- Robinson has spent about 50 years in education, beginning as a classroom teacher in Fayette County and continuing with private educational research and advocacy organizations.
- Robinson’s mother was a teacher and her father was the first African American elected to the Louisville Independent Board of Education, and she said they encouraged her interest in public service and activism.
By Mike Marsee
Sharon Porter Robinson is proud to be a policy wonk.
An affinity for education policy took Robinson from the classroom to a long career in Washington and beyond with the U.S. Department of Education and private educational research and advocacy organizations.
When she left the capital behind in 2017 to retire to her native Louisville, she didn’t leave her interest in policy behind. Now she finds herself immersed in education policy once again as a member of the Kentucky Board of Education.
“I was a policy wonk and I loved it. I think policy’s important, but I think there is a disconnect between policy and practice, and I wanted to come home to see if there was a way I could contribute in closing that disconnect,” Robinson said.
She is in a position where she can see policy and practice intersect in Kentucky’s public schools – and she can also see that doesn’t always happen smoothly.
Robinson has spent about 50 years in education, beginning as a classroom teacher in Fayette County. Her career track changed when she got involved with the Fayette County Education Association and the Kentucky Education Association, then with the National Education Association (NEA).
“I became a member of the NEA government relations committee and that did it. That just connected me with policy in a way that I had not really expected,’ she said.
After a stint with the Jefferson County Education Consortium, she spent 14 years with the NEA, where she was director of instruction and professional development and director of the National Center for Innovation.
That led to an appointment by former President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary for the Office of Education Research and Improvements, which supported research that addressed significant educational issues, including data collection through the National Center for Education Statistics.
She went on to work for the Educational Testing Service, an international research and assessment organization, as president of its Educational Policy Leadership Institute in Princeton, N.J., and as vice president for state and federal relations. She then served as president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
Robinson has remained active in education in her retirement. She is working with Simmons College of Kentucky and the Jefferson County schools on minority teacher recruitment and development.
She also is involved with Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), a national nonprofit that helps students overcome barriers to graduation and transition to postsecondary education, the workforce or the military at the state and national levels, and she sits on the JAG Kentucky board of directors.
She said the reason she continues to remain active in those areas is the same reason she agreed to accept a seat on the Kentucky Board of Education.
“I feel it’s important to give back to the community,” she said. “My parents were really strong advocates for public service. They told me more than once, ‘If you have an opportunity to serve and you think you also have something to offer, you are obliged to serve.’”
She said her interest in citizenship and public service was sparked at a young age, and she recalls going door to door on Saturday morning voter registration drives during her freshman year at Shawnee High School (Jefferson County).
Her parents also supported her activism, which included participating in civil rights demonstrations in Louisville many afternoons after school during her junior year at Shawnee.
“That was another, I think, defining experience where our parents supported us in expressing activism toward achieving things that they confirmed that we thought to be important, so I grew up learning to be an activist,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s mother was a teacher. Her father was the first African American elected to the Louisville Independent Board of Education and was chairman of the board by the time she graduated from Shawnee.
She began her education at the now-closed Virginia Avenue Elementary School in Louisville’s West End. She said the teachers there prepared her and her fellow students well for high school and beyond.
“It didn’t matter if your parents were professionals or domestic workers or anything else, everybody learned,” she said. “I developed an amazing respect for the fact that all of us worked together so well on projects. And it wasn’t just academics; it was also the arts and other areas. We did amazing things at Virginia Avenue.”
Robinson decided to become a teacher and said she fell in love with the profession after doing her student teaching. She went on to earn bachelor’s degrees in English and psychology, a master’s degree in education and a doctorate in educational administration and supervision from the University of Kentucky. She also completed the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program.
Naturally, policy is at the forefront of Robinson’s list of priorities when it comes to the board.
“I think the most important priority is getting the policy agenda established and executed to really support the local schools and improving students’ learning,” she said. “I think that we’ve got to focus on support rather than punishment and to understand the learners and make sure that the resources are provided before we’re being sent into punitive postures and actions that haven’t improved students’ learning.
“One question I would love to ask every school faculty member and principal is, ‘What resources do you need to get the job done?’ and work on an agenda to get those resources provided.”
Robinson’s term will expire April 14, 2024.