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Terry Holiday talks about turning around schools in Kentucky

State's commissioner of education led Kentucky in being first state to adopt Common Core standards at all grade levels
Education Commissioner Terry Holiday says Kentucky students have made gains in college career readiness.
Education Commissioner Terry Holiday says Kentucky students have made 'significant' gains in college/career readiness in recent years.

Terry Holliday knows something about what makes a school district work. Having come up through the ranks, from band director and assistant principal to principal, superintendent, and, in 2009, to Kentucky’s commissioner of education, Holliday has seen first-hand how schools and districts can get on track for success. He spoke to District Administration about what Kentucky has done to turn around low-performing schools.

Kentucky has been at the heart of a number of school reform measures lately. What are some of the big picture initiatives for statewide school improvement?

I think Kentucky has an advantage some other states may not have. We passed statewide reform legislation in 2009 that required more rigorous standards. We built an assessment and accountability system based on those standards, and professional support for teachers and principals to implement the standards. Our guiding force has been to implement the legislation and show that we were able to reduce the percentage of high school graduates who need remediation at the postsecondary level.

The legislation was passed about the same time that National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers were working with states to develop a Common Core. We were the first state to adopt Common Core standards at all grade levels in the 2011-2012 school year.

What has been the reaction to Common Core implementation in Kentucky?

There is a lot of pushback from some on the far right that is primarily based on misinformation. They think it’s a federally intrusive mandate. But nothing could be further from the truth. This was state- and governor-led. I was in all the meetings where we were developing, and approving, and guiding. Never once did I see anyone from the U.S. Department of Education or the president’s office in those meetings.

In Kentucky, we didn’t have the money to develop our own standards. We were required to develop college/career-readiness standards, so we thought Common Core was a terrific way to go—low cost and really high quality. So far, that has proven to be accurate.

In medicine, they teach doctors to be neither the first nor the last to adopt something new. What have you learned by being first to adopt Common Core-based assessments?

The first thing we worked on was communication. When we hear from other states that are struggling with implementation, we usually find a lack of communication. We had a pretty intensive plan. We kept legislators, superintendents, principals, and teacher leaders informed regularly. We worked with PTAs and parent groups. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce developed information packets for all business leaders in Kentucky.

We worked with a nonprofit advocacy group called the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, which, in turn, worked closely with communities. We informed teachers on how to talk to parents about a potential drop in test scores. Scores did in fact drop that first year, by about 30 points, which was what we had predicted. But because of the outreach, we had no pushback from parents. [A whitepaper detailing the communication is available at]

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

No, we’ve had a few hiccups. In our first two years, we had no problems with testing in grades 3 through 8. It went smoothly because it was still done with paper and pencil. But the high schools went with an ACT online testing model. The first year, it was fine because we were the only state using that model.

Then ACT sold the online end of course assessments to districts in Alabama and Ohio. So 50,000 kids tried to access it on the first day, but ACT only had space for 8,000. Some people are talking about testing a million kids a day online, but I just don’t have a lot of hope that that’s going to happen, given the lack of bandwidth and infrastructure in a lot of school districts. I’d highly recommend that everybody do a pilot test to ensure that when a million kids try to access online testing, they can all do it at once.

Speaking of ACT, what are you doing to help address the so-called skills gap where students often don’t have the basic skills needed not just for college, but for advanced positions in the workforce?

One thing we did was to start the college/career-readiness program. First we got our two- and four-year universities to agree on what the cut scores on ACT would be so that kids could enter a credit-bearing course at the college level. Then we compared those cut scores against results from the standard tests that every Kentucky student takes—the eighth grade Explore test, the 10th grade Plan test, and the 11th grade ACT. So, we know as early as eighth grade whether the kids are on track.

There are multiple ways a kid could show college readiness, which is defined as academic readiness to take a course without remediation in language arts and math. In addition to the cut scores in ACT, we also have Compass, which is the online version of ACT. And we have a Kentucky placement test that kids can take online.

How has that been working out?

The numbers went up pretty significantly. The first year that we started this, only 34 percent of the kids were meeting college career readiness. This past year we had 47 percent, so we’ve seen double-digit gains in a short period of time. We’re predicting somewhere around 53 percent this year. Those are pretty good gains in a couple of years. Anytime you can make those kinds of gains at a state level, that’s significant.

Let’s talk about the model by which you, as a state commissioner, are working with individual districts. What have you learned that might be applicable to situations in other states?

Our approach is very much driven by systems thinking and continuous improvement. We’ve identified six or seven parts of the system that we must address, including teacher evaluation, principal evaluation, and superintendent evaluation. We’re connecting the evaluations to the implementation of standards, assessment, and accountability measures, so there’s a direct link.

We’re also working hard with our higher-ed folks to improve teacher preparation. We’ve worked closely with Learning Followers, formerly the National Staff Development Council, to implement support for professional learning. And we created a repository where teachers can go and get access to standards, resources, professional learning linked to the standards, digital textbook resources, and assessment items—everything connected in one place. Plus, they can see all their students’ real time performance, not just the summative tests at the end of the year, but also assessment systems like MAP or ThinkLink. They can even create their own formative assessments.

Every state has pockets of real systemic failure, whether it’s large urban districts, Native American reservations or, in Kentucky, some of the Appalachian districts. What are you doing to address these hardcore issues in districts where kids are being underserved?

First we go in and do a comprehensive needs assessment. We look at all the components of the school or the district using the AdvancED accreditation model. Then we determine if the principal has the capacity to lead the turnaround. In Kentucky, school councils select the principal and curriculum, and make budget decisions. They are very powerful in this state. But we decide whether or not the council can continue with authority to manage the school. Then we look at the district. Does the district have the capacity to support the school and choose the turnaround model?

If they don’t have capacity, the state commissioner decides what turnaround model to implement. Most of our schools use the School Improvement Grants Transformation Model. In largely urban Jefferson County, where 18 of 41 schools are low-performing, they use the Restaffing Model and turn over 50 percent of teachers and the principal.

Then, we assign full-time math, literacy, and principal coaches to each school, paid for with the SIG funding they got. They implement 30-, 60-, and 90-day plans and monitor the turnaround schools to ensure the strategies are being implemented and how well they work.

We’ve been in these schools now almost three years. We are making pretty significant progress in about three-quarters of our schools.

We were not making as much progress in our large urban areas. In the past six months, I’ve gone in as commissioner and required improvements. If I don’t see improvements after this year’s assessments and graduation rates, the state may go in and take over these schools next year. The good news is that since I made those threats six months ago, we’ve seen some pretty good improvements.

For districts that are fiscally or academically in trouble, I have the ability as commissioner to do a state management audit and then basically become the manager of the district. We’ve done that with two districts so far this year, and we have a number of other districts we are considering.