Georgia schools chief wants to boost teachers and rely less on testing

October 19, 2020
3 mins read

The Following is a column by Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia’s students, families, and educators have risen to meet this unprecedented moment.

Overnight, Georgia’s public schools transformed longstanding educational structures, forever changing how we prepare and deliver school meals, how we conduct bus routes, how we ensure the safety of our students in and out of school buildings, how we implement and leverage technology, how we counsel and console our students, and how we engage with our communities. In these uncertain times, one thing has been certain: educators’ unwavering commitment to meeting the needs of Georgia’s 1.7 million students.

Of course, we are all eager to go back to “normal” – to return to a time when handshakes and hugs fill our hallways and classrooms.

But there is a “normal” we should not and cannot go back to – a “normal” of data points determining destiny, scores oversimplifying a student’s worth, and blame and shame serving as the drivers of education reform. It’s my hope that our collective efforts to choose compassion over compliance during this pandemic have underscored for all of us what is truly important.

We cannot return to the status quo of over-testing and hyper-accountability. We must reimagine what our education system can and must become. Today, I am releasing A Roadmap to Reimagining K-12 Education in Georgia, which lays out our vision for the months and years ahead.

Put very simply, this document takes an assumption that has been much-discussed – that the pandemic is pushing all of us to reimagine the future of our public schools – and asks the question, what will that future be? Here’s what I imagine – with further details laid out in the Roadmap document:

An educational system focused on the whole child. All students should have access to career education, computer science, fine arts, world language, physical education, gifted education, recess and play, STEM or STEAM, and Georgia-grown school meals – no matter their zip code or area of the state.

A continued decline of high-stakes testing requirements. We will advocate for a new federal testing minimum – grade-band testing in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades and once in high school – that will allow us to shift resources to formative tools that inform teaching and learning.

Instruction that is relevant, engaging, and moves beyond standalone and stagnant academic standards. We’ll work to adopt a student-level, rather than grade-level, approach to teaching and learning –developing clear, personalized paths to proficiency that truly support mastery and meet students where they are, allowing them to control their own learning.

An accountability system that does not oversimplify a school’s worth, and a modernized K-12 funding formula that reflects the rising costs of resources, supplies, and personnel and recognizes the impact of poverty. Schools deserve a reasonable system of accountability, with a core set of indicators for all schools and districts and a menu of metrics districts can adopt to meet the needs and priorities of their communities. Likewise, we must ensure we are not attempting to fund 21st-century schools with a 1980s funding formula.

A teaching profession that is elevated, not demonized. We’ll work to craft an evaluation system that values teachers as professionals, and to ensure a greater voice for teachers at the policymaking table by appointing the Georgia Teacher of the Year as an ex-officio member of the State Board of Education.

Flexibility that is used to elevate instructional quality. We propose making flexibility a given for every district, moving away from the current system of convoluted — and often conflicting — performance targets to a system that empowers schools to elevate instructional quality. This shift goes hand-in-hand with ensuring full funding for public schools — allowing flexibility to be used in service of creativity, innovation, and strategic risk-taking, rather than driven by budget constraints.

 A 21st-century standard of learning for all students, all schools, and all classrooms. If the pandemic has proved anything, it’s that we cannot wait to improve technology access in public schools. We must achieve true 1:1 device availability for all students and teachers, expand bandwidth and the allowable use of SPLOST funds, and fund “last mile” connectivity efforts – recognizing quality internet service as a basic utility.

To be clear, this is not a shift in direction – it is an opportunity to build on what has already been accomplished. Over the last several years, my team has worked with local school districts, policymakers, and educators on the ground to get state testing requirements in line with the federal minimum, incorporate indicators in the accountability system that go beyond the test, reduce the outsized impact of assessments on teacher evaluations, and re-center educational efforts around the whole child.

What we cannot do is check these items off our list and consider our job done. There is work still to do, and our students deserve nothing less than our full efforts.

I hope you will join us in reimagining the future of Georgia’s public schools.

Richard Woods, a longtime public-school teacher and administrator, is State School Superintendent of Georgia.

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