A few weeks ago, I ran a father-son essay about the value of a college degree. Now, I have a mother-son piece penned by Virginia Morgan, a retired educator from the Dougherty County School System, and local attorney J. Tom Morgan, former DeKalb County district attorney and author of “Ignorance is No Defense, A Teenager’s Guide to Georgia Law.”
As J. Tom Morgan explained in a note, “Normal families play Scrabble and play cards when they get together. Mom wanted to write after I told her about the APS and Dougherty scandals.”
Dr. Morgan writes the first part; her son shares his view after her and they collaborate on the conclusion.
First, Dr. Morgan writes:
In 1955, at the age of 25, I began my professional career with the Dougherty County School System. Still stands the dusty classroom where hundreds of children began their formal education. The Dougherty County School System is currently under investigation by state special investigators appointed by the governor to examine alleged teacher and administrator cheating on the CRCT. When I started teaching over a half century ago we knew of no such thing as a test to evaluate teaching performance. The previous year the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal. I was glad the Court’s ruling had come out. I believed all the problems involving racial integration would be resolved before my just walking son started his public education in the first grade.
My first assignment was in an elementary school where I taught a sixth grade class. This school included the most socioeconomically disadvantaged white children in the district. The rules reflected the poverty. We had an understanding that if a child could not afford to wear shoes to school the child could attend barefoot. However, if a child wore shoes to school the child could not remove the shoes during the school day. Since the depression, I had not witnessed poverty as evidenced by these children. There were also rules for teachers’ attire. As a teacher, we were required to wear a girdle, hose, high heels and a dress or suit to work.
My students were not only economically disadvantaged, they were also unprepared for even a basic sixth grade curriculum. Some of my students could not perform reading and math skills much beyond a second grade level. It was my job to teach them the best and all that I could, and then move them on to the next level, junior high school.
There were many challenges educating these students. First was hunger. Even though there was a free lunch program in 1955, it only provided a child five very limited meals each week. I realized if a child came to school hungry for food it was difficult to teach that child to hunger for knowledge. Also, the school day was limited in time. The school day had to end by 3:15. After school, many children had to go work in the fields or otherwise support the family even though the children were only 12 years old or younger. Our school year also followed what we called the “crop calendar.” One reason children were released for the summer was so they could help tend and harvest the crops. Even if we had the resources to continue to educate these children through the summer, which we did not, they were needed to help care for their families.
Although the children were disadvantaged, discipline was not really a problem. Corporal punishment was used very sparingly. However, the children knew it was available. Once I sent a note home asking for parents’ help with a student. The student returned the next day black and blue from a severe beating. I resolved then that unless absolutely necessary I would keep discipline issues in the classroom.
If my future as an educator that first year had been dependent upon my students’ test scores it would have been a short career as a teacher. My principal and superintendent knew the challenges we faced, and we were encouraged to hang in there and do our best. I did not like moving the kids to the next level poorly prepared, but there was always a new group waiting to be taught.
I taught there for three years. Although challenging, I cared for those students as if they were my own. Most of these students never completed high school, but I knew that whatever they were doing they could at least read and write and perform math better than they could before they entered my classroom.
When my son turned 4, I started looking to move out of the city and to a suburb where my own children would be surrounded by other students who were motivated to academically succeed. My mother and I bought a house close to an elementary school, and I was able to transfer my teaching position to that school.
This school was in the same school district as my first assignment, but it might as well have been located in a different universe. The only similarity was that students again were all white. Most of these children came from homes where at least one parent was a professional. I had come from a school where all the children were well below the poverty line and moved to a school where most of the children were well above the poverty line.
The teaching challenges at my new school were totally different than the challenges I previously faced. I was always looking for ways to stay at least one step ahead of my students, and to make certain they were never bored and always challenged to learn more than just what was in the text books. Most of my students ultimately went to college, and several became professionals. One of my students became a Rhodes Scholar. If my students had been administered a test such as the CRCT they would have knocked it out of the park.
Parental involvement in the child’s education was much different than it had been in the previous school where there was little contact with a parent. Parents then were not the “helicopter parents” I hear about today, but the parents of children did want to know how their child was doing and what their child needed to do to become a better prepared student.
My own son started elementary school after I had sent him two years to private kindergartens. There was no such thing as public kindergarten, and I knew the kids who performed well in the first grade had received organized instruction prior to their entry into public education. Having educated both boys and girls, I also knew there was usually a striking difference in fine motor skills and attention spans between the sexes when they are young children. Age is not necessarily a determining factor as to when a child should start the first grade curriculum. My son’s achievement in the first grade I believe was a direct result of two years of prior academic education and starting out as the oldest child in his class.
After several years in the suburbs , I accepted a principal’s position across the river in the same school district. My first assignment had prepared me for my leadership position because the students once again were all white and most were below the poverty level. Most of the students lived in one of 13 trailer parks that fed students into the school.
It was during this time that on a cognitive level I realized there is a definite correlation between a child’s academic performance and the child’s socioeconomic background. Having realized the connection, I wanted to see if there was a way to shorten the gap between poverty and performance through federal programs such as Title I. The Title 1 federal program identified schools where most of the students were financially underprivileged and attempted to correct the education gap by special instruction. I now became first Title 1 director for Dougherty County.
At the same time I became the Title 1 director, a high school classmate who was a federal judge, Judge Wilbur Owens, decided he would implement his own program to reduce the educational achievement disparity between black and white students.
Judge Owens redrew attendance lines. To be fair, Judge Owens was just implementing the federal busing mandate as proscribed in Brown. The premise at the time was that busing white upper middle-class students to previously all black schools, and busing lower socioeconomic black students to previously all white schools, would correct educational gaps.
Most white parents, except those who were truly racist, accepted black students in the high performing white schools. However, most parents would not allow their children to attend underperforming previously black schools. Over the course of a generation, white parents ultimately decided to send their kids to private schools or to move one county north and avoid the busing mandate.
Dougherty went from 70/30 percent white to black when I started teaching to 87/13 black to white as it is today. I understand a similar transformation took place in the DeKalb County during the same period and for similar reasons.
As Title 1 director, I tried to find ways to educate poor kids of all backgrounds so they would be on par with their peers who came from middle-class and above backgrounds. I knew from prior experience that race was not the determining factor for a child’s academic success, but rather whether that child was provided the tools at home he or she needed to succeed at school. Unfortunately, our success rate was not what we had hoped it would be.
If a school improved by one standard deviation we were ecstatic. The limited school day, the limited school year, and the lack of preparation before that child ever started school were great obstacles to our success in raising student achievement. For example, the Title 1 students needed additional instruction, but the school day was fixed in time due to bus schedules.
If we removed a child for special instruction, the child missed the instruction in the regular classroom. Title 1 instruction, without more instruction time, will not narrow the educational gap. Much more needs to be done for these students.
Now, here is what J.Tom Morgan says:
My sister and I are graduates of the Dougherty County Public School System, a system now under investigation by state investigators. Our mother taught us a quality public education was as important to society as a freely elected democratic form of government. Her belief is that a truly democratic form of government cannot exist without quality public education for all its citizens. What I did not understand until I reached adulthood was the success of our public education could not have occurred but for the private education we received at home.
My mother mentioned I went to private kindergarten. There were no public kindergartens for two years before starting first grade. What she did not mention was that she started teaching my sister and me to read, write, and do simple math skills, such as making change from a dollar bill, before we even started kindergarten. My earliest childhood memories include books, lots of books, and being read to every evening.
Learning did not stop at the ringing of the last bell when we were in elementary school. The public library was next door to the school, and we went there every day and did our homework while we waited for Mom to take us home. There were no organized sports for girls at that time, and few sports opportunities for boys. In any event, homework always came first in our childhood.
I recall the homework check as a very frustrating time of the day. Mom would check our answers, and if we got an answer wrong she would tell us to go back and do it until we got it right. After homework was pleasure reading time. A 2004 survey performed by the National Endowment of the Arts found that only one in three 13-year-olds today reads for pleasure each day. This is disturbing.
Although mom never told us what we had to read, she would guide us to books she thought we would enjoy. We were also provided Classic Comics. These were illustrated comics of classical stories such as Ivanhoe, Ben Hur, and Romeo and Juliet, which had been dumbed down for elementary school students. Years later, when I had to read the actual texts for school, I already knew the story lines from my earlier readings.
Music lessons for us were not an option, but rather a requirement. Although neither of us is an accomplished musician, we can read music. Many educational specialists believe there is a definite correlation between the ability to play an instrument and math skills. Amazingly, music and the arts are the first to get the axe when public education spending is cut.
We spent summertime like most kids — playing in the yard, swimming and attending camps; but we also had reading assignments. Because mom was an educator, she could get us the text books for the upcoming school year. We would read the books for the next school year and try to answer the questions at the end of the chapters. Mom would also borrow the school reel-to-reel tape recorder and we would listen to great voices read books. I guess these were the original books on tape.
I recall one time when I was 11 she left me alone at home while I listened to Boris Karloff read Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Telltale Heart.” It frightened me so much I got an extension cord so I could listen to the recording on the curb of the street.
My 10th grade year of high school I struggled with Algebra II and mom somehow found the money to hire a tutor. I made an A for the semester. My sister on the other hand is the math whiz. This was long before girls being accomplished in math was cool. Our mom made sure my sister always took the toughest math courses offered. My sister ultimately got her undergraduate degree and master’s degree from Georgia Tech and is now an engineer with Intel Corporation.
In my junior year in high school. a startling event occurred. I had just completed the two-week summer football camp prior to the beginning of school. I also had been elected to the student council the spring before and was excited about starting my new year.
On the Friday afternoon before we were to play our crosstown rival that evening, Albany High School, an order came down from a federal judge transferring me and 21 other football players, along with numerous other students, to Albany High School the following Monday morning.
I moved from a school that was 90/10 percentage white to black to a school that was 55/45 percentage white to black. The new school was not only racially diverse, but the students, black and white, came from many different socioeconomic backgrounds. It was the first time I had been exposed to peers from very impoverished backgrounds. I also met students for the first time who could barely read and write and perform math, yet they were in high school.
I signed up to play football and was also elected to the student council in my new school. Years later, when I saw the movie “Remember the Titans,” I thought it could have been Albany High School in 1972. Mom made sure I signed up for the most challenging courses that were offered. I found that the students in these classes, no matter where they were before arriving at Albany High, were motivated and eager to learn. My senior year I spent one class period teaching 10th graders remedial math. I quickly learned these students were not mentally challenged, they just somehow had missed out on opportunities to learn math skills which were afforded to me.
I graduated from high school and received a scholarship to attend college. Mom, along with a good public education, had prepared us for what was ahead. Unfortunately, many in my class never made it to college or other higher educational training. Some did not finish high school.
The state investigation of the Atlanta Public School System and the Dougherty County Public System has hopefully raised the consciousness level regarding public education in our state. Unfortunately, too much attention has been focused on the teachers who may have changed answers on their students’ CRCT exams.
Although there is no excuse for an educator righting wrong answers on a student’s test, we must ask the question how did we get to this point and what can really be done to improve our state’s educational product and our students, who are now at the bottom of the heap in nationwide scoring.
Teachers, like all professionals, should be held accountable for their performance. However, measuring a teacher’s performance by students’ test scores, without taking into account many other variables, is just flat out stupid. Assign a mediocre teacher to a classroom of highly motivated, well-prepared students, and the students will still do fine on the standardized tests. Assign the best teacher in the state to a classroom of students who are not eager to learn and who are not prepared for the curriculum assigned to their level, and despite the teacher’s best efforts, most of these children will still fail to meet the minimum required performance.
If we want to improve the education of Georgia’s public school students so that our students are competitive with students in other states, as well as foreign students, there are solutions, but most of these solutions are expensive. First, we must recognize and admit that many students entering public education are not provided the skills and resources in their home environments to meet the challenges of a demanding education curriculum. Most students do have the mental capabilities to become successful students, but unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, they lack the foundation and skill sets to becoming successful students. Therefore, we suggest the following:
Prekindergarten instruction for all Georgia students must be a mandate, not an option in our public schools. The school day cannot end at 3:15, but should continue on so that all students from all backgrounds will have more learning opportunities. Bus schedules will need to change to accommodate the longer school day.
Music, performing arts, and individual tutoring may occur during this additional time. Schools can also use volunteers to assist with elementary students’ homework and provide mentoring opportunities. Most senior citizens still have bright minds that can encourage and educate our youngest citizens and would welcome the opportunity to tutor children if given the structure-sort of like Teach for America, but with senior citizens instead of recent college graduates. Year-round schools should be available for all students, if not mandated, at least optional. Of course, teachers and administrators will need to be adequately compensated for the additional time required to educate children.
As the gap widens with each recession between the “haves” and the “have-nots” nowhere is there greater evidence of the economic disparity than in public education. Students in public education who have the fortunate resources to supplement their education will succeed where others may fail. James Baldwin, the African American novelist, said, “These are all our children. We will either profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.” The choice is ours if we want to improve the quality of education in our state.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog