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 Stu Silberman, former Daviess and Fayette county schools superintendent, who discusses his new role as leader of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. He also discusses the goals of the new Kentucky Education Action Team, a cadre of Kentucky education groups whose mission is to reverse the decline in education funding in recent years.
Q. As an educator for more than 35 years, what do you bring to a statewide organization like the Prichard Committee?
A. I started on Sept. 1, and every place I go, whether it’s in Kentucky or D.C., the Prichard Committee has a phenomenal reputation and a lot of credibility. I wasn’t coming in to try to change much of that. I do bring in an additional perspective, not necessarily a change in perspective, but an additional perspective from having been in the classroom and in leadership roles. I hope to complement the great work that is already going on.
Q. What has been most difficult about the transition from education at the school and district level to being an advocate at the state level?
A. One of the things that has been helpful is that I have been in Kentucky as a superintendent for 16 years, so having that background has been helpful. What has been challenging is trying to meet with all of our members, who live in all parts of the state. So trying to travel the state and meet with all of our members and supporters while at the same time move our mission forward has been difficult.
Q. The Prichard Committee was founded in 1983 with the goal of improving education, which it did by raising the alarm about the dangerous state it was in at that time. The overall goal remains the same, but how has the committee’s mission changed over the years? What are your goals for the organization?
A. If you look back at some of the issues from that time, I shared with our group the other day. I laid out some of the issues we were dealing with and I asked, “Do you agree that these are the issues we’re dealing with?” And they said, “Yes.” Well, I took those out of the book, Kentuckians on the March, which was published in 1949. So a lot of the issues are the same; the perspectives are different.
The academic achievement of our kids and having academic excellence is our top priority and we are going to continue to push forward. We are a nonprofit, not partisan organization that makes all of its decisions based solely on what’s best for the children of Kentucky.
We have a goal right now of being in the top 20 (among states) by 2020. That started a few years ago and we’re working toward that. When the committee began, we were ranked 49 out of 50 states. We’ve now moved up to 33rd, so we’ve made pretty good progress. Now we want to move from 33rd to 20th, and that was a goal I had, also. We have to make sure we are keeping that focus out there and not regress in these particular times.
We’re focusing very hard on supporting childhood education; we’re focused on supporting Senate Bill 1; and we’re focusing very hard on family engagement.
So those are three of the issues that we’re really focusing on right now. We’re also embarking on creating a new strategic plan.
We also have a program called Ready Kentucky. It is a group that goes around the state and educates people about what the new standards mean, what the assessments mean, just trying to make sure the public is very informed about what is going on. The number of people we’ve trained has been pretty significant.
We continue to provide the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership. This is a program to train parents to become leaders and advocates in their schools. This is our 15th anniversary and over the years we have trained more than 1,600 parents. Many are now local school board and school council members. We even have representatives on the state school board and state standards board.
Q. What do you think the next evolution in education is going to be and what do we need to do to not only get ready for it, but facilitate it?
A. We have to move into the realm of developing individual education plans for students. It’s like going into the physician’s office and you have your own plan and your own chart; your needs are different from the next person who comes in.
So we really need to be moving in that direction for every child. The thing that helps that a lot is the technology piece. I think there are a lot of opportunities out there right now for us to utilize technology in much more advanced ways than we are doing right now.
I’m not saying that all education needs to be done through virtual schools. I think blended models are the way of the future. I could see that coming down the pike, more individualized opportunities for students and using technology to enhance that.
Q. The Prichard Committee is one of seven education organizations that are part of the Kentucky Education Action Team, whose mission is to reverse the downward trend in education funding and return in to pre-2008 levels. In your opinion, what has the loss of education funding cost this state and what will it continue to cost the state if it doesn’t change?
A. We talked about the progress Kentucky has made since the 1980s, moving from 49th to 33rd, and we’re still making progress. For example, our fourth-graders in the last NAEP administration scored fourth in the nation in science.
That’s great movement for us and my fear with the continued trend in the gradual reductions in education is that we’ll begin to see a regression. And I say that because the things that we cut are the same supports that helped us to move forward: preschool services for kids; family resource services which provided services to the kids in the most need. We have more and more kids qualifying for preschool and funding has just dropped off; instructional supplies; the things that helped us before.
All of the strands that were there before as supports to our kids and our teachers – professional development is another one – basically all of these supports are being eroded away. Those supports are what helped us move forward from the ’80s to today. That’s my biggest fear, that those supports are going to go away and cause a regression.
At the same time, we’re embarking on probably the largest transformation of our education system since the ’90s with Senate Bill 1. So as those changes are taking place, those supports need to be greater, not less. I believe that the things we are doing with Senate Bill 1 are the right things to do.
Q. On the flip side, the economic reality is that there is no money because of the continued effects of the recent recession. When there is no money, how can you effectively send the message, “Don’t cut education funding?”
A. I think the approach has to be different, and rather than the answer always being, “No money,” I think it’s important for our elected officials to step up and say, “We’ve got to step up and take some action to reverse this trend.” And we’re beginning to see that. The governor has talked in some of his recent speeches about tax reform. We realize it’s going to take some time for all of that to come together. I’m pleased to see that the answer is now not always, “No money,” and then the issue is dismissed. I think that our leaders have to step up and say that this is not acceptable for Kentucky – our kids deserve better than this. We need to figure out ways to change that answer.
Q. What avenues does the group support for increasing revenues?
A. The group has not come to a consensus about what will best produce revenues. There is consensus that we will support our leaders in moving forward to create new revenues to fund education.
Q. Anything else you would like to add?
A. From the perspective of the Prichard Committee, we hope that all Kentuckians will continue to support education in this state – and that’s P-20 – because it is a bridge to a better life for all of us. It is our hope that people will continue to step up and do what is right for our kids.