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Opinion: Raising bar for students isn't enough. Raise it for everyone in education.

Etienne R. LeGrand is an Atlanta-based writer and education strategist. In this essay, she responds to the new NAEP report on where Georgia sets its proficiency levels.

By Etienne R. LeGrand 

Georgia finds itself at the bottom of the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report card and instead of responding to this news with concrete actions the state is taking to improve its lot, state education leaders offered excuses about whether it is last or next to last in challenging the veracity of the report’s findings. 

The defensive response to the NAEP report by Georgia Deputy Superintendent for Assessment and Accountability Melissa Fincher isn’t entirely unexpected.  The enduring “gotcha," “hurry up,” and highly politicized climate in which public education is delivered in Georgia and across the country has ripened the conditions for state education and school district leaders to think small, to set the bar low for kids because time is not on their side, confidence in talent is low, and externalities, such as persistent poverty and uneven parenting remain outside of their control.

Rather than lower the bar to account for what it doesn’t control, state leaders might do more to improve what it does control. Improving the quality of the overall talent pool in Georgia’s schools, not just teachers and principals, is key to delivering results. All workers in the system from bus drivers to receptionists represent the system’s largest asset, and more must be done to increase the return on this asset through coaching and feedback. 

 Likewise, eliminating operating inefficiencies through tighter alignment of people and processes can result in financial savings that might be reinvested back into school districts to respond to teacher compensation issues and the effects of poverty and academic unpreparedness on learning.

The urgency for more student growth is real; minority, poor and rural kids’ futures and Georgia’s future prosperity depend increasingly on the state’s capacity to deliver higher quality education for all of Georgia’s children.  But raising the bar without eradicating the cultural barriers found throughout Georgia’s education system such as excuse making and blaming, turf issues and “we-they attitudes,"  risk and conflict avoidance, bureaucracy and lack of innovation, lack of agility and the politicization of education will not lead to the results citizens crave.  

How employees in the system behave as they go about their work tends to be overlooked by education leaders.  These overlooked behaviors become normalized within the system’s culture to define “the way things are done.” Overtime, these dysfunctional habits form an invisible current that produces low morale and energy, distrust, misalignment, opaque communication, and a lack of personal accountability. 

If left unchecked these barriers “chew up” what otherwise might be effective programs and initiatives. Low results follow as few planned initiatives are enabled to be successfully executed. Instead of looking at the human issues underlying low results, structural changes are planned while initiatives and programs are written off as poorly designed when in fact, it’s the culture or behavior of the people in the system that upended expected results.

Georgia is on a merry-go-round of low results, with greater urgency and accountability defined as the on and off ramps.  But, its merry-go-round is predicated on a faulty premise: that an education system can change with newly produced Georgia Milestones tests, for example, without the people working in it changing, too.

Like any other organization, Georgia’s education system is made up of people who must come together as a higher performing team who make a whole system if it is to produce stronger results for kids. Consider the last time you succeeded in an organization – your family, church, or community group without the people in it acting with best intentions and in concert with one another.

As Georgia’s leaders continue to struggle to “make its numbers,” personal accountability for results,  a “can-do” attitude, and a growth-oriented mindset are crucial. Here’s hoping the bar is not only raised to expect more from Georgia’s kids, but that it is also raised to expect more from Georgia’s education leaders.

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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.