I used to follow the Barnes blue ribbon education reform committee around the state as it sought ideas on how to fix Georgia’s schools. One of the ideas that Barnes himself advocated was leaving those systems that were doing well alone. He wanted schools and systems that were excelling to have freedom and flexibility.
It was also an idea that had widespread support among the many hundreds of people who came before the committee as it traveled the state. But it never was fully developed in the single term that Barnes served as governor.
Now, the idea has become policy under Perdue’s administration. Is this the answer? Letting systems develop their own rules? The argument against more flexibility is that Georgia schools had a great deal of freedom — or at least benign neglect — from the state and the Legislature for many decades and it did not lead to terrific schools.
It is not a simple matter. Consider that a new study suggests that instructional fidelity to highly scripted reform models produces better results. Some of the nations that outpace us have very scripted classroom plans that do not vary from school to school.
On the other hand, I talked to a woman over the weekend who is about to quit teaching because she spends too little time teaching and too much time doing reports, entering data and going to meetings where she is told that she is not making targets. Her class is micromanaged to the point that she can’t take a breath.
According to the story in today’s AJC:
Freedom from state mandates on education has allowed Gwinnett and Forsyth counties’ public schools to be more innovative. The districts are the first in Georgia to enter into contracts with the state under the Investing in Educational Excellence, or IE2, law affording them greater flexibility to ignore red tape and bypass restrictive rules in exchange for more accountability for student achievement.
Teachers, principals and parents are noticing an improvement. Ideas birthed by teachers that change how students learn are being approved and implemented faster by principals who no longer have to wait for feedback from their bosses.
“We are a school system that prides itself on being innovative,” Forsyth Superintendent Will Schofield said. “Our principals know what they need to do to make their schools most effective.”
Georgia’s IE2 legislation allows school systems to seek flexibility from rules regarding class size, teacher certification, seat time in class, teachers pay, duty-free lunch and graduation requirements, among other things. Schools can use this freedom to reallocate resources to help students meet or exceed state standards.
Every Georgia school district will have to decide by 2013 whether its to seek a flexibility contract.
Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said several districts are discussing the possibilities of IE2, but only Fulton County Schools is in talks with the state.
The pioneer of the movement, Gwinnett County Public Schools, has received several inquiries from metro Atlanta school systems about how IE2 is working. “We have talked to a lot of other systems that are looking at what is best for them,” said Steven Flynt, Gwinnett’s chief academic officer.
In Gwinnett, local schools were given the authority to pick the area of flexibility they wanted and the weakness they wanted to improve first. Most schools chose class size as a flexibility so they could fit more students onto the roster by splitting them between classes. The savings from larger classes overall helped schools hire other staff they needed to allow some teachers to teach small groups.
In Forsyth, the district launched a massive campaign to include parents in the decision to apply for IE2, including asking them how their neighborhood schools should improve. Each school’s IE2 plan is posted on the district’s Web site. Schofield said the freedom afforded by IE2 in areas such as staffing and materials will help the district save $10 million to $15 million in five years.
While Gwinnett is moving slowly to implement IE2, Forsyth has jumped in with both feet.
At Mashburn Elementary, students in English for Speakers of Other Languages programs and the Early Intervention Program can receive both remedial help and language coaching in the same room because funding red tape has been cut.