In Conversation With ... Dr. Stephen Pruitt

In Conversation With ... Dr. Stephen Pruitt

In Conversation With ... Dr. Stephen Pruitt

Kentucky’s new commissioner of education has "heart of a teacher"

In Conversation With … features an interview between an individual involved in public education or children’s issues and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
On Oct. 16, Dr. Stephen Pruitt became the sixth commissioner of education since the post was created as part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. He talked about his career and his outlook on the work ahead of him with Brad Hughes a few weeks ago.
Q: Let’s begin by looking back at how you got started in a career in education, where, as Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Roger Marcum told me, you developed “the heart of a teacher.”

A: I will always be a teacher. You know, I’ve got a bio and sometimes people worry that if they’ve not read the bio, they will offend me. But I tell people all the time, the most important job I’ve had is as a teacher, and that’s the one I care the most about. I’m a third-generation teacher. I’ve had education in my blood my whole life. In approaching any job I’ve had in education, but in particular in approaching this job as commissioner, I will always tell people and staff at the department, ‘As we go through this and work with districts and our teachers, the No. 1 thing you do is, you get the face of a child, and we make sure that whatever we do is going to support all children having a better life as a result of public education.’

My ‘heart of a teacher’ is something that’s carried me through everything I do. It’s a way of making sure kids are taken care of, that we remember the tough job that educators and local school boards and superintendents have. If you don’t start with that, I think you can get off track really quickly.

Q: You were a classroom teacher for 12 years. What experiences as a classroom teacher have helped prepare you for your new position?

The perspective of a teacher is really about everything you are doing is for those kids. And so, when we make state policy, when we make any decisions at the state level, I want to be always thinking about that. That’s why I will do things like have teacher advisory committees, to make sure that the voice of the teacher is always heard.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing a teacher loves more than finally saying that right thing or having kids do that right activity where you actually see knowledge click into place. That has had a big impact on me as far as my belief in the importance of very clear, solid, two-way communications. I don’t want us to be doing things at the state level that leaves people in districts saying, ‘Well, I’m not sure why they did that.’ So we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that the reasons we make decisions are clear. And that all started with that classroom experience.

I strongly believe in the importance of every child being held to a standard that makes all boats float. That’s a reason I got into the standards business in the beginning – to make sure that every kid has an opportunity. You can’t do that by having some kids who have access to content and others not. Standards are important in that way to me.

Q: What are some things about Kentucky’s elementary and secondary education system or this post that led you to make what you’ve said was your first bid to become a state education chief executive?

(laughs) It was Kentucky. The opportunity to be commissioner was fantastic, but I already had just a great opportunity to work with Kentucky teachers and state staff over the past 10 years and especially over the past five. (Note: While with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Achieve Inc., Pruitt worked with Kentucky Department of Education staff and teachers in developing the Kentucky Core Academic Standards, most recently on the science standards.) The commitment that I’ve seen over the years by Kentucky to improve education, the commitment to a solid education for every student – and then just the talent that’s there – it’s been an incredible experience to work with Kentucky teachers, especially around science.

At one point earlier in my career, when I was at the department of education in Georgia, I thought about ‘Would I ever really want to be a state chief?’ Really, it had to be the right job. With Kentucky, it was just a no-brainer. And quite frankly, it’s where I hope to stay for a very long time.

Q: You held several posts in the Georgia Department of Education, so one would assume that included learning about working with local district leaders. Would you talk about some of those lessons?

The No. 1 thing I think a commissioner has got to do is to listen. In working with local school boards and superintendents, they’ve got to be able to have some accessibility to the commissioner. Everybody’s not always going to agree on everything, but it’s important that they are heard with whatever the policy is from their view from the field. The No. 1 thing I learned is that an agency, to be really effective, needs to be a service agency, and part of that service means we need to listen to what’s going on in the districts. Opening up two-way communication is a huge part.

I think a second part is that you can’t do your job by staying in the state capital all the time. Being out in the districts, understanding what’s going on at the school level and at the district level is important. The commissioner obviously has things he needs to be doing in the agency, but he’s also got to do a lot of work in the field to understand the field.

That’s going to be a big deal for me early. I’ve got to find a way to strike that balance to get to know the agency and getting to know how Kentucky education works, and also being out in the field. I really want to be out in districts because at the end of the day, relationships are really what gets it done. And you can’t do that by just sitting in Frankfort.

Q: Dr. Jim Puckett of the Georgia School Boards Association said you were known as being “highly personable, well-liked, accessible and prompt to follow up on requests” from local leaders. How do you plan on reaching out to local leaders – first, elected school board members?

The first thing I want to do is to get to know them. What I want to do is right off the bat is going to state meetings with local boards. Every time when I visit a district, I will invite the local board members so I can get to meet them and spend some time getting to know them. I really want to push this idea that if they’ve got concerns, I want to hear them. So reaching out to them will partly be a function of working through KSBA to get to know them, but when I visit a district, I want the local school board members to know I’m there.

Q: You’ve not been a district superintendent, a fact that drew attention when you were named a finalist for the Kentucky post. Superintendents will be key stakeholders for that “relationship building” that members of the state board of education see as one of your strengths. How do you plan on convincing superintendents that you are open to their thoughts and their concerns?

You’re right, I haven’t been a local superintendent, and it’s important that I get to know them quickly. Every trip I make, I will make sure that I sit down with the superintendent, to make sure they know how to get in touch with me personally and quickly. Because I want to hear it. I want to listen to their criticisms, I want to hear what they think is going well. I’ve already had conversations with Roger Marcum (chairman of the Kentucky Board of Education and a former superintendent) for developing a strategy for me to be able to meet with as many superintendents in a venue where we can actually have a conversation. I’ll have monthly calls with all of the superintendents, but I’m going to be developing a strategy so that I’m able to sit and talk with local superintendents faster, and not be just a voice at the end of the phone.

Q: The issue “local control of schools” isn’t unique to Kentucky, but it comes up when the department of education stakes out positions in regulation or legislation. I asked the same question of several of your predecessors when they took office: As commissioner, will the department of education be known locally for its support, for its leadership or for its regulatory management decisions?

From my perspective, I don’t know how you lead without supporting, too. What I see the department being is service-oriented. We’re going to provide leadership. Hopefully, we can become a convener, with people working across district lines to share best practices. We’re going to do a lot of service, and I think that’s a part of leadership.

There’s always a little piece of – well, in some cases a bigger piece than a little one – the role of mandates and regulatory requirements of law. I would like people to see KDE and to see me as being a leader who supports their districts.

Q: As you noted, you worked with KDE staff in development of our relatively new science standards. There has been a limited amount of pushback on the science standards, and some on the in-the-works social studies standards. As commissioner, should people anticipate you to be a Common Core standards proponent? And please add your thoughts on the standards as a state measurement versus a federal mandate.

I’m a proponent of high standards for all kids. I’m a proponent of teachers being able to get kids to those standards in a way that makes sense in a local context, but at the end of the day, kids need to be held to high standards. Commissioner (Terry) Holliday started a process for a review of Common Core which have been in Kentucky classrooms for several years, and I plan on continuing that review and listening to the feedback that we’ve gotten. But I’m very much a proponent of high standards.

Q: Some of the Common Core pushback has come from members of the General Assembly and from one of the gubernatorial candidates. What will you be doing to establish working partnerships with 138 legislators and whoever becomes the next governor?

I’ve already got my list of things I’m going to do early and part of that is reaching out to the legislators and getting to know them. At this point, I couldn’t walk into a legislator’s office and say, ‘Well, here’s what KDE is doing.’ I’ve got to learn some more about that. But what I can do is go in and start building that personal relationship, getting to know the power structure in both houses of the General Assembly, the education committee chairs, the appropriations committee chairs, similar to what I was talking about with board members and superintendents. Whenever I go out to visit districts, which is going to be pretty often, I’m going to ensure that we have informed the legislators from that area. When I’m out, I hope to be able to spend a little time with them and get to know one another.
Q: An issue that has been debated among legislators and others in Kentucky is charter schools. What do you think of the charter option and should there be a role for local school boards in the chartering and/or oversight of them?

I think, with regard to charters, I’m not familiar enough with the landscape in Kentucky to go quite out on that limb yet. I will say that I’ve seen them work well, and I’ve seen them not work so well. And usually they work better when there is a collaboration involved, in particular with local boards. But at this point, I’m a little hesitant to come out with a position on that until I get a little better feel for the landscape there. At the end of the day, whatever policy there is around charters – if there is a policy around charters – it needs to be the right one for Kentucky.

Q: Ultimately, when independent and county school leaders don’t reach nonresident student agreements, the matter gets appealed to the commissioner. Was this an issue during your time in the Georgia Department of Education, and generally what are your thoughts on having to make such decisions as commissioner?

We didn’t have to deal with this in Georgia. In Georgia, we had very clear attendance zones and if you lived within those attendance zones, you went to those schools, city and county. As education commissioner of Kentucky, the biggest thing I’ve got to do is get some history about this before saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ I need more data about how that’s been handled and about the funding structure and the issues.

Q: You’ll face your first General Assembly less than 60 days after starting work. What will you be doing to address school funding needs because, to be direct, they’re going to write the budget while you’re learning the system, and you won’t be able to wait six months on the job to become an advocate for adequate funding.

(laughs) Well, one of my first jobs in my first days on the job is to meet with our CFO (Associate Commissioner Hiren Desai) to start understanding that funding formula. It’s always why I want to get to know local superintendents and boards very quickly. It won’t take me six months to become an advocate for school funding. What I’ve got to do is to get the funding structure well enough so that I know the right arguments to make.

Q: While you were a high school chemistry teacher in Georgia, you also spent time coaching track and field teams. I think our readers might like to know what you will draw on from that experience as you become the “head coach” for Kentucky’s elementary and secondary education team.

Well, it’s all about teamwork and my love for collaboration. People may say, ‘Well, wait. Track is an individual sport.’ Well, you know what, it’s really not. You have to build a way for sprinters to understand what distance runners are doing. And then there is getting shot putters to understand why people run at all is part of coaching. It’s about bringing people together so that they will give their absolute best for one another. That’s what I learned about coaching that I’ll bring to this job – it’s all about teamwork. We’ve got to spend time building our team, and in this case the team is Kentucky superintendents, school board members, educators, parents and KDE staff.
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