The two finalists who remain in Kentucky's search for a new education commissioner are both former teachers who are "strong leaders" and "excellent communicators."
WDRB News has been able to independently confirm that Stephen Pruitt, a former Georgia Department of Education official who is now the senior vice president at Achieve, Inc., an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit education reform organization in Washington, D.C., and Christopher Koch, the former State Superintendent of Education in Illinois who is now the interim president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) in Washington, D.C., are the two finalists who remain in the search.
The other three candidates -- Buddy Berry, superintendent of Eminence Independent Schools in Eminence, Ky., Lloyd Martin, chief executive officer for Universal School Solutions, LLC, in Jacksonville, Fla., and Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer for the Tennessee Department of Education, have indicated they are no longer being considered.
Without naming who the two finalists are, Kentucky Board of Education chairman Roger Marcum told WDRB News on Thursday he believes "both remaining finalists are super strong candidates."
"I think either one would be an excellent commissioner," he said, noting that the board is now having two in-depth background checks done on both finalists. "At this point, we just want to know everything there is to know about them."
According to the application letters and resumes submitted by Pruitt and Koch to the Florida firm charged with helping the state board with its search process, both men talk about their extensive experience in working with students, teachers, parents and other stakeholders. The documents were obtained by WDRB News from the Kentucky Department of Education through an open records request.
"I spent twelve years as a high school science teacher," Pruitt wrote in his letter. "I believe the position of Commissioner of Education needs to have come from a firm foundation of having been a teacher. I am most proud of my time in the classroom."
Pruitt says he is a "strong believer in the power and necessity of communication."
"A quality communicator is able to create a clear message, but also able to listen to stakeholders affected by the issue at hand," he wrote. "I have had the opportunity in my roles in state government and in the private sector to lead large, successful programs or initiatives. They were successful in large part because I know the value of communicating a plan, but also listening to district leaders and teachers."
Koch's application letter states that his eight years as Illinois State Superintendent of Education gave him a "particularly full spectrum of experiences that would easily transfer to Kentucky."
He mentions his "proven record of implementing an innovative vision for education" and "expertise in attracting, mentoring and retaining diverse personnel." He says he also has extensive experience in financial management and fundraising.
During his time as state superintendent, Koch said he is most proud of being able to successfully advocate for more education funding and implementing "student performance assessments that measure the application of knowledge and higher order thinking skills."
Former Kentucky Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit is listed as one of five references on Koch's resume, but Wilhoit also told WDRB News on Thursday he is familiar with Pruitt as well.
"I've known Chris for a number of years, I have observed him in multiple settings" Wilhoit said. "His strengths include a remarkable ability to relate to different groups of people. He is a consensus builder. He was able to navigate extremely difficult and complex education issues in Illinois, including those in Chicago, which is the third largest district in the country."
Koch mentions his department's interventions in both the East St. Louis and North Chicago school districts as among his proudest accomplishments, saying those actions "resulted in improved and continuing to improve student academic performance."
Wilhoit describes Pruitt as an "energetic and innovative educator" who was "supported and well-received" during his time in Georgia and was given the "difficult responsibility -- in the shadow of new math and English standards -- to develop some national science standards."
"I think either Chris or Stephen would be a great commissioner," Wilhoit said.
Pruitt began his career as a high school chemistry teacher in Georgia, where he taught for 12 years. In 2003, he joined the Georgia Department of Education as the program manager for science, later became the director of academic standards, an associate superintendent of assessment and accountability and then chief of staff to then State School Superintendent Kathy Cox.
Pruitt joined Achieve in 2010 and has led the the development of the Next Generation Science Standards -- the new set of academic guidelines that teachers across Kentucky put into practice last year.
Much like the Common Core Standards in math and language arts – which have been adopted by 43 states -- the science standards describe what students need to know before they complete each grade level. To date, 14 other states, as well as Washington, D.C., have implemented the science standards.
"It's a very complex system, and Stephen did it very well -- and he did that fairly independently," Wilhoit said. "He has shown an ability to develop a high quality product and work with people from all different backgrounds. He is an excellent communicator."
Pruitt, who is married with two children, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from North Georgia College and State University, a master’s in science education from the University of West Georgia and a doctorate of philosophy in chemistry education from Auburn University.
Koch's began his career in special education. He taught in four states in various settings including an Outward Bound program, a college preparatory school, a youth detention center and a psychiatric hospital. He also worked with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education where he administered programs in correctional education and School-to-Work transition.
Since May, he has been the interim president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation -- the only recognized accreditor specialized in accreditation of U.S. educator-preparation programs.
He was tapped to be interim after James Cibulka, a former dean of the college of education at the University of Kentucky, who was unexpectedly removed from the job following what Education Week called "a rocky few months" where CAEP was criticized for a disorganized piloting of the new accreditation standards.
Koch earned his bachelor's degree from Southern Illinois University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in educational policy and leadership from George Washington University.
Terry Holliday was named education commissioner in 2009 and has been in charge of overseeing the education of 675,000 students in Kentucky's public schools. His last official day on the job was Aug. 31.
The state board has appointed Associate Commissioner and General Counsel Kevin Brown to serve as interim commissioner until a new commissioner is appointed.
This from KSBA:
Both commissioner finalists started in the classroom,
spent years in state education agency leadership posts
While neither of the two remaining candidates to become the state’s sixth commissioner of education are from Kentucky, an eNews review of their resumes show both have connections – in one form or another - to the state’s K-12 education system.
The mystery ended Wednesday on the identities of the two final applicants not named publicly by the Kentucky Board of Education last weekend. The Louisville Courier-Journal, WDRB-TV in Louisville, KSBA eNews and other news media outlets collectively confirmed the status of the five finalists interviewed last weekend by state board, leaving Christopher A. Koch and Stephen L. Pruitt as the remaining candidates after the other three acknowledged they had not been selected to move forward.
The elimination of Eminence Independent Schools Superintendent Buddy Berry from consideration ensured that the next commissioner of education would not be a Kentuckian, as some individuals and organizations had pressed the state board to strongly consider. However, Koch and Pruitt are not without linkages to education in Kentucky.
Koch, currently interim president of an organization that accredits teacher preparation programs, lists former Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit among his references. Wilhoit now runs the National Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky. He previously was executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), an organization of all of the states’ top K-12 agency leaders. During Wilhoit’s tenure there, Koch served as CCSSO president while he was Illinois’ state superintendent of public education. He also served on the CCSSO board of directors for several years with Terry Holliday, who retired this past Monday as Kentucky’s commissioner of education.
A graduate of Southern Illinois University, Koch also listed among his references current SIU President Randy Dunn, who is a former president of Murray State University.
Pruitt, a senior vice president of a nonprofit organization that works with states on education standards, was a leader in the development of the new science curriculum measures known as Next Generation Science Standards. According to documents on the Kentucky Department of Education website, Pruitt consulted with the KDE staff, Kentucky teachers and others in the crafting of the science standards now being taught in Kentucky classrooms. He began assisting the agency in 2010, leading a group that took a National Academy of Science framework to draft the new standards for Kentucky and at last a dozen other states.
This week, the Kentucky Department of Education and the state board’s search consultant, Greenwood/Asher and Associates, are in the process of hiring an expert in deep background searches to be conducted on Koch and Pruitt. That process is expected to take between two and three weeks.
Here is a deeper look at the resumes of the two finalists for the commissioner’s job:
After earning his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts (concentration on English) from SIU in 1984, Koch got his master’s (transitional special education, 1988) and doctoral degrees (educational policy and leadership, 2000) from George Washington University.
He began his education career in 1988 as a special education teacher in a Washington, D.C., psychiatric hospital and day school. He also taught special education in a Maryland vocational ed program, and worked as a youth program director in New Hampshire.
Koch spent more than a decade in the Illinois Department of Education, interrupted by two years when he worked in the U.S. Department of Education’s vocational and adult education unit. In the Illinois agency, he was director of special education, chief education officer and assistant state superintendent before being appointed state superintendent of education. He served in that post from December 2006 through this past May.
Koch served as vice chairman of the board of directors of the Council for the Accreditation of Education Preparation for two years before becoming that organization’s interim president this past May.
More on Koch’s career and work may be seen here http://caepnet.org/about/leadership/christopher-koch.
Pruitt graduated from North Georgia College in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in science and chemistry. He earned his master’s degree in education in secondary science from the State University of West Georgia in 1996 and his doctorate of philosophy in chemistry education from Auburn University in 2010.
Pruitt started his career in education in 1991 as an AP and college prep chemistry teacher at a high school in Tyrone, Ga. He taught AP chemistry and gifted chemistry while he was department chair at a Fayetteville, Ga. high school until 2003. During those years, he also was a cross country coach and worked as track and field event manager at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
In 2003, Pruitt joined the Georgia Department of Education as a science and program manager. He later served as the agency’s director of academic standards, associate superintendent for assessment and accountability, and chief of staff.
Pruitt went to work in Washington, D.C., in 2010 with Achieve Inc., as vice president for content and research and development where he worked on materials related to the English language and math Common Core State Standards. Since May 2013, he has been a senior vice president for the organization, and has been responsible for working with a number of state departments of education – including Kentucky – on the implementation of the new science standards.
As part of his work for Achieve Inc., Pruitt led grant-writing work that gained the organization $16 million, including $4 million to support the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top push.