Monthly Archives: December 2015

Georgia’s A-F Grading of Schools

In April this year, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law a bill to create an A-F school grading system for Georgia schools (SB 133). A, B, C, D, or F will be assigned to each public elementary and secondary school based on student achievement, achievement gap closure, and student growth. Schools earning an F for at least three consecutive years will qualify for the new Opportunity School District. The OSD will take in a maximum of 20 schools per year, with no more than 100 at any given time, and will have jurisdiction over these schools for a minimum of 5 years and a maximum of 10 years.

Kelly Cadman is a parent and teacher at Brighten Academy Charter School. In this essay, she explains why she supports Georgia’s new A-F school grading system.

By: Kelly Cadman

Politicians may talk a big game about education, but at the end of the day, no one has the same stake in my children’s future that I do. As a parent, I’m ultimately responsible for ensuring my two boys, aged 11 and 16, are prepared for all the opportunities and challenges that life brings. I am also a teacher, and I believe that responsibility extends to my students.

But how are we parents supposed to know what happens in our kids’ schools? We can’t do anything to help if we don’t know their schools are struggling. Even the most involved parents can miss major problems in the classroom, because we can’t be there every day. That is why I’m excited about the new A-F school grading system in Georgia.

The new system, which was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year and will be released in 2016, raises the bar in education in three critically important areas. Here is where the teacher in me kicks in.

First and foremost, A-F school grading prioritizes excellence over the complacency in the old system. There should be no greater goal in education than academic success. Through the simplicity of A-F letter grades, parents can quickly identify problematic trends at their children’s school and get engaged to help turn them around.

Secondly, according to other states that have implemented A-F school grading, this urgency prompts entire communities to come together to tackle the problems of a given school. Across the nation, parents, teachers and community leaders are rejecting mediocrity and the status quo, and dedicating themselves to improving student achievement.

Just like a report card helps me understand how my child is doing academically, A-F grades will give me a better idea of how their schools are performing. And the increase of public attention surrounding the release of the grades will inspire pride in successful schools and unleash a competitive fire in struggling schools committed to doing better.

While the new A-F school grading system provides more accountability and transparency in education, that does not mean it is perfect. And as parents, teachers and community leaders, we must continue to push to refine the system to improve student achievement.

The debate over education reform is never an easy one. Many of us parents sincerely love our children’s teachers and know that our schools are working harder than ever to provide our children with an education that prepares them for success. As a teacher, I am striving each day to set my students up for success. But this is a debate worth having, because how we educate our children today will determine not just their future, but the future of our entire state.

As a mother of two children and teacher to 27 students, I choose reform. And it is my belief that Georgia’s new A-F school grading policy will help create an education system that is second to none.

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Political Leaders Pushing for Work-Ready graduates

Jesus Vazquez guided an eyeball-scorching flame, and the room crackled with noise as he tried to control a molten bead of metal that would determine success or failure.

A lot of kids like him wind up behind a burger counter or in other low-wage jobs, but this Hall County high school student wants something better, and this welding practice at a community college could help him get it. He enrolled in a new program that could lead to work with one of Gainesville’s better-paying employers. It’s the kind of opportunity that some leaders are hoping to give other teenagers across Georgia who wouldn’t otherwise have a shot at such training or at college.

As Georgia education, business and political leaders keep pushing for work-ready graduates, they are expanding programs such as dual enrollment — when high school students can simultaneously take classes at other institutions as a way to get ahead academically or economically. Georgia recently changed laws to streamline funding and encourage more students to take advantage of dual enrollment. And pilot programs such as this one could be expanded when the General Assembly acts on education reform in 2016.

“They say I have no credits for a regular high school diploma,” said Vazquez, 18, adding, “If I do get certified in welding, I could get a job at Kubota.”

The heavy equipment manufacturer is expanding, and hiring. It’s taken on several other students from Vazquez’s school, the Lanier Career Academy. Teens there can enroll in this new program, a joint venture between Hall County Schools and Lanier Technical College, even if they don’t have the academic background that college requires. They aren’t getting college credit, but they are learning high-demand skills that might set them on a career path — and encourage them to earn their high school diplomas or attend college someday.

That’s the hope of Will Schofield, the superintendent of schools in Hall, who created the program with Lanier Tech president Ray Perren. Schofield noticed that many students who might benefit from the state’s dual-enrollment programs lacked the academic requirements to enroll in college courses.

Many get discouraged and drop out out or they earn their diplomas and take menial jobs. Later, they have families and realize they need to earn more. By then, college isn’t really an option.

“There was really no option for these kids,” he said.

He and Perren worked with businesses to develop the program, which offers a welding certificate that is recognized only by local employers.

Kubota has already hired three graduates from the first class of a dozen students who attended last summer, said their instructor, Jerry Owen, an adjunct professor at Lanier Tech. New welders earn around $40,000 a year plus benefits, he said. “That’s pretty good for a kid who doesn’t have a high school diploma.”

Tim McDonald, the vice president of economic development for the college, said the program is a model for others to copy. For instance, there is a shortage of welders across Georgia, and the governor’s office has prioritized meeting that demand. There is more at stake, though.

“How do we provide something to this population of young people who otherwise are going to end up being unproductive or even worse,” McDonald said. “The bigger issue here is to give these kids hope.”

Schofield promoted the program when Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to his Education Reform Commission. Among the many policy recommendations that emerged in November was one to establish a statewide certificate like the one in Hall. Currently, the certificate earned by students there is not recognized outside the county, and Schofield said this recommendation would change that.

Barbara Wall, the Georgia Department of Education official over career-prep programs, said that if the state moves forward on that recommendation, officials will find businesses eager to participate. A skills gap in more fields than just welding has created momentum in her agency to produce more career-oriented courses. For instance, the state school board recently voted in December to let students earn math, science and even foreign language credit for taking any of three computer courses.

“Now, more than any time in history, we’re seeing business and industry really wanting to get involved in our career technical programs — at earlier ages,” she said.

Doug Roper, a school board member in Vidalia and president of the Georgia School Boards Association, said public school leaders are increasingly accepting a need for career-oriented schooling, like the welding program in Hall.

“For a long time, there’s been the idea that if you don’t go to college you’re a failure,” he said, “and I think we’re going to get away from that.”

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Weighing public and private interests in regulating school choice

The steady growth of charter schools and public school choice programs is changing the ways that U.S. public schools are governed.  Traditionally, states delegate school governance to school districts, with governing authority held by locally elected boards.  These districts then assign students to neighborhood schools based on students’ home addresses.  Increasingly, however, school choice reforms are weakening the link between residential address and school assignment, encouraging families to choose from an assortment of tuition-free options.  These reforms bring a type of market-based accountability that generates pressure for schools to appeal to local families.  This has implications for the ways that schools serve private and public interests, raising important questions for state regulators.

In settings like New Orleans, where students are no longer assigned to public schools based on where they live, a school’s survival depends on its ability to persuade families to enroll.  Here, schools have strong incentives to provide the types of educational experiences that families want.  Indeed, New Orleans principals report feeling pressure to appeal to school-choosing families and make changes—both substantive and superficial—in response.

Charter schools have more pressure than district-run schools to attract families and more autonomy to exercise in that pursuit.  This seems like a recipe to serve the private interests of their families with little regard for how schools affect the public more broadly.  And these spillovers, or externalities, from K-12 education are vast.  Schools play an important role in determining collective political and economic health, equipping children with skills and traits to contribute in adult life.  A high-quality, well-rounded education benefits not only the child who receives it but also the many people with whom that child interacts, directly and indirectly.

Drawing on the logic of externalities and government intervention, we might expect state charter school regulators (or legislators) to focus on the mismatches between private and public goals in education.  On this view, schools would be required or incentivized to serve public interests insofar as those interests do not align with families’ private interests.  This could happen through reauthorization decisions or state law.

How might families’ private interests for their children’s education differ from the public’s interests for schools?  This is a difficult question.  David Labaree sought an answer by examining the historical goals of U.S. schools.  He identified three defining goals: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility.  Democratic equality and social efficiency treat education as a public good.  They emphasize preparing students as responsible citizens and productive workers, respectively.  Social mobility, on the other hand, treats education as a private good, providing credentials—like college degrees—that sort some students into desirable social positions.  Labaree argued that changes like school choice reforms are shifting priorities for U.S. schools from the development of good citizens and workers to a form of credentialism that emphasizes students’ private interests.

Translating these abstract goals to tangible school behaviors is also difficult.  Perhaps a state, through its district-run schools, will prioritize students’ character development and democratic responsibility through civics courses and anti-bullying programs.  Perhaps it will promote local economic health by training students for employment in local industries.  On the other hand, an autonomous charter school might eschew those pursuits in favor of preparing students for admission to competitive colleges and the privileges that ensue.  These schools might emphasize core academic subjects, focusing on college admissions processes that reward good grades in core subjects and high scores on entrance exams like the SAT.

This line of reasoning suggests that market-based accountability will apply sufficient pressure for schools to emphasize math and English learning and authorizers should focus their attention on the public goals of education.  Yet this is not what we see.  Counterintuitively, discussion of charter school regulation has focused on outcomes that seem deeply intertwined with families’ private interests: performance in core academic subjects, typically measured by test scores.

There are potentially good reasons for regulators to focus on goals that are in families’ private interests.  First, our measures of schools’ contributions to student learning in core subjects are more refined than other measures.  Using flawed performance measures can be more harmful than helpful, even if they are loosely related to valuable outcomes.  Moreover, as proxy measures for cognitive skills, test scores are related to important public goals like economic growth.

Second, families might desire schools that teach core subjects well but struggle to obtain the information necessary to identify these schools.  In fact, with information shortcomings, market-based accountability could generate stronger incentives for charter schools to look like they teach students well than to actually do so (i.e., to prioritize marketing over actual academic improvement). Thus, test-score based accountability may serve as a truth-telling mechanism.

Third, the nature of families’ school choice processes—with parents acting as agents of their children’s future interests, or children choosing schools with little understanding of the long-term consequences—might create a need for governments to protect children’s private interests as well as more shared public interests.

Finally, parents’ desires for their children’s schools might not be as different from the public’s desires for schools as researchers have suspected.  Marie-Anne Suizzo surveyed parents and found that they consistently prioritize their children’s self-direction, benevolence, and prosocial dispositions over their power and achievement.  Perhaps the type of education that parents want for their own children is the type of education that the broader public wants for them, too.

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Professional non-development: Do teacher development programs work?

Do professional development programs for teachers actually develop better teachers? Should the large amount of money spent on teacher development be re-directed to better uses? “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development,” released this summer by TNTP (aka “The New Teacher Project”), raises serious questions about whether the entire teacher development enterprise should be abandoned.

“The Mirage” raises three issues based on an in-depth exploration of teacher development programs in three large, public school districts and one charter management organization. The report begins by looking for evidence on whether professional development works; i.e., Do teachers become better as a consequence? The second question examined is whether teachers think development works. Then finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, “The Mirage” looks at the dollars spent on professional development and finds that the costs are shockingly high.

Does professional development for teachers work?

Since the districts studied engage in large-scale teacher development programs, one might expect the result to be that teachers to improve over time. Using overall evaluation scores according to each district’s own metric, the study finds no evidence that teachers improve. It’s worth pointing out this is not the first study to come to this conclusion.[1] To state these a little more carefully, teachers typically improve substantially for their first few years in the classroom, with a flat trajectory thereafter—despite spending time in development activities. You can see what happens in this figure taken from The Mirage.

Average teacher performance by experience

Source: Figure 5, “The Mirage”

In order to drill down into the data, the authors of “The Mirage” labelled teachers as “improvers” or “non-improvers.” They ran the classifications a number of different ways, but always relying on each district’s teacher evaluation metric . Notably, the authors did not rely on value-added scores alone.

While overall performance is flat, might we be seeing a mix between improving teachers who received a lot of development support and non-improvers who didn’t? Apparently not. Improvers and non-improvers look pretty much the same when it comes to teacher development. “The Mirage” compared the frequency of a variety of development activities for improving teachers and others. Teachers who didn’t improve spent pretty much the same time being developed as those who did improve.

Frequency of Development Activities
Improvers Non-improvers
Number of times observed over two years 8 7
Hours of coaching over two years 12 13
Hours of formal collaboration over two years 69 64
Hours spent per month in professional development 17 18

Source: Figure 7, “The Mirage”

As the saying goes, absence of correlation does not prove absence of causation. Maybe teachers need ongoing training just to keep from getting worse, although I’m not aware that anyone has made such an argument.

Is it even true that teachers think that professional development activities work? Basically, not so much, according to TNTP. Only half of teachers agreed with the statement that professional development “drives lasting improvements to my instructional practice.” What’s more, nearly half of teachers whose performance did not improve also thought that development “drives [apparently nonexistent] lasting improvements.” In fact, fewer than 45 percent of teachers thought professional development “is a good use of my time.”

How much money is spent on teacher development?

You may—or may not—be surprised at evidence that teacher development basically doesn’t work. What I think you will be shocked by, as I was, is how much is actually spent on teacher development. The headline number from The Mirage is that the three districts they studied spend on average $18,000 a year per teacher on professional development. To give context to $18,000 a year, average teacher salaries are around $56,000. In other words, the cost of development is just a bit under a third of the cost of salaries. That is a very large amount of money. It is an especially large amount of money to spend absent clear evidence of results. It is a disturbingly large amount of money to spend in light of evidence that there are no results, according to “The Mirage.”

Where is all this money going? “The Mirage” does not break down the totals, but does give considerable background on what went into the calculations. The authors provide “low,” “middle,” and “high” cost estimates. The $18,000 headline number is the middle figure; the low end is $13,000 and the high end is $20,000.[2] As an example of the difference, the salary bump that comes with a master’s degree is included in the middle and high figures, but not in the low estimate. Paying for a higher degree is certainly a real cost, although perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of a district’s support of “professional development.” But getting a master’s degree does share something with the rest of findings in “The Mirage”—we know that it doesn’t improve teaching.

Teachers spend time equivalent to almost 10 percent of the school year in professional development. Of this time, five to 10 school days each year are devoted to mandated development activities; the remainder is spent on self-initiated activities. So a non-trivial part of the cost of professional development is simply salaries and benefits for teacher time. But the larger fraction is paying for the time and resources of everyone else engaged in development. In fact, “The Mirage” compares the cost of staff training in schools (excluding the part that goes to teacher salaries and salary bumps) to the costs in other large organizations and reports that schools spend four to 15 times more than non-school organizations on staff training. One might speculate as to whether the high levels of spending by schools reflect a set of vested interests in the teacher development biz, but so far as I know there isn’t any evidence on why schools spend so much on training.

Professional development seems like an obviously good idea. Indeed, after writing “we found no set of specific development strategies that would result in widespread teacher improvement,” the authors of “The Mirage” argue “that doesn’t mean we should give up.” Well maybe we should give up. Or at least, maybe we should cut way, way back on what we spend on professional development and devote the freed up funds to higher teacher salaries and more hours in which classroom teachers are in class with their students. In my bookProfit of Education, I argued that the single most important education “reform” would be to pay teachers more…a lot more; my ballpark figure is 40 percent more. The considerable funds now spent, apparently ineffectively, on improved teacher development would be a good down payment towards improved teacher salaries.


[1] “The Mirage” cites several studies reaching similar conclusions including Gersten, Taylor, Keys, Rolfhus, & Newman-Gonchar (2014). “Summary of research on the effectiveness of math professional development approaches. (REL 2014–010),” Beisiegel, & Jacob, “Professional Development Research: Consensus, Crossroads, and Challenges,” Educational Researcher, and  Suk Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss,  & Shapley (2007). “Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement” (REL 2007–No. 033).

[2] Heather Hill’s “Review of The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development” agrees with “The Mirage’s” finding of considerable investment in teacher development, but argues that the headline number is too high.

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Muscogee County School Board argues about reporting of superintendent’s spending

Checkbook register online refers to the movement to empower people to scrutinize and oversee government by asking that government agencies post their checkbook registers online in an easily accessible and searchable format. However, many government agencies do not welcome that kind of scrutiny.

The Muscogee County School District (MCSD) doesn’t seem to be any different. The MCSD school board is split on whether or not to provide that level of transparency as Mark Rice with the Mucogee Ledger – Enquirer reports.

MARK RICE
mrice@ledger-enquirer.com

Four months after originally trying to get his proposal approved, District 2 representative John Thomas finally got the Muscogee County School Board to vote on his request for a new policy concerning the superintendent’s spending.

And it failed by a 3-4-1 vote Monday night.

Thomas’ proposal asked for all financial transactions approved by the superintendent without the board’s consent to be “prominently featured” on a new page on the district’s website. His proposed policy states that the report shall include the transaction’s date, the name of the entity receiving the payment, the purpose of the expenditure, the amount and the person(s) who authorized it.

Board policy allows the superintendent to authorize without board approval any contract for public works construction that doesn’t exceed $50,000 and any other school district purpose if the expenditure doesn’t exceed $15,000. Those thresholds are lifted in case of an emergency, defined in the board’s policy as “an eventuality, which cannot reasonably be foreseen and which if not corrected immediately will result in harm to people or property or in economic loss to the school system, or in substantial disruption of the instructional program.”

Although the Oct. 19 agenda item’s cover sheet contains the specificity Thomas requested in his proposal, the actual documents the board approved turned the wording into a more vague commitment. The agenda item also turned his request for a new policy into amendments to three existing policies.

Thomas tried to withdraw his proposal during the Oct. 19 meeting, but his effort failed 3-6, with Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Frank Myers of District 8 supporting him. Then in a 5-3-1 vote, the board approved the altered version of Thomas’ proposal, which Thomas, Cantrell and Myers voted against. Naomi Buckner of District 4 abstained.

Monday night’s vote split the same way, with Thomas, Cantrell and Myers voting yes and Buckner abstaining.

While administrators and board members asked for specifics about how detailed the “purpose” of the transaction should be, Myers interpreted those questions as “a bunch of clutter to try to stop this thing again.”

Superintendent David Lewis: “No, I’m trying to …”

Myers: “No, sir, again, please don’t interrupt me. That gets real old. I am so tired of people trying to throw up obstacles to transparency. This ain’t your school system, friends. This school system belongs to the people. Everybody can read. The same policy that’s on there tonight is on the agenda three months ago.”

Although that September meeting had Thomas’ proposal on the agenda, it mistakenly was listed as an action item. The board ended up not voting on it then because the proposal had to wait another month since it is a policy change. And between the September and October meetings, the wording in Thomas’ proposal mysteriously was changed. So by the time it was voted on in October, Thomas tried to get it withdrawn.

It all started back in August, when the board, in a 3-6 vote, defeated Thomas’ proposal to reduce from $15,000 to $5,000 for the limit to the superintendent’s authority to spend without the board’s consent. Myers and Cantrell sided with Thomas.

Within that August proposal was Thomas’ call for the superintendent’s expenditures to be posted on the district’s website. Thomas brought back that part as a separate proposal for the next meeting.

So the board has passed what Thomas and Myers contend is a watered-down version of the proposal’s original intent, and this time the board’s majority is pushing them for more specifics. For example, Buckner said, the administration needs to know whether a purchase of paper should be listed as “paper” or the type of paper.

Lewis said the distinction matters so his administration could follow the policy.

Board vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 insisted all the information already is available on the district’s website. Thomas and Myers, however, argue it isn’t in a form for the public to readily access and easily understand.

“What you’re going to have is called a data dump,” Myers aid.

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Parts of Clarke County schools’ charter application ‘not possible,’ state says

The GaDOE has traditionally assumed an advisory role to local school districts. Rogue school districts, no accountability and the lack of autonomy for high performing schools and communities are a few of the reasons behind the push to require school districts to choose a Flexibility Option.  The Flexibility Option will allow school districts to keep their waivers in return for more accountability to the state.  If a school district’s flexibility option petition is denied, they will lose all waivers. The “Big Four” waivers are state class size, expenditure control, certification, or salary schedule requirements.

The GaDOE Charter Office said they will also not approve school districts that are not good charter partners. Clarke County School District is not inclined to give its high performing career academy any autonomy. In return, the GaDOE is not inclined to approve Clarke County’s flexibility option petition.

Lee Shearer with Online Athens goes into more detail …

By LEE SHEARER
Online Athens

Officials in the state Department of Education say parts of the Clarke County School District’s plans to become a charter district are “not possible.”

The “not possible” items are three waivers from policies the state requires public school systems to follow, including one that’s a kind of centerpiece for the school district’s plans — assessing teacher competence by measuring student progress in literacy rather than a homegrown system of “Student Learning Objective” tests, or SLOs.

Clarke school officials also asked for waivers from state limits on workplace learning and dual college-high school enrollment, and on rules governing special education for students with disabilities.

Clarke school administrators learned of state officials’ objections in a four-page Dec. 3 letter from Marissa Key, the Georgia Department of Education’s Charter System Petition Manager.

Key’s letter also asked school officials for more explanation of the waiver requests, including how they would improve student achievement. It also says the school system’s career academy should operate independently of the school board, Clarke County School Superintendent Phil Lanoue told the Clarke County Board of Education Thursday.

The career academy, named the best in the state, by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in 2014, should be governed by the board of a private, nonprofit corporation to under state law, Key wrote.

“I am not prepared in any way to make that recommendation to this board (to privatize the career academy),” Lanoue told the board. “I do not support going to a nonprofit status.”

When Clarke County established the career academy several years ago, the state approved it as a program rather than a separate school.

The state letter also questioned the Clarke County proposals for how so-called “local school governance teams” operate.

Under state rules, school districts asking for charter status must set up such teams at each of its schools, giving them real decision-making powers in school affairs.

The school district made Key’s letter public at a Thursday meeting of the Clarke County Board of Education.

The state is requiring public school systems to choose among three models for the future. They can choose to remain a traditional system, following all state rules such as having maximum limits on class sizes and hiring only trained teachers licensed to teach.

But systems can also choose to become charter systems, in which school systems contract with the state to install innovative practices raising their students’ achievement levels above the average for comparable school systems. In exchange for those waivers, school districts can get freedom from some state rules, including limits on where they can spend local and state tax money. Charter school districts must also set up those local school governance teams, with limited but real decision-making powers in schools’ operations.

A third option gives school districts freedom from the state rules but does not require local school governance teams.

Lanoue said the board has a Jan. 22 deadline to submit its response to the state letter questioning the charter proposal.

School administrators will also seek public input as they write their response and modify the proposal to meet some of the state objections. Lanoue plans to submit the response to the Clarke school board for approval in early January, he said.

A group that included Lanoue, other administrators, community members and business representatives met with state Department of Education administrators last month to answer questions about the proposal, but few of the questions in the letter came up then.

“I thought it went incredibly well,” he said. “I don’t think there was anything in that meeting we didn’t respond to — eloquently, I think.”

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Georgia will decide “teach to the test” under changed federal law

With the stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama will end an era of high-stakes school testing mandated by Washington, appeasing parents, teachers and educational leaders who bemoaned a fearful “teach to the test” environment it created in some schools.

When he signs the Every Student Succeeds Act, the oft-criticized annual tests will not vanish, but states will no longer be required to impose heavy sanctions on schools with poor scores.
Georgia will decide school testing under changed federal law photo
“You still have testing but it reduces the mandate and gives the local boards of education and states the ability to let parents opt out,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who helped write the legislation. Congress passed it by overwhelming, bipartisan margins in both chambers, and the White House said Obama would sign it Thursday morning.

Georgia already makes its school districts give more tests than the federal government requires, and this legislation won’t force states to reduce their own mandates, said Isakson, who also helped write the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act that this law replaces. The new law “takes away the argument that the federal government is making the states do it and puts it totally in the hands of the states,” he said.

It is seen as a retreat from federal school oversight that grew out of the civil rights movement, yet it is being hailed as a success by the Obama administration and even, more guardedly, by civil rights proponents. They feared the return of an era when schools were given a pass for poor performance among high-poverty and minority populations, but said they lobbied successfully to retain safeguards.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that, unlike the “top-down, one-size fits all approach” of the past, the new law lets states “find the best local solutions” to improve struggling schools and requires progress reports to the federal government.

The No Child law threatened to restructure schools that didn’t measure up, and it required reports on the academic performance of demographic groups, becoming known derisively as the “test-and-punish” law.

The tests created a pressure cooker environment in some schools, especially those with lots of impoverished students. Educators involved in the worst cheating scandal in the nation, here in Atlanta, blamed pressure to raise test scores when they testified in the trial that ended earlier this year, though the targets set by Atlanta Public Schools were often higher than those required by Washington.

Teachers’ advocates hailed the Senate’s 85-12 vote Wednesday and the House’s vote the week before. Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Educators Association, called it “a victory for every child in Georgia.” Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the national group, warned states not to implement or continue policies that are as punitive as the federal mandates that drew a backlash from teachers and parents. What happened in Congress is “a cautionary tale now for the state legislatures,” she said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Nathan Deal said recently that he’s ready to ask lawmakers to tie teacher pay to performance using both an “objective assessment” and “subjective” measures. He didn’t say whether that means using high-stakes tests, but the state is poised to do just that, with an evaluation system based on test scores and classroom observations by supervisors.

Georgia school leaders said some testing is necessary but that they want less of it and less emphasis on the results in teacher reviews.

Julia Bernath, a member of the Fulton County school board, said tests should be used to assess students’ progress while teachers should be judged on their ability to prepare them for the next grade.

“Absolutely reduce the amount of testing,” she said. Will Wade, a Dawson County school board member and president-elect of the state school boards association, said tests should count for maybe a fifth of teachers’ evaluations, instead of half as is currently planned. Philip Lanoue, superintendent of the Clarke County School District in Athens and the national superintendent of the year, said standardized tests are necessary but lawmakers should trust school districts to determine how many and how to use them.

“I think the state needs to drastically cut back and only do what the federal government requires,” he said. “The biggest question is what our state is going to do.”

The new law continues the federal mandate that students be tested in math and reading in grades three through eight, plus once in high school. Georgia requires more testing in other subjects. State lawmakers, who convene for the next legislative session in January, haven’t charted a course yet.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, chairman of the state senate’s Education and Youth Committee, said tests are necessary to determine how students are doing, but he also said Georgia students spend too much time taking them. He said more efficiency could be the path forward: getting more information from each test while reducing the total number.

“If you streamline the design you could cut down the number of times that a student has to sit down and take a test,” said Tippins, R-Marietta. He said there’s a good argument for maintaining tests in teacher evaluations, since strong results could protect teachers against poor evaluations by bosses influenced by personal conflict.

Before Tippins commits to any changes, he wants to see how federal rule makers interpret the new legislation and how Deal reacts.

State Superintendent Richard Woods said Georgia needs to strike a balance with testing. He has called for a survey of state and local tests to ferret out “unnecessary” exams and “provide relief from over-testing and over-burdensome accountability.”

There are defenders of high-stakes testing, including the national group Students First, a nonprofit organization that contends America is in an educational crisis. Tests are a key accountability tool, said the group’s Georgia director, Michael O’Sullivan. He said Georgia’s new set of tests, the Milestones, give a better picture of student ability than those they replaced, and said the way the state now tracks each student’s scores over time and compares the change against those of similar students is a fairer method of measuring the influence of each teacher.

“It’s about student growth. It’s about being able to more accurately identify teachers who have moved students along,” O’Sullivan said.

Despite her criticism of testing, Bernath, the Fulton school board member, said the No Child law was a positive force because it exposed how some groups were undeserved, especially impoverished children and minorities.

“What No Child Left Behind did was force districts to find those children who weren’t being served and give them the education they needed,” she said.

Isakson said it was a good law that ultimately went too far. It mandated ever-increasing levels of performance until the bar was set impossibly high. Then, Congress failed to reauthorize it and the mandates stayed in place for nearly a decade. He blames the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal mainly on immoral educators and a lack of school district leadership, but said the punitive federal law “may have contributed to the APS problem.”

A coalition of civil rights organizations lobbied him and other members of Congress to maintain federal oversight over school quality in this new 1,000-plus page law.

“The final product is not everything that we wanted it to be,” said Liz King, the education policy director for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which coordinated the effort. Her group takes solace that the federal government maintains an oversight role and that the law compels states to report how much money is spent per child in each school, a new requirement that she said will expose inequities.

“More control and authority is ceded than we would have liked,” King said, “but much less than we had feared would happen.”


What the Every Student Succeeds Act does:

  • Minimum federal testing mandates remain: states must test for math and reading in grades three through eight and once in high school, with less frequent exams in science, and must publicly report the results broken down by demographic groups.
  • But states determine how to use the results. No Child Left Behind eventually required 100 percent proficiency in math and reading, which proved an impossible goal for many schools.
  • The new law strips the U.S. education secretary of the authority to pressure states into agreements like one in Georgia that requires an evaluation of teachers using test scores. That agreement becomes null and void, but state law still requires the evaluations and it’s unclear whether that will change.
  • Schools performing at the bottom 5 percent or that fail to graduate at least a third of students are targeted for special attention. States get to decide what kind of attention, though.
  • The new law introduces new reporting requirements, such as a school-by-school analysis of per pupil expenditures.

Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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