In August, I asked state Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, to write a piece about his stand on public education. Rogers had sent me a note saying that he felt he was wrongly being cast as anti-public schools on the blog.
His piece arrived a month ago, but it was so long that I planned to run it over the holidays when people have more time to read. But with the news that Rogers is expected to announce that he’s stepping down from the state Senate, I am sharing it now.
These may be his final words on education in Georgia, at least as a state senator.
By Sen. Chip Rogers
Imagine for a moment if the recent summer Olympic Games had resulted in the United States earning fewer medals than Kazakhstan, Belarus, Iran, or Jamaica. If so, one could expect justifiable outcries to entirely reform our Olympic program. Surely, no American would accept the United States being ranked 25th in Olympic competition?
Yet, this is exactly what is happening right before our eyes in education. If the competition to educate our next generation of citizens were judged as an “Olympic Medal Count,” we would be trailing every nation mentioned above.
The 34 most advanced economies in the world are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Each year the OECD publishes rankings for student achievement among its member nations. It is the most widely recognized standard for judging international student achievement. Current world rankings have U.S. students 14th in Reading, 17th in Science and a dismal 25th in Mathematics. It is important to note China does not give its information to the OECD but international testing agencies admit the Chinese students would be ranked No. 1 if included.
Some may consider the failure of U.S. students compared to their international counterparts, as a recent phenomenon. Sadly, this is a problem to which we were awakened more than 30 years ago.
The 1983 release of the U.S. Department of Education report entitled “A Nation at Risk” is considered the most comprehensive study into American education before or since. Secretary of Education, T.H. Bell, commented at the time, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
So what has changed since we received this dire warning? Not much, except spending.
According to the national standard for comparing student achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, since 1984 scores in mathematics have slightly increased, while scores in reading have slightly decreased. During this same time per student spending in the U.S. has doubled, even after adjusting for inflation!
Simply put, America responded to our most serious international crises, by doubling our spending, and we have fallen further behind. Why? The United States education system clings to a “factory” model designed for a bygone economic era. In large part our children are treated in the classroom as if they were on an assembly line of a 1940’s manufacturing plant.
American students spend roughly 50 minutes per class, 6-7 classes per day, 5 days per week and 180 days per year. At the end of this time, they “move on” to the next grade. Essentially our system values “seat time” over “learning”. We can measure “seat time” easily; measuring educational achievement is more difficult. Yet, sending an 18-year old to his graduation because he finished his required time, without being certain he can read his diploma, is devastating for the student and our nation.
So if money is not the solution, what is?
•Transforming American education to recognize that learning is an individual experience, not a group act
• Acknowledging that sending students to a school based on the parents U.S. postal mailing address is catastrophically dumb
• Offering more options for students is always preferable to fewer options
• Teachers should be paid considerably more in return for quantifiable performance results
• Technology can transform learning in the same manner it has almost every facet of human existence
• True “local control” means parents and students making individual decisions, not just a closer form of government bureaucracy
• Successfully competing in a global marketplace cannot be achieved by simply increasing self-esteem
• Learning can, and should, happen any time, any place, any path, any pace (the motto of Florida’s virtual education)
The last few years I have taken on Georgia’s educational status quo. The experience has been painful, but worth it. We should no longer stand idly by and watch tens of thousands of Georgia students drop out of school every year, while those who remain fall behind the rest of the world. We cannot quietly accept the tired mantra of “give us more money, and we’ll fix the problem” that is universally echoed by the very “system” which brought us to this point. As any parent of a student in a failing classroom can tell you, we cannot wait for the system to fix itself. Every child in Georgia matters, and they matter now!
Solving Georgia’s and America’s education challenge requires us to invert the paradigm by putting students at the center of the decisions we make and in turn empowering parents, not government, as the primary determinant for the manner in which a child is educated.
Perhaps the single most important achievement we can make is to replace the current adjectives often found in front of the word “education” with the single word “excellent.”
Those who profit from the current “system” constantly refer to forms of “education” as “public” or “private” or “home-school” or “online” or “charter.” As if attaining knowledge is confined to some sort of “brand.”
Where, how, and why a student learns must be secondary to the actual learning! We should simply demand “excellent” education for every student and offer parents as many possible choices to meet this standard. We must stop the senseless battle of public vs. private vs. home school vs. online. Why does it matter what school “Johnny” attends as long as “Johnny” is learning? In other words: student first, system second.
Critics to offering more educational choice claim supporting such parental choice is an attack on “public” education. Nonsense! This is akin to suggesting that sending a package UPS is an attack on Fedex. As a consumer I want UPS, Fedex, and every other participant in the package delivering market to do as well as possible. However, I am going to choose the company that best meets my individual needs.
Some may challenge whether increasing educational options, and giving parent’s choice, really matters. Consider what currently happens in Georgia. Our state’s education system is essentially broken into three segments: pre-k, k-12, post-secondary.
Georgia’s pre-k program is made up of thousands of providers almost equally split between public and private with parents choosing the educational setting best for their individual child. What is the result? The National Institute for Early Education Research recently gave Georgia its first 10 out of 10 in measures of quality. We are essentially the No. 1 state in America for pre-k education quality.
Georgia’s post-secondary program is made up of hundreds of public and private providers. Students, many of whom receive the Hope Scholarship (Voucher), choose the school that best fits their individual needs. What is the result?
The 2011 SmartMoney.com ranking of “Best Return on Investment Schools” ranked Georgia Tech #1 and Georgia #4 nationally. Meanwhile, the British publication Times Higher Education ranks Georgia Tech as the 24th best school in the world!
So, as well as our 4-year-olds and college students are performing, Georgia’s public k-12 system continues to languish. These students are assigned a school, not by choice, but by postal mailing address. Georgia ranks 48th nationally in both SAT scores and high school graduation rate.
Some may argue choice in pre-k and college’s works, as the evidence proves, but that k-12 choice won’t. This is both illogical and wrong.
Fourteen years ago student achievement in Florida and Georgia was essentially the same. Enter Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Between 1998 and 2006, Gov. Bush passed a series of historic education reforms.
The Florida model focused on three basic areas; grading, options, choice. All schools in Florida now receive a letter grade so that parents fully understand what type of learning environment their child is attending. Children in failing schools have the option for a voucher to attend a school of choice. Florida has created more than 400 public charter schools to offer additional choice. Finally, the Florida Virtual School was created to offer digital learning and today more than 200,000 students participate.
In addition to accountability and choice, Florida now demands performance for young students. Florida law prevents any 3rd grade students from advancing to 4th grade until that student has met reading standards. Education researchers have determined that students who cannot properly read by the age of 9 are likely to struggle academically for the remainder of their life. Texas actually builds prisons based on local 3rd-grade reading levels.
So what have these education policy changes meant to Florida students?
In 1998, almost half of all Florida fourth graders scored “below basic” on the fourth-grade NAEP reading test. Today over 70 percent of Florida’s fourth graders score at basic or “above basic” on the fourth-grade NAEP reading test. The percentage of Florida children failing to meet “basic” literacy dropped 36 percent, while the percentage of fourth graders scoring “proficient” increased 54 percent.
In 1998, Georgia fourth-grade students scored one point higher than Florida fourth-grade students for NAEP reading. By 2009, Florida students had vaulted ahead 10 points, which represents one full grade level in advancement. The pathway to success is not a mystery. As Florida has shown, holding schools accountable, giving parents options for their children, and demanding education performance before advancement will work.
Dr. Greg Forster is a researcher at the Friedman Foundation. He recently released a comprehensive report examining 19 empirical studies focusing on those locations in the U.S. where parental choice is available.
The results were almost unanimous. 18 of the 19 studies showed students exercising choice and students remaining in their assigned public schools performed better after competition was introduced. One of the 19 reports showed no change. So choice helps both the students who use it and those who don’t. Competition, even in education, is truly a win/win.
We in Georgia and the rest of the U.S. are faced with a stark reality in education. We can continue to do as we have and fall further behind or we can take a different path. We can back down to those who zealously guard the status quo or we can demand that 25th in the world or 48th in the U.S. is simply not acceptable.
Those who wish to join the growing voice for fundamental education reform must realize you will be attacked, but also recognize that if successful, we can fulfill our American duty to leave this nation better off than we found it.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog