Thinking critically about Kentucky’s next Commissioner of Education

The search is on.

In late March, the Kentucky Department of Education finalized a contract with the Greenwood/Asher search firm to help lock in a new education commissioner. Kentucky’s previous education chief, Wayne Lewis, was ousted in December by Gov. Beshear’s new-look Kentucky Board of Education. Interim Commissioner Kevin Brown has overseen the Kentucky Department of Education in the meantime.

Kentucky Teacher reports that the state’s contract with Greenwood/Asher is effective through June 30, suggesting the state board will act quickly to install a new commissioner. While a short list has not been made public, a survey sponsored by the Kentucky Board of Education reveals the qualities that stakeholders strongly believe our new commissioner should possess before being handed the keys to the 300 Building. The issue is that the results don’t tell us much.

Overwhelmingly, participants said they would prefer a commissioner with prior experience in education and who demonstrates commitment to improving student outcomes. Other popular qualities included the ability to build relationships and relate to multiple audiences, as well as a strong background knowledge of Kentucky-specific education issues. These are crucial qualities for the next commissioner, to be sure, but they go without saying. In truth, they are non-negotiables. We need to collectively think a little deeper about who will be Kentucky’s next education commissioner.

For starters, whoever is selected will have the herculean task of navigating school districts through the COVID-19 crisis. As it stands, the end of the 2019-2020 school year has been shuttered due to school closures, and there is no guarantee that classes will be able to resume as scheduled in the fall. Kentucky’s next education commissioner will be instrumental in laying out a plan for schools to follow in the uncertainty that will surely come.

What should be the priorities of Kentucky schools if virtual learning is forced to continue through Labor Day? (Or fall break, or January 2021 for that matter?)  How will schools address the inevitable “learning slide” of students who haven’t darkened the door of a classroom in months? Airtight communication and flexibility will surely prove to be the most critical characteristics of Kentucky’s next education chief, regardless of what the survey says. (Sorry, Steve Harvey.)

But furthermore, as schools gradually prepare to return to some semblance of “normal,” Kentucky needs a leader whose agenda will expand beyond the immediate aftermath of the virus. Teacher shortages still threaten education quality in pockets across the state, and efforts to recruit a highly-qualified, diverse pool of applicants would benefit all Kentucky children. Innovations in educator preparation and pay have long bypassed Kentucky, and access to high-quality, rigorous curriculum remains limited for students and teachers alike. These concerns may be on the backburner amid COVID-19, but they cannot wait there long. Our next commissioner must be prepared to tackle them head on, whatever our post-pandemic world may look like.

That’s why it’s critical that this conversation continues. Write a letter to the Kentucky Department of Education explaining what qualities you would like to see in our next education commissioner. Tweet at a Kentucky Board of Education member and explain your perspectives. These are simple actions that any of us can take, and as the search heats up, we can’t afford not to.




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