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To Reform Public Education, Combine Optimism With Focus On Learning Outcomes

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two of the largest school districts (a combined 150K students) in the state are exemplifying what is wrong with our outdated, monopoly-style education system: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  • A parent trigger bill which passed the House but was withdrawn from the Senate before coming to a vote.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.



It's Time To Reinvent Public School Governance

I've been holding off on writing this post as I wanted to let a situation happening in Georgia's third largest school system come to closure, or at least get past a big chunk of the "drama."    While there is still some legal maneuvering that needs resolution, most of the drama should be in the rear-view mirror.

Dekalb County Schools educates almost 100,000 public school children in the Metro Atlanta area.  It is also a county where the demographics are "flipped" - meaning, it is a majority "African-American" community.   The school district is near the bottom of Georgia's school systems in terms of graduation rate - a paltry 59%, well below the state's already woefully low average of 67% (ranked 46th out of 50 states).    The school board is comprised of 9 publicly elected board members (currently comprised of 3 whites - 2 of which are newly elected,  and 6 persons of color), and if you looked at the history of this school system, you would be shocked at the level of mismanagement and poor governance that has taken place.  These nine members have acted like 9 "fiefdoms" instead of working together as a unified board to govern the school system.  But lets look at the facts (courtesy of WABE):


  • 12/17/2012:  After a six-month investigation and multiple warnings, the DeKalb County School District was placed on probation for one year by its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The primary concerns, outlined by SACS in a report, have to do with board governance issues as well as financial problems.  Board members continually interfered with the school's day-to-day activities, finances were mismanaged, and they showed a historical lack of understanding of the qualifications needed to be truly competent board members of a $1B school budget.  The divisions on the board are "toxic," and they have shown an inability to agree on decisions, even not being able to elect a new Chairman as recently as February 2013!  In addition, the school system was in a severe deficit and has had 3 school superintendents in the past 3 years.  The governance issues have been going on for more than a decade, but they have come to a head in the past few years.  NOTE:   Dekalb was the only system out of more than 1,000 systems that SACS, the accreditation agency, placed on probation.
  • A state law that was passed with bi-partisan support in 2011 provides the governor with the power to suspend and eventually remove school board members if a school system is placed on probation by the accreditation agency.   The governor would appoint temporary replacements until those seats are up for re-election. It was a "stopgap" measure to hold local school systems accountable for malfeasance and putting accreditation at risk.
  •  1/17/2013:  the school board attends a state board of education hearing to determine whether or not to recommend that the governor exercise his right to suspend the board.  No action was taken, and the board was asked to return in February for a continuation of the hearing and then decide whether or not to recommend suspension of board members.  The school superintendent did NOT attend the meeting and support the board.
  • 2/7/2013:  Dekalb's school superintendent resigns after just 16 months on the job and is offered a lucrative separation agreement.  A career politician, Michael Thurmond, is appointed interim superintendent.  While Thurmond is a respected Democrat who oversaw the Georgia Department of Labor in a previous position, he has no education experience, and learns after his hiring that he must close a $24 million budget deficit.  He was also appointed by a dysfunctional board that lacked the support of the community.
  • 2/18/2013: the board frantically tries to resolve governance issues, and the embattled board chair, Eugene Walker, decides to step down as chairman, even as the board was unable to agree on a new chairman.  Despite their financial deficit, the school board votes to pay $150,000 to a prominent law firm for "governance training."  They made this decision behind closed doors, which appears to be in violation of the bylaws, as nearly all board meetings are to be public, except for personnel matters and pending litigation, which this does not appear to  fall under.
  • 2/19/2013:  the school board tries to block the upcoming state board of education hearing, by seeking an injunction in federal court, claiming the law to remove board members was unconstitutional.  The motion was denied, mainly because of a technicality in that they did provide notice more than five days before the school board hearing.
  • 2/21/2013:  after a 14 hour hearing, the school board votes unanimously to suspend six of the nine board members (3 were new members who did not serve during the time of the alleged activities and thus were deemed not "eligible" under the existing statute).
  • 2/25/2013:  Governor Deal announces that he will accept the recommendation of the school board to suspend the six members.
  • 2/28/2013:  NAACP backs six ousted board members despite there being wide bi-partisan support for their ouster.
  • 3/4/2013:  after a hearing in federal court on March 1st to hear the arguments challenging the constitutionality of the law, the judge denies the school board's motion to stop removal of the board members.  However, he leaves open the possibility of future litigation by claiming there are issues that need to be settled by the Georgia Supreme Court.  Embattled former board chair Eugene Walker, the only suspended board member to speak publicly about the pending litigation, decides to pull out the race card and refuses to stand down, despite public outcries that he risks spending taxpayer dollars on more litigation and not on educating students.
  • 3/6/2013:  Nancy Jester, one of the six suspended board members, resigns from the board, the only one to do so as of the writing of this post


I have intentionally left out much of the sordid details of the examples of gross mismanagement and governance failures, but much of it is in the links above, one of which is a link to the report filed by SACS and their accreditation arm, AdvancED.   While some will continue to question the investigation methodology employed by SACS, it is not as if they regularly seek to put school systems on probation.  I am certain that there will be public pressure now and in the future for SACS to reform their investigation methods, the evidence is nonetheless "overwhelming."  The outcry has much to do with the fact that there is no appeals process with the accreditation process.   So what does all of this mean?

  • Governance of public education is woefully outdated and requires a new model.   There is a lack of accountability in public education, and there may be validity in having urban districts be overseen by the mayor.  At least in this case, the taxpayers know who is accountable.   Look at New York City Public Schools as an example.
  • Urban districts need strong leaders.  In the case of Dekalb, the new superintendent is using Gwinnett County Schools' superintendent as his "mentor." However, this district isn't even graduating 70% of its students, so it doesn't feel like it will be much help. Instead, I recommend that Dekalb look outside the state to someone like Dr. Jesse Register, who runs Nashville's public school system.   Dr. Register has a proven track record of successfully transforming struggling urban districts, such as Chattanooga.   Instead of looking internally, it is IMPERATIVE that Dekalb, and other struggling districts look towards "best practices."  Once the system is turned around, the district should then bring in a superstar superintendent with strong education leadership credentials.
  • Teachers need to be a part of the solution. In the case of Dekalb, the new superintendent waited far too long before meeting with teachers.  They should have been near the top of his meeting agenda when hired.  Students, parents and teachers are the three critical constituents.
  • Look at current research on best practices.   The Fordham Institute has authored research on education governance, and there is a new book titled, Strife and Progress:  Portfolio Strategies For Managing Urban Schools that discusses how the portfolio model can be a successful approach to transform urban school districts.

My hope is that national ed reformers look at Dekalb County Schools as a case study in how the traditional public school governance system is outdated and bold reforms need to take place before we lose a generation of children because they are not educated to be career-ready for the 21st century.



Are Politics Overshadowing Sound Policy On Education Reform in Georgia?

My first post of 2013 has been slow to emerge because I have been doing a lot of reading and listening.   The Georgia General Assembly kicked off its 2013 legislative session with a bang.   Legislators are struggling to balance politics and sound policy as Georgia's education system faces several obstacles:

  1. Governance and accountability continue to distract our attention from the issues of student achievement.   Dekalb County Schools, the 3rd largest school system in the state (with nearly 100,000 students) had been placed on probation for AdvancED, the state accreditation agency, in late 2012.   Hearings are in progress to determine whether the Governor will exercise is powers to remove an entire local board of education and take a greater role in the turnaround efforts.  In addition, their embattled superintendent, Dr. Cheryl Atkinson, is rumored to be on the verge of either resigning or being terminated.  This is a school district that is graduating only 58% of its students.
  2. In late 2012, all states reported graduation rates under a common formula, and Georgia ranked 46th out of 50 states, at only 67%!   Minority students' graduation rates were less than 60%.  
  3. Georgia has been trying to implement an ambitious set of reforms as part of its Race to the Top grant.  The U.S. DOE  recently expressed a concern that Georgia is one of the three states (others are DC and Maryland) that are struggling with various aspects of their implementations.  For Georgia, it pertains to the introduction and implementation of a new teacher evaluation plan, which is a central piece of  the state’s $400 million Race to the Top grant, and the portion related to this plan is now been put on "high risk" by the DOE.  According to local journalists who participated in a press call discussing the situation with Georgia's grant application, "Federal officials feared that Georgia has strayed too far from its original plans to create a teacher/leader evaluation system with four key components: classroom observations, student growth, a reduction in the student achievement gap and student surveys. They also worry that the state is proposing changes before it finds out how well the proposed new evaluations worked. They were tried out in 26 school districts from January to May of last year." One of the ongoing challenges working against the implementation of reforms in Georgia is the redundancies in the organization structure.   Georgia allows its citizens to elect both a Governor AND a State School Superintendent, as opposed to the latter being appointed by the Governor.   As such, Georgia operates two separate departments:  the State Board of Education and the Governor's Office of Student Achievement ("GOSA").  GOSA has been tasked with leading the implementation of the RT3 grant, but clearly, there is structural tension, especially given that the State Superintendent (a Republican) chose to change his position on the charter school amendment and oppose the Governor on this issue, which ultimately became a referendum on charter schools as opposed to the benefits of an appellate system for authorizing charter school applications.  Even on a local level, mayors in urban districts do not have any direct influence over their schools, unlike what takes place in New York City and Washington DC.   Mayors will, however, take all the adverse backlash from a school system that is failing, yet has little direct ability to improve it.
  4. Because of these ongoing challenges with Georgia's public schools, the public discourse continues to focus a disproportionate amount of bandwidth on school choice. The Republican-led majority has followed up the charter school amendment by introducing parent trigger legislation to make Georgia the 8th state to adopt such legislation. 
  5. Vouchers are also coming back to the forefront in Georgia. Legislators are looking to expand the availability of tax credit scholarship program before ensuring that the potential "moral hazards" with such programs are eliminated.  The main issue is the "secrecy" in which many of these programs operate, and the lack of reporting requirements has resulted in instances of alleged corruption with the program's implementation.

Will Georgia become the 8th state with a parent trigger law?

We all realize that Georgia faces significant challenges with the state of its public education system.   Funding education continues to be a major challenge, due to both a soft economy and an electorate that is expressing its frustration with the dysfunction of the public education system, not just in Georgia but around the country.  We cannot abandon the traditional public schools in this reform effort.  The parent trigger legislation can play a critical role in the reform efforts, because it shifts some power back to the parents, whose tax dollars are used to fund public education.  The problem is that mechanism's intent is  a check and balance system on governance, along with being a "last resort" option when a public school is "failing" and the local school board is not adequately representing the parents who elected them to office.  The intent of this legislation is NOT to allow any public school to become a charter school.   These schools are not the magic bullet to save public education.  They can be used as a powerful tool to foster innovation in public education, but we should not expect the traditional public school to become dormant.   In addition, because of "constraints" in the state constitution, the bill currently permits local school boards to reject parent petitions, which dilutes the power of the trigger.  While there are other problems with the bill as currently drafted, it is my hope that rational minds will prevail, and Georgia will work in a bi-partisan manner to pass a bill  whose intent is narrowly focused on turning around failing schools versus promulgating the foolhardy notion that we can reform public education by simply turning every public school into a charter school.

We need to get back to basics and focus on policies that improve student achievement.  Lets try and focus on career readiness, a sound curriculum, and ensuring every public school has a modern technological infrastructure to integrate digital learning into its curriculum.   Right now, it appears that politics are overshadowing sound policy, and we run the risk of passing legislation that negates, rather than enables, reform efforts in Georgia.



My WIsh List For Public Education In 2013

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.


Georgia's Graduation Rate is a Wakeup Call for New Approaches to Public Education

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released graduation rates for all states under a common formula, which should allow more accurate comparisons on academic performance in the United States.  It was striking, and appalling, to find that Georgia's graduation rate was only 67%. near the bottom of the country.   Not only was it far less than neighbor Tennessee (86%), but even trailed Alabama and Mississippi.   What made the situation worse was that the first comments echoed from State Superintendent Barge including the following statement, "there's an assumption of consistency across the U.S. with the new figures, but states still differ in how they compile and report rates, even under the new system."   Instead of focusing on the problem, the leader of Georgia's education system not only tried to devalue the report, but also made other comments focusing on the performance factors that are far more controversial:  gains on high stakes tests.

The problem with Georgia's education system starts with the wording of its state constitution, where it explicitly states that "all citizens shall have access to an ADEQUATE education."   The word "adequate," is not made up - it's in the constitution and that is part of the problem.  Georgia should be raising the bar in its expectations for public education, and it starts with the problem of only having to offer mediocre, at best.

But that's not the point of my post today.   Georgia's graduation rates are one of the most important indicators of its education system.   While we all realize that students need to graduate with a certain base of skills and so graduation rates must be looked at "in context,"  it gets to the issues of youth crime and incarceration.  We want children to be in school, not on the streets.   And while you can certainly try and point to the impact of poverty on graduation rates, it should be noted that North Carolina and Tennessee outperformed Georgia while spending dramatically less money per student.  Below is a chart compiled by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation using the updated graduation rates:


Overall Graduation Rate

Rank out of 46 States

Graduation Rate of Low-Income Students

Rank out of 46 States

Spending per Student







North Carolina












It is time that Georgia's politicians, philanthropists, business leaders, educators and parents come together and realize that we need to come up with new ideas for education reform.   One can support public charter schools and still support traditional public schools.    We need to be more effective with how money is spent.   Some recommendations can be found here, but let me point out additional ideas:

1.  Communities should elect school board members who are "reform-minded," not wanting more funding to spend on the wrong things (e.g., central admin, textbooks, etc.)

2.  Spend some time looking at how digital learning can be integrated into every classroom.

3.  Funding should be allocated towards eliminating the "digital divide" in Georgia.  Every school should have sufficient technological infrastructure to support digital learning solutions.

4.  Look at some of the innovations happening with blended learning and other school designs that can be piloted in school districts.  While not every charter school will be successful, the track record is very promising, and passing the charter amendment will allow Georgia to attract some of the most innovative approaches to learning taking place in our country.

5. Continue to promote the benefits of new teacher evaluation systems and ensure that we are not only hiring the most highly educated graduates into the teaching profession, but also supporting them with sufficient professional development opportunities.  We need to offer incentives that incorporate project based learning and digital learning techniques in order to intrinsically motivate each and every student.

6.  Our political parties need to create bi-partisan legislation on education reform that leverages the elements above.  In Georgia today, for example, the Democratic Party has largely become the party of the "status quo," and only a few courageous politicians were willing to cross party lines to do what was best for Georgia's children.   Democrats can support education reform - look at vibrant organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, for example.  Given the near-supermajority that Republicans have in the state Capitol, Democrats need to find ways to support reform policies as opposed to fighting every reform attempt with paranoia and fear.  Georgia democrats appear willing to ignore the wave of change spreading throughout our great nation.  

At the end of the say, Georgia cannot be pleased with the fact that more than 1 out of 3 students are not graduating high school.   So instead of continuing to bash a system that hasn't been altered in more than a century, lets work together and change the way we do things.  It's time to "Rise Up."   Our children are depending on it.