Before joining the Kentucky Department of Education as Commissioner, you taught in the classroom, worked in the nonprofit realm and had education experience at the state government level. How has this variety of roles shaped your approach to being Commissioner?
While all of those different roles have had an influence on me, the top thing has been my work as a teacher. I know what a lot of teachers feel now given how I felt when I was in the classroom. Those memories and that preparation drives me to do what we can to make sure teachers are informed and are part of the process, no matter what we do. Because I know when I was in the classroom, it wasn’t until later in my career that I fully understood the work that occurs on the state level. So that experience has really shaped me and many of my policies, and it’s why I’ve found equity and a focus on making choices that support students are so critical. Working at the state department in Georgia, I had every level except for Commissioner, which is helpful because I’m able to relate to every level of the actual work that goes on in the agency and it gives me better perspective on how to make sure everyone is understanding the agency’s vision and their role within it. Finally, with the nonprofit work, I got to work with a number of different states which gave me a greater appreciation for the differences between them.
Really, you could boil it down to this: I value teachers, administrators and their perspective on the roles; I believe that relationships trump everything else if we want to support kids, and I believe communication holds the key for us getting anything done in the state.
Hope Street Group’s State Teacher Fellows program first began in Kentucky and our continued success has led to its expansion to states across the country. Can you speak on the importance of hearing from teachers on the ground your thinking around the continued amplification of teacher voice?
Look, teachers are the ones closest to the students. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t miss my classroom. They are the ones who are seeing the impact of whatever policy we make on students. The reality is, in my opinion, there is no decision that can ever be made at a high level that will impact students and education reform as much as what teachers do. The flipside of that is, as a full community and profession, we don’t do a good job of recognizing that. We don’t always go out of our way to push teacher leadership and to push them to be in the know. One of the things I learned when I went to the Department of Education in Georgia is that there was so much that I assumed when I was a teacher but didn’t know, because I was never given the opportunity to know. And I wish I had known those things as a teacher because it would have made me a better teacher and a better advocate for my kids. It’s a two way street, I believe we can’t make good decisions without teachers being in the room because they’re going to see the end result. I also think for teachers to do the best job they can and to lead and advocate for their kids, they have to be involved in the work of policy and the work that goes beyond their classroom, whether it be the school, district or state.
Kentucky education has developed a reputation for its commitment to uplifting and incorporating the voice of teachers and students into their efforts, with the implementation of many education policies improving as a result. How have you seen the voice of educators play a vital role, how have those translated to policy changes, and how do you think your teaching would have changed if you were given similar exposure?
We’re in the middle – well, we’re not even in the middle yet – we’re in the beginning of developing this new accountability system. Kentucky has led the nation in improving student achieving in the last 6 years, and I would argue in the last 25. There has just been this commitment to accountability that has helped drive that. Now that we’re in a time when we can develop an accountability system that can really reflect the values of Kentucky, I don’t know how I, in good conscience, could develop a system that our teachers didn’t have a say in. So we have teachers on all of our committees; we’re going to put it out for public review and I hope that all of our teachers will embrace this opportunity. There’s always a little bit of feeling of distrust: “Well, why would I take my time to do that – will anyone really read it?” What I can assure you is that I will read every bit of feedback. I’ve read every email that has come in about the system through the Town Halls, and I’ll do the same thing once we put this up for public comment. The reality is, whatever system we end up developing, it should push teachers and administrators to make good decisions for kids. At the same time, the teachers have an opportunity to shape it. My goal whenever I do work like this is, you want everyone to leave a little bit mad. Because it means nobody really got their way, but the fact is, you were able to provide your input and able to shape this. I can’t imagine standing in front of any educators or students in the commonwealth and talking about a new system that our teachers didn’t have a genuine voice in creating.
I have a teacher advisory committee, that has actually been around for a long time, but I doubled it in size because I wanted to hear from even more teachers. I wanted to hear from elementary, middle and high school, representatives from Schools for the Deaf and Blind. And, and honestly, I enjoy those times the most because I actually learn so much. I haven’t gotten a chance to do it in Kentucky, but when I was in Georgia I would occasionally go back to the classroom and substitute teach. The reason I did it was because it helped remind me of what it was like and what teachers are going through. So I think there’s a real richness to have that voice at the state level, especially to make sure we’re grounded in what’s going on in the field.
In terms of what I wish I had known, probably the biggest would be assessment. I really did not understand it when I left the classroom. I took an undergraduate class, but real assessment literacy was not a focus and beyond that is the difference between large scale assessment and classroom assessment and that developing a test is more than just sitting down and writing questions. You actually have to go through a process of thinking about bias, etc. If there was anything I would go back and do differently, for the tests that I wrote, I would seek out an educator partner to at least read them before I gave them. The other thing would be around school buy-in. If I had understood more about policy and finance then when I had a principal say, “Oh, well the state makes us do fill-in-the-blank,” but a lot of the time that’s not really true. Sometimes it’s a local decision and the state is the scapegoat. I sort of feel bad sometimes when I’m out and someone comes to me really upset about something, maybe giving me grief about it, and I actually feel a little sheepish at times saying, “Yeah, I’m sorry, that’s actually not my call. That was one the district made or the school made.” I feel bad about it on two levels: one is that I don’t ever want to throw someone under the bus, and two, the teacher sometimes feels embarrassed that they’ve come up to the Commissioner of Education and complained about something that actually it was not in my purview to change. That’s why I come back to the more teachers know, the better, and the better we as a profession can be.
You are quickly approaching one year on the job as Kentucky Commissioner of Education. What has been the most rewarding part of your experience thus far and what are you looking forward in the year to come?
From the days I was in Georgia, I wanted to be like Kentucky. We watched them in Georgia and saw the things going on in Kentucky and when I went to the national level and saw even more of what was going on in the world, I thought, “Wow, Kentucky really has some great stuff going.” But when you’re watching it from a far, there’s that little part of you that wonders if they’re just putting on a good show or if it’s actually real. In particular, all I kept hearing about was this commitment to education on everybody’s part. So I think the most rewarding part for me so far has been the people and the validation that I came to the right place because these people really do care about changing the lives of kids. And when I say “these people” I mean Kentuckians, not the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) alone. Beyond that, I have just fallen in love with Kentucky. I love the state. I love everything about it. I get to wear seersucker and nobody says anything about it! I’ve started buying things with horses on them now, which I’ve never done in my life. I mean, just everything about Kentucky I have just fallen in love with.
In terms of what to expect in the coming year – this accountability system. We’ve got a big, big lift ahead of us and I need every Kentuckian, especially every Kentucky educator, to be informed and engaged. If we do that, we can a) have a gold standard accountability system and b) do something that can start to really push the pillars of KDE which are equity, achievement and integrity. Finally, we can do something that will allow teachers to say, “I really understand what this is.” It’s going to take a huge lift but I believe that we can shift the conversation from accountability to shared responsibility. What that means to me is that it may take a village to raise a child but it takes a commonwealth to educate one. We have to really come together and do this in the right way.
Let me just add that I’ve sent out an e-mail to all educators in the state with a copy of my testimony in front of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate on the new Every Student Succeeds Act regulations. We have until August 1 to submit feedback, and I’m calling on all Kentuckians to do so. And they don’t have to agree with me (although I would love it if they would). Even though I’m the Chief State School Officer, my feedback represents one – it doesn’t matter that I’m the chief. My goal is that we have 1,000 Kentuckians that send feedback to the federal government.