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School chief Richard Woods: He may avoid spotlight but is he succeeding behind the scenes?

People often ask what I think of Richard Woods, Georgia's school superintendent. That's a hard question to answer as Woods cultivates a low profile, preferring to stay out of politics and the charged debate around state takeover of schools. (That debate comes to a head in November when voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow the state to take schools away from districts and run them.)

While his predecessor John Barge used his office to upbraid the Legislature for cutting schools and undervaluing teachers, Woods has taken more of a cheerleader role. His public statements are not rebukes of funding shortfalls or bad laws, but celebrations of what he considers his agency's and the state's successes.

Woods has chosen a path that will certainly lead to re-election. A lower profile may mean fewer Georgians know who you are or where you stand, but fewer dislike you as a result.  I get mixed reports from school administrators. Some tell me the state Department of Education is in disarray; others tell me they get responses to their concerns and that's good enough for them. (I think many wish Woods would oppose the governor's proposed Opportunity School District.)

Statewide testing -- the main duty of DOE -- stumbled two years in a row, a performance record that doesn't fare well in national comparisons. Whether that falls on Woods or the Legislature for underfunding the costly enterprise of mass testing is unclear.

I certainly concede that while Woods has chosen to stay out of the limelight, it doesn't mean he's not working behind the scenes.  Both firebrands and candles can light the way.

What's your verdict?

And speaking of heartening messages, here is a new op-ed from Woods.

By Richard Woods

It’s true there are no silver bullets in education – no single change that will set every student on the path toward success. What’s needed, instead, is a holistic approach. We must focus on the whole child, on each child, and all the interlocking elements necessary to equip them with the skills they need.

One of the most essential changes we can make on behalf of Georgia’s students is renewing our commitment to literacy and K-5 foundational skills. The ability to read on grade level by third grade, along with proficiency in math by fifth grade, is the first crucial step toward future academic attainment. We have to get it right in the early grades if students are going to achieve later on.

Gov. Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal have, through their advocacy, laid a firm foundation for an increased focus on literacy. Partnerships with the Get Georgia Reading Campaign and Georgia Public Library Service are game-changers in this regard as well. For the first time, a network exists that is expanding the capacity of Georgia’s education system and allowing educators and communities alike to explore new methods of increasing literacy.

At the Georgia Department of Education, we’re working each day to leverage these resources to the very best of our ability and the maximum benefit of Georgia’s students. We’re working closely with our Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs) to help train and equip school districts with the tools necessary to make improvements in the classroom. Our Striving Readers grant provides funding to schools to ensure all children – birth to 12th grade – are able to read on grade level and communicate effectively with others.

Efforts funded by this grant have shown strong results, and we plan to apply for grant funds through the LEARN Act to expand and strengthen our efforts in this area.

Through our agency strategic plan, we’re setting a course to raise and develop viable academic standards and increase the percentage of K-5 students with a strong knowledge of foundational skills and concepts.

Early efforts have focused on providing tangible tools for students, teachers, and parents – from free teacher resources to daily text reminders for parents of 4-and 5-year-olds. During the summer of 2016, we donated more than 100,000 books to students across the state, and students read another 200,000 books through free access on their digital devices.

Our efforts are moving the needle in the right direction. We’ve seen increases in the number of 4- or 5-star rated schools for climate, the number of third graders reading at or above grade level, the number of schools increasing their rating on the state’s readiness index, and the number of schools implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) with fidelity.

Still, more is needed to place students on the right path toward reading proficiency. We’re now working on a statewide literacy plan, through which we’ll:

• Leverage data across agencies to match needs to local assets

• Utilize school literacy planning templates and support materials to augment school improvement plans

• Design and adopt a reliable, valid early screener to identify students in need of additional supports

• Design and adopt a reliable, valid diagnostic measure for literacy (this would be used for formative assessment, not accountability)

• Produce updated professional learning focused on literacy across all content areas

• Create virtual field trips to support students’ comprehension and background knowledge

It’s also crucial to have an accurate measurement of students’ grasp of foundational skills. Senate Bill 364 helps us make progress in this direction: it eliminates eight high-stakes tests and places a greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy. The bill supports formative assessments for literacy and numeracy in grades 1 and 2, which gives us the opportunity to show how assessments can be given and used in a diagnostic way that truly informs instruction, rather than a high-stakes, limited-return testing model.

In the short-term, we’re developing tools and supports to help districts use the literacy and numeracy assessments they’re already administering to ensure their students are on a path to proficiency in reading and math.

In the long-term, we’re working to change the culture of testing by creating interactive activities that gauge students’ literacy and numeracy skills throughout the year, instead of a high-stakes, primarily multiple-choice assessment that takes place at the end of a grade or course. This shift will show that we can engage students and remove the high-stakes, high-pressure culture of testing while delivering more timely and useful data to teachers and parents.

Fortunately, we are joined in this work by a host of partners who care deeply about Georgia’s children and their ability to live, learn, and lead in the future.

I join with the State Board of Education to reaffirm our commitment to literacy and K-5 foundational skills. I ask Georgia’s districts and local schools - who are doing incredible work on this front already – to join us in this pledge and make K-5 foundational skills a primary focus of the curriculum. Together, we can give students the skills they need to move confidently into the future.


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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.