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Building Administrators Making a Difference in Public Education in GA - Chris Lindsey

Building Administrators Making a Difference in Public Education in GA - Chris Lindsey

    “Train up a child in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it.”  Chris Lindsey heard that from his Dad at least a million times, and has made the biblical saying a key pillar in his beliefs and methods.  Mr. Lindsey has been Principal of George Washington Carver High School in Columbus GA since August 2005.  His Dad, Dr. Eddie T. Lindsey Sr. began his teaching career at Carver in the 1950’s, and in 1975 was appointed as the first black Assistant Superintendent in Muscogee County.  Chris’ Mom taught PE in the District until her retirement, and his older brother Eddie Jr. is Principal at Key Elementary School in Columbus.  Both sons were expected to do well in school, earn a college degree and put their educational achievements to use helping others in the community.  “Dad told us the keys to success began with education and expectations.  He was a role model for us and for the community, and made sure we understood our obligations.  He let us fail but never let us give up.”
    George Washington Carver High School is a new building with an old tradition.  The original building opened in 1954 as a junior high with 15 teachers and 379 students in grades 7 and 8 in South Columbus.  The current structure is only 2 years old, and houses the Science, Technology and Engineering Magnet Program for Muscogee County.  The Magnet program operates as a school within a school, and application to the magnet is open to high school students across the district. GWC currently serves grades 9-12, has 1165 students, 90 teachers and staff, is 95% African-American and 100% free lunch.  The school’s Partners in Education are Georgia Power Company, Freeman and Associates, Balfour Beatty, Citizens Trust Bank, The Columbus- Ft. Benning Medical Association and the Airport Thruway Wal-Mart.  In 2005, Carver’s graduation rate was 47% and less than 95% of its students participated in state mandated testing.  Since 2005, student scores on state tests have risen 10% or more in all areas and the graduation rate is now 75%.  “We graduate more than that” said Mr. Lindsey, “but it takes longer for some than for others.”
    Chris began teaching Marketing and Entrepreneurship at Columbus High School in 1995 after graduating from Savannah State University with a degree in Marketing.  “I wanted to encourage students, especially minority students, to embrace control of their destiny through education and business ownership.  Marketing concepts and strategies got them excited about my class, and to stay in my class they had to pass their other classes.”  He was encouraged by Principal Ronnie Shehane to prepare for his own future by obtaining administrative certification.  Chris earned that certification along with a Masters degree at Troy State in Phenix City, AL, and later completed an EdS degree in Administration and Leadership, also from Troy State.  He transferred to Shaw HS in 1998 and taught Marketing and coached football.  Charles Flowers was AD and Head Football Coach at Shaw, and Chris learned from him how organization, preparation, focused effort and inspiration could combine to not only produce a winning football program but to positively influence students and the community.  “I saw far too many economically disadvantaged students who thought school was a waste of time.  They didn’t know how the real world operated.  They had intelligence but no direction.  They blamed the world rather than dedicating themselves to self-improvement, and had no knowledge of self or self-worth.  I wanted to help change that” he continued.  “The things I learned from football added to what I had learned from my Dad.  The same principles that were effective in sports were effective in my classroom.  I learned that caring wasn’t enough, and that I had to work hard to convince kids they didn’t have to fail.”
    Chris was named Assistant Principal at Shaw in 2001.  His Dad gave him this advice before the school year started; “Son, if you are not able to multi-task all day every day then go back into the classroom.  If you can’t deal effectively with parents and the community and develop community support, then stay out of administration.  If you can’t deal with criticism, true or not, then stay in the classroom.  Be humble, but be passionate about what you do, be strategic, be decisive, and learn to listen before you make a judgement.”  His Dad’s advice proved to be prophetic.  “I learned the hard way that my Dad was right” Chris said.  “I told myself I would be visible, I would be accessible to students and to teachers, I would find the resources to make teaching and learning more effective, I would listen, and that I would under no circumstances allow one person to disrupt the learning process for others.  My parents had high expectations for discipline in our home.  I have the same expectations for students and teachers in our school” he said quietly.
    “Family” is a word you hear a lot at Carver, from teachers and from students.  Erin is an 11th grader, and has been a Carver student for almost 3 years.  “Teachers here actually see your potential and encourage you to build on it and become something bigger than your circumstances.  They will not allow you to waste space and talent.  Mr. Lindsey helped me to see the bigger picture.  I’m not just working to pass anymore.  I’m working on my future” she stated.  Mr. Cabrera teaches Automotive Technology, and noted “I am amazed at how far teachers here will go to make sure students succeed in their classes and in their career choices.  The one thing we all have in common is we operate as a family.  There are issues and problems and arguments and disagreements, but everybody working here cares enough for kids to make sure they do the right thing.  We care enough to correct them.”  “I feel appreciated by the administrators, the other teachers, my students’ parents and by my students for the things I do” said Ms. Williams, Finance Teacher.  “It’s not just a school, it’s truly a family.”  Mr. Lindsey believes that the idea of family is an integral part of their success, and noted the attitude goes beyond the walls of the building or the time constraints of the school day.  “We’re much more than just part of the community” he continued.  “We ARE the community.  Our school and business partners make sure community members are part of our students’ education, goals and plans.”
    Mr. Lindsey looks for teachers who can relate real life situations to the subjects they are teaching.  “Going beyond the textbook” he said “is crucial.  Not everything in the textbook is an absolute, and relying solely on the textbook encourages stagnation.  It’s like the teacher that has 10 years of experience as opposed to the teacher that has one year’s experience 10 times.  I also look for teachers who are willing to develop strong nurturing relationships with parents and students.  Those relationships are crucial in helping kids and their families through tough situations.  I also encourage collaborative planning for teachers across the curriculum.  Great teachers learn from other teachers, and planning, collaboration and the integration of real world experiences are key to good classroom management.”  His methods have been effective. George Washington Carver High School was named a Reward School by the Georgia Department of Education in 2012, 2013 and 2014.  
    Chris points to several personality traits that he believes are essential for effective school administration, and lists being a good listener at the very top.  “It’s also essential to be an effective communicator, but you have to listen before you speak and listen more than you speak.”  His teachers say he can be inspirational, does not shy away from making a decision and shows great courage and a willingness to handle controversy inside and outside the building.  “Mr. Lindsey supports teachers in ways they may not even realize” one noted.  “He sets the tone and the family atmosphere in the building, and makes this a great place to teach and to learn.”  “He is also highly visible” said another teacher, “and attends almost every event or function that involves students.  That means a lot to the kids and to their parents.”
    “One thing I have noticed,” observed Mr. Lindsey, “is that demands on my time from the District and State levels have increased exponentially.  It seems there is a meeting or a form or a survey or a test or a directive from above daily, and it cuts dramatically into the time I would rather spend in the classroom.”  He suggests that our state leaders visit schools personally to see what schools and students do every day.  “A few visits to our world will hopefully help them see the struggles and adversity that kids and teachers face on a daily basis, and help them to see that new rules and regulations aren’t helping anyone succeed.  They need to know they can’t legislate excellence.  They need to be helping teachers and not blaming them for problems teachers didn’t create.”  Chris also sees Common Core as a corporate scheme to make more money rather than an honest attempt to improve education.  “Teachers, school administrators, business leaders and universities need to collaborate to decide state curricula.  Instead, politicians have hijacked the process and pitted local public schools against the University system rather than finding ways to encourage development of a more seamless transition from one to the other.  Opportunities for our students diminish or vanish completely in the current political climate.  Our teachers and students remain frustrated and confused because of the educational “reforms” and fads that rip through our system every couple of years.”
    Chris Lindsey and his teachers and staff have created an environment where expectations drive the mission and vision of the school and the community.  “We refuse to let outside forces dictate the menu of failure to our students.  We have a learning community that serves our community” he said proudly.  Senior Qhamora said the same thing in a different way.  “George Washington Carver is a special place to me because of the relationships I have with teachers, students and administrators.  When I arrived here I was timid and afraid and unsure of myself.  Now, as a Senior, I know I have the tools to succeed.”  In a world that says that minority kids from high poverty areas are supposed to fail, Chris Lindsey has successfully created a caring, learning community that works together to teach kids how to expect to succeed ...just like the family where he grew up.


Common Core and the Titanic

Common Core and the Titanic
    Common Core is a standardized national curriculum.  You might debate the difference in standards and curriculum till the cows come home, but when the standards drive textbook production and, in systems starved financially by the cumulative effects of years of austerity cuts, are used by classroom teachers to develop daily lesson plans, the standards become the curriculum.  The debate over whether or not the standards are curriculum is a diversion to distract parents from the real issue of Federal intrusion into what is a state issue.
     From an historical context, a centralized school curriculum serves the goals of totalitarian states.  It’s also illegal.  The General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act all forbid or protect against the USDOE sticking its nose into the curriculum choices of state and local districts.  In spite of this, the USDOE funded the efforts of two separate testing companies to create a national test for English and mathematics.  Joseph Califano said “Any set of test questions that the federal government prescribed should surely be suspect as a first step toward a national curriculum…….[and] a national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas.”  
   Despite legal issues, CCSS were created through a secretive process with no opportunity for public input, little or no attempt at the solicitation of public dialogue, no evidence of discussion or critique from experienced educators, no foundational research or pilot programs and on the assumption that any standardized national curriculum was better than none at all.
   Where did the Common Core originate?  The National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practice, the Council of Chief State School Officers, Achieve, Inc., ACT, the College Board, the State Higher Education Executive Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education all claim credit for developing these standards on behalf of the states.  States quickly jumped on the Common Core train before the standards were completed and before anyone had any idea what they would cost to implement.   RTTT dollars were the carrot and now states are being hit with the financial stick in the form of costs of implementation and standardized testing.
There are additional issues:
    1) There are few interdisciplinary connections between subjects in spite of research showing the positive effects of those connections on student learning and achievement.
    2) Citizenship, personal development and the promotion of democratic values are ignored.  Do not believe for one second their omission was inadvertent or unintentional.  
3) These standards are, by design and intent, difficult to amend in any way, shape or form despite what state committees might have told you during their “listening sessions”.
   Perhaps the biggest fallacy with Common Core is found in the belief that if everyone does the same thing at the same time to the same degree then all results will be wonderful.  Tell me how wonderfully that works with your kids or your job or your church or your spouse.
     CCSS, however, is just the part of the iceberg that’s showing above the surface.  It’s the part you can’t see that’s really dangerous.   The standards, along with the denigration of public school teachers, the re-segregation of schools, the constant assertions that public schools are failing miserably and an insistence on the “market based” (translated as privately owned for- profit educational agencies) approach to education fits nicely into the anti-public education agenda of the last decade.  None of the reasons presented for the adoption of the Common Core had anything to do with improving achievement but had everything to do with testing and regulating public education down the tubes until the public gives up, throws its collective hands into the air and consents to allow public education funds to be used by for-profit educational enterprises.  
    Common Core is part and parcel of the continued efforts to divert public money to private pockets, a continuation and an extension of vouchers,  Race to the Top, NCLB, teacher bashing, the use of value added measures to evaluate schools, administrators and teachers, the charter school movement, the Governor’s new Opportunity School District, ALEC led initiatives, changes to the Teacher Retirement System, the evaluation of schools of education using test scores, the continuation of useless standardized testing, the erosion of the authority of teachers in their classrooms, the imposition of rules and regulations designed to inhibit student learning, creativity and teacher morale and support those who insist that public education is an abject failure and must be abandoned.  As if that weren’t enough, the educational intent of those standards is not to  build upon success from one level to the next, but to instill a finite amount of information and achievement that creates good little workers that don’t have the imagination, creativity or problem solving skills to question authority.
    They want rules and testing for your kids, but not for theirs because their kids and grandkids are in private schools.  I might suggest to you that if a legislator has no kids or grandkids in public schools their their votes on public education should be met with all the skepticism and suspicion given a Methodist vote on the next Pope.
      In 1996 E. D. Hirsch wrote “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them.”  In 1983 “A Nation at Risk” told us of the failure of our system of public education. The Educational Testing Service discovered in 1976 that college freshmen could correctly answer only half of forty multiple choice questions. In 1969 the Chancellor of NY schools, Harvey Scribner, said that for every student schools educated there was another that was “scarred as a result of his school experience.”  Admiral Rickover published “American Education, a National Failure” in 1963, and in 1959 LIFE magazine published “Crisis in Education” that noted the Russians beat us into space because “the standards of education are shockingly low.”  In 1955 Why Johnny Can’t Read became a bestseller, and in 1942 the NY Times noted only 6% of college freshmen could name the 13 original colonies and 75% did not know who was President during the Civil War.  The US Navy in 1940 tested new pilots on their mastery of 4th grade math and found that 60% of the HS graduates failed. In 1889 the top 3% of US high school students went to college, and 84% of all American colleges reported remedial courses in core subjects were required for incoming freshmen.
    You can see that stories about public education failing us all are not new.  The age of the lie, however, does not improve veracity.   Using international testing comparisons ignores the fact that US public education attempts to educate everyone and not a select few.  Other countries do not imitate our methods of testing or national curriculum but do seek ways to replicate the creativity and innovation of our people instilled by our system of public schools.  Fans of Seinfeld will remember George Costanza telling Jerry “it’s not a lie if you believe it.”  Listening to those who insist public education has failed lead me to believe that perhaps George was Arne Duncan’s father.
    What about the failure of public education?  Doesn’t everybody know those anti-God government schools have no discipline, no academic focus, no good teachers and high dropout rates?
  Evidently not.  The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that educational attainment is rising continually. Here’s their table providing decade-by-decade figures for high school graduate rates:
    US HS Graduates (total %)     
1940          38.1           
1950          52.8                        
1960          60.7                         
1970          75.4                         
1980          85.4                         
1990          85.7                                  
2000          88.1                        
2010          88.8                         
2013          89.9                         
    GA HS grad %     
1990     70.9           
2000     78.6                 
2006     82.2                 
2009     83.9                 
  Wait a minute - everybody knows Georgia’s graduation rate is in the 60’s.  How can this be?  Here’s how it can be - you only count the number of graduates that finish in less than 4 years and discount all the ones that took longer because they struggled through parent and family issues, financial hardships, poverty, working, parenthood, drug abuse, legal difficulties and life problems.  Those are not counted even though teachers will tell you the hardest kids to reach are the ones they are most proud of reaching.
    So what can you do to fight the corporate takeover of public education and to prevent the advance of thieves and liars that threaten to destroy the hope that public education gives children of all races of all levels of income and of all abilities, goals and handicaps?
   Tell your story.  When you hear of a success story, when you experience a success story, when you see a success story tell your friends, tell your neighbors, put it on Facebook, talk about it in the grocery store, put it in the local paper and tell other parents.  Talk about great teachers, great students and student achievement.  Use statistics, common sense, facts and the successes of students in your community to show how schools are succeeding every day.  Last year there were over 21, 260 applications for the freshman class at UGA.  There were 11,650 of those were accepted and 5,285 first year students enrolled.  Some would have you believe every one came from a private school.   Also remember successful public schools contribute to your local economy, to your community, to higher property values, lower crime rates and to a better quality of life in your community.  .
    Second - Opt out, opt your children out, opt your grandchildren out, opt your neighbors’ children out, encourage your local board to opt your system out and encourage teachers that choose to opt out and refuse to allow anyone in your family or sphere of influence to take standardized tests.  Period.  Allow this perversion of the educational process to die of its own weight and poison.
    Third - and most important - I used to think I could vote for a good person and that I could depend upon good people to do good things.  I have learned the hard way that most politicians are interested in being elected and once elected in being re-elected.  Testing companies, textbook companies and corporations have lobbyists and deep pockets, and campaign promises mean nothing but voting records mean everything.  Politicians that meet my criteria for support below will generally support issues and take stances commensurate with patriotism, common sense and the public good as I see it.  I no longer vote for anyone because of their party, their stand on immigration, on the economy, on their religious beliefs or on their fiscal policies.  My three non-negotiables are:
1) vote for a veteran when possible;  
2) vote for the candidate that supports public education and has their kids and grandkids in public schools. Period.  
3) follow up with letters and emails to that person if they are elected.  
     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 competition, it’s about cooperation.  Until we elect people that not only believe that but support it, we will continue to get the kind of politicians and public education system we vote for.
    Stay in close touch with your elected officials and let them know you are watching.  Make your voices heard.


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.