action not just in the district, but in the entire community.
He says he has watched Jefferson County closely for a reason.
“Half of my minority children in Kentucky schools are in Jefferson County,” he said. “I can't possibly close the academic achievement gap and the college and career readiness gap if I don't see significant progress in Jefferson County, and to a lesser degree in Fayette County.”
That being said, Holliday said there has been improvement in Jefferson County.
“Too often we are thinking about salaries and contracts rather than taking the core improvements,” he said. “Jefferson County has in the past, had way too many initiatives without knowing which ones were working. I think they are working on it. It's just very slow work there because of the political issues in the community.”
JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens said she believes Holliday has been fair.
“We appreciate the partnership between us and the department of education,” she said. “We have the same goal and that's to improve the lives of our children.”
A national leader
Since 2010, Holliday has served on the Council of Chief State School Officers' (CCSSO) board of directors and is currently its president.
“I basically serve as a spokesperson for all of the chief state school officers across the country,” he said.
Last week, Holliday met with U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan to talk about key issues surrounding the No Child Left Behind waivers. Holliday brought up the breakdown in communication in regards to Kentucky's waiver request around science assessments, to which Duncan apologized.
Innes said Holliday's willingness to challenge Duncan is “certainly a feather in his cap.”
This summer, Holliday was named the 2014 Policy Leader of the Year by the National Association of State Boards of Education. The honor is given annually to a national or state policymaker in recognition of his or her contributions to education.
Previous winners of the award, which Holliday will receive in October, include former first lady Barbara Bush, Gen. Colin Powell, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, and former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
“Commissioner Holliday's dedication to improving public education and his achievements are renowned in Kentucky and nationwide,” said Kristen Amundson, executive director of NASBE, in a statement. “His work in cooperation with the Kentucky State Board of Education has made the state a national leader.”
Wilhoit, the former Kentucky education commissioner who left the state in 2006 to become executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers before retiring from there last year, said Holliday's national presence is good for the state.
“He's been out there speaking to other folks, carrying the work going on here in Kentucky and carrying the national agenda,” said Wilhoit, who now serves as the director of the National Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky.
“For Kentucky, that presence is so important,” he said. “It's critical for all the states to have a spokesperson as articulate as he is and forceful as he is about the need for improvement of education opportunities for all children.”
Focus on college and career readiness
Among the issues Holliday has focused attention to is the importance of college and career readiness.
“We have way too many students graduating with a four-year degree that cannot find work and when they do find work, it does not pay a living wage,” he said. “One of biggest challenges is we have to change the mindset of parents and students that while a four-year college is good goal for some, it is not for everyone.”
When the state first started measuring college and career readiness in 2009, only 30 percent of Kentucky's graduates were ready for the next step – whether it be entering the military, finding a job right out of high school or going to a two or four year college.
“This year, we were hoping to go above 60 percent and it looks like we're going to make it,” he said. “We've doubled in five years. And now we want to keep moving, keep increasing the number of students who have a brighter future. That's the only thing that is of importance to me.”
As Holliday prepares for the next three years in his contract, he says his focus will remain the same.
“I want our kids to achieve their ultimate goal,” he said. “I want them to find their passion and find something that would give them at least a living wage within their passion and then dedicate their education to achieving that passion.”
Just like Holliday did 40 years ago when he chose to be an educator.
“I did it because I was passionate about children and wanted to make a difference,” he said. “It's been a long ride. I have no regrets.”
SIDEBAR: Q&A with Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday
Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday sat down with WDRB's Toni Konz to talk about his first five years on the job and what his goals are for the state's schoolchildren.
QUESTION: What were your goals when you arrived in Kentucky?
ANSWER: My goals were Senate Bill 1. I was real excited when I read the legislation. It was about the same time they were putting out the application for a new commissioner. That's what led me to be real interested in coming to Kentucky to work. The key points were new academic standards with a college and career readiness focus, which is big. To me, that's the No. 1 thing. New assessments and new accountability that was more balanced and not just focused on standardized testing. It was good timing for me.
Q: How do you think Kentucky has done over the past five years?
A: I think the state has done extremely well. Certainly, I have made a lot of mistakes. But I've relied heavily on teachers and superintendents to help guide the work. I've had a great governor to work with, the General Assembly has been bipartisan – that's worked out well. The Kentucky Board of Education has been a great state board to work with. And Kentucky educators have been very open to all of the work.
Q: What would your critics would say about you?
A: Too much too fast. That's usually the No. 1 criticism. Everything makes sense, it sounds good, but Dr. Holliday, we don't have enough money, it's just too much to do or Dr. Holliday, this is a lot of hard work. What I come back with is that the children you have in front of you today, they only pass this way once. Are you really going to look at those kids and say you don't really want to work that hard? We have to make sure we make sure that our decisions in best interest of the children, not the adults in the system.
Q: Let's talk about Jefferson County Public Schools. How do you think they have done over the last five years?
A: It has been slow, but I've definitely seen progress over the last three years in particular. Jefferson County has a unique situation with the politics in the community around the schools. Too often we are thinking about salaries and contracts rather than taking the core improvements. Jefferson County has in the past, had way too many initiatives without knowing which ones were working. They are working on it. Very slow work there because of the political issues in the community.
Q: You have watched Jefferson County carefully. Why such the interest in JCPS?
A: Half of my minority children in Kentucky schools are in Jefferson County. I can't possibly close academic achievement gap and the college and career readiness gap if I don't see significant progress in Jefferson County -- and to a lesser degree in Fayette County. I'm starting to look closely at Fayette County's equity issues. They have not changed, gotten worse over the last three to four years. I look in Jefferson County a lot, but I also look at other districts that have a large minority population and where children are just not being successful.
Q: You were recently elected president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. What does that entail?
A: I'm basically the spokesperson for all of the chief state school officers in the United States. Last week, I met with Arne Duncan to talk about key issues around No Child Left Behind waivers and other issues that state chiefs bring to me. We also push certain agenda issues. I have in place this year a national task force that is bringing recommendations about career readiness. We've done a great job focusing on the college readiness side, but need to do a lot more work on the career readiness side. We push too many kids to four-year colleges when it would probably be more appropriate if they were prepared in industry-recognized certifications that quite often only require 1-2 years of college.
The other big issue we've been pushing is teacher preparation. How do we better prepare teachers for the children they face? Quite often the challenges we see in Jefferson County or Fayette County is the teacher candidates coming out aren't ready for the urban setting they are going to face.
Q: Let's talk Common Core. Is Kentucky moving away or pushing forward?
A: You have to remember that the General Assembly – with the requirements of Senate Bill 1 – said we had to have language arts and math standards by Dec. 2010. The only way we could possibly get that done was to adopt the Common Core. The intent of the education chairs, governor and speaker and president of senate at the time -- was that we would adopt Common Core and so we did. And then we would adopt the science standards. The timeline we were working on was legislatively mandated, it had nothing to do with the federal government. It was Kentucky state legislators that gave us those timelines.
We've been in it about five years now, so it's time to refresh the standards. It's time to ask teachers, what's working, what's not. Ask parents, community to provide input. Going through a review process over the next nine months. The goal behind the website – we want teachers to go online once a week to give us feedback on standards they are teaching that week. We want teachers to give us input while they are teaching the standards, not after the fact.
We also want to provide those outspoken critics of the Common Core with an opportunity to put up or shut up. What specifically is your concern? It's one thing to say it's a conspiracy…show us which standard you have an issue with, tell us why you think that's the case and we'll look into it. Give us some evidence, otherwise it's just an opinion.
Q: Kentucky's new teacher evaluation system. Where are we with that and when do you see things progressing?
A: Every teacher is going through that right now. We spent four years working with teacher unions all across Kentucky (including the Jefferson County Teachers Association). We developed a great system that is being implemented this year, every teacher will use it, but it won't be used for personnel decisions. It's like a stateside field test. Our issues right now are software challenges. I worry about the software undermining four years of hard work. We are trying to get teachers to tell us what's not working so we can fix the software glitches. I don't want any teacher to be turned off to the system because of the software. They will be used statewide for personnel decisions in 2015-16 statewide.
Q: What do you hope people will see when they look at Terry Holliday's tenure as commissioner?
A: I hope they see more students graduating from high school and that they were ready for the next step, which means they were ready to go into military, a career or two or four year colleges. When we started in 2009, only 30 percent of kids were ready for the next step. This year, we were hoping to go above 60 percent and it looks like we're going to make it. We've doubled in five years. And then we want to keep moving, keep increasing the number of students who have a brighter future. That's the only thing that is of importance to me.
Q: You have placed a large emphasis on the importance of career readiness, not just college readiness. Why is that?
A: I think for too long, we've defined success is that you go and get a four year degree. This nation has been wrong about that. If you look at every other nation, they seem to have it a little better in looking at the labor force. If we look at the labor force in this nation, what we see is that the college degree requirement for jobs is only 30-35 percent. But if you look at the skills needed to get a good paying job, something to support a family, you are going to need more technical skills.
In this nation, we have way too many students graduating with a four-year degree that cannot find work and when they do find work, it does not pay a living wage. If a student expresses an interest in automotives while in high school, that's a wonderful career. Those mechanics that come through and know the technology are starting at $60,000 a year right out of high school or with a one-year industry certification. And that is not the end of their education, they have to keep getting certifications.
One of biggest challenges is we have to change the mindset of parents and students that four-year college is good goal for some, but the military is great goal for others, a one-year industry certification is great goal. The ultimate goal -- find your passion and find something that would give you at least a living wage within your passion and then dedicate your education to achieving your passion. If you can do that right out of high school, great.
Q: What is the day in the life of Terry Holliday?
Too many meetings (laughs). Probably the most fun I've had was the three years I spent going to every district in the state. I think I've been in over 600 schools, I kind of lost count after awhile. Every place is different, got to see what the district and schools were really proud of and I got to speak to teachers and kids. The most difficult days are during the General Assembly session, you are never quite sure what will come up next. I go to committee meetings or watch them on TV, listen to the full sessions, you never know what will come up each day.
It's a lot of meetings, lots of phone conferences, meeting with politicians to hear their concerns, give them a vision for where you are headed. And lots of responding to emails.
No two days are alike, which is good part of the job. It's a very interesting job. I also spend a good bit of time on Twitter and social media to watch what's going on with national trends and stories. I like to keep an eye on what Congress is doing and what's going on nationally, internationally -- I like to stay well informed with topics that could impact Kentucky.
Q: What is your goal for the next five years?
A: Making sure that our kids are globally ready. We aren't just competing with Indiana anymore, we are competing with Japan and lots of other countries. Our kids have to understand regional issues – if you were trying to work with a business in Iraq and you don't understand a lot of the internal or cultural conflicts, that can be a problem. So many kids don't have a clue, many of them don't even know where Iraq is. What are we going to do to really push not just college readiness but global readiness and understanding cultures.