In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
William L. (Bill) Twyman is the new chair of the state Board of Education. The Cave City resident has served for six years on the board and is thought to be the first African American to lead it. He taught for 22 years, primarily math and science in the Glasgow Independent school district, before moving into school administration. He continues to work part time for Educational Directions of Louisville.
Q: How does your past work in education serve you in this new role?
A. It is like the old adage: Your best teacher is experience. I spent 22 years as a teacher before I got into administration. I taught in Campbellsville and Nicholas County but spent the majority of time in Glasgow Independent. Then I became a vice principal, a principal and district administrator. I have also done special projects for the state Department of Education, so I have seen both sides of the coin. I have four children and nine grandchildren and get to experience their issues and questions. Since I am known as an educator, the community is always asking my opinion of what issues mean. I try to explain it as clearly as I can.
Q. How do you define your community?
A. I am known in this region of southcentral Kentucky.
Q. Do your children live in Kentucky?
A. Oh no, because of employment they are in Colorado, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi.
Q. It must be interesting to see how education differs among those states.
A. Exactly. When I hear what some of the other states offer, in comparison to Kentucky, I realize we have made huge gains over the last 25 years.
Q. What are some of challenges ahead for the state board as it helps craft the school accountability system for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)?
A. That acronym says what we are all about. We are trying our very, very best to ensure that every student in Kentucky succeeds. The challenge is to create a system that meets the needs of all students. To do that, we will have to create some kind of a performance-based assessment system. It is not the easiest form of assessment, but I think it is the most telling.
Take, for example, the related arts. Band students know how well they are doing by how well they can play their instrument, or a student in tech ed who is running a CAD program – they get immediate feedback. We are going to create assessments in core areas to ensure we are getting that type of feedback and that students are getting feedback.
Q. What is the state board’s role in creating the system?
A. We will help structure regulations to ensure that whatever system comes forth we have the structure in place to ensure it is an equitable system that doesn’t give one area of the state a leg up over another. We are already looking in that direction so we just have to provide some direction and oversight to see that that takes place.
Q. Commissioner Pruitt has voiced some objections to the federal Department of Education’s draft regulations for ESSA. What are your thoughts?
A. I am in agreement with him. What the federal Department of Education wants is for us to use an assessment that is based on old standards that we aren’t using any longer. So you are basing an assessment and measuring schools on things that aren’t being taught, or if they are being taught are being phased out. I hope that we can come to some type of agreement with the federal department. Right now, they seem to think we are not providing all the information they are asking for. I hope we can come to an agreement to meet their needs but not do any harm to our students or teachers.
Q. It sounds as though we are entering a period of change.
A. It is something like a transition with a computer system. When you go from one system to another, there are always those unexpected consequences.
Q. As part of the new accountability system, there’s been discussion on using a dashboard that would include data on a number of factors rather than a single assessment score. What are your thoughts?
A. To be honest, I haven’t gotten into the details of that. But when people analyze data, they tend to want more and not less. I think a dashboard would provide parents and the public with more of what they want. It also would provide a lot of flexibility. For example, something that would be necessary in Fayette County might not be necessary in Floyd County.
Many times something like a factory closing impacts a district – the tax base, the students, who may have to move from a house to an apartment. If you had a way to report that, it would give the public a picture of what is really happening and not just a test score that is a result of factors beyond the schools’ and parents’ control.
Q. Previous chairs of the state board have called out local boards for not increasing the tax rate by the full 4 percent allowed without a referendum. Do you think that was warranted?
A. I have to go back to the original intent of the law. The 4 percent was meant to be a minimum instead of a maximum, but it has evolved to boards looking at it as a maximum. We need all the financial support we can get. Students can’t be successful in the 21st century with 20th-century funding. Being on the state board, you hear the best and the worst. You hear about students in buildings where roofs are leaking and in need of repair, and then to see a board that is not annually taking that 4 percent, it does raise a question.
Q. In March, Gov. Bevin appointed five new members to the state board. How will you blend the new members with the old to form an effective board?
A. I’ve been on the board almost six years, and you always have unique personalities, strong personalities. What I have learned about the new board members is that all of us are there for the benefit of children. As long as that is the common denominator, we are going to be able to work to develop the best policies and decisions.
Q. You are the first African American to serve as state board chair since at least KERA, possibly ever. What does that mean to you?
A. That is what they tell me, and I didn’t know that. No. 1, it is an honor. It is something of a surprise, it being 2016. That being said, I don’t think it is the result of anything intentional that happened in the past, it is just the way things have occurred. My cousin, Luska Twyman, was the first black mayor elected in Kentucky back in the ’60s, and he served 17 years as mayor of Glasgow. He was my mentor and I watched how he dealt with the sometimes-difficult situations in the ’60s. If I can be half the leader he was I will be successful as state board chairman. I also feel I am standing on the shoulders of not only former black education leaders but a lot of white leaders. For us to move forward as a society, we all have to lift each other up. We have to make things better for everyone. If it is better for just a few, that is not sustainable.
Q. What are your thoughts on the Prichard Committee’s recent report on the achievement gap?
A. It amazes me – we identified in 1990 that there was a gap and 25 years later, we are saying the same thing. I do feel that our new assessment system will do a better job of identifying gaps. But to eliminate gaps we need to realize we are all in this together and approach it from multifaceted directions. A lot of it will be beyond the school walls.
Q. Can you give an example of “beyond the school walls”?
A. In the last 10 years, wraparound programs like the family and youth services centers have been cut. Those programs need to be strengthened and in a meaningful way. To eliminate gaps, it is going to take all hands on deck and more than just the teachers. A lot of problems children face are not their fault, like not getting enough food or sleep, mental health problems. As a community we have to deal with them.
Q. What are some of your goals for the state board?
A. We will have our eyes on the achievement gap issue and working with the federal education department to get the issues with ESSA resolved. The big one, of course, is assessment and accountability.
Q. How to you think Commissioner Pruitt is doing?
A. He’s doing a good job. With his experience working with a lot of states and different groups, he is the right man for the job.
Q. What has struck you about him?
A. He seems to be very much a people person and is so approachable. That is always a good thing because he wants to get all the information he can before he makes a decision. He makes very deliberate and thoughtful decisions.
Q. What is your personal position on charter schools?
A. I think charter schools can be beneficial if they meet the requirements necessary for students to be safe, healthy and well educated. I do think there needs to be some sort of clearinghouse with the local school board; I don’t think it needs to be a state bureaucracy.