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Building Administrators Making a Dfference in Georgia Education - Alan Long

Building Administrators Making a Difference in Georgia Education - Alan Long

    Alan Long is Principal at Jefferson County High School in Louisville GA.  He began his teaching career as a coach and PE teacher 28 years ago, and has served as a school administrator for 10 years.  Alan raised his two sons as a single parent, and is proud of the fact both of them volunteered for military service after high school.  “They took my ideas of service to another level” he said, “and I am very proud of their accomplishments.”  He was elected to serve as President of the Georgia Association of Secondary School Principals and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.  Under Alan’s leadership GASSP has placed finalists in the NASSP High School and Middle School Principal of the Year process 6 of the last 8 years. He was encouraged by a former Principal to become an administrator, and took the opportunity to serve and learn with a strong building leader.  He immediately saw the positive effects a good leader could have working with teachers and students, and making a difference through leadership quickly became his passion.
    Louisville GA is 48 miles southeast of Augusta, and lies between the arms of Interstates 20 and 65.  The city served as the state capitol from 1796 to 1806, and contains a little over 2700 citizens.  Jefferson County HS is a Title I school, has 848 students enrolled, employs 72 teachers and a total staff of 106.  The FRL rate is 88%, indicative of the high poverty rates often found in rural Georgia areas, and the graduation rate is 69%.  “Our ultimate goal is 100% graduation - a diploma for every student regardless of whether they can do it in 4 years or 7 years” said Dr. Long.  “I am most proud of the individual successes of students that society had given up on and our teachers were able to get them through to a diploma” he continued.  “We don’t give up on them because they don’t count in our graduation rate.  Our relationships with students that were the hardest to reach are often the ones my teachers and I remember most.”
    When Alan hires teachers he tries to look through them to see their heart.  “I look for those that can build relationships and have a passion for helping students succeed.  Anybody can learn content, but not every teacher has the mental toughness that will keep them from giving up on a student.  That’s one key to our success at JCHS.”   Alan insists that teachers model the behaviors they expect to see in students, and believes that the best way to evaluate teacher growth is through frequent observations, peer mentoring and their willingness to try new ideas rather than simply stick to what they already know.  “Teacher growth is just as important as student growth” he noted, “and the modeling I want to see from teachers includes constant learning and questioning and looking for new and better ways to do what we do.  Teachers learning from other teachers is a powerful weapon for our school and makes a difference in the lives of our students.”
    Dr. Long’s teachers appreciate that he is approachable, strives for consistency in his decision making and values his relationships with teachers, parents, students and the community.  “I think everyone in the community has my cell number” he observed, “and I believe that means they value my ideas and advice.”  Dr. Molly Howard is the Jefferson County Schools Superintendent, and was Principal of JCHS before Alan.  She was named GASSP Principal of the Year in 2008, and went on to become the NASSP National Principal of the Year. Molly knows what qualities an outstanding building administrator needs to possess, and could have chosen almost anyone to take her place at JCHS when she became Superintendent of Schools.   “Alan knows the secret to being a great educational leader” she said.  “If you just watch him interact with his students, parents and staff, you will know his secret to success.  Alan is genuinely concerned for and about each individual life he touches, and people feel it instantly.  He is an authentic leader who builds student success through building relationships.  Students know immediately that he is in their corner and will offer them opportunities to be successful.  Alan has a moral purpose for the work he does.  He walks the talk every day and in every situation.”
    “Effective leadership is service” continued Dr. Long, “and serving the community means a lot more than just issuing directives to teachers and students.”  Service is the keystone of Alan’s leadership, and he believes politicians often miss the important role that public schools play in the life of small communities.  “Our schools are here to educate children” he noted, “but we also serve a central role in the social fabric of our community that often goes unseen by people that don’t live here.  Our sports programs draw big crowds, band and chorus concerts are well attended, many groups use our facilities after hours and on weekends and our schools are important to our town in many ways.  People with no children in school still attend many of our events, and they understand the importance of education to our local economy and to every citizen in Louisville.  Our schools serve as integral parts of the community.”
    Alan and his staff at JCHS have worked hard to implement Common Core standards in math and ELA.  “CC has some strengths that will help children, and I like the rigor that helps prepare students for college and careers.  I do think that states should have the authority to customize parts of the CC to meet the needs of specific geographical areas and communities, and would like to see teachers have a strong role in writing those customizations.”  He believes that one of the key omissions in many state policies has been not using experienced teachers as part of the process.   “Too often” Alan said, “teachers’ ideas and opinions about what works and what doesn’t work in education are not sought or included.  That’s a mistake on the part of policy makers that a good school leader would never make.  Seeking the advice of experts is always a wise move, and our policy makers don’t always follow that advice when it comes to education.”  
    The teachers and students at JCHS know they have an exceptional leader in Dr. Long, and were quick to point out their faith in his leadership.  Raley is a Senior at JCHS, and said
“Dr.Long has several qualities that make a huge difference to and for students.  He is very genuine and invests in the lives of students at our school.  I do work based learning and he constantly asks about my job and the children I work with.  He also tries to make sure all students have a place in the school and that they are striving to do big things.”  She also noted Dr. Long’s Student Leadership group is making a difference in many ways.  “Dr.Long has assisted me in many situations, but I think the one I will carry with me forever is our Student Leadership group.  It consists of several representatives from each grade level. This organization always gives us a voice about things we want to see done or changed.. I have learned so many valuable things from his guidance in Student Leadership.”
    One of the teachers at JCHS said “our school climate is one in which relationship-building is a top priority.  Students not only need to feel safe at school, but need to feel safe taking risks in the classroom.  When students trust the adults in the building to have their best interest in mind, students are more willing to take risks, raise their hand and ask a question when they don't understand something.  When conflict does occur, students are treated with respect and dignity.”
    Another teacher observed “Many parents had less than the best experiences when they were going through school, and feel intimidated when entering the building.  We understand this and try to help parents overcome this obstacle.  Dr. Long is passionate about our school and the community it serves.  Students are drawn to Dr. Long's encouraging personality.  He also stays current in educational research and often shares articles, thoughts and ideas with our staff.”
    An Instructional Coach at JCHS observed "Very few administrators put the health and welfare of students above test scores, but Dr. Alan Long cares about students as people, not test scores or data points. He certainly realizes the importance of testing and data analysis, but it is not what drives him. His love for his school, community, and students is  apparent to any and all who work with him."
    A high school Senior summed up her feelings about her school and Dr. Long by saying “If I had to describe JCHS in one word I would say family. Just like in a regular family Jefferson County High School isn't perfect, there are problems occasionally, however, through these issues our school only grows stronger. When a person from our school hurts we all hurt. When a person from our school exceeds in something we feel as if we have all succeeded. Being a Warrior is something special and unless you are one or have been one it's something that can't really be described. As our school football coach always says after games, "It's great to be from Jefferson County, but even better to be a Warrior."
    Dr. Alan Long, through personal, exceptional leadership, makes all that possible, and in doing so underscores the singular importance of schools to communities, and reinforces the fact that there’s more to education and learning than curriculum.


No Governor Left Behind - Part Deux

No Governor Left Behind - Part Deux

    Name a state program or agency that you would describe as a model of efficiency, effectiveness and progress.  I know.  Me neither.  One of the last solutions anybody would come up with that really wanted to solve a problem would be more governmental involvement. So why does Governor Deal think that a new state agency disguised as the Opportunity School District would fare any better?  I’m not sure he does.  I think he promised himself into an educational corner during the heat of an election and had to come up with something, and Bobby Jindal happened to visit on his way to Washington and said “you should see what we pulled off in New Orleans.  We nearly doubled the number of charter schools and things are going so well I might even run for President.”  But wait a minute.  Are things in New Orleans really going that well for education?  In the early fall of 2014 the Cowen Institute at Tulane University withdrew its entire report touting the enormous academic improvements for the Recovery School District in NOLA.  Someone - gasp - had cooked the books and used selected data to make the report that presented the RSD in a favorable academic light.
Using accurate data comparing the RSD with other public schools in Louisiana shows that the RSD charters perform consistently in the bottom third of all schools.  The vast majority of charters in Louisiana, except for those with a selective admissions process, are rated D or F by their own state.  The RSD we are supposed to emulate was rated as one of the lowest performing districts in the state. The latest LDOE testing results puts the RSD at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts.  Those schools taken over in New Orleans and converted to charters perform at a rate below 83% of all Louisiana schools in spite of the fact that a special law was passed that allowed the state to take over failing schools.
    Corporate reformers and privatizers of public education have used selective, bogus data to promote exaggerated reports of academic progress of students in the RSD to encourage other states to emulate the New Orleans model in spite of the disastrous results.  Maybe they believe that if others go along with what’s turned out to be a really bad idea they won’t look so silly all by themselves.  Retractions of these reports are rarely mentioned, and the urban legend of miraculous improvements continues unchallenged.  Six percent (6%) of the HS Seniors in the RSD scored high enough to qualify for admission in a Louisiana university.  Since 2005, RSD ACT scores have improved 2% to a class average of 16.4.  This is the model we want?   If the goal is to increase the number of charter schools there are simpler ways to do it.  If the goal is to help students in schools struggling to meet state requirements there are better paths to follow than imitating New Orleans or Tennessee and creating what amounts to a new school district in Georgia.
    Governor Deal also says it will take a constitutional amendment to make his plan work.  He also said that more money was not the solution to the problem of failing schools.  Those two statements create a conundrum.  Will a constitutional amendment vote, the preparation and advertising and legislative expense it entails plus yet another layer or three of bureaucracy not cost additional money?  Has anyone estimated just how much that might be?  What about costs above and beyond what might be available for those failing schools outside the Atlanta area?  It might be a good idea for somebody to figure up exactly what the Governor’s talking about here in additional expenditures, or at least an estimate of new costs and old costs and where the additional money might come from.  Yes additional money.  Don’t kid yourself.  Fighting the effects of poverty won’t be free, and the further you go from the city limits of Atlanta the more it’s going to cost.  Teachers might move to New Orleans because, well, it’s New Orleans.  Rural Georgia might not have the same attraction, even with all the free gnats you can eat.
    Then there are questions about the path itself.  An OSD Superintendent that reports directly to the Governor?  A way to get around educational red tape or a trial run for doing away with an elected Superintendent of Schools?  Eliminating rules, laws and regulations that hinder student achievement?  If there are rules and laws and regulations that hinder student achievement in any way at any school, why is that rule, law or regulation allowed to stand?   What defense could any legislator possibly have for supporting rules and regulations that inhibit student achievement - unless, of course, those rules and regulations were intended to make things difficult for those public government (pronounced gummint) anti-prayer anti-
God communist schools that use up all that tax money that might be better spent on market based solutions and vouchers and private schools and more ALEC initiatives?
    If the goal is to help students in struggling schools, there are several options the Governor might want to explore before creating an educational tangent to nowhere.  Perhaps the first thing might be to talk to Superintendents in Georgia that have developed learning organizations that have shown, over time, educational efficacy.  Leaders that have learned how to effectively and continuously recruit, employ, develop, and retain teachers, leaders and employees that work to achieve the mission and goals of the organization, and whose mission and goals are focused on student learning and achievement.  There are several across our state, and they are not hard to find.  These are certainly more deserving of emulation than untested, unproven ideas from elsewhere.
    Another suggestion would be to look at the professional learning programs for teachers and leaders in selected schools sponsored by PAGE through their High School Redesign Initiative. Training teachers and leaders to collaborate to create engaging work for students rather than focus on an insistence on conformity has created islands of student learning and achievement in different geographic regions around the state, and deserves at least a look for those looking for a blueprint for educational progress.
    Governor, the answer is simple and it’s not one you want to hear.  There are no magic bullets and there will be no deus ex machina at the end of your term.  The answer is teachers collaborating with other teachers, sharing skills and knowledge and experiences, mentoring and working together to improve student achievement.  It’s going to cost something, and it’s going to mean that you have to begin the process of ending the war on teaching.  Teachers are not the enemy.  They are the solution.  Treat them with respect and dignity and you might be surprised at the results you get.
     The Governor is right about one thing.  “We have a moral duty to do everything we can to help these children.  Failing schools keep the cycle of poverty spinning from one generation to the next.  Education provides the only chance for breaking that cycle.  When we’re talking about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children.”  I hope he means that.  It should be easy to tell.  All we have to do is see if he decides to follow through on a failed idea from somewhere else or build on one of several grown right here in Georgia.  Do the right thing Governor, and you’ve answered your own question of “how’s that working for you.”


Building Administrators Making a Difference in Georgia Education - Richard Green

Building Administrators Making a Difference in Georgia Education - Richard Green

    The role of the building Principal in providing an effective and meaningful educational experience for students has long been recognized as a key to school success.  Great schools do not happen by accident, and are always the result of the vision, planning, hiring effectiveness and leadership skills of the building Principal.  One such leader is Richard Green, Principal of Aaron Cohn Middle School in Columbus, a new addition to the Muscogee County School District.  ACMS is in its second year of operation, and Richard was appointed its educational leader by the MCSD Board before the building was finished.  The building is located on Garrett Road in Midland, and is within the boundaries of Muscogee County.  ACMS has 34 teachers, 2 administrators, a total staff of 63 and 546 students grades 6-8.  About 36% of the students are FRL (free or reduced lunch), and the school has a 46% to 41% majority to minority ratio.  Richard remarked “we don’t have racial issues, but we do have kid issues.  Our students handle diversity much better than adults do, and they never make race an issue unless the adults do.  They serve as models for us about how to get along together.”  He mentioned that ACMS is not a magnet school, and that they take any student assigned to them by the MCSD Central Registration office. ACMS also participates in the MCSD Partners in Education program, and is sponsored by Pratt and Whitney, Chick-Fil-A Midland and Liberty National Insurance.
    Richard graduated high school from Tri-County HS in Marion County GA, and attended Columbus College (now Columbus State University.)  He is the 2nd of 3 children from a home where neither parent graduated high school. “College for me was always an expectation.  There was never a time my parents allowed me to think about not going.”  His Dad called himself a general contractor but was known for his ability to fix almost anything, and his “I can fix it” attitude rubbed off on Richard.  He saw himself as the center fielder for the New York Yankees, but his inability to hit a curve ball ended that dream soon after high school.  He began college as a PE major, but changed to Special Education after a chance meeting on a playground with a special needs child that changed his life.  “We were sitting on the playground, and the young man’s Mom was involved in a conversation with someone else.  The boy looked dejected, so I began talking to him.  He had a learning disability, and we talked for about 45 minutes. Both of us left feeling pretty happy.  After that meeting, I went home and talked about it with Mom.  She said working with special needs children was a gift, and it was pretty obvious to her that her son had the ability to communicate where others might lose patience.”  On the advice of his Mom and as a result of that chance meeting, Richard changed his major, graduated with his degree and was immediately hired to teach special needs children and coach basketball and football at Columbus High School.
    “I loved what I was doing” Richard said, “and loved being in the classroom, but it took me a couple of years to really know what it meant to be an effective teacher.”  “My one regret about my first years of teaching is I wasn’t as prepared for the classroom as I thought.  I wish I could go back and have the chance to re-teach those kids I had my first couple of years.”  He credits his friend James Wilson with mentoring him through his first few years of teaching.  James also encouraged Richard to continue on for his Master’s degree in Administration and Leadership at CSU.  “I had no intention of ever using it, but did get a raise for an advanced degree.”  Richard later moved to Shaw HS and continued teaching special needs students and coaching.  “I loved it” he said, “and probably learned more from my students than they did from me.”  When his friend James was hired as Principal at Midland MS, he asked Richard to join him there as a special education teacher.  “Two days before school started, James put me in his car and we rode around and talked.  He said there was an opening for an AP at Midland and he wanted me to fill it.  There was no question about whether I wanted to, just that he was going to recommend me.  I thought about it, and figured if James saw that potential then I would try administration.  I learned more than I thought possible about administration my first two years, but I was primarily focused on conformity.”   When James later moved on to become Principal at Northside High, he recommended Richard to take his place.  “I love middle school” he noted, and makes it a point to visit classrooms every day and attend every event possible.  “I learned that asking teachers what I could do to help them was much more effective than simply dictating what they were to do.  I also figured out that face to face conversation was much more effective than any other form of communication. I resolved that I would never forget what it’s like to be in the classroom” he continued, “and I would do everything possible to facilitate what teachers do.  They are the key to everything, and we can’t forget that.”   During his tenure as Principal at Midland, Richard was asked to have his school participate in the PAGE High School Redesign Initiative.  “It changed the way I think about school and about students” he commented.  “I learned to think of students and parents as customers in the educational process.  I also began to hire teachers that thought the same way.  PAGE provided in-service for me and my staff at a time when staff development money was almost non-existent for schools.  That learning changed the way we do things.”
    “We look at test scores” Richard said, “but it’s not who we are and I don’t obsess over them.  If our teachers are effective in what they do test scores will take care of themselves.  Ours are very good.  Neither is our building who we are - it’s the culture of the school that define us and what we do.  One of the things I’ve noticed is that parents don’t really choose a school based on test scores; they choose a school based on word of mouth from their friends and acquaintances.  That’s why the customer idea is key to building a true learning community.”  Richard hires teachers that mirror his beliefs in customer service, their love for students and for teaching, for a willingness to meet students where they are and move them forward and for learning to teach using ideas above and beyond lecture.  “Our BYOD (bring your own device) classes have been a great success, and we are fortunate to have a building that can handle the access.  We also have devices for kids that don’t, but most of them have better stuff than we do and love the opportunity to learn in pairs under the guidance of some very creative teachers.”  Richard also established a voluntary summer learning program for teachers.  They meet every other Monday at Chick-Fil-A and talk about different teaching ideas they’ve tried or would like to try.  “It’s a powerful thing when teachers talk to each other about teaching and learning” Richard said;  “it’s miraculous to see the ideas they learn from each other.”
    When asked about parents, Richard said “parents want to know what’s happening at our school.  We go a little overboard on communication, but I think they appreciate it.  Sometimes we do have to deal with an irate parent, but I’ve learned to listen and not get defensive about their complaint.  After I listen I check out the situation and look for solutions.  There’s always a follow up phone call or meeting with the parent to let them know what I found.  I also make sure that teachers are communicating regularly with parents.  They are an important part of our school community.  I try to be a good listener and non-confrontational with parents and teachers and students.  Back and forth yelling does little to solve any problem, and usually just contributes to it.  I’ve never found anger to be a prime motivator” he noted.
    So what do teachers say about Mr. Green?  Stephanie Fuerte teaches ELA and Pam Anders math at ACMS.  Both were enthusiastic about Richard’s leadership.  “He listens” said Stephanie, “and wants to hear from students, parents and teachers.  He also protects teachers from the adverse consequences of teaching ideas that may not work the first time, but encourages us to continue to be creative and not just talk at students.”  Anders agrees, and said “Mr. Green allows teachers to teach.  He doesn’t want to see silent classrooms, but expects student engagement in the form of students talking and working together.”  MCSD Superintendent Dr. David Lewis agrees, and said “Mr. Green is a consummate professional in every respect.  I have found him to be a leader who leads by example.  He is thoughtful, conscientious, highly committed and a person of high integrity.  Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay him is that I would have been pleased to have had him serve as the Principal of the school for my own children.”
    Richard doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about Common Core.  “It’s what’s expected of us” he said, “so that’s what we do.  The portability is useful since so many of our kids are from military families” he continued, “but I am concerned about the lack of teacher input in the development phase of the standards.”  He also believes the TKES teacher evaluation instrument is far superior to what was used before.  “It makes administrators get into classrooms” he noted.  “My goal is to visit every classroom every day, and I usually make that happen in spite of the other things that often require my attention.  I don’t particularly agree that evaluation should be tied to test scores when teachers have no control over who comes into their classroom, but there again, it’s what we have so it’s what we’ll deal with for now.”  When asked what advice he would give to Georgia’s Governor to improve education statewide, Richard answered quickly “I would like to see 20 additional days of instruction added to our school calendar.  That would make more difference than anything else we could do, and needs to be a priority.”  
    Richard said he attempts to make education personal for every teacher, student and parent at ACMS.  By any measure, he appears to be accomplishing that feat.


The Wolf in the Closet

    There’s a wolf in the closet.  He’ll stay there until after the elections, but somebody will open the door for him once the votes are in.  Count on it.  Both candidates for Governor of the state of Georgia have expressed an interest in letting this wolf out, and once out he won’t go back in again.  The lure of $59 billion dollars, regardless of the source of those funds and especially in the ethically challenged Georgia system of politics, is just too much for politicians to ignore.  Both candidates might hem and haw and say they would only use the money “with the backing of teachers and the TRS board of directors,” but that’s Georgia politics at its finest.  Tell the voters what you think they want to hear before the election, and forget you ever said it once you’re in office.  If that doesn’t work, blame someone else for following through on what you really wanted in the first place.

    The Georgia Chamber of Commerce supports the idea.  They say the move to allow TRS to invest up to 5% of it’s total in alternative funds would secure the highest returns possible for public workers, and that Georgia is the only state that does not allow TRS funds to be invested in alternative investments.  One legislator even said he wanted Georgia to follow this plan because we were the “only state in the union” that didn’t allow this.  Remember what your mother said when you wanted to do whatever it was that “everyone else was doing?”  That should apply doubly to adults, but usually doesn’t.
    The NY Times reports that the $26.3 billion Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System has invested about 46% of its assets in these riskier alternatives, and over the last 5 years has paid $1.35 billion in management fees and reported an annualized return over the same period of 3.6%.    The median return for public pension systems is 4.9% and the target return required to meet financing requirements is 8%.  In Georgia, prohibited from alternative investments, TRS has earned 5.3% per year over the same period and paid about $54 million in total fees.  TRS is recognized as one of the public pension funds that every other public pension fund wants to be, and provides  stability and peace of mind for teachers that have retired and those that expect to retire.  The Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System has more than 46 percent of its assets in riskier alternatives, including nearly 400 private equity, venture capital and real estate funds.  A sampling of those pension funds with ⅓ to ½ of their money in hedge funds, real estate and private equity reported returns that were over one percentage point lower than those funds that avoided these riskier, more volatile investments.  Not only were the returns significantly lower, the fees charged for those investments were over 4 times what the others paid.  Lower returns and higher fees is not a good combination unless you are an investment banker.
    The dirty little secret about public pension fund investments is that they are required to be transparent in their investments, and their transactions are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.  Many of the best performing venture capital funds will not take money from public pensions because they do not want their portfolios made public knowledge, and, as a result of this need for obfuscation,  public pensions generally get to choose from lesser performing funds that don’t see transparency as an obstacle to performance.
    In 2012 Governor Deal supported Senate Resolution 782, but later withdrew his support after a backlash from teachers, both working and retired.  The resolution, still in committee at the end of the last legislative session, would allow a study committee of 17 members, all appointed by the Governor, to investigate doing away with the defined benefit system in place for TRS and moving to a contribution system.  Part of the resolution also calls for the committee, without the Governor really being involved, of course, to suggest removal of the restriction that currently prevents up to 5% of TRS funds from being used for investment in venture capital funds.
    Senator Carter also suggested a proposal to give state pension funds, including TRS, the freedom to invest in alternative investments and venture capital.  He later backed away from the idea and said he would never consider such a thing without the approval of the TRS board and teachers.
    The lure of that money just sitting around and not going to somebody that could help a campaign or a relative is anathema to politicians.  The real issue here, given the Georgia legislature’s lack of willingness to engage in meaningful ethics reform, is not really one of providing money for startups and venture capital but protecting it from the deleterious effects of rampant cronyism.  There is no way, as I see it, to keep politics out of investment decisions regardless of the positive or negative financial effects on pension funds.  Allowing politicians to reward donors through the allocation of access to venture capital from state pension funds without regard as to whether the investments made financial sense for contributors to that fund would be the epitome of folly for teachers that depend upon that fund for their current or future retirements.  Yes, I am one of those, and no, I do not trust any politician to ignore large pots of money whether it belongs to them or not.  Especially after the votes are in and they think nobody’s watching. I’m hoping that wolf stays in the closet, but I’m also watching the doorknob closely to see if anybody puts their hand on it later.  After the election.  When the votes are in.  When nobody’s watching. When the door swings open and the Governor - whoever he is - can stand back and say “I didn’t do it, they did!” - the wolf and I will both know better.  Be careful who you vote for.   A politician that needs your vote is one thing; an unscrupulous one that already has it is quite another.


The Option Game

The Option Game

    Supporters of the accountability movement in public education have had 13 years of test driven “reform” to prove their point.  It should be obvious now that 13 years of accountibalism have produced no positive results. If you believe that test scores accurately reflect teaching and learning in our public schools then you also must accept those scores have not shown a positive effect.  If you believe the SAT is reflective of student achievement then 13 years of test and retest and test again have been an abysmal failure in serving as anything other than a reliable predictor of family income.  In spite of the continued demand for “choice” by the professional accountabullies - those that insist that standardized testing is the only way to hold public education accountable - the only success stories they can point to are the gigantic growth of the educational testing industry and draining millions of tax dollars from public education into privatization efforts.  One of the choices that has not appeared in Georgia is that of parents having the ability to opt their children out of standardized testing.  As it stands now, parents have few legal options if they decide to opt their children out of the standardized testing craze in public schools.
    Public school students are now serving as mass subjects in the “test to distraction” movement.  The over reliance on standardized tests at the Federal, state and district level have managed to narrow the curriculum, take time away from true teaching and learning, push out non-tested subjects like music, art, chorus, band, electives and vocational classes, fuel the push to replace veteran teachers with less expensive and less experienced replacements and allow testing and test prep to dominate class time for students and teachers.
    District testing calendars in Atlanta Public Schools for 2012 indicate 3rd grade students spent 11.8 hours on state tests and 9 hours on district tests.  Students in 7th grade spent 8.5 hours on state tests and 12 hours on district tests.  Teachers in those grades calculate the time actually spent by students on testing, test prep and test review is more than double that amount, and some teachers noted that more than 35% of instruction time each year is spent on test review, test planning, test taking strategies, practice tests, preparation for assessment, re-assessment and actual testing.  
    It’s possible in Georgia to opt your students out of standardized testing, but the lack of legislation to allow this makes it difficult in many cases.  In high school, the EOCT may, with a parent’s insistence, be replaced by a student portfolio graded in its stead.  Common Core requirements state that students in special education must be tested on grade level in spite of what their Individualized Education Plan says.  This policy, enacted by Secretary Duncan without congressional approval, appears to violate Federal law as written in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  While it may be possible to write an opt out clause into a students’ IEP,  resistance to this option at the Federal, state and school level may be expected.  While the CRCT will be replaced next year in Georgia by a more difficult test, students in grades 3, 5 and 8 will still be required to pass before being promoted.  Parents deciding to opt their children out of these tests may use current procedures for parental appeal of retention, but these are cumbersome at best and require the formation of a placement committee consisting of the parents, the Principal and each of the child’s teachers to determine whether or not the student is performing at grade level.  The committe reviews student class participation, class work and performance and teacher observations of student learning. The committee decision must be unanimous, and the student may be promoted with the understanding that extra help and support are required for the following year.
    Parents may also opt out for religious reasons, they may refuse to sign the internet agreement at the beginning of the year effectively opting out of on-line assessments, they may withdraw their child from school on testing days and re-enroll them after the tests, or they can present a note to the school Principal stating “my child is not to participate in any test not created by my child’s teacher.” What’s really needed is Georgia legislation that allows parents to opt their children out of standardized testing without having to jump through administrative hoops to do so.
    No figures are available on the number of Georgia students opting out of tests last year, but in New York state last year over 35,000 students took advantage of this opportunity.  The BOE in Colorado Springs passed a ruling allowing parents this option in September of this year.  In Texas, 412 districts representing more than 2 million students have signed on to a resolution calling for an end to standardized testing as a measure of student achievement.  Resistance to over testing is growing nationally, and at a rapid rate.
    I find it disturbing that many of the legislators promoting testing as a requirement for school accountability in Georgia and across the nation have their children enrolled in private schools.   Those promoting more and more testing in the name of reform, including Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and President Obama, have or had their children enrolled in private schools.  If testing were an effective way to improve education, perhaps they should try it on their own children before imposing it on ours.  Department of Defense, private schools and parochial schools are all exempt from the testing mania, and the prevailing mantra for those making decisions about public education seems to be “it’s OK for your kids but not for ours.”  That’s a level of hypocrisy along the same lines as a Congress that voted to impose the Affordable Care Act on the public then voted to exempt themselves from the same law.
    I propose two reforms of my own for immediate action by the Georgia legislature:
  1. Allow an exemption from standardized testing as one of the options for “flexibility” for charter system and IE2 applications;
  2. Pass legislation giving parents the right to opt their students out of standardized testing in public schools.
    If our legislators really believe in “choice” for parents, they can do nothing less than give public school parents the option of opting their kids out of standardized testing.  That would be a reform worth implementing.


No Governor Left Behind

Governor Deal’s suggestion that Georgia “look at” a recovery school district modeled after the one in New Orleans has raised more than a few eyebrows in our state.  Louisiana, where Advanced Placement exam results for 2013 are ahead of only Mississippi, is known more for LSU football and Duck Dynasty than public education..  Higher National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in 2013 still leave the state at the bottom of the national scorecard, and the US Chamber of Commerce report in 2014 graded the state educational system with an A for choice but a D or F in academic achievement, international competitiveness and workforce preparation.  Less than 20% of Louisiana students met Programme for International Student Assessment requirements for reading and math standards, and recent gains in LEAP (Louisiana Educational Assessment Program) and iLEAP (integrated Louisiana Educational Assessment Program) state tests were due to Louisiana Department of Education manipulation of cut scores and not actual academic achievement.  The number of correct answers on those tests required for a level of “basic” proficiency was reduced in 3 of 4 categories in LEAP testing.  The LDOE said the grading scale was “equated.”  This means the grading scale was adjusted to make it appear that student performance held steady with Common Core aligned tests instead of the dramatic reduction that would have shown up without “equating.”  The vast majority of charters in LA, except for those with a selective admission process, are rated D or F by their own state.  The New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) that Nathan suggested we emulate was rated as one of the lowest performing districts in the state.

This plan was part of the “bait and switch” campaign in Louisiana to increase the number of charter schools in that state after Hurricane Katrina.  Their method was simple: if evidence for the success of charters is required, simply lower test scores, apply charters wherever possible then raise the scores back through whatever test manipulation is needed to “prove” the case. The RSD efforts in Louisiana are a miserable failure by any measure.  In spite of the promise to return schools to the public after the initial takeover in 2006, not one school  in the RSD has been returned to local control after 8 years.

The Governor’s suggestion of studying the implementation of such a model in Georgia speaks more to his lack of a coherent educational policy than to his ideas for educational progress.  The Governor stated “I am willing to listen to anybody’s idea.”  OK, Governor, here it goes.

  1. Believe in and support teachers.  Poverty is the cause of achievement gaps and the number one obstacle to educational success.  Stop the culture of blaming teachers for poverty.  Teachers don’t cause poverty any more than law enforcement causes crime or doctors create disease.
  2. Invest in teachers.  Restore professional development funds.  Professional development should be experienced teachers working with less experienced teachers.  Pay great teachers to share their knowledge and ideas in ways that allow them to stay in the classroom.  One great teacher working with 3 or 4 others is a powerful tool.  Large groups of teachers listening to one “expert” in an auditorium is not.
  3. Pay great teachers more to work in high poverty schools.  Working in these schools is difficult.  Make it worth the effort for teachers that want to increase their salaries and stay in the classroom.  Want to attract great teachers to high poverty areas?  Pay them to travel and teach there.  Want to identify high poverty schools?  Simply look at standardized test scores.  They don’t tell you anything about teaching and learning but do serve wonderfully to point out through the zip code effect the level of poverty in a given area.
  4. Eliminate standardized testing for other than diagnostic purposes.  The money saved would be more beneficial invested in teaching and learning than in the autopsy reports generated at the insistence of accountabullies in the name of accountabalism.  Allow teachers the opportunity to teach without having to teach to the test.
  5. Don’t believe in magic bullets.  The answer is not in canned programs guaranteed to produce higher test scores.  The answer is in the power of great teachers.  Invest in people and not in programs.  Success through standardization is a myth.  Every student needs and deserves individualized learning at all levels.  Educational achievement, like excellence, cannot be legislated.
  6. Technology is a tool for teachers and not an answer unto itself.  For every child that learns through technology alone there are more that fail miserably without the intervention and guidance of a teacher.  Lower class sizes, eliminate furlough days and give teachers the time and tools to teach.
  7. Help prevent legislative meddling in teaching and learning.  Unfunded mandates and  legislative attempts at applying statewide solutions to local educational issues have done more to hurt public education than to help.  Standardization is not a solution unless your goal is to help Bill Gates sell a lot of technology.  Georgia teachers can also find a better way than age level to determine educational placement.  Children learn at different rates and in different ways.  If a child cannot jump a bar 4 feet high raising the bar to 6 feet does not encourage continued learning and effort.  Expecting every child to achieve at the same rate at the same level ignores fundamental differences in human development...sort of like Arnie’s plan to test special education students out of special education through higher expectations.  
  8. Top down implementation does not work in education any more than it does in government.  Issuing a decree that all children will succeed does not automatically mean that all children will succeed.
My Dad told me you can always see what people believe in by observing how they spend their money and how they spend their time.  The same is true for politicians.  Talking about the importance of education is useless unless you actually  do something that positively affects teaching and learning.  Reducing the size of the cuts to public education is not an increase any more than than the $100 gift cards to teachers were anything but a political ploy to give the appearance of support to teachers.  Talk to teachers, listen to teachers and allow teachers to tell you what really counts in education.  If you truly want to help students in Georgia, there are no shortcuts and no magic bullets.  Teachers are not the problem but the answer.  Have the courage to ask them and follow their advice.


Truth and Consequences

Truth and Consequences

     There were 1,615,066 students in Georgia public schools k-12 and 120,660 teachers to teach them in 2009.  In 2013 the GADOE reported 1,657,506 students and 111,401 public school teachers k-12.  Anyway you count it, public education has lost 9,000 teachers and class sizes have increased in Georgia public schools.  Add to that issue six years with no raises, layoffs or RIF's in many systems, furloughs that actually take money out of teachers’ pockets to help systems cope with decreased state funds, higher property taxes, loss of planning time, the elimination of professional development funds, the lack of instructional funds, the elimination of band, chorus, orchestra, art and elective classes, the destruction of motivation and creativity through the institution of phony reforms, a continuation of the “blame the teacher” mindset, an insistence on teaching to the test, by the test and for the test, the growing numbers of children in poverty, the proliferation of standardized testing at the state and local levels, the junk science of value added models of teacher evaluation, unrealistic expectations for students and teachers, the dearth of resources for students with special needs or remediation, the “everyone is college material” insanity, the inanity of student learning objectives for non-tested subjects, the implementation of Common Core standards by decree with no instructional support, books that are older than the kids they are issued to and it’s no wonder teacher morale is in the dumps.
    The Met Life Survey of the American Teacher noted that teacher job satisfaction fell from 62% “very satisfied” with their jobs in 2008 to a 20 year low of 39% “very satisfied” in 2013.  Principals surveyed indicated 75% were frustrated with their jobs and almost one third of those said they will go to a different occupation within the next 5 years.  Add to that the findings of the NCTAF 2010 report “Who Will Teach” that between 2004 and 2008 over 300,000 veteran teachers retired nationally, that 30% of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years and the average age of the teaching force nationally has risen from 36 in 1976 to 55 in 2008.  The number of teachers over the age of 50 in 2008 was 1.3 million, and the most common age of retirement for teachers was 59.  What we are seeing is the beginnings of a teacher shortage at the state and national levels.
    Age and a rampant bureaucracy created by Federal and state regulations toward a data-driven accountability system that over-tests and micro-manages educational policies only add to the already high frustrations of teachers and administrators.  While every parent wants their child to have an individualized educational experience, governors, legislators and Federal policies insist that all children be subjected to the same inane standards and testing.  It would seem their intent is to drive away as many teachers as possible and make the profession even more unattractive than it currently is.  Enrollments in education programs are dropping nationwide, due in large part to the attacks on the profession through opposition to due process, denigration of the profession, low pay and increasing expectations.  Doing more with less has ceased to become a temporary circumstance and now is a way of life for teachers.  
    It would seem that 12 years of a failed test and punish system would be enough for anyone to recognize it simply doesn’t work.  The answer, as it has always been, is in the power of teaching.  Providing resources for teachers, using standardized tests at the beginning of the year (if at all) for diagnostic purposes, recognizing the dignity and importance of the teaching profession, dismissing the junk science of value added models of evaluation, giving teachers the time for collaborative planning, instituting a system of mentoring for teachers that need improvement and removing the constraints of scripted national “standards” that, in the absence of books and materials become a de facto curriculum.
    The key to effective education is effective teachers.  Our politicians have done everything they can to demonize teachers and take away what little authority and classroom autonomy they had to begin with.  Teachers really don’t come out of the college training box ready to teach and inspire students, but rather than spending more money on professional development our legislators eliminate professional development funds, cut their salaries and increase testing.  Rather than finding ways to run off more teachers – we have ways to remove poor teachers now if we have administrators with the courage to do so – our focus must be on training the teachers we have to be more effective, to use cooperation and collaboration as a basis for daily operation, to improve student engagement in every classroom on a daily basis and to teach administrators that the key to effective administration is not attempting to browbeat, chastise or shame teachers into working harder but in having the courage to involve them in the school operations and decision making and empower them to create teacher leaders.  Teachers have never been the problem; teachers are the solution that will save children from themselves and from society one kid at a time.   Public education serves 93% of the students in our state.  We cannot afford to abandon the many to provide more opportunities for a select few.  It’s not about race, it’s about poverty; it’s not about a test score, it’s about student achievement; it’s not about a standardized curriculum, it’s about good teaching; it’s not about the business model, it’s about personalization; it’s not about compliance, it’s about individualization, it’s not about competition, it’s about cooperation.  Until we restore the power of teachers to teach, publicize our daily successes and vote for representatives that believe the US and Georgia Constitutions are more than legal suggestions, we will continue to hear the nonsense about the failure of public education and be subjected to the continued denigration of the teachers that, in spite of the system and not because of it, still make a positive difference for kids every day.  The more we allow politicians to demonize teachers and teaching the further we get from the goals to educate every child, and the harder it becomes to keep good teachers and attract their replacements.