Get Your Message Out
New education commissioner clears first communications hurdle
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
For just about anyone, the first day on a new job is interesting. For Kentucky’s new education commissioner Stephen Pruitt, Oct. 16 was a host of firsts – settling into his Capital Plaza Tower office, meeting dozens of Department of Education staff...and becoming involved in his first controversy.
Dr. Pruitt may or may not have foreseen the pushback from his first-day announcement related to arts studies. What should matter in the long run is how Kentucky’s new K-12 chief responded to a critical group of, as he likes to identify them, “shareholders” – the state’s 173 superintendents.
Late on Oct. 16, KDE issued its weekly Fast Five on Friday update, a communication begun by former Commissioner Terry Holliday. After an introductory greeting by Pruitt, the email led to an item titled “Update on Arts Pathways and Assessments.” The first widespread word that KDE had concerns about the careers-in-arts component of the state accountability system featured a sprinkling of “we”s and one “I,” giving Pruitt clear ownership of the message.
The bottom line was that the pilot program of “capstone assessments” for students hoping to pursue careers in music, drama and other fine arts didn’t fulfill all of the criteria set by KDE staff. So agency leaders were going back to the drawing board on the subject.
It didn’t take long for Pruitt’s revelation to stir up people concerned that this signaled a lack of support by the state’s new K-12 chief. One superintendent publicly worried that some high school seniors on arts career paths might have to drop out of chorus or band for other courses needed to achieve college and/or career ready status. Similar messages quickly made their way to Frankfort.
Rather than let the matter fester, Pruitt and his KDE team took a series of steps that may signal confirmation of his intent to be a listener first, and then a decider.
While hosting his first Superintendents’ Webcast – a well-publicized monthly program – Pruitt opened the Oct. 29 webcast with an unannounced explanation of the arts issue. He emphatically declared that both he and his agency were 100 percent committed to the importance of arts education for all students. He followed that up with similar affirmations as he spoke directly to superintendents during his first visits to the state’s regional education cooperatives. In both forums, Pruitt defended the determination that “a different type of methodology” was needed to measure students’ mastery of skills in arts studies, adding “We have a moral obligation to be honest with our students (about limited arts-related career opportunities).”
After one co-op meeting, Pruitt told me, “I wanted to be clear about where we are. There was a lot of misinformation in the field. I felt we needed to get out ahead of that. One of the things I will strive to bring about is accurate communications. My work with local superintendents and boards has to be a partnership. If there is a hot issue, we need to address it.”
The Last Word
Investing maximum effort to connect with superintendents would be smart for any new commissioner. It’s especially so for Pruitt. His predecessor acknowledged an up-and-down relationship with some district chiefs. Kentucky’s high superintendent turnover rate meant that nearly two out of three local chief executives came and went during Holliday’s six years as commissioner. That made it tough to build trust.
“You don’t know me from Adam,” Pruitt told superintendents at the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative in November. “It’s no secret that I’ve not been a local superintendent. I think what you’ll find is that I’m a man of my word. You are my peers and I want to work with you to improve education. Give me some time to prove that.
“What I’ve told KDE is my vision (for the department) is we are service agency with a compliance function,” he said. “We’ve got to be servicing our districts first. I want us to be part of the solution with you. That relationship has to be really strong.”
And that’s a message worth getting out.