Kentucky education board hires Stephen Pruitt as education commissioner

Stephen Pruitt
Stephen Pruitt

Kentucky's new education commissioner said Wednesday that he's not going to make "rash changes" in a state that he said had a strong system of public education.

"For me to come in and make rash changes just because a new guy's in town really does not make a whole lot of sense," said Stephen Pruitt, who was selected for the job Wednesday by the Kentucky Board of Education.

"So I'm going to learn. I'm going to listen. We'll make decisions that can best support our districts and our kids," he told the Herald-Leader in a phone interview

Pruitt, 47, was previously senior vice president at Achieve Inc., a Washington nonprofit education reform organization, where he has worked since 2010. He is replacing Terry Holliday, who retired in August.

Before he retired, Holliday told Fayette County Public Schools officials that they had to provide more support to low-performing schools or face state action.

He made Fayette County a pilot for reducing the number of students who score at the novice level in the state accountability system. State education officials are working with Fayette County to raise student achievement.

Pruitt said Wednesday that in terms of Fayette County, "I'll have to evaluate what's going on there. What I am for is making sure that every kid has an opportunity.

"While we make sure our gifted and talented students have their needs met, we are also closing achievement gaps with our underserved populations."

At a meeting in Frankfort, board members authorized Kentucky Board of Education chairman Roger Marcum to make an offer and negotiate the terms of employment. The board plans to ratify the new commissioner's contract at its Oct. 6 meeting, with the new commissioner possibly starting Oct. 16.

Pruitt's experience includes chief of staff, associate state superintendent, director of academic standards, and science and mathematics program manager with the Georgia Department of Education; and high school chemistry teacher in Fayetteville and Tyrone, Ga. He earned a bachelor's degree from North Georgia College and State University; a master's from the University of West Georgia, and a doctorate from Auburn University.

Pruitt, whose organization works with states on education standards, was a leader in the development of the new science curriculum measures known as Next Generation Science Standards.

Pruitt worked with the state staff, Kentucky teachers and others in developing science standards currently taught in Kentucky classrooms. He began helping the Kentucky Department of Education in 2010, leading a group to draft the new standards for Kentucky and at least a dozen other states.

Kentucky has a deep commitment to improving public education, Pruitt said Wednesday.

"That's going to be my guiding principle all the time," he said.

In his application letter, Pruitt said he was confident that he could lead Kentucky to the cutting edge of education reform and guarantee global competitiveness to all Kentucky students.

He said in the interview with the Herald-Leader that he would follow best practices, but he would also listen to superintendents, teachers and others.

Pruitt said that in the beginning, he would set up several advisory boards and meet with lawmakers and gubernatorial candidates.

Before approving Pruitt's hiring, board member David Karem said that Pruitt had "national status."

In considering candidates, board members had wanted to hire someone who, like Holliday, had a national reputation in education reform.

Board member Mary Gwen Wheeler said at the meeting that Pruitt had a proven record of building coalitions and partnerships around difficult issues and that he was a national leader in raising standards.

"Dr. Pruitt's going to be the right person for the job and he's going to ... build on the work of the last 25 years," said Marcum, the board chairman. "I'm also confident that the many partners that we have out there will embrace him so that we can be successful."

Pruitt and his wife have two children. Their son is in college at the University of Colorado-Boulder and their daughter, a high school junior, will be attending a Kentucky public school.