Georgia state super intends to personalize education

ATLANTA — Georgia’s new state superintendent, Richard Woods, said the standardization of education was a misstep that hurt the state as a whole and he plans to implement more choices for students during his first four year term.

“If we were manufacturing machine parts, it would be great,” he said in a Thursday interview with the Marietta Daily Journal.

“But anyone who has been around children knows that … they’re individual works of art.”

Woods, who previously worked as a social studies teacher in Irwin County, was elected Nov. 4 after defeating Democrat Valarie Wilson, 55 to 45 percent. He was sworn into office Jan. 12 by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Woods said his priorities during his first term include the continued tweaking of Common Core and creating more choices for students, particularly at the high school level, so they can personalize their education.

LEGISLATION

Two bills — one in the House, one in the Senate — are expected to be introduced when the Legislature reconvenes Monday that, if passed, would make the state superintendent position an appointed one, rather than elected as it is now. The Senate bill, sponsored by state Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Smyrna), would also switch how the state school board is determined, making it elected rather than appointed as it is now.

Woods said he would not support such a measure because he fears it would be taking power away from the people.

“I think anytime we look at our system of government, I prefer the representative form of government,” he said. “I think anytime you surrender a liberty, that’s a liberty lost. So I’m very hesitant to remove the voice of the people from any position.”

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has introduced a bill that would allow students who meet certain requirements to graduate high school in less than four years.

Woods said he is in favor of the idea because it would motivate students.

“They could actually, in some ways, determine when they possibly can graduate,” he said. “Going back to when I was in school, that was really an option. There was a time where I was able to graduate early if I wanted to. It does provide some intrinsic value there.”

Woods said he’d like to see students have the ability to graduate early and with job certifications in addition to a Georgia high school diploma.

“I think that a combination of things — whether they’re graduating early or graduating with something more than just a diploma — will go a long way in enhancing the educational experience for our kids,” Woods said.

He also said he supports the push for more dual enrollment programs, which allow students to take college-level courses while still in high school.

“With the dual enrollment, we’re not holding kids back,” he said. “That’s one of the things we do want to stress: We’re not only trying to reach those that perhaps are struggling some, but those kids who are academically strong and ready to move on and pursue things; I think that’s another option we have.”

Tippins said he is very much in favor of providing an educational system that trains students for a career.

“The needs of the workplace is what ought to be driving our education system,” he said. “We ought to be training our students for the jobs that are available. If you have a trained workforce, you’re more likely to attract business to come in.”

As for actively supporting legislation, Woods said he is more concerned about setting school board policy.

“I prefer to handle (things) through state board policy and not legislation because once it’s law, it’s hard to address anything,” he said. “If our issue is with policy, we can address (that). If our issue is with law, we have to wait an entire year until the General Assembly reconvenes.”

COMMON CORE

The state school board recently made some changes to the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, altering the language in most cases to provide clarity.

Woods said while he has problems with Common Core, he is in favor of tweaking the standards rather than a complete overhaul. He said he doesn’t want to completely throw out Common Core because it would just be replaced with another set of standards that would also need tweaking.

“(The state school board) wants to make sure it’s Georgia specific,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re looking at wholesale, ‘Let’s throw out the baby with the bathwater.’”

He said there are good standards in Common Core that are worth keeping — such as having a student be able to count to 100 in kindergarten — noting it’s important to keep the standards age-appropriate.

“Everything we do, I want to assure people it’ll be measured and it’ll be well thought out,” Woods said. “We’re not going to come in … and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get rid of everything and start from scratch.’ We’re going to evaluate the merits of everything that’s out there. … I think looking at standards is going to be a continual process.”

Woods’ platform while running for state superintendent was decidedly anti-Common Core, and he said he wants to make sure the federal government isn’t calling all of the shots.

“I think, with the grant process, that was a big concern because we did have to agree to a lot of stipulations that were basically federal mandates once we agreed to take the grant money,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that Georgia maintains its autonomy.”

Right now, Georgia only has Common Core standards for math and English language arts. Woods said there are standards for science and social studies on the horizon and he plans to incorporate them into the Georgia Performance Standards.

“Those standards will be Georgia’s — there will be an adoption of the Common Core standards but they will be something we develop and work with here,” Woods said.

GRADUATION RATE

Georgia’s graduation rate continues to be on the lower end of the spectrum, coming in at 72.5 percent for the 2013-14 school year, compared to the national rate of 81 percent. While it is increasing — the state’s 2010-11 rate was 67 percent — it is still in need of improvement.

Cobb’s graduation rate for 2013-14 was 78.2 percent while Marietta High School’s graduation rate was 71.4 percent.

Woods said he thinks Georgia’s low graduation rate is partially a result of No Child Left Behind and the overemphasis on testing.

“We put every kid in the same hole, the same format,” he said. “In my view, we were basically trying to manufacture machine parts. Everything was supposed to look the same. … I think that really did hurt us statewide.”

Woods said it’s impossible to really create an educational model that works for every single kid.

“That education light bulb, it would be nice if it all came on at the same time. It would make teaching a whole lot easier. But the reality is it’s just not that way,” he said. “Some kids, they can build Saturn V rockets. Some kids, you’d think they’ve barely been out of their diapers.”

Woods said the key is to go back to the K-5 years and work on the foundation of education.

“Literacy is something very key,” he said. “If you look at the data out there, there’s almost a one-to-one correlation between opportunity and educational success based on literacy.”

Woods said once students get to middle school and high school, they should be provided more choices in course offerings.

“One of the things we have found out, especially after No Child Left Behind, is we assumed every child is going to college,” Woods said. “Basically, we said every child will take the same math, they’ll take the same English, they’ll take the same science and it just went down the line.”

He said an example of course flexibility he’d like to see is allow students to take a computer science class that would count as a core math course.

He said with the emergence of more career-oriented high schools and academies, there should be more flexibility afforded to the students.

“I think allowing them to pursue things that actually build on their strengths and their desires will motivate them to come to school,” Woods said. “I look forward to working with the lieutenant governor (Casey Cagle), who’s done a lot of work with that.”

He also said he’d like to change the model from STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — to STEAM by adding an art component.

“These are areas that are so critical as far as developing thought processes, enhancing the academic mindset of our kids and critical thinking,” Woods said.

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