Thursday, November 05, 2015

Pruitt: State accountability system very complex, “I’m evaluating everything”

New KDE chief asks superintendents for time to prove himself, plans to meet with governor-elect to discuss Unbridled Learning system

This from KSBA:
After making his first visits to Kentucky schools, Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt introduced himself to the superintendents of the Green River Regional Education Cooperative Wednesday with a simple message:

“One thing I want you to know and I want to be crystal clear – my name is Stephen. It’s not commissioner or doctor. OK? It’s Stephen. My philosophy on the way we’ve got to work together is that you guys are my peers. As superintendents, we’ve got to be working together to improve education in Kentucky,” Pruitt said. “I don’t want to mislead you. There will be times when we disagree, but I will always hear you, I’ll always listen to you and I’ll always give you a reason for what I’m doing.”

On his 14th day on the job – a point he made several times – Pruitt told the 36 superintendents that he is still in the learning mode, and asked for time to earn their trust.

“You don’t know me from Adam, most of you. Some of you are thinking, ‘Well, here’s this politician saying the things he thinks he needs to say.’ All I’m going to ask is that you give me a chance to prove it to you,” he said. “It’s no secret that I’ve not been a local superintendent. With 173 of you whispering in my ear what I ought to be doing, I ought to get some good advice.

“I think what you’ll find is that I’m a man of my word. At the end of the day, I hope you’ll hear my commitment is you are my peers and I want to work with you to improve education. Give me some time to prove that,” he said.

In an hour-long session, mostly spent answering questions, Pruitt covered a wide range of issues.

Unbridled Learning assessment and accountability system

“I will tell you that we’ve got to take a serious look at our accountability system,” Pruitt said. “It’s incredibly complex. If it takes you longer than 15 minutes to explain it to me, then we’ve got to take a look at it. If someone asks me, ‘Commissioner, can you explain to me why my school got this designation?,’ I should be able to answer that in about five sentences. Right now, I’ve got to get into everything from a rank order to a percentile. It’s just very, very complex.

“I believe strongly in what I call ‘dealing with an opportunity gap’ that leads to an achievement gap,” he said. “We all talk about achievement, and we should. But let’s be honest – that’s after they’ve taken that final test. At that point, it’s sort of a postmortem. So how do we look at the opportunities kids have as they move into the system, whether it’s early childhood, whether it’s what they are being offered when they get to school? At the end of the day, it’s got to be about instruction. We’ve got to be able to support our teachers and our principals. That’s not to say I don’t think tests are important. But one of the things I’m taking a look at is, ‘Do we really have a quality assessment system?’ And I say ‘system’ and not ‘test.’”

“The interesting thing that’s going to happen is if ESEA (the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka No Child Left Behind – currently being debated in Congress) ever gets reauthorized, and the direction it looks like they are going, we actually will get to make a lot of our own decisions,” Pruitt said. “I need to make those decisions based on the best information available. That means you guys and your principals and your teachers.”

Looking ahead to 2016

Pruitt acknowledged that the state budget and SEEK funding formula are going to be big issues when the 2016 legislative session begins in less than 60 days.

“I’m going to work really hard to ensure that our districts are represented and supported well with the new governor and the General Assembly. I’m going to be spending a lot of time personally in the General Assembly. I will not be coming in just as bills need to be killed or supported. I’m going to be a fixture there.”

And Pruitt said he hopes to spend some time with Gov.-elect Matt Bevin in the near future.

“I think a lot of the work on the front end is going to be to help them understand where we actually are with things,” he said. “Let’s face it - the words we use in education are not the words everybody else in the world uses. The word ‘standard’ may be the most misunderstood word in the English language. One of the things I’ve got to do is start helping develop some clarity about the differences in standards and curriculum. Education has a language of its own, and I hope I can be a good interpreter.

“The other thing that is very important is the KCAS (Kentucky Core Academic Standards) Challenge,” he said. “We are going to make some changes, but overwhelmingly people have said, ‘These are good.’ It’s one of those things he and I are going to have to work together on to see how we are impacting children.

“My job is to support our kids and at the end of the day, if we’re doing the right thing for kids, we’ll be on the same side,” Pruitt said. “If we’re not, then I’m going to continue to advocate for kids.”

Role of KDE

“What I’ve told KDE is my vision (for the department) is we are service agency with a compliance function,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to be servicing our districts first. You can’t get away from the fact that we have a compliance function. You also can’t get away from the fact that what we know from success around the country and the world, is that if you don’t have someone who is pushing, following the research, bringing people together, it becomes a sort of an anarchy. I want us to be part of the solution with you. That relationship has to be really strong.”

Learning what things mean in Kentucky

“I thought that I had learned just about every acronym on the face of the earth, and then I moved here and found we have new ways of combining letters,” said the former Georgia Department of Education administrator. “Some of them don’t even spell anything. They’re just letters. So I’m working on learning all the acronyms. They gave me a glossary and I kind of glossed over on it. But my job is to learn. Talk to me. Share with me. Ask me questions as my colleagues and my peers.”
Other issues raised by the GRREC superintendents included the recent decision to reboot the career ready designation process involving fine arts classes and putting more people with district experience in key positions within the department of education.

Prior to the meeting, Pruitt accompanied Warren County Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton to visit a pair of district schools, a practice begun by his predecessor, Terry Holliday, that the new commissioner has said he plans to continue.

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