By Mike Marsee
The road toward a new and more effective accountability system is a long one, but Kentucky’s education commissioner said he’s enjoying the journey so far.
Commissioner Stephen Pruitt logged hundreds of miles as he crisscrossed the state to hear what concerned Kentuckians had to say about that system in a series of Education Town Hall Meetings, and he said it was certainly worth the trip.
Pruitt said he was encouraged by what he saw and heard at the 13 meetings held over a span of about eight weeks, and he said teachers and other shareholders will continue to be involved as the process moves forward.
“From the town halls, we’ll be identifying several different committees that will start working on the new system,” he said. “We don’t have a ton of time, so we’ll actually have to get rolling pretty quickly.
“And across all of those teams, you’ll see all of our different shareholders, from parents to teachers to superintendents to principals to business leaders. If there’s a group that is invested in education, we want to make sure they have a voice.”
Congressional reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), gives states much more responsibility for schools, including oversight on how accountability is determined and how low-performing schools are identified and improved.
Pruitt wants that power to extend beyond Frankfort, and he said he was happy that so many people came to the town hall meetings to share what was important to them.
“The number of people that cared enough to give up their evening to come and share things with us – or even just to come and listen – it shows a level of commitment, of passion about education,” he said.
More than 2,500 people attended the 11 meetings that were open to the public. Two additional meetings were held exclusively for KDE employees.
“We had incredible turnout for all of them. When you do these sorts of things, you hope people show up, and we had no trouble with that. We had big turnouts in all locations,” Pruitt said.
The comments were recorded and transcribed, and Pruitt said he has read them all. The ideas and suggestions will be used by KDE as it develops the system, which is expected to be completed by January and implemented in the 2017-18 school year. The Kentucky Board of Education will be presented with a summary of the feedback and the recurring themes at its June meeting.
A steering committee that will include representatives of all shareholder groups will work with public feedback and the ESSA requirements to lead the development of the new system. That committee will hold its first meeting May 24, and it and other work groups will meet throughout the summer to have details of the system ready by September.
Pruitt said teachers will be involved at every step of the process.
“They have to,” he said. “This is a system that affects them, and to me, this really should be more about shared responsibility than about accountability. We want the teachers to feel a sense of ownership for this.
“They’re not all going to like the new system. But at the same time, historically – and this is not so much a Kentucky comment as a national comment – teachers have been left out of the accountability conversation. Naturally they feel like things are done to them. We want to make sure that we have teachers at the table. That’s one of the reasons why we had the town halls, but we also want them to help us make decisions.”
A common theme of Pruitt’s at the Town Hall Meetings was that districts should collaborate rather than compete.
“I was pleasantly surprised that a lot of people liked the idea,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how people would feel about my personal feeling about us getting rid of a ranking system.
“And it was good to hear the number of people who said we need to focus on students and the whole child, not just reading and math test scores.”
Educators and others repeatedly said at the Town Hall Meetings that accountability should go beyond assessments of core subjects. Groups representing interests such as arts and humanities, physical education and school health also were heard from frequently, and they said accountability should include those areas as well.
“We also heard a lot of people actually talk positively about program reviews – not that they think they’re perfect or even being done well now – but the idea of it and what it’s intended to do,” Pruitt said
A number of people also have sent ideas and suggestions via email. A special email account, KyEdListens@education.ky.gov, was set up for people who couldn’t attend one of the meetings. A virtual town hall may still be held, though technical issues have kept that from happening so far.
“That doesn’t mean we’re not going to do it, we’ve just got to figure out a better way to do it,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt said the response to this series of meetings was so good that he wants to make them an annual occurrence, with a designated theme each year.
“I’m not doing 11 in six weeks next year. We’re going to spread them out. But I do think people appreciated just the chance to come and talk about what was going on and what they care about,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pruitt hopes the conversation on accountability will continue long after the meetings are forgotten.
“Something that I started saying at these meetings that usually got a lot of Twitter traffic is that it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a commonwealth to educate one,” he said. “I hope that people will continue to stay engaged with us and help us make sure that every child has that opportunity to receive a world-class education.”
MORE INFO …
For more information about ESSA and videos of the Town Hall Meetings, click here.