FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – It's early morning and Terry Holliday, Kentucky's top education chief, is sitting in front of a video camera, preparing to conduct a monthly webcast for nearly 180 superintendents across the state.

This webcast – to discuss the annual superintendent summit and progress of the state's new teacher evaluation system – is just one of many things on Holliday's schedule for the day.

He will speak in Louisville at a conference at noon, then drive to Lexington to catch a 4 p.m. flight to Washington, D.C., to attend a career-readiness task force meeting, where he will also participate in a teleconference with the National Assessment Governing Board.

“No two days are ever alike, which is a good thing,” said Holliday, 63, who oversees the education of roughly 675,000 public schoolchildren in Kentucky. “It's definitely a job that has kept me on my feet, but I really wouldn't have it any other way.”

In the five years since being named Kentucky's education commissioner, Holliday has put pressure on Jefferson County, referring to slow progress at some schools as “academic genocide.” He's also drawn criticism for being a supporter of new academic standards in English, math and science. 

But Holliday's advocates – and even some critics – credit him for getting the state's education reform efforts back on track.

“He has brought stability back to the Kentucky Department of Education,” said Leon Mooneyhan, chief executive officer of the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative and a former school superintendent who has worked with every commissioner since the position was created in 1990 under the Kentucky Education Reform Act.

“There was a period of time where KDE wasn't stable and didn't have strong and focused leadership,” Mooneyhan said. “(Holliday) came here fully focused and engaged and wanting to move the department forward, and I think he has accomplished that.”

Since Holliday's arrival, the state has implemented a new system for assessing its schools and holding them accountable for their students' performance, as well as a new teacher-evaluation system that measures teacher and leader effectiveness.

In addition, under Holliday's insistence, Kentucky became the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards and later was among the first to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards – efforts to update and standardize subjects such as reading, math and science so students are better prepared for college and the workforce.

“Terry is the cream of the crop,” said David Karem, a member of the Kentucky Board of Education – the only current member who hired him. “We were very fortunate in getting the right person at exactly the right time to come on board.”

Richard Innes, an education analyst for the conservative Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions who has often criticized the state's education policies, said he believes Holliday has been “the strongest commissioner we've had.”

“We certainly don't agree with everything he has done, but I think he has been more open to opposing viewpoints than his predecessors,” said Innes, who's known each of Kentucky's commissioners. “He's willing to stand up to people, and that's a good thing.”

Holliday, who sat down with WDRB News for a lengthy interview about his tenure, said he believes Kentucky schools are in a better place than they were a few years ago because of the reform efforts outlined by the General Assembly in 2009.

“I think the state has done extremely well,” he said. “Certainly, I have made a lot of mistakes. But I've relied heavily on teachers and superintendents to help guide the work and Kentucky educators have been very open and willing to do it.”

Under Holliday's leadership, 54 percent of Kentucky's graduating students are now considered ready to take college-level courses or enter a postsecondary training program – that rate is up from 34 percent in 2010.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Thursday the country is at an "incredibly important moment in the effort to improve our schools" and because of Holliday's leadership in staying the course on difficult - yet critical - education reforms, "Kentucky is witnessing higher high school graduation rates, lower college remediation rates and improved college- and career-readiness rates."

Focus on student achievement 

Holliday was named Kentucky's education commissioner in July 2009 and began work a month later. He signed an initial four-year contract, which ended last year, and was given a new four-year contract that runs through July 2017. He makes $225,000 annually and has asked the state board to not consider a raise both in his annual reviews and contract renewal.

Before his hiring, the Kentucky Board of Education had trouble keeping commissioners since Gene Wilhoit left in 2006. Wilhoit's successor, Barbara Erwin, left before her first day on the job because of questions about her resume, and former state legislator Jon Draud served for just over a year before he resigned because of health problems following a minor stroke.

Holliday, who had been a school superintendent in North Carolina, came to Kentucky just a few months after the state legislature passed Senate Bill 1, which called for a new system of assessment and accountability for public schools.

“That's what led me to be real interested in coming to Kentucky to work,” Holliday said. “New standards with a focus on college and career readiness, as well as a new assessment and accountability system that was more balanced and not just focused on standardized testing.”

Brad Hughes, a spokesperson for the Kentucky School Boards Association, recalls the interview his organization did with Holliday when he applied for the job.

“One of the points he made as a candidate was his intent to focus on student achievement, and I don't know of anybody who would disagree that in his tenure as commissioner, his laser-like focus has not been on student achievement – both in lifting achievement and how to measure the teaching and learning that goes in the classroom.”

Hughes said Holliday has also done a good job running a department that has lost “hundreds of positions, while at the same time, more is being expected of them with respect to oversight and support of districts.” 

He has done it while battling a vocal-cord disorder that makes his voice so scratchy that he can be difficult to understand. He was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, which causes his vocal cords to freeze up, and gets monthly treatments from Vanderbilt University.

“At first, it hurt me to hear him, you felt bad for him,” said Karem. “You wondered – can he overcome that? This is a very vocal job. And quite candidly, he has overcome it 100 percent.”

Common core and teacher evaluations 

Four years ago, Kentucky became the first state to adopt the Common Core Standards – a direct result of state legislation that called for new language art and math standards by December 2010.

“The only way we could possibly get that done was to adopt the Common Core,” said Holliday, who has been an avid supporter of the standards, which are a set of academic guidelines designed by states that clearly describe what students need to know before they complete each grade level.

Some conservative groups and other opponents of the new academic standards see the Common Core as an attempt by the federal government to co-opt education.

“The timeline we were working on was legislatively mandated, it had nothing to do with the federal government,” he said.

And now that the standards have been around for a few years, Holliday has called on the public to review the standards and suggest changes.

With the Kentucky Core Academic Standards Challenge, state officials are urging teachers, parents, business leaders and experts to weigh in on whether the standards should be rewritten.

“We've been in it about five years now, it's time to ask teachers what's working and what's not,” Holliday said. “We also want to provide those outspoken critics of the Common Core with an opportunity to put up or shut up. It's one thing to say it's a conspiracy; show me which standard you have a problem with, tell me why you think that's the case and we'll look into it. Give us some evidence, otherwise it's just an opinion.”

Innes says the fact Holliday is “willing to listen to our concerns about the Common Core is admirable.”

This fall, Kentucky also rolled out its new teacher evaluation system. The system, called the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System, is being watched by many other states as they look to create their own teacher evaluation system. “We spent four years working with teacher unions all across Kentucky and have developed a great system,” Holliday said. “Every teacher will use it this year, but it won't be used for personnel decisions until next year.”

Right now, the state is working on fixing software problems – something Holliday apologized for during his Sept. 25 webcast. Teachers were having issues uploading their self-reflections and professional growth plans.

“I worry about the software undermining four years of hard work,” he said. “I don't want any teacher to be turned off to the system because of the software. We are working hard to fix all of the glitches.”

Improving relationships with districts 

For the last two years, Holliday said he has been working hard to establish better relationships with local superintendents and districts.

“The best kind of leader is one that has a high concern for task and a high concern for people,” said Mooneyhan, the longtime educator. “I think Dr. Holliday hits the mark on tasks, but I think some of his critics would say he falls short on (communication), although it does appear that he is trying to work on that

When asked what his critics say about him, Holliday is point blank.

“Too much, too fast,” he said. “That's usually the No. 1 criticism. Everything makes sense, it sounds good, but Dr. Holliday, we don't have enough money, it's just too much to do, this is a lot of hard work.

 “What I come back with is that the children you have in front of you today, they only pass this way once,” he said. “Are you really going to look at those kids and say you don't really want to work that hard? We have to make sure we make our decisions are in best interest of the children, not the adults in the system.”

In his last evaluation by the Kentucky Board of Education, board members asked him to “continue to concentrate on relationship building and creating an atmosphere of mutual respect with superintendents and education constituents.”

“This is an issue we have asked him to be involved in, and I believe he has done it and continues to work on that,” Karem said, pointing to the success of the second annual superintendent summit held this month in which 167 of the state's 173 school districts participated in.

“He has worked to improve communication, he sends out weekly notes and hosts monthly webinars,” Karem said. “I think all of these things are positive steps.”

In that same evaluation, the state board also applauded Holliday for “going the extra mile to build a strong relationship with Jefferson County and supporting the efforts of that district's superintendent.”

Two years ago, Holliday used the words “academic genocide” to describe the lack of progress being made at some of the district's (and state's) lowest performing schools – words Holliday said he used to spur action not just in the district, but in the entire community.

He says he has watched Jefferson County closely for a reason.

“Half of my minority children in Kentucky schools are in Jefferson County,” he said. “I can't possibly close the academic achievement gap and the college and career readiness gap if I don't see significant progress in Jefferson County, and to a lesser degree in Fayette County.”

That being said, Holliday said there has been improvement in Jefferson County.

“Too often we are thinking about salaries and contracts rather than taking the core improvements,” he said. “Jefferson County has in the past, had way too many initiatives without knowing which ones were working. I think they are working on it. It's just very slow work there because of the political issues in the community.”

JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens said she believes Holliday has been fair.

“We appreciate the partnership between us and the department of education,” she said. “We have the same goal and that's to improve the lives of our children.”

A national leader 

Since 2010, Holliday has served on the Council of Chief State School Officers' (CCSSO) board of directors and is currently its president.

“I basically serve as a spokesperson for all of the chief state school officers across the country,” he said.

Last week, Holliday met with U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan to talk about key issues surrounding the No Child Left Behind waivers. Holliday brought up the breakdown in communication in regards to Kentucky's waiver request around science assessments, to which Duncan apologized.

Innes said Holliday's willingness to challenge Duncan is “certainly a feather in his cap.”

This summer, Holliday was named the 2014 Policy Leader of the Year by the National Association of State Boards of Education. The honor is given annually to a national or state policymaker in recognition of his or her contributions to education.

Previous winners of the award, which Holliday will receive in October, include former first lady Barbara Bush, Gen. Colin Powell, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, and former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

“Commissioner Holliday's dedication to improving public education and his achievements are renowned in Kentucky and nationwide,” said Kristen Amundson, executive director of NASBE, in a statement. “His work in cooperation with the Kentucky State Board of Education has made the state a national leader.”

Wilhoit, the former Kentucky education commissioner who left the state in 2006 to become executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers before retiring from there last year, said Holliday's national presence is good for the state.

“He's been out there speaking to other folks, carrying the work going on here in Kentucky and carrying the national agenda,” said Wilhoit, who now serves as the director of the National Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky.

“For Kentucky, that presence is so important,” he said. “It's critical for all the states to have a spokesperson as articulate as he is and forceful as he is about the need for improvement of education opportunities for all children.”

Focus on college and career readiness 

Among the issues Holliday has focused attention to is the importance of college and career readiness.

“We have way too many students graduating with a four-year degree that cannot find work and when they do find work, it does not pay a living wage,” he said. “One of biggest challenges is we have to change the mindset of parents and students that while a four-year college is good goal for some, it is not for everyone.”

When the state first started measuring college and career readiness in 2009, only 30 percent of Kentucky's graduates were ready for the next step – whether it be entering the military, finding a job right out of high school or going to a two or four year college.

“This year, we were hoping to go above 60 percent and it looks like we're going to make it,” he said. “We've doubled in five years. And now we want to keep moving, keep increasing the number of students who have a brighter future. That's the only thing that is of importance to me.”

As Holliday prepares for the next three years in his contract, he says his focus will remain the same.

“I want our kids to achieve their ultimate goal,” he said. “I want them to find their passion and find something that would give them at least a living wage within their passion and then dedicate their education to achieving that passion.”

Just like Holliday did 40 years ago when he chose to be an educator.

“I did it because I was passionate about children and wanted to make a difference,” he said. “It's been a long ride. I have no regrets.”

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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