Troup High School students in Chance Giddens’ current events class got some insight into the Georgia educational system when State School Superintendent John Barge spoke to the class Friday.
Giddens’ students had sent letters to Barge requesting him to speak and asking questions about state education matters. Barge responded Friday with a talk on the current state of education in Georgia and answering some questions from students.
“Georgia is fairly fragmented when it comes to education and education policy,” Barge said.
Some of the initiatives that the state Board of Education is currently working on are attempting to make state standards and policies more cohesive with national standards.
Barge said the state’s current waiver for the No Child Left Behind act means instead of Annual Yearly Progress, commonly called AYP, the state will start giving schools grades that will be equivalent to what students and parents are used to seeing. The 1-100 scale will give schools a score that anybody can equate to the standard A, B, C or F grade.
“It’s easy for people to understand,” Barge said.
The new system also will include a new teacher evaluation system designed to measure the effectiveness of teachers on their students. He said the system also can help identify areas that teachers may improve.
Barge said the NCLB act’s weakness is that it was crafted a by multiple people, some with classroom teaching experience and some without, and contained some ideas that sounded good, but didn’t pan out in practice.
He said NCLB also put so much emphasis on English and math, that it began to detract from science and social studies, causing grades in those subjects to drop. Students who failed or were “on the bubble” in CRCT scores in English and math were being pulled from science and social studies classes to work on English and math skills, then being passed to higher levels in school without the proper knowledge in science and social studies.
“We had to fix that,” he said.
He said the NCLB focus on standardized testing also created a generation of students that only know how to pass tests, not gain the practical knowledge from class.
Barge said that many rankings of Georgia’s public education actually don’t paint a proper picture of the state’s status. Although in 2011 Georgia was ranked 48th in the nation on average SAT scores at 1445, he pointed out that Georgia had 80 percent student participation, the top state was Illinois with an average score of 1807, and had 5 percent student participation.
All the top 10 states had 9 percent or less students taking the test. Barge said he averaged the top 5 percent of Georgia students who took the test, and they averaged over 2000.
“That’s pretty strong,” he said.
He pointed out that Georgia’s advanced placement – AP – scores increased by seven points on average from 2011 to 2012, despite a national average drop of 2 points. He added that Georgia was the only state last year to increase average scores on all nationally ranked indicator tests.
He said graduation rates are still too low, but that is not just an issue with schools, but community and culture. Barge said as a high school principal, he’d seen parents come into his office and say they didn’t graduate from school and ask to withdraw their child, “and if they’re over 16, we have to.”
He said attacking the problem from a community perspective and changing attitudes is the best way to encourage graduation. He used an example of a small school system where teachers and administrators went to the parents to inform then talk about students’ grades where, despite high poverty and minority rates that usually indicate lower graduation, it now has about 90 percent graduation.
Barge took some questions from students during the class. One asked about his thoughts on technology in schools.
Barge said that getting the infrastructure to schools in order to support more technology is the first step. The state is working on a plan to increase the minimum bandwidth of Internet access available to local school systems to allow more students online access at the same time. He also pointed out there has been increased use of online AP courses, allowing students in smaller systems that can’t support AP classes in some subjects to take them online.
Another student asked about teachers’ pay and whether it leads to teacher apathy. Barge said that teachers used to be offered bonuses collectively for increase student achievement, but that was later changed and dropped to individual teachers, which he said encouraged unhealthy competition, and later completely because of budget cuts.
One student asked how high school students should plan to pay for college with cuts to state scholarships, like Hope. Barge said even though that was outside his purview, his opinion was that Hope was too easy to get and that encouraged a certain lack of achievement by students who could be content with a 3.0 GPA to get a full ride in college.
Barge described education as “the great equalizer,” where those that have the desire and drive to work hard enough to achieve their goals in education don’t have to come from a well-to-do background or have money. Barge said he never received any money from his parents to get his higher education degrees, working to maintain scholarships to go to college.