Woodford County man honored nationally
He's been a college basketball player, an Army officer, and a youth sports coach in Woodford County for more than two decades. But it wasn't these roles that led to Government Technology magazine's April edition naming David Couch one of 25 winners of their annual "Dreamer, Doer and Driver" award. Couch is the chief information officer for the Kentucky Department of Education's K-12 program and the associate commissioner of its Office of Kids. "It may seem like common sense now, but eight years ago, Associate Commissioner of the Kentucky Office of Knowledge, Information and Data Services David Couch put his job on the line, convinced that moving the state's education systems to the cloud was the right choice," wrote Ryan McCauley. The article called Kentucky's K-12 program a leader in tech integration for being the first state to make the Internet available in all schools and for its current upgrade to a broadband network. In an interview with The Sun, Couch was quick to spread the praise to the men and women he's worked with since 1992, when he left the Army, moved to Woodford County, and went to work implementing the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA). "I've had a core group of superstars with me from the beginning. And when you have that, and you have the confidence of your school district customers for you to try some bold things, some innovative things - but you have to have some successes in order to do that," Couch said. Couch's "successes" were mounting long before he traded his Army officer's uniform for the suit and tie of a state official. A star basketball player at Johnson Central High School, he won a scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy, where he played for then-Army hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski. At Fort Knox, Couch earned his graduate degree in computer science - and a future bride. "She was the best thing I ever checked out of the library," Couch said of his wife, Tina. (The couple has four children, all of whom attended or are attending Woodford County schools.) After "checking out" of Fort Knox, Couch was transferred to Fort Huachuca in Arizona, where he was director of the Army's Tactical Software Division. He said some of the intelligence gathering and analysis systems were successfully used in Operation Desert Storm. By then, he'd heard about KERA - and a portion of it that seemed right up his alley: the Kentucky Education Technology System (KETS). "I thought it was a way to change Kentucky's position educationally and economically," Couch said. "I really thought it was an opportunity in our history to change where we were at, so I left the Army." Couch had strong feelings on the subject. He grew up in one of Kentucky's poorer counties, the son of a woman who "really believed all children could learn at high levels." With KETS, Couch helped bring the Internet to every public school in the state's 173 districts and 1,233 schools and implement the state mandate that every district use the same financial management system. (Before that, each district office had its own servers, which were, among other things, far less secure.) Perhaps more important, KETS helped all public schools adopt the same school information system, individual learning plan, high-speed network and email system. "It's the only one," Couch said. "And when you have that, you can drive down prices, it's easier to support, and you can make them all work together faster. So the Kentucky story is very unique ." Couch said his role has been to persuade, rather than force, school administrators to adopt the KETS programs. A little more than one generation after the then-controversial KERA was passed, Kentucky is recognized as a top 10 state in the quality of education, data quality, equity of access to the Internet, cloud computing, college and career readiness and graduation rates, Couch said. The latter is the best in the nation for children living in poverty - a fact of which the Johnson County native is especially proud, he said. KETS played a huge role in those climbs, Couch said. One of the keys to his success and that of KERA and KETS is the fact that Kentucky's Commissioner of Education (presently Stephen L. Pruitt) is appointed by a state-wide board, not elected. "The states that have an elected commissioner have massive turmoil, because of their view of the world is only three or four years. Our view . can be 10 to 20 years. You can really do long-term planning," Couch said. "David is an integral part of the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) leadership team," said Pruitt. "He has much of which to be proud of during his tenure with KDE, including positioning Kentucky as a national leader in education technology. David is constantly working to support the use of education technology in our schools for the benefit of our teachers, administrators and students." Couch is a non-merit state employee, meaning that he serves at the pleasure of the commissioner and, indirectly, the governor. He's worked under five governors, from Jones to Bevin, and praises their willingness to set politics aside for the good of Kentucky's school children. "I can remember tearing up for two reasons when I saw that recent ranking of Kentucky's educational system in the Education Week report," Couch said. "All those long hours for two decades were worth it, and the sun will shine much brighter on the children of my old Kentucky home for a long time going forward. Kentucky's historic rise is something that I'm very proud of being part of, (along with) all the folks on my staff and school districts who were also dreamers, doers and drivers ." Couch admits that KERA and KETS still face significant challenges, one of which is the testing system, which critics say leads to teachers more focused on "teaching the test" than preparing them for college or careers. "In looking at KERA, the one phase that has stayed in angst since 1990 has been the testing," Couch said. "When you spend $3 billion for education, it seems like you want some way to measure, 'Are we on target or not?' I mean, I think it's fair for people to see that." Couch said state testing takes less than one percent of a student's time, though many districts spend a great deal of time on tests that show how well prepared students are for the state exam. The system needs to be simplified, Couch said, in part to make test results and school report cards simpler for parents to understand. Another challenge is getting school teachers and district officials to work together - a difficult order considering they're competing for state and federal education dollars. "How can you eliminate part of that for a higher goal?" Couch asked, adding that as a member of a national council for school chief information officers, he regularly quizzes his peers on the subject. "What I've developed, you can have free, and vice-versa. How do we all pull each other up?" Couch said of the challenge. Along with the "superstars" at KETS, Couch praises his best library check-out ever for making his Government Technology magazine award possible. "I had a lot of people to help make this (award) happen - these cool things, technology-wise, that got this national attention, including, really, to be honest with you, the sacrifice of my wife," Couch said. He's also a fan of Woodford County schools. "It has been fun to see the educational system we have here in Woodford County through our school system, and it's always one of the top five, top ten definitely, in college readiness. And it's definitely prepared my children well ." Couch said. Couch is 55-years-old and can retire from the state in three years, but he may not, because he's not finished trying to improve the education of his home state's students. "I don't think folks realize how Kentucky has done - this reform act, and the difference it's made, and our standing in the United States," Couch said. Even now, he reminds his staff, "Y'all are taking for granted that every state is doing this. They're not doing this. Nobody is doing this."