In Conversation With … features an interview between an individual involved in public education or children’s issues and a member of the Kentucky School Advocate team.
Dr. Terry Holliday retired Aug. 31 after six years as Kentucky’s commissioner of education. In late July, he sat down with the Kentucky School Advocate’s Brad Hughes to reflect on his time in that position.
Q: In our August 2009 interview, we talked about goals. Thinking back, what are some goals that you’re most proud of that have been achieved, both for public education in Kentucky and for your agency?
A: I think what was driving the conversation in 2009 was Senate Bill 1 (a law that required an overhaul of school assessment, accountability and evaluations). I think our educators have done a really good job implementing Senate Bill 1; they’ve been tremendous leaders for the nation in how to implement an agenda focused on college and career readiness.
Within that, the two big goals that come to mind begin with the graduation rate. Kentucky has the highest graduation rate of any state with regard to economically disadvantaged kids. Our minority graduation rates are well above the national average. We’re very close to the national average graduation rate for all kids. That’s a big goal I’ve been very proud of.
The other (goal) is college and career readiness – being able to meet the Senate Bill 1 goal of doubling the percentage of kids who can place into credit-bearing courses in their freshman year in college. All Kentucky kind of crystalized around college and career readiness. Our high schools really came on board about that.
Q: Still thinking back, what are some surprises – good and not so good – that come to mind of your time in this job?
A: I think a big surprise was how friendly educators and citizens of Kentucky are. Everywhere I travel, I’ve met so many nice people dedicated to children. That’s not the case in every state. A lot of states have a lot of controversy, a lot of pushback. In Kentucky, it’s been ‘How can we get to work to help more kids?’ That was a very pleasant surprise.
A big surprise for me was that you’ve got some weird names for towns in Kentucky. There are so many counties. Think about Fulton – it’s not in Fulton County. You have to learn where all of these towns are that aren’t where you’d think they would be. As I (traveled to visit all Kentucky school districts), I learned that when I would go to Hickman, I’d say, ‘Well, is that in Hickman County?’ (laughs) Someone would say, ‘No, it’s not there. It’s in a neighboring county.’ Kentucky is a really long state. I used to think that Bowling Green was in western Kentucky, but if you’ve visited Fulton Independent, then you really know where western Kentucky is.
Q: What is the most shining achievement that you’ve been associated with as commissioner?
A: I think the more kids graduating high school college and career ready. We’ve got critics out there. Folks at the Bluegrass (Institute for Public Policy Solutions) who say our measures aren’t right. Even the Prichard Committee (did so in a recent commentary).
The fact of the matter remains is that for a kid to be college ready, he has to meet a standard for a benchmark set by the colleges. We didn’t set these benchmarks. They set them on the ACT. They set them on COMPASS (a college placement test). They set them on KYOTE (an online college readiness assessment for students not scoring high enough on the ACT). To this day, we’ve gone from 34 percent being college ready to this year when we will exceed 67 percent. That means kids who used to have to take remedial courses don’t have to take them anymore. That’s a huge savings. All the data shows that these kids are more successful in college now. They have higher GPAs. They earn more credits their first year. They’re more likely to return for a second year. That’s what this was always about. ACT is just one measure. It is not THE measure. We’ve got a lot of people in Kentucky who put a whole lot more stake in one sit-down assessment (ACT) than they ought to be putting. They ought to be looking at the body of work of the student – the comprehensive nature of the high school course load, the GPA and their placements.
Q: Turning that around, what has been the most significant disappointment of your tenure, an area you wish had turned out differently?
A: Yes, we have not done what we needed to have done in closing achievement gaps. When you put a more rigorous assessment in place, it’s going to expand gaps originally. I’m anxiously looking for results (in early August) from the 2015 tests. So I’m hoping I see some closing of the gaps. We saw it in grad rates. We saw it in college and career readiness. But we haven’t seen it in Grades 3-8 reading and math. That’s why I’m pushing really hard before I go out the door on novice reduction. Too many of our kids are still being left behind because they don’t have the reading skills that they need.
Q: Let’s look ahead. What excites you that’s on the horizon for public education in Kentucky?
A: I think the connection and integration of career and technical education is our key to economic competitiveness. I see a really good coalition coming together – the Chamber of Commerce, the KCTCS system, higher ed, K-12, and the workforce and economic development agencies. And I think that coalition can stay together even with the governor’s race. Both candidates are talking about economic competitiveness, jobs, workforce development. I think that is the future of Kentucky in moving from just getting kids academically ready to being life ready. That goes way beyond just math and language arts. That means problem solving, technology, creativity and innovation. The whole eastern Kentucky issue has to be addressed through entrepreneurship and innovation. We’ve got to get kids in eastern Kentucky much better prepared for entrepreneurship and not just academically ready to take a college-level English course.
Q: Obviously that same horizon also has challenges. What are the most significant that you see facing the state’s public schools?
A: I think the governor’s race. I think there’s a clear choice and I hope the citizens in Kentucky will make it. I won’t be here to vote. But I think it’s very critical for Kentucky to continue to grow and not go backward. We’ve done great work; there’s no need to review what this work was based on. Keep moving ahead and go to the next focus, which is career and technical education integrated in a K-20 format.
Q: For any leader, relationships can be challenging; leading for progress while trying to get along with those affected by your actions. You’re a former superintendent. You created regular ways of sharing information with superintendents. You established an annual summit to get their input and to exchange ideas. You speak at their meetings. And you’ve also acknowledged that some of your decisions and directions haven’t pleased all superintendents. In general, how would you assess the ebb and flow of your relationship with district CEOs?
A: Anybody in leadership sometimes has to push hard and sometimes has to relax, but the key is always transparency – where are you headed and why are you headed there. You will always have folks who say, ‘I gave you feedback. You just didn’t listen.’ Nine times out of 10, we did listen to the feedback, we just didn’t agree. We felt that it wasn’t in the best interest of kids. What’s difficult for educators to understand is that you just can’t work on one piece of the system. We couldn’t just work on the standards and ignore teacher preparation, teacher evaluations and all of the other parts of the system. So that created people saying we were doing too much, too fast, which certainly was a valid criticism. It’s just part of the territory that comes with systemic change.
I think overall the relationship with superintendents has been very positive. I understand where they are coming from because they are being challenged to do a whole lot more during a time when we had budgetary restrictions. Now that could be a big challenge for Kentucky moving forward. We don’t have equitable funding to address the challenges. We’ve got pretty equitable funding overall, but we’ve got challenges with different populations of kids. We probably should be looking at where we get new resources into the novice reduction programs and transportation and technology in rural Kentucky. That’s one of our first strategies for eastern Kentucky in SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region), to get high-speed broadband that would be second to none in the nation.
Q: Some local school board members resented your push for mandatory annual training in school finance, superintendent evaluations and ethics. At the outset, you cited problems with a few boards that have been well documented. What do you feel has been the impact in the increased learning required of board members on these three topics?
A: I think what you see is fewer incidents that the state auditor has had to investigate. We’ve still got a few, but not as many as early on. You can never overtrain a local board. I think what you see is that more local boards are asking excellent questions of their superintendents and finance officers, so the community can have a greater confidence that the local board knows how their tax dollars are being spent. If the requirement for more training has meant a growing in confidence in managing fiscal issues, I’m real proud of that accomplishment. I’m not going to second-guess that one at all.
Q: You’ve received glowing annual evaluations by the state Board of Education, which one would take as a sign of a solid relationship. How has having a very supportive state board helped you?
A: I’m extremely worried that we’re losing good superintendents and good superintendent candidates due to a handful of local boards that are not focused on the important issues like students and fiscal management. If you look at other states, all you’ve got to look at is Indiana. You see the state chief and the board are at odds with each other all the time. Can they get as much done when they are at odds? No. You can when you have a common agenda. I did not bring a common agenda with me. The General Assembly gave us a common agenda with Senate Bill 1. I was just dumb enough to believe that they meant for us to do it, so I made it the strategic plan for the Kentucky Board of Education with Unbridled Learning.
Having a local board or a state board on the same agenda is important. Now they may disagree; that’s OK. Having a rubber stamp is just as bad. They need to ask questions. They need to push hard. You’ve got to have local boards and superintendents who have a professional relationship based on a common agenda.
Q: You’ve had vocal chord problems for the past year or so. How much of an impact did that aspect of your health play in your decision to retire at this time, and, how is your treatment coming along?
A: I’m doing OK. I have a couple of weeks every month and then I have a week or two at the end of my (treatment) cycle when it’s difficult to get anything out.
I had wanted to make it through the end of my contract, which is two more years. But two things – the governor’s race and the voice issues – were the key drivers for me to go ahead and make this decision. It’s kind of like Vince Lombardi (legendary coach of the NFL Green Bay Packers) – go out when you are on top. Right now Kentucky has a great reputation nationally. Our goals, our graduation rates, our college and career readiness work – they really are a good example of what can be done.
Q: By the time this interview is published, you’ll be retired, and if all goes as planned, your successor will have been selected. Assuming you have an opportunity as I’m about to suggest, what advice would you give the man or woman who occupies this office a few weeks from now?
A: Get out of Frankfort as much as possible to visit schools and districts. Build relationships with all of the organizations and their leaders. Be a good listener and a transparent communicator.
Q: You don’t strike me as someone who – at this point in your life – will be satisfied to join your wife, Denise, on a North Carolina mountaintop on a permanent basis. Will you consider getting back into education leadership, advocacy, consulting or some other venture down the road?
A: I will be working in a consultant fashion with CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers) on a couple of agenda items. Career and technical education will be one. I chaired their task force (on career and technical education) and the report came out about a year ago. That’s become a national agenda item. The governor’s association is focused on that. So is the Southern Regional Education Board. But it will be part time – very part time – to support states in implementing a career tech agenda.
Q: Finally, would you share a particular moment of the past six years that you will recall most fondly about your time in Kentucky?
A: (Long pause) Well, there have been many. I think the things I will remember most fondly will be the visits to schools, and talking to teachers and students. That’s why I got into the business, and when you are in this office, it’s very difficult to get out there. When I set a goal to visit every district, I knew it would be a long and hard process. But I never regretted that for a moment. I thought that was the best experience I had to be able to actually see and talk to real teachers and students about the challenges they faced. They made an impression on me. I’d hate to single one out.
I cherish the relationships I’ve made with people in Kentucky. My daughter will still be at the University of Kentucky. My son has taken up residence in Columbus, Ohio. So we’ll get back to Kentucky quite often. I’m looking forward to keeping up with the progress in Kentucky.