Home » One-On-One: Stu Silberman of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

One-On-One: Stu Silberman of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

By Mark Green

Stu Silberman is executive director of The Prichard Committee, a nonprofit citizens group established in 1983 that advocates for excellence in education. Prior to assuming his current position, Silberman served as superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools (2004-2011) and Daviess County Public Schools (1995-2004). He was named three times as the state’s Superintendent of the Year and was recently among the four finalists for the National Superintendent of the Year award.

Stu Silberman is executive director of The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
Stu Silberman is executive director of The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

Silberman authors a national blog for Education Week, is chairman of the Kentucky Nonprofit Network, vice chairman of the Fund for Excellence Foundation Board, and was part of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force for Tax Reform. He also teaches in the state’s new superintendent training program. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and received an honorary doctorate from Kentucky Wesleyan College.

Mark Green: Robert Sexton headed the Pritchard Committee from its creation in 1983 to his death in 2010. Describe his legacy.

Stu Silberman: There can’t be enough said about the work of Bob Sexton and this staff to bring the Prichard Committee to where it is today. Our membership across the state is a combination of grass roots and treetop people, from business leaders to parents, working in the schools every day. That’s part of what has brought success over the years. The respect the organization has – no matter where we go around the country –  is phenomenal. We walk in and people know who we are, and it sure has made my transition a lot easier. That credit goes to the work that has been going on since 1983.

Bob Sexton was an amazing man and a good friend. I’ve been a strong supporter of the Prichard Committee since I came to Kentucky in 1995. When you look at where Kentucky was in the late ’80s to where we are today, that progress is phenomenal. In most of the education measures, we ranked 48th or 49th, and today we rank around 33rd. Improvement was a result of KERA, and the Prichard Committee was extremely involved. A big part of Kentucky’s positive movement goes right to Bob’s legacy.

MG: What is the status of Kentucky public education today?

SS: We made that movement from 49th to 33rd. A goal the Prichard Committee set five or six years ago was to get us in the top 20 by the year 2020, and we put out a report every two years monitoring progress. When you look at the components of KERA, it becomes obvious what caused Kentucky’s improvement. The rubber hits the road in the classrooms; you have to have strong teaching and standards of professional development. The progress our teachers made from the enactment of KERA to today is because professional development money was available. Dollars were allocated for extended school services and family resource centers for kids who lived in poverty. A tremendous amount of support was put in place, and those supports caused that improvement.

I worry because funding for those supports has pretty much dried up with the economy, which hopefully is bouncing back. Although our governor and legislature have kept our state SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) funding base flat, it is a cut when you keep it flat – you increase students and the per-student expenditure goes down. The pieces hit hardest were those supports: professional development, extended school services, family resource centers, preschool, technology, textbooks.

MG: What remains to be done?

SS: We have a long way to go. We are more cognitive of international comparisons today. The PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) international test is being piloted on the individual school and school district level; it’s always been in place to compare countries. It’s important to find down to the individual student how our kids are competing against their international peers because that’s the competition now. It used to be Johnny down the street, and then it was your community and your state and your country. It’s international competition now. Kentucky has moved to new common core standards that fit in with PISA. Because the new standards are internationally benchmarked, it has caused us to change what we are doing in our schools.

Kentucky developed its own assessment system because we were ahead of the curve with Senate Bill 1 and the first state to adopt a common core standard. We’re not exactly sure where that is going to go because national consortia are working on assessments for the country. I hope they include PISA.

MG: Describe the role the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence plays in Kentucky. How is it funded?

SS: We are independent; we take no money from state government. All funding is through individual gifts or foundations. We are non-partisan and not obligated to anyone. We just stand for what is right for kids. Our board is 115 members. We just expanded from 100 to diversify in terms of age to make sure the committee continues into the future and has a good base across the state.

We have three pillars in our strategic plan. One is adequate education funding; funding has been cut significantly on those support areas and we’re concerned, so we will continue to advocate. Accountability is another pillar. Family and community engagement is the third. There also are seven areas that are targeted issues for us, such as effective teaching.

We have a very strong focus on early childhood education and believe getting kids off to a good start is the key to closing achievement gaps. The research is powerful on the bang for the buck we get out of preschool. When you look 15 to 20 years down the road, the savings accumulated by kids who have high-quality preschool is amazing. Some studies show as much as a $17 return on the dollar; some show a $5 return. The governor has endorsed our parent training, which has been used across the country. It’s now called the Governor’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership. We trained about 1,800 parents across the state who are now leaders and advocates for their schools.

MG: What is the most serious education problem Kentucky faces?

SS: The biggest issue is adequate funding if we want to continue the progress we’re making. Education Week, the national newspaper on education, just published this year’s Quality Counts report ranking states by the progress they’re making, and Kentucky ranked 10th. But within that 10th ranking we got an F in funding. Our teachers and educators and community folks are working extremely hard, but I’m not sure how much longer we can continue to improve without the funding to support it.

MG: How do peer educators in other states view Kentucky’s improvement in educational attainment?

Prichard logoSS: No matter where we go outside Kentucky, people ask how we’ve made the progress we have. KERA was the first reform effort with all the supports we put in place. Now we’re making this next step forward – the results aren’t in, but the pieces are in place. We are viewed as a leader across the country.

We do a lot of networking around the country. The Columbia Group, a group of organizations like the Prichard Committee in the South, came to Kentucky for our annual meeting. We just finished launching a successful major campaign to inform citizens about the Kentucky common core standards. We are getting calls from all over asking, “How did you do that?” We partnered with the state chamber and formed a Business Leader Champions for Education group. People all over the country are calling about that. We still have people calling about how to set up a Prichard Committee-type organization. We’re kind of a granddaddy of education advocacy groups. 

MG: Why were you chosen to become the Prichard Committee’s second executive director? What was the process?

SS: I was retiring after 38 years in education. I was a superintendent for nine years in Owensboro and seven years in Fayette County. The day of the announcement, I got a call from (Associate Executive Director) Cindy Heine at the Prichard Committee, who said the selection committee would like to talk with me. I had other calls that day, some from other states, but I talked to my wife and we have two young grandkids I want to make sure know who I am. The Prichard Committee felt like a calling to me – it is important the work taking place with the committee continue. Though I wasn’t thinking about going to work, I decided to talk to them and the next thing I know they were offering me the position. Cindy was the interim director doing a phenomenal job. I told the selection committee the only way I’d do it is if Cindy and Bev (Raimondo, head of the parent leadership training program) stay. They both agreed.

I’ve brought an additional perspective to the committee. There have never been educators involved directly. I’ve always been a supporter from my superintendent positions, but I am bringing a perspective on top of what the committee has always done. I make sure Bob Sexton’s legacy continues and have a deep respect for that.

MG: You took over the 38,000-student Fayette County school system in 2004 as the fifth superintendent in three years. Obviously you were successful. What lessons from those seven years are applicable to your current job?

SS: It goes back to making sure kids and teachers have strong supports in place. That is one reason we are advocating diligently for adequate funding. Fayette County had great people and kids; they just needed to have the support for teachers to be able to do their work and kids to be able to move forward. I was able to bring some stability to the district and focus on making sure all kids were getting great opportunities for learning. Those are the same things we advocate today: make sure all kids are getting great opportunities no matter what their socioeconomic status is, what their race is – demographics should not matter when it comes to a kid getting a good education.

MG: Would there be advantages in consolidating some of Kentucky smaller school districts into larger districts?

SS: Yes, and that’s not the answer people want to hear. Whether it’s districts or schools or any type of consolidation, there’s a huge emotional piece with that. People are loyal to their schools and districts. But when you have a school district with 300 to 400 kids, the economies of scale are lost. There are significant economies of scale at school districts of 7,000-10,000 you can’t get in a district of 300. Folks in those smaller districts don’t want to consolidate, but when you are looking at what’s best for kids it is something that should be studied.

MG: What feedback does the Prichard Committee get from the private sector regarding Kentucky’s education system and the product it turns out: our citizens, workers and job creators?

SS: We have a great relationship with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce as well as other chambers in our state. State Chamber CEO Dave Adkisson and I go back to Owensboro together and have a great relationship. In the state chamber’s strategic plan, education is No. 1. They understand we have to have a strong education system producing workers, having college- and career-ready kids coming out of high school. Our business community wants to help and knows we are not there yet. It is important for us to continue to listen and know what those 21st-century skills needed in the business world are, so our pre-K through 12 systems can be adjusting to meet those needs. That is critical.

MG: What are the best steps the private sector can take to assist Kentucky’s public education system?

SS: It’s so important for the private sector to get involved and in lots of ways. In Lexington, Lexmark gives employees release time to work in the schools. When we had a teacher absent in technology, physics or upper-level math, Lexmark engineers would be subs. I say to our business leaders, please continue to partner with our schools. That goes beyond finance. Providing programs for teachers onsite and internships for kids to be able to see if yours is an area they want to get involved in is critical. Advocate for high standards, advocate for 21st-century skills, and be a voice out there with legislators to let them know as business leaders that you expect to have a high-quality workforce.

MG: How are colleges of education doing in turning out educators, both for the classroom and administrative offices?

SS: A transition is taking place. UofL just moved to a clinical model of teaching our teachers. They have classes in an elementary school, walk across the hall and implement what they just learned, then come back and discuss it. That’s the way we need to go, more of a medical school-type model. Our team on effective teaching had the country’s leading expert on training teachers, Deborah Ball of Michigan, talk about that clinical model and how important it is. We see innovation at UK. Morehead State and Pikeville University are partnering with us on parent programs to infuse that into their education pieces.

We must find ways to pay teachers a professional wage so we can attract the highest level of students into the profession and colleges can be more selective. The top quartile of kids are going into different professions because of the salary piece, and it starts a major cycle. Mark Tucker, a nationally known author, describes that: If you attract the highest quality people into the profession and they go out and train kids who are high quality and who are attracting others, a whole cycle takes place.

I’m optimistic. University education departments know we have work to do and that there is a tie-in about whom they are attracting. Our business people understand. The standards board is asking education preparation programs to put in guidelines saying college kids must have 200 clinical observation hours – starting as freshman – to find out, is this what I really want to do? Higher ed and pre-K to 12 are collaborating better than ever.

MG: The Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky, a venture capital fund for educational innovation, was launched April 15 in Frankfort. Only Colorado has a similar program. What does the Prichard Committee hope to see happen?

SS: I’m vice chairman of The Fund for Innovation board. It is modeled after the Colorado Legacy Foundation, which is a foundation that encourages innovation. We need to encourage innovation in education in this state. Schools have wanted to do things for many years but lack funding. This will provide external funding to try some things. It’s a good step. Colorado’s Legacy Fund has been very successful. We hired Jim Wiseman, a former executive director of the Kentucky Chamber. He came out of Toyota and has a good feel for the business community. We have to connect innovation with 21st-century skills, and Jim is the perfect person to help get that off the ground.

MG: What successful initiatives are other states undertaking that you would like to see in Kentucky?

SS: The whole standards movement is the main piece right now. Kentucky passed a new law last year for districts of innovation; some are already approved, like in Danville, allowing interesting innovation. Districts of innovation has kind of been Kentucky’s charter school movement and we’ll see how that goes.

States are doing things with alternative compensation. For example, if you’re having trouble attracting a physics teacher, you raise that particular compensation. States are experimenting with tenure. The Prichard Committee in June will host a national debate on tenure and have a national expert on alternative compensation. Some things we want to be out front on and be first; some things we want to watch, such as new evaluation systems; Florida’s done that. Our state just passed a new evaluation system.

MG: Kentucky previously used the Commonwealth Assessment Testing System (CATS) to measure K-12 performance, but moved to Unbridled Learning: College/Career Readiness For All in 2011-12. What aspects of Unbridled Learning should the public watch to monitor progress?

SS: It’s important to look at how are we progressing in our proficiency numbers, how are our kids are performing in math, reading and science? How we are doing with proficiency in the new standards is the piece we need to watch? The public needs to monitor how we progressing in preparing kids for college and career readiness; that’s the ultimate goal. Kentucky’s Department of Education website has report cards for every district and every school, and I suggest people go take a look. We’re happy to do workshops for parents and school districts because it’s a pretty complicated system.

MG: How does the Prichard Committee interface with Terry Holliday, commissioner of the state Department of Education, and Dr. Robert King of the Council on Postsecondary Education?

SS: At this time there is a good relationship to share and give feedback. I think Terry Holliday will say the Prichard Committee was instrumental in preparing the state for the common core. We are working with the department and teachers across the state with implementation of some new pedagogy. Same with Bob King. We met with Terry and Bob recently to keep those lines of communication open. The third person in that triangle is Robert Brown from the Standards Board. In addition is what is called the “K-T” groups – the “K” associations of Kentucky school boards, superintendents, administrators, teachers, PTAs, retired teachers. We stay in contact to make sure we have a finger on the pulse of what’s going on.

Mark Green is editorial director of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]