As I write today's post, I am saddened by the recent events in my adopted state of Georgia - my adopted city of Atlanta in particular. In Metro Atlanta, two of the largest school districts (a combined 150K students) in the state are exemplifying what is wrong with our outdated, monopoly-style education system:
- Dekalb Schools has already seen its accreditation put at risk due to poor board governance and financial mismanagement, the result being the removal of six board members and a costly legal battle challenging the state's right to install temporary board members and remove those who are putting the education of students at risk.
- Indicted on charges normally held for mafia bosses, 35 educators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal were charged with 65 counts including racketeering, providing false statements and writings, influencing witnesses, and theft by taking. It was the long awaited final stage of this tragedy which has exposed the city's public education system as an example of what happens when administrators establish a culture of fear and intimidation and misuse test scores as the sole factor in judging the performance of a school system.
We have also seen the Georgia General Assembly pass sweeping reforms to add accountability and choice into the state's low performing education system. These include:
- Improve and expand the tax credit scholarship program, which will offer more school choice while at the same time injecting more transparency into its implementation.
- New teacher and principal evaluation plans of which at least 50% of the evaluation must be tied to performance on state assessments.
- A parent trigger bill which passed the House but was withdrawn from the Senate before coming to a vote. It will likely be re-introduced in the next legislative session.
It is now time for Georgia to focus on reforms that will improve learning outcomes. It is also time for all parties to take a deep breath and get back to the collaboration table. Georgia's push to "catch up" to the national reform movement must not be done hastily. We have already seen what happens when you create the wrong incentive structure for your educators. A moral hazard such as "cheating" is inevitable when administrator compensation is directly tied to test score gains. Bill Gates, whose foundation has spearheaded some of the most promising research to date on how to measure teacher effectiveness, recently cautioned in a Washington Post op-ed, "If we aren’t careful to build a system that provides feedback and that teachers trust, this opportunity to dramatically improve the U.S. education system will be wasted." Is Georgia rushing to implement a new teacher evaluation program that has not been fully tested? Even teachers unions have given tacit support to the Gates Foundation conclusions that thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems should include "multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results. Student test scores should NOT be the primary basis for making decisions about firing, promoting and compensating teachers."
Georgia should shift its efforts to testing an evaluation plan and learning from the results. It should continue to bring teachers into the development process. In addition, Georgia should be ensuring that every school district has access to a reliable, high speed broadband infrastructure as well as fund the testing and implementation of blended learning environments in public schools. Finally, the funding formula should be redesigned as a more student-based formula and aligned towards innovative learning tools, with professional development for these reforms included in the solution. Learning outcomes include experiential learning, inquiry based learning, self-efficacy, goal-setting, cooperation, and feedback. Digital learning can be a critical component in not only intrinsically motivating students, but also ensuring these these learning outcomes are achieved successfully.
People do not like change, nor do established organizations of any kind. Fear is driving many of the reactions at present, and we do not want to see a golden opportunity to improve public education wasted because of intense resistance to change. Lets step back, lower the temperature, and re-engage stakeholders in a discussion that all should support. And the message must include one of hope, as well as one that will provide greater access to quality learning tools, quality teachers, and students who will be prepared for college and career. We can do this, and we must act now.