on choosing Kentucky’s next education commissioner
Kentucky School Advocate
In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
Roger Marcum is chairman of the Kentucky Board of Education, which has launched a national search for a new education commissioner following Commissioner Terry Holliday’s April 1 announcement that he will retire Aug. 31.
Q: Could you outline the major steps involved in the search for Kentucky’s next education commissioner?
A: At its meeting May 7, the board drafted a list of characteristics and criteria that it would like to see in our next commissioner. That list should be ready this week (week of May 11) to share with the education community for its input and feedback before we draft a final copy. We would then share the list of characteristics with the search firm.
The second step was identifying a search firm. A subcommittee made up of board of education members and staff of the Kentucky Department of Education reviewed the four proposals we received and recommended that Greenwood/Asher and Associates, the firm used when Dr. Holliday was hired, make a presentation to the board. The board voted unanimously to hire that firm.
Q: Is it likely a commissioner will be hired before Dr. Holliday leaves Aug. 31?
A: We are working with the search firm on a timeline and a process for moving forward. The board’s preference would be to have someone in place by Aug. 31 or soon after. But board members have made it clear they are going to take however much time is necessary to make sure we get the right person. We think getting this decision right is more important than just getting someone in place by a certain date. Which leaves us with the possibility of needing to appoint an interim commissioner. I would hope that would not be necessary but that all depends on how well this process goes. Many things could extend us beyond Aug. 31.
Q: What kinds of things?
A: Vetting the candidates. We want to make sure each candidate has been thoroughly vetted so there are no surprises for us. We also want to give the education community enough time to provide feedback and input about what we should be looking for in a new commissioner.
Q: How long will the education community have to respond?
A: I certainly think by the end of this month or early June should give folks adequate time. We plan to do outreach through the website, through all of the “K” education organizations, and through the news media.
Q: An online survey will also be a part of the process for collecting input?
A: Yes, we are going to put out this draft of 12 to 15 criteria that the board came up with and ask the education community to tell us what it sees as priorities. Each board member sent in three to five criteria that they felt were most important.
Q: Was there overlap among board members’ priority criteria?
A: Yes, and I think that says a lot in regard to the board being on the same page in regard to where we are in terms of education reform and where we would like to go. We also included some criteria used during the last search for a commissioner, because lot of that criteria is still applicable. But there are some things that we found that needed to be added, too, including the emphasis on a more balanced assessment and accountability system that leads to results and students being not just college and career ready but also globally competent, experiencing deeper learning than their classroom experiences. This is a priority with the board as part of the Kentucky Rising initiative (a statewide cradle to career strategic plan.) We want someone who has some knowledge and experience in that area and also a willingness to pursue the vision.
Q: Will the desire to have someone with experience leading an initiative like Kentucky Rising narrow the pool of applicants?
A: Yes, quite a bit. Especially since I don’t know of any state that has taken this on. What is most important, though, is that they share the vision of Kentucky Rising and are willing to take Kentucky in that direction.
Q: You have said that considering a candidate’s potential for future success is important. As you pointed out, Dr. Holliday was serving as a district superintendent before he came to Kentucky.
A: Yes, and he has become not only a statewide leader but a leader nationally. He is well-respected across the country as was Gene Wilhoit, the commissioner before, so some of this is about potential and willingness to step up to that increased role not only at the state but at the national level. Several board members feel it is important that we maintain that national presence that we have had under Dr. Holliday’s leadership, under Gene Wilhoit and back to Dr. Boysen’s leadership in the beginning of the Kentucky Education Reform Act.
Q: So we don’t want to lose our status as a leader in education?
A: It helps the morale of our educators and students to know that Kentucky is well-respected across the country. And certainly it is nice to know that leaders in our state might be impacting not just the quality of education for the children of our state, but for all of the children of the United States.
Q: Communication skills were at the top of the initial list of criteria. Can you explain why?
A: I think that it is important in any leadership position. It is not just the ability to have the folks you are trying to lead understand what you are communicating but also getting the buy-in and willingness to do what is necessary to make the vision become a reality. The board emphasized the ability to listen to those who are trying to implement that vision – superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, other partners in education and the student voice. It is important that the commissioner have the ability to understand not only what they are saying, but why they are saying it.
Q: How important is the candidate’s track record in working with the state legislature and other state leaders?
A: We discussed that at our board meeting and it will be given consideration, especially since we have a two-party General Assembly, with the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House. The ability to work with both parties is important, while at the same time not compromising on those things we are trying to accomplish for Kentucky’s kids. More resources will be needed to make Kentucky Rising a reality, and not just a vision.
Q: Board members met informally to float names of potential candidates. How many people were mentioned?
A: It wasn’t a large number, and it was not a very fruitful discussion. We are going to need to wait and see what kind of interest we have in the position and how successful the search firm will be in recruiting.
Q: Are there qualities that Dr. Holliday possesses that you will look for in the next commissioner?
A: Yes, there’s no question. He had the vision for how to move forward with the implementation of Senate Bill 1 in 2009 and do that with pretty much no additional resources. He had done extensive study on the reform effort in Kentucky and knew a lot about what we had already done and what we were hoping to do. That helped him hit the ground running. He has laser-like focus, and even his critics would say he is incredibly hard-working. And even though he was coming from a superintendency in North Carolina, he became a pretty prominent national figure as well. Those are all things we would like to see in next commissioner.
Q: Commissioner Holliday had a sometimes rocky relationship with school superintendents. What will you look for in a candidate in this regard?
A: It is important that we hear from Kentucky superintendents about what they are searching for in this commissioner. At the May 7 meeting, Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, provided a list of characteristics that they had compiled from his visits to co-ops across the state. I think most of what we are looking for there is with communication. As we know, superintendents are local leaders and much of the perception of local teachers, parents and others involved in local education about what is being done at the state level is formed by the relationship between the superintendent and the commissioner.
One of the things I am hearing as I go to different co-op meetings and share the search process is that they believe we should be considering implementation fatigue among educators. I have said to superintendents at these meetings that early on with KERA we were also talking about implementation fatigue so I do understand. One of challenges for the commissioner is how do you balance moving forward with the vision while still considering that concern about implementation fatigue so that people feel they can move forward with progress and that what we are doing is of quality and is sustainable.
Q: But won’t it be difficult as long as there are no changes in the assessment and evaluation systems?
A: One of the things I see changing, or at least I hope will change, is a more balanced assessment and accountability system. That really drives what happens with instruction and drives how resources are allocated. By a more balanced system, I mean more emphasis on formative assessment and less on summative assessment. Summative assessment won’t go away completely, but more emphasis on assessment at the classroom level that will drive the kind of instruction that leads to deeper learning. A starting place for this is the next generation science standards, because if you look at those science standards, they certainly can’t be fully assessed with pencil and paper testing. You have to demonstrate what you can do with science.