I am at the annual daylong media symposium on education sponsored at the start of each legislative session by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.
It is always a great event as it brings education newsmakers into a room with reporters from across the state — including lots of young, bright journalists from suburban and rural papers. I am always impressed with the caliber of news writers from small-town papers here in Georgia.
On the agenda to speak today are state employees, John Barge, Bobby Cagle, Matt Cardoza, Erin Hames, Teresa MacCartney and elected lawmakers Brooks Coleman and Stacey Abrams. Also, Herb Garrett of the Georgia School Superintendents Association will speak. A highlight was Jadun McCarthy, 2012 Georgia Teacher of the Year, who is a fantastic speaker.
“We are being told you need to do more with less,” he said. “That sounds like a great philosophy. But it presupposes you weren’t doing the most that you could with what you had in the first place.”
A Bibb County teacher, McCarthy said his school is in the bottom 5 percent of Georgia high schools, yet he and other teachers in school want their students to succeed.
“For whatever reason, we are not reaching them; they are not learning the way they should. Is that solely the responsibility of the teacher? I read the AJC education blog and it boggles my mind to read that teachers whine, that teachers complain. I know for a fact that is not the case. People tell me teachers should be happy. ‘You get summers off. Christmas vacations off. Teachers need to stop complaining and get a job in the real world.’
“We work in the real world,” McCarthy said. “We are the foundation and basis of what happens in the real world.”
McCarthy said he has students who go to bed with no electricity and who wake up with nothing in their stomachs because they have not eaten since school lunch the prior day.
“People think my job is get this child to read ‘Beowulf,’ to understand Shakespeare, the bard of Avon. This child doesn’t care,” said McCarthy. “This child wants to be in room with heat. This child wants to be safe. There is no test that measures that Mr. McCarthy made a difference in this child’s life because he kept him off the street. Our job goes beyond giving information and knowledge. Our job involves the creation and building up of a human being. ”
The first session of the day was the top 10 issues to watch in 2012, presented by the Partnership’s Dr. Dana Rickman. Rickman said Georgia is at a junction where leaders across the state are united in recognize of strong educational system to future growth. Among the top issues this year identified by Rickman: performance standards, teacher assessment, common core, rural schools, financing, pre-k, school choice, role of education in economic development and leadership and ethics.
Rickman said Georgia is above the national average for low-birth weight babies, which leads to education challenges. But the most troubling indicator is that we are increasing children living in poverty, now at 25 percent.
We also have remained relatively flat in fourth grade reading as measured by NAEP. However, we are matching national average of fourth grade reading. With eighth grade math scores, we are closing the gap with the national average but still are slightly behind. But we exceed the national average of high school students obtaining AP credit.
We remain flat in our graduation rate from two year-colleges, but we are seeing small uptake in our graduates of four year colleges.
We are making progress on a list of 10 indicators of success, holding steady on four, but struggling with one of the most influential — poverty
Rickman went into depth on two of the top 10 issues, starting with challenges to rural schools. Our rural school enrollment grew by 11 percent between between 2004 and 2009. In addition, Georgia saw a 31 percent of students of color in rural schools during that time frame. The rural systems have greater challenges recruiting staff and greater financing struggles.
We are seeing growing inequality in rural districts. In rural districts, 47 percent of students live in poverty. Rural students perform worse than their suburban counterparts in reading. On NAEP fourth grade reading, 33 percent of Georgia rural students scored proficient, compared to 39 percent of suburban students. Nationally, 35 percent of rural students scored proficient, so our rural students fare worse than their counterparts nationwide.
Rickman also addressed the gap between the economic and employment needs of the state and the state’s ability to meet those needs in the coming years. By 2020, 60 percent of jobs in Georgia will require some higher education. Now, only 42 percent of Georgians have some education beyond high school. Rickman flashed a map on the screen that showed rural counties in which a third of the population doesn’t even have a high school degree.
The most questions went to Teresa MacCartney, who is leading the efforts to implement the Race to the Top grant and gave us an update. Most of the questions — including several from me — dealt with the adoption of a new teacher/principal evaluation system. I expressed concern that the pilot of the system — in which student performance will count 50 percent in tested courses and 30 percent where there are no standardized tests — is only being pilot from January through May and then imposed on the 26 participating Race to the Top districts in August.
Is there enough time to sort through the findings and data gathered in this five-month pilot? MacCartney acknowledged the challenging time constraints, but said 2012-2013 will also be used for fact-finding and revisions. She hopes the General Assembly will not jump the gun and pass any legislation tying the new teacher evals to pay this year, saying that the earliest we should see any legislation linking pay to performance should be the 2013 session “We have to build a strong foundation first,” she said.
Despite the outrage that many teachers here on the blog expressed over plans to survey even kindergartners on teacher performance, MacCartney said the state still plans to pilot the survey. However, she said the early grades survey may be eliminated after the pilot. “That is the one piece we may have to back off,” she said.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog