Education Commissioner addresses controversies surrounding recent changes and details new requirements for high school graduation

With changes to education in Kentucky making headlines in recent months, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis sat down with The Bottom Line to discuss the rollout of new high school graduation requirements to ensure students are college and career ready as well as the reaction from some in the education community to his initiatives.

Since taking the role of education commissioner, first in an interim position back in April before officially being appointed to the role in October, Lewis has been working diligently to make changes to Kentucky’s educational system he feels are long overdue.

After receiving emails from educators in the state which Lewis said were “disrespectful” and attacked his personal character, the education commissioner sent a message to all Kentucky teachers calling for greater civil discourse.

Lewis told The Bottom Line he knows change is hard for many but it is important to be an example for the children they are working to help.

“People have different ideas. Many times, [they are] different ideas about how to arrive at the same goal. We have to get to the place where we can have different ideas and advocate for different ideas without demonizing people,” Lewis said.

The most recent initiative being rolled out by the Kentucky Department of Education is new high school graduation requirements which Lewis says will allow for personalized courses for students and give local school districts more flexibility.

According to numbers from the Kentucky Center for Statistics, of the more than 32,000 Kentucky high school graduates in the class of 2010, only 26% had earned a credential or degree of any type by 2017. Lewis believes this shows a lack of college and career readiness among Kentucky’s high school students, which is a reason for the proposed requirements.

“There is little debate about the fact that we are in fact graduating kids who are not ready to be successful in the workforce, to be successful in postsecondary education. It is time to raise the bar,” Lewis said.

The graduation requirements would take some time to roll out and most aspects of the proposal would not go into effect immediately. Lewis said it is important to begin these conversations and start taking these actions now because it will be a long process to fully implement changes.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce submitted comments regarding the proposed changes as a part of the regulation’s open comment period. The Chamber applauded the Commissioner’s efforts to address the issue of whether all students who receive a high school diploma are prepared for postsecondary education and the workforce. While acknowledging the changes to deeming a student “Transition Ready” were a positive first step, the Chamber urged the requirement go further by including additional indicators for students to earn the “Transition Ready” designation.

Lewis said there are groups on both sides that say the proposed changes either don’t go far enough or go too far. In response, Lewis says he agrees the requirements don’t go far enough as there is more work to be done but believes they are a good first step while respectfully disagreeing with those who say the changes go too far.

“We are saying that in order to receive a Kentucky high school diploma kids ought to be able to demonstrate basic competence in reading and mathematics and demonstrate they’re ready to transition to something next. Whether it’s a two-year program, a four-year program, or into the workforce through earning an industry-recognized credential. It is not an unreasonable expectation for our kids. And to not have that expectation for our kids, to not ensure they are ready for those things when they get a high school diploma, is to set them up for failure,” Lewis said.

Listen to the full interview with Education Commissioner Lewis to hear specifics about the requirements, his full response to the negative discourse on these issues, and more below:

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Jacqueline Pitts
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