As we approach the end of 2012, I look back on a year that was challenging for public education reform, particularly as it relates to the state of Georgia, my state of residence. Across the nation, we saw an education system continue to see its foundation de-stabilized a bit, which is a good thing if we want to fundamentally reform a system that has been largely unchanged for more than a century. We have seen a national trend towards implementing blended learning programs, and we have seen an education system continue to struggle with the forces the change. What are the symptoms of this malaise? They are numerous:
- A vicious teachers strike in Chicago shows what happens when one takes the "establishment" head on. Self interest groups continue to be a barrier to change, yet administrators and politicians continue to take an "ends justifies the means" approach to change, as opposed to taking a collaborative approach. The teachers strike showed that both sides of the education debate have forgotten the tenets of the bestselling book: Getting to Yes. Rule #1: focus on interests, not positions. We need to come together and realize that we need to measure teacher effectiveness, and this should be a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures. And quantitative measures doesn't just mean standardized test scores. Nor does it mean one or two "observations" a year.
- A nasty public relations campaign in Georgia which ultimately led to the passage of a constitutional amendment allowing public charter schools to appeal to a state authorizer, should the local school board deny their application. Opponents waged a campaign of misinformation and paranoia on the electorate, while ignoring the intent of this measure. Reform in Georgia, or any other state for that matter, cannot occur if innovation is left solely to a monopoly local school board to adjudicate. Monopolies do not innovate - this is a fact. And we have seen states across the nation support multiple public school options for their children. Reforms should occur on a parallel path, especially in Georgia, where many students are not getting access to even an "adequate" education as stated in the Georgia Constitution. In Georgia, there is finally an opportunity for innovative approaches to education, including blended learning programs, to be implemented in areas of need around the state.
- Graduation rates were stated under a common formula across the nation. Georgia ranked near the BOTTOM, at 67%. That means, one out of every three students in the state of Georgia will not graduate from high school. That is a MAJOR problem, and one that should bring all sides together in the efforts to reform our public education system.
- Urban school districts continue to cause damage to the quality of education their students are getting, due to unqualified and corrupt school boards. While the Atlanta Public Schools is beginning to stabilize its school board governance, the next shoe to drop was neighboring Dekalb Public Schools, which just saw its school system put on a one year probation and risk losing accreditation if significant reforms to its governance are not implemented. This was also the school system that started a school year with a shortage of math teachers that caught the attention of the entire nation. This puts into question the issue of school board elections, term limits, and the terms of when a local mayor or state governor can intervene in a failing school system.
- We are also seeing research being done on public school funding mechanisms, parent trigger laws, and school vouchers (in Tennessee, dubbed "Opportunity Grants").
- Finally, the horrific, unspeakable events that unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School have reignited the public debate around security at schools and whether teachers and administrators should be allowed to carry concealed weapons.
So what is my wish list, given all of the challenges that public education faces, particularly in the state of Georgia? I'll list a few of them below:
- A bipartisan approach to education reform. In the state of Georgia, for example, I would like to see Democrats work together with Republicans on certain issues and follow the national trend lines on education reform that are championed by President Obama. That means public charter schools, teacher training and evaluation reforms, and digital learning, are all good for Georgia's students.
- Reforms to public school allocation formulas. In Georgia, the "QBE" is confusing and complicated and proven to be one of the barriers to public school reforms in the state. Signifcant research has been done on how to amend the formula, and I would like to see both parties discuss the recommendations and work towards a bi-partisan solution by 2014 at the latest. Public dollars should follow the child, it should be simple to understand, and it should allow alignment towards innovation where possible. Some interesting work has been done and its merits should be discussed in the public forum. You can find more about the work here.
- Enact term limits or other conditions when a mayor or Governor can intervene on a local school board. We need to find ways to enact certain penalties or escalation mechanisms on a corrupt school board or school system that is failing. Just as public charter schools have strict conditions established in its applications, we should see similar mechanisms in place for traditional public schools. In Georgia, for example, I would like to see school boards be led by local mayors, particularly in urban school districts, so that they are held accountable by the electorate. There are several ways to do this, but ultimately, mayors need more influence over the operations of their school system.
- Make 2013 the year of focus on the teacher. Teachers need to be better educated, better trained, better compensated and better evaluated. Teachers spend more time with your children than you do, and they are one of the most important influences on your child's development. Lets give teachers more flexibility and resources to teach every child in a digitally driven world, but at the same time, lets be sure they are held accountable as well. That means not only penalizing them for poor teaching, but also rewarding them for successful teaching.
- Explore parent trigger legislation. As we are simultaneously exploring accountability of school board members, we should also be looking at the merits of parental intervention in certain instances. In a state like Georgia with a 67% high school graduation rate, I think we owe it to our citizens to explore the benefits of enacting such mechanisms in Georgia.
- Continue the rollout of digital learning initiatives. As a parent, I do not want to continue to see my children carrying 50 lb backpacks with outdated textbooks. Again, we should follow the national trend and hopefully live to see day where we establish a date when physical textbooks are no more. In South Korea, for example, they have legislated that by the year 2015, all textbooks will be digital, period. This means we must ensure that every school system, including the most rural areas of Georgia for example, have access to a high-speed Internet connection. And lets ensure that we bring sound approaches to implementing digital learning programs into public schools that combine innovative digital content with appropriate digital devices.
- Accountability and transparency in data reporting. How are states doing against its Race to the Top Awards? Can the average citizen understand the reports and easily see where dollars are going and how progress is being measured? I know that in Georgia, it is nearly impossible to see how the state is doing against the $400M Race to the Top Grant.
- Lets keep our schools safe, and keep guns out of our schools. I do not want to get into a public debate around gun control, but what I will say is that I would not be happy if states pass laws allowing concealed weapons in schools, or allow more security guards at schools. For me, it's very simple. I have the luxury to say that if my kids' school allowed guns, then I would home school my kids! That is my opinion and my opinion alone.
There is much work to be done on public education reform, but my wish is that 2013 will be a year of hope and year of successful reforms that put Georgia, and every other state for that matter, on the successful path to reinventing public education. Lets think about the well-being of our children, who deserve a quality education which directly benefits our society.