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Is Georgia's school superintendent now a goodwill ambassador rather than policy leader?


In writing this week about a school visit, state school Superintendent Richard Woods called for a renewed focus on the fine arts. With the diminishment of arts education over the last decade, many parents will applaud Woods' stand.

My colleagues and I discussed whether Woods ought to be more focused this week on what’s happening at the Statehouse; he says he supports local control and is wary of overreach by the state or the feds.

Yet, Woods has not issued any response to legislation released Wednesday by Gov. Nathan Deal calling for a constitutional amendment allowing the state to take over under performing schools.

It may be Woods saw what happened to predecessor John Barge when he crossed the governor; DOE became the Capitol’s version of Siberia.

The distance from the governor’s office to the superintendent’s has been growing since Zell Miller. Governors have pursued education reform without the assistance of the elected school chief.

By design, the relationship is strained. The governor controls education spending, but the superintendent runs the state agency that oversees the education bureaucracy that supports and assesses schools

With governors marginalizing DOE and establishing their own education fiefdoms within their offices, the school chief’s job may become decorative. The superintendent may be more goodwill ambassador than policy maker or change agent.

By Richard Woods

I know from my experience as a principal that the first things you see when you walk into a school give you a clear picture of where the school staff place their values. When I visited Trion Elementary recently, one of the first things the principal pointed out was the handprints that lined the school’s hallways – clay handprints that are created when a student enters kindergarten. The principal explained that many seniors and former graduates come back to the school and search the hallways to find their handprint, a symbol of the personalized education students at Trion City Schools receive. It’s an education that is focused on the whole child.

Access to the Arts

Arts are a critical part of the Trion City School System. Vibrant tiled portraits and landscapes fill the hallways, creating an inviting and engaging learning environment. Mastering key content and concepts helps ensure that our students live productive lives, but access to the arts reminds us what life is worth living for.

The Governor has made substantial progress toward restoring the cuts made to public education funding since the start of the Great Recession, and I applaud his commitment to the arts. However, arts programs at many of our schools are still out of reach. To address this issue, I will recommend that the State Board of Education approve a new Fine Arts director position under the umbrella of the Georgia Virtual School. Not only will this opportunity allow the creation of online arts-related courses – extending the opportunity of fine arts to every Georgia student – it will also make fine arts resources available to all Georgia teachers.

I am also committed to working closely with members of the Governor’s Arts Taskforce to ensure that one of its recommendations is a permanent Fine Arts director in the Georgia Department of Education’s Curriculum division. This person will be charged with creating tools and resources to infuse fine arts into all of the content areas, as well as forging partnerships with Georgia’s museums and nonprofits so resources and opportunities are made available across the state.

Personalizing Our Education System

Visiting classrooms in Trion, I witnessed dedicated teachers who worked hard to meet the individual needs of their students. Stations, small groups, one-on-one teaching, and technology were commonplace and blended together to maximize effectiveness. Trion teachers have also come together to develop and implement a literacy program that includes an emphasis on reading, writing, and spelling as well as identifying/remediating deficiencies early on.

We are poised to make a paradigm shift in education from an overemphasis on standardization to a greater emphasis on personalization. It’s a sentiment I focused on during my campaign and one the Governor echoed when he called for Computer Science courses to count as math and world language credit. I will focus on expanding core credit flexibility and will also push for multiple diploma seals to reward students for completing career and academic pathways. Diagnostic testing and parental resources are critical components of the personalization process.

Personalization cannot stop at the education of our students but must also include the personalization of the teaching profession. Professional development must be relevant and effective. Webinars have their place, but this has been the primary delivery system for too long. We need to expand the number of content-area and grade-level academies so teachers are able to meet regionally, share resources/ideas, troubleshoot, and share common challenges they face with GaDOE staff. Resources and professional development should be tailored to areas where a teacher chronically struggles. Ultimately, these opportunities must be viewed not as punitive measures but as guides to help teachers grow as professionals. In the area of evaluation, we don’t need a one-size-fits-all approach but a tiered approach that allows administrators time to focus on beginning and weak teachers, while freeing up our effective teachers so they can teach and develop as teacher leaders.

Trion City Schools is a small school system, so small that grades K-12 are housed under one roof.  However, this small system is offering some big things for their students by bringing together teachers and administrators to address challenges head-on.

In our pursuit of accountability, we cannot allow ourselves to dehumanize our students and teachers. The handprints on the walls of Trion City Schools serve as a constant reminder that students are individuals with individual hopes and dreams – and individual needs and challenges. Only working together can we achieve our goal of teaching each child based on their individual needs.

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.