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Opinion: Legislature targets failing schools when it should focus on struggling students in poverty

In this column, Mark Elgart says the Georgia Legislature misses the mark with House Bill 338, which focuses its attention at the school level rather than the student level. And the disagreements about the bill -- the governor and the state school superintendent disagree on a key element -- further undermines its likelihood of succeeding, says Elgart.

Elgart is the founding president and chief executive officer for Alpharetta-based AdvancED, which focuses on education improvement through research and innovation, policy and advocacy, technology and accreditation. The parent company of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, AdvancED accredits schools in Georgia and nationwide.

While most of  HB 338 deals with the hiring of a high level reform czar called the chief turnaround officer and the powers the office would possess to intervene in schools, the bill also authorizes a study committee on the establishment of a state accreditation process that would allow for removal of local board of education members if accreditation was lost.

By Mark Elgart

Since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, our nation’s state education systems have spent significant resources to design and deploy accountability structures with growing complexity. The primary focus of such systems is to identify “low performing schools” and to enact support and interventions to improve such schools. Our track record to date of actually improving low performing schools is suspect.


First, we are labeling these schools as low performing when in reality they are not. These are not low performing schools, rather they are schools with the highest percentage of struggling students.

Second, the design theory influencing state accountability systems is pressure dominos. From federal to state, district and school, various pressures in the form of incentives and consequences are applied as triggers to motivate and improve performance. This design theory fails often. Improving student learning is hard and complex work. We have not and cannot improve schools from D.C. or the state capital. We can only achieve better results with and for kids through efforts and resources at the local level.

Third, interventions are not being designed and implemented to address the need. We now define the source of the problem as the school and consequently enact interventions at the school level. However, the source of the challenge is at the student level and consequently the interventions we design should be at that level.

Over 92.3 percent of the schools listed on every state’s “low performing list” are also the schools with the highest concentration of students living in poverty. In Georgia, 96.7 percent of the school’s on the state list for low performance are also the schools with the highest percentage of kids living in poverty. This is our fundamental challenge -- how to effectively educate kids in poverty.

Now, the state of Georgia is considering new legislation, House Bill 338, to turnaround low performing schools. The state’s desire to enact a plan to address the needs of these schools is commendable. In doing so, the state should invest in helping each school create more effective solutions for their population of students struggling to learn.

Rather than labeling these schools as failing, the state should identify these schools as having a high concentration of students in need. If the state shifts their attention to meeting the needs of the student, the types of interventions considered should be vastly different from what is now contemplated in HB 338.

State education systems that have achieved the most progress in the last 20 years are those where the state, by design, ensures the governor, state superintendent, legislature, and state board of education commit to the same vision and strategic direction for students and the schools they attend. Unfortunately in Georgia, we have struggled to achieve a shared vision and strategic direction among and between state leaders with authority and responsibility over a state’s education system.

It appears as though HB 338 will further divide these efforts. Improving student learning is hard work that requires focused commitment of the adults who have responsibility for helping students succeed. In Georgia, we must align and connect all our expectations and resources from the Governor’s Office to the classroom. We must meet this challenge if we are going to be successful in helping every child succeed in their education journey through our schools.

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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.