Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, in a surprise announcement Wednesday morning, said he was retiring effective Aug. 31.
Holliday became Kentucky's fifth commissioner of education in July 2009.
State Board of Education chairman Roger Marcum, who praised Holliday for raising Kentucky's national presence in education, said the board probably would launch a national search for a new commissioner.
"We have a great challenge ahead of us," Marcum said.
Holliday told state education department leaders of his decision about 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, and Marcum announced it later in the morning at a board meeting.
"It comes as kind of a surprise to everyone," Marcum said.
Holliday told the Herald-Leader he was retiring because he thought things were going "very well" for K-12 education in Kentucky and because he would turn 65 in August.
"There's something to be said to be able to leave when things are going well," he said. Of his replacement, Holliday said, "I hope they find somebody who is really student-focused and teacher-focused."
Marcum said Holliday told him he wanted to spend time in a newly renovated cabin in North Carolina. And Holliday said he wanted to watch his grandchildren play softball and spend time with his parents.
Holliday has a throat condition that is not life-threatening but that requires injections to help him speak normally. He said Wednesday that he was in good health.
Holliday came to Kentucky from North Carolina, where he had been superintendent of Iredell-Statesville Schools. He also had been an elementary and secondary schoolteacher, a band director, an accountability director, a principal and an associate superintendent.
In his resignation letter, Holliday wrote: "I am humbled and very proud to end my 43 years in public education by serving the commonwealth of Kentucky. For the last six years, it has been my honor to work with an outstanding and supportive governor, a committed state Board of Education, a high-performing Department of Education staff and passionate educators across the commonwealth."
Marcum told Holliday at the board meeting: "We all have our critics. You're no exception. ... But I would say also, results matter. I don't think your biggest critic in this state would say that the progress we've made over the last 51/2 years hasn't been remarkable, especially considering the lack of appropriate funding for a major wave of reform.
"You are leaving Kentucky in a much better shape."
Holliday implemented Senate Bill 1, which the General Assembly passed in 2009. It mandated new academic standards, new aligned assessments and a balanced accountability system; a Professional Growth and Effectiveness System for teachers, principals and superintendents; and a comprehensive system of school and district improvement planning and support — all with reduced state funding.
Gov. Steve Beshear said Holliday's leadership had helped Kentucky develop a "world-class education system for our students, and Kentucky is recognized as a trailblazer for meaningful education reform and improvements."
"Under his guidance, Kentucky was the first state to adopt and implement the Common Core state standards," he said. "Commissioner Holliday has worked tirelessly to implement the balanced assessment and accountability system mandated by Senate Bill 1."
In the news release, state education officials said Kentucky had improved dramatically both its graduation rate and the percentage of students who graduate from high school ready for college and careers.
Holliday also was president and a board member of the Council of Chief State School Officers and on the board of several other educational groups.
Chris Minnich, executive director of the school officers council, said that under Holliday's leadership, "Kentucky was the first state to implement college- and career-ready standards, and as a result, more students are going on to education after high school today without the need for remediation."
In October, the National Association of State Boards of Education named Holliday its policy leader of the year, and in March, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards named Holliday as the recipient of the 2015 James A. Kelly Award.
In 2012, the Kentucky Board of Education approved a four-year extension to his initial contract. The contract was to run through Aug. 4, 2017, at an annual salary of $225,000.
Kentucky School Boards Association executive director Mike Armstrong said Holliday's legacy would be his focus on systemic improvement to support the teacher and the student in the classroom.
He also said the Kentucky Board of Education "has a tremendous task ahead of it in searching for and hiring a new commissioner."
Marcum said the board could name an interim commissioner. He said it would hire a search firm and set criteria for what members are looking for in the next commissioner.
"There is no more important decision that you make as a board than who you hire to be a leader," Marcum said.