Archive for February, 2011

The Education Solution: Two Tracks?

February 28, 2011

Jordan Vocational High School cupola, Columbus, GA

  When I was a student at Jordan Vocational High School, I majored in wood shop. That put me in line for making a living with my hands.  The only time I have used my hands to make a living has been to  operate a radio control board,  play records (that was way before CD’s and iPods),  shoot and edit film and videotape, type news stories, and hold a microphone to do news interviews.  I must admit that wood shop did come in handy decades later when I screened-in a back porch.   However, a lot of other Jordan students did go on to make decent livings using the vocational skills taught there. 

The diploma that Jordan students earned, however, was no different from one earned at any Georgia High School.  It didn’t say it was a technology/ career preparation diploma. And a lot of the students who got them went on to college, with some becoming  teachers, preachers, doctors, lawyers, bank presidents, board chairmen…and, yes,  TV news anchors.

The point is that we had vocational schools in Georgia long before the idea of having dual diplomas was raised. Not only was it raised, but Georgia put it into effect for a few years, but it was recently abandoned.  Now, there is a move to go back to it, which Georgia’s new state superintendent of education believes might not be necessary.

Dr.John Barge, Superintendent of Schools, Georgia Department of Education

  Speaking to Columbus Rotarians,  Georgia Superintendent of Education John Barge said legislators have told him, “This single diploma is not working. You need to fix this or we are going to. And we know that some legislators have written some legislation – the governor has asked them to hold it – that would return our state to a dual-diploma system.  I think we can make the single diploma system work, but the way that we have to do that is through career pathways.

“We have students in our schools that will never learn, let’s say, the Pythagorean Theorem sitting at a desk with pencil and paper. But, if you put those students in a construction lab, building a rack or a tool shed learning the three-four- five rule, they will learn the Pythagorean Theorem. That’s the education of the hands part.  That’s taking the knowledge of the Pythagorean  Theorem and putting it to application.  So, how do you engage students? You engage them with – I think this is important to me – it’s called relevance…making what they do in the classroom relevant.”

He cited the study by the Harvard Graduate University School of Education called the “Pathways to Prosperity.”  It supports the idea of career pathways, and, he asks, “What better economic development tool? There is no better economic development tool than an educated, prepared workforce.”

Naturally, after hearing that, I Googled Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity web page.  It backs up what Superintendent Barge said.  It refers to the success of the  European model. Lessons from that show that high quality vocational education programs ease the path into the adult work force.  And, more importantly, it says, “Most young people learn best in structured programs that combine work and learning, and where learning is contextual and applied. Ironically, this pedagogical approach has been widely applied in the training of our highest status professionals in the U.S., where clinical practice (a form of apprenticeship) is an essential component in the preparation of doctors,architects, and (increasingly) teachers.”

The Education Solution: A Retired Educator’s Defense of the Public School Teacher

February 25, 2011

This post was submitted by retired Columbus, Georgia educator Judson Patten as a comment about the post The Education Solution: Is it Really the Teacher’s Fault? I decided to run it as an individual post because it gives a teacher’s point of view.

By Judson Patten

I felt so sorry for the students and teachers at Marshall Middle School over the years as they were being tested and continually called a “failing school.” Then they would be compared with Richards Middle School and Arnold Middle School and the only difference was the address of the schools and the part of town the children came from. I always thought it was so unfair to label a whole school as “failing” because of test scores. I fully believe that you could have switched the teachers from Richards with the teachers at Marshall and the outcome would have been exactly the same.

 Georgia gives all students the same test and that includes the children in Special Education classes. Yet there are some states that do not test the Special Education students along with the rest and that makes Georgia show up as further down in the comparisons.

Every thing that can be done to better prepare students for school is important. You mentioned pre-kindergarten classes and I believe that program is taking a tremendous hit with Governor Deal’s budget. I’ve been involved with education in Columbus for over 40 years and the teachers have always been working their hearts out for the children of Columbus. Of course, there are going to be some that don’t go quite as far as others but the teachers give their all for the students and will do everything within their power to do all that the students will allow them to do to better their education.

Public school is the way. When you take the students out of public school and put them in private school – you are also hurting the public school by removing many of the students that would help with raising the test scores in each school. Kids are worth the money that it takes to provide the best education that can be provided. Cutting five days out of the school year for students – that’s a whole week of school – was insane. And that was to save money.

The Education Solution: Is it Really the Teacher’s Fault?

February 21, 2011



While taking pictures at North Columbus Elementary, a school with mostly middle-class kids that are not at the poverty level, I noticed that it had something else in common with the world's highest ranked school system, Finland, a relaxed atmosphere. And the students perform well in 4th grade reading, with 92% passing the state's standardized reading test, which is higher than both the state average of 87%, and the MCSD average of 82 %. It scores lower in math, with a 74% passing rate, which ties with the state average. South Columbus Elementary School, which has a high percentage of children who live in poverty, has a 4th grade reading passing rate of 55%, and a 4th grade math passing rate of 33%.


A lot of my teacher friends are getting hot and bothered by teachers being blamed for the country’s allegedly poor education performance.  I use the word “allegedly” because some claim the rankings are unfair. 

For instance, they say it is unfair to compare the Finland system, which is ranked number one in the world at this time, with ours because Finland doesn’t have a diverse population, few students are not native speakers.  And Finland has almost no children living in poverty. 

Not only does the United States have great diversity, it also has the highest poverty level of any of the world’s rich nations.  If it is agreed that Mexico is a rich country, it would edge out the United States for number one.  

According to a UNICEF study, the child poverty rate in Finland in 2005 was 2.8 percent. The United States child poverty rate is 21.9 percent. And, yes indeed, a child raised in poverty is far more likely to perform poorly than one raised in affluence.

Now, if you live in a place like my home town, Columbus, Georgia, the poverty problem is much larger than the national average.  This is often true in urban areas. Overall, schools in suburban districts  score better on standardized tests.

In the Muscogee County School District sixty-five percent of the students come from families who live in poverty, based on how many qualify for free and reduce-priced lunches.  The rate in some schools goes as high as 95 percent. I asked Muscogee County School District Superintendent Susan Andrews to explain the extent of the poverty problem and how the MCSD is coping with it.  This is what she told me.

“Sixty-five percent of our students receive free and/or reduced price lunch.  Many other children are on the borderline of this poverty line.  Generational poverty is a persistent problem and a formidable foe.  In order to work on the issue and ensure that children who live in poverty receive a quality education, we begin by serving as many students as the State will provide us slots in the prekindergarten program and by partnering with programs such as Head Start.  Early childhood education is a key in developing children’s vocabulary at an early age.  Children who live in poverty have significantly smaller vocabularies than students from middle class families.  The gap in achievement between students from poverty and other students is present when students enter our doors.  Schools with high levels of poverty are provided more support in the form of personnel (family service coordinators, more assistant principals, more academic coaches) than schools without a high level of poverty.  The purpose of the federal ESEA is to provide funding for additional support for schools with high poverty so these schools (we refer to them as Title I eligible schools) receive additional funds for supplies, equipment, and professional development.  This funding cannot supplant other local and state funding but must supplement the local and state funding.

“Our Partners in Education program, as well as other community involvement projects, assist our students who live in poverty to have the opportunities and mentoring they need.  Columbus Scholars is another program designed to reach out to students who need additional support.” 

But, you may say, there are children who start out in poverty, but do quite well,  ending up with college educations, thanks to the work of excellent, dedicated, caring teachers. I believe that is true.  But, there are those who say reports about that can be misleading. We’ll look at that in a future post in our The Education Solution  series.

If you would like to find out how a school performs anywhere in the United States,  just click on this link to NBC’s Education Nation Scorecard.   

The Education Solution: Charter Schools are Not the Magic Bullet

February 14, 2011

Despite the hue and cry for more local control to make establishing charter schools easier, there is also the admonition that they are not the solution to the education crisis.  The idea of allowing schools to be partially exempt from school board control so they can be innovative in improving instruction and student achievement outcomes is getting a lot of coin these days.  But, a study by Stanford University has found that charter schools are not better overall than traditional schools.

Based on the CREDO study, Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States

  According to Wikipedia the research showed  that 17% of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools; 46% showed no difference from public schools; and 37% were significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts.  This based 70 percent of demographically matched charter schools in the United States.

Still, there are those who want more charter schools, and more magnate schools. Former Muscogee County School District board member Fife Whiteside has this to say about it:

Fife Whiteside

  “The school district has only two dedicated magnets, where all the children are there by choice, of the sort described in Waiting. [He is referring to the documentary Waiting for Superman.] These are Columbus High and Britt David. Both are extraordinarily successful and have traditionally had twice, or more, as many applications as seats. When I was on the school board I periodically reviewed school costs for these schools and they were never more expensive than others.

“Why not have more such schools, particularly a dedicated magnet middle school? The reason most often articulated, when I asked that question, was that it would be unfair to other schools, to take away the “other school’s good students.” The fear was that taking away the good students would hurt test scores in the other schools and make them look bad. I thought the parents owned the child not the school. The school is the resource for the benefit of the child and not the child the resource for the benefit of the school. The question should be what is best for the child, not for the staff of the school.

“Three other examples come to mind as well.

“The school district, with one exception, has always resisted charter school applications, sometimes at great expense. The publically articulated reason was that the charter proponents could not be trusted, had bad ideas, would fail, etc. Hard to understand in view of the performance in some of our regular schools. But the real reason is that the charter schools would pull students out of regular schools and pull away the state FTE earned money, I believe over $5000 per child, which is a loss to the school district. It is about keeping money to protect positions and salaries.”

Magnate and charter schools also bring up in the issue of two-track schools, an upper track for the better performing students and a lower track for the rest. Is that a good idea? Is it fair? We’ll look at that in a future Education Solution report.


The Education Solution: Are More Local Control and Charter Schools Really Better?

February 7, 2011

Sen. Josh McKoon, (Rep) Georgia 29th District

There is a hue and cry by some for more “local control” in Georgia’s public school system.  Newly elected Georgia 29th District Senator Josh McKoon tells me he is going to introduce a bill to provide more local control.

In an email he said, “First and foremost is to make it easier for local school districts to elect charter system status. This status allows local school districts to reassert control over their district and frees them from one size fits all state mandates. Every education success story I’ve read about involves heightened local control. So I intend to propose legislation that will allow local boards of education to elect charter system status provided they are meeting or exceeding the state average on the CRCT test.”

There is already a law on the books that addresses charter schools, according to Muscogee County School District Superintendent Susan Andrews.  There is a big problem with it for Columbus, she says, because it rules out admission requirements for any school.  She emailed this to me: “By 2014 local school districts must decide to operate under what is described in Georgia Law as IE2 (I,E squared) or become a Charter System.  If systems decide not to select one of these umbrellas under which to operate the Board of Education and Superintendent must sign an affidavit that they will accept the “Status Quo.” Of course, who wants to do that with the negative connotations that brings with it? To operate as an IE2 district, the school district must develop a Strategic Plan which outlines the student achievement improvements which will be made in exchange for flexibility or exemption from State Board rules and/or State laws.  The district in its plan can request the specific rules and/or laws from which it wants to be exempt. 

“To become a charter system, all schools in the district operate under a district charter but there can be no admission requirements for any school in the district.  Currently, we have admission requirements for Columbus High, Britt David Elementary, Hardaway’s, Richards’, and Clubview’s International Baccalaureate Programs, Arnold’s Magnet Program.  Unless we are willing to dismantle those programs, we would not be eligible for Charter System Status. 

“I believe IE2 offers the most flexibility and that is the one we will most likely pursue.” 

Josh tells me that IE2 allows local school boards to apply for charter status.  He promises to give me a fuller  explanation. When he does, I’ll pass it along.  He also has some other interesting plans for public education in Georgia.  More on that, too, later.

Some think the charter school concept is the magic bullet in making schools better. Some think they are overrated.  I’ll deal more with that in my next  The Education Solution series.

The Education Solution: Race to the Top in Muscogee County

February 1, 2011


Muscogee County School District Superintendent Dr. Susan Andrews agreed to answer some questions I have about education reform in America, Georgia, and Muscogee County. Yesterday she explained the effects of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program.  Today, she explains the effects of President Obama’s Race to the Top. 

Race to the Top is a federal grant for school reform.  The purpose of this grant is to transform the nation’s lowest performing schools, to enhance teaching and learning, to ensure the implementation of the Common Core Standards, and to allow for teachers to use the most current data available to inform their instruction day to day, as well as providing them longitudinal data so they can see student progress over time.  Muscogee County will be receiving $11.6 million dollars over the next four years.  I am excited to be at the table as we begin these initiatives.  My greatest concern is that we will spend, as a state, $400 million dollars in the next four years and a true transformation will not have taken place.  We are going to work very hard in Muscogee County to use this money over the next four years to implement the reforms with integrity and make a difference in the achievement of all students.  A large portion of this money had to be set aside for year four of the grant to provide bonuses for teachers who reach a certain level on the Teacher Effectiveness Scale which will be developed at the State level.  The State told districts how much of the money to set aside for that purpose.  Another large portion of the money will be spent on building capacity among our teaching staff through targeted professional development.

Having said all of that I must remind everyone that in America, we value every child and believe that every child should have the opportunity to be educated in our public schools.  We are educating more students, with more diversity, to higher levels than at any time in the history of our nation.  That is a story that doesn’t often get told.  Providing a quality education for all students is a civil right due to all American children.