11-12 In Conversation With

11-12 In Conversation With

In conversation with ... David Adkisson

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 David Adkisson, executive director of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, who discusses his organization’s Ready Kentucky campaign to educate business leaders about the state’s new education standards. The campaign is encouraging the business community to support education, especially when it comes to the release of the first round of scores from the K-PREP test (Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress) this month. Kentucky’s tougher education standards are initially expected to yield lower scores, but higher academic achievement in the long run.

Q. Please talk about Ready Kentucky and why the Chamber created this initiative.

A. We view the reforms that are taking place right now in Kentucky schools to be the most significant education reform since KERA in 1990. The new standards are very important because they’re benchmarked to international standards, they are aimed at getting students college and career ready, they are being adopted in most other states and I think they raise the bar for Kentucky students.

We applaud the legislature for what they did in 2009 with Senate Bill 1, and we in the business community want to stand with education leaders when the going gets tough and people might question these test scores. The standards are tougher, the tests are more challenging and the scores probably won’t be flattering initially.

Q. What all is involved in Ready Kentucky?

A. We went to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and asked for support and they provided a grant that has allowed us to do several things. We have produced a tool kit for employers so they can talk to their employees about the new standards.

We have put together a group of business leaders we’re calling Business Leader Champions for Education. So far we have recruited 63 top leaders around the state to lend their support to this campaign to support Kentucky’s new standards. We produced a video about why these standards are important to businesses in Kentucky. Commissioner Holliday and I have been touring the state, speaking to various civic and business groups about the new standards.

Dr. Holliday and I have made more than 15 joint presentations at all of the major cities around Kentucky and usually when we speak to a group, we schedule a meeting with the editorial board of the newspaper and sometimes interviews with the TV. We’ve gotten excellent response from the news media and from the editorial boards across the state.

The test scores will come out very soon and that’s where we’re planning more public awareness messages to go out at that time to say this is important. We’ve got to get kids ready for college and career.

Q. Why is this initiative so important?

A. The Kentucky Chamber has long been an advocate for improving education. The chamber was openly supportive of KERA and the tax increase that went with it. The chamber also supported the higher education reform of the late ’90s.

For the last five years, education has been the Chamber’s top strategic priority, so Ready Kentucky helps us fulfill that priority of speaking for education. We decided it wasn’t enough for us to go to the legislature and expect those folks to fix education. We all have to contribute, so the business community wanted to speak out more forcefully.

We have also created a Leadership Institute for School Principals. We’re sending principals for executive-level leadership training. It costs $9,000 per principal. We sent 47 last year; we have 56 enrolled this year. We have partnered with the Center for Creative Leadership to provide this training.

It analyzes a principal’s strengths and weaknesses and helps them develop a plan for motivating their faculty for results at the school level. This year we’ve raised and invested more than $500,000 to send those 56 principals.

We estimate that there are about 140 new principals named each year in Kentucky public and private schools. We want to expand our program so we can make a blanket offer to all new principals that after their first year in office, we’ll send them through the Center for Creative Leadership. We’re going county-by-county to try to match a business with their local principal.

These principals come back and say, ‘We’ve never had a professional development opportunity like this.’ We’ve had superintendents saying, ‘Why can’t we go?’ If we can get to the point where we can make this blanket offer to all principals, then we may come back and do something ... a couple of those folks have already become superintendents one year after going through this.

Q. Part of Kentucky’s education reform is focusing not just on getting kids ready for college, but making sure they are career ready when they graduate. What has the response been from the business community, particularly the manufacturing sector, about the greater emphasis on career readiness?

A. They like it because there are jobs right now that are available. There is a shortage of skilled workers, and that situation is going to get worse. With the economic recovery, companies are starting to hire.

We already have a skills gap. And with the economy recovering slowly but surely, the skills gap is going to get wider, and with the baby boomers retiring, it’s going to get even wider. There are 10,000 baby  boomers retiring every day in America and that’s going to continue for the next 18-20 years and someone has to replace them. That’s where there’s going to be a real skills gap.

Currently, about 35-40 percent of our high school graduates are considered college and career ready. We have to improve that number. And we can’t just send them all to college and say, ‘Good luck,’ because the college will say, ‘Well, you’re not ready for college, we’ve got to put you in remediation to get you ready for college.’ And that’s a problem.

Another part of our message is, teachers and schools tackled the challenges of the early 1990s, and Kentucky is better because of that. We have risen from the mid-40s up to the upper 30s in terms of rankings (against other states), and that’s in terms of one generation. We feel like educators, parents, and students can conquer this challenge also, with encouragement from business leaders, political leaders, and civic leaders.

Q. How has it been going so far? What type of feedback have you been getting from employers?

A. Positive, but the challenge is still sort of theoretical. Until the scores come out and that new reality sinks in for all of us, then it’s still a theoretical challenge. Then the challenge begins and I think the business community will sink its teeth in a little deeper.

We haven’t had anybody complaining that this is the wrong thing to do. We hope there will be businesses at the local level who stand with their school boards, and write letters to the editor, and encourage the school board to stand strong when the pushback comes.

Click here to access the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s Ready Kentucky Employer’s kit.

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