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

Does House Bill 338 label schools failing while ignoring the factors that undermine learning, especially poverty? (AJC File)

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.

Why?

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.

Reader Comments 0

27 comments
MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

The detailed and strongly-stated editorial in Sunday's AJC (3/19/17) by State Rep. Stacey Y. Abrams, D-Atlanta and Georgia's House Minority Leader,  has persuaded me to support the passage of HB338.


 Rep. Abrams stated, "HB338 is not OSD. .  . . The legislation requires the chief turnaround officer to actually collect evidence to diagnose the causes of struggling schools.  Assessments of proper nutrition, hearing tests and eyeglasses, plus analysis of environmental issues, must be performed  before state intervention occurs.  Students identified as 'low-performing' will have access  to supports to address non-academic barriers to learning, and the governor would be authorized to provide funding to address those needs. . . .The head of the program must hold extensive credentialing and experience in the field of public education, and he or she will be subject to the oversight of a council of educators, administrators and parents. The input of the Education Turnaround Advisory Council brings much-needed perspectives to the table - voices excluded under OSD." 

class80olddog
class80olddog

The correlation between poverty and failing students is just that- a correlation.  If I used the "correlation" between a certain skin color and failing students, you would call me a racist.  Well, I call you a "classist"!  Let's take the case of a family of seven where there are two parents, only the dad works, but the mother is a stay-at-home mom and cares about education and works with her kids every day to teach them.  The dad only makes enough to get by, but they are proud and refuse any food stamps or other welfare, even though they qualify.  Are they going to be "failing students"?  Not likely! Then take the example of a single mom with two kids - she id strung out on dope, but gets plenty of welfare and does not work, so she has 24 hours a day to help her kids, but she doesn't care and they don't care, and so they grow up without the "vocabulary" and end up as failing students.  It is not the poverty, per se, it is usually the choices that are made that put people in poverty that gets passed down to their kids.

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Kathy Brown
Kathy Brown

If you look into it I bet the focus is on schools, Title I schools specifically because of what few know about. School Wide Title I programs vs. Targeted Title I programs. It is a LOT easier for a district to operate schools as school wide Title I programs, less paperwork and accountability. Having Targeted Title I programs at any school requires a "paper trail" to ensure the billions of federal Title I monies is actually going toward the student who receives that free or reduced lunch.

Jackson
Jackson

What both sides fail to realize in this debate solutions should focus on economics. Which is why I have proposed for years the mission of schools should be to prepare students for a skilled job, and or higher education. Why connecting work opportunities with education is especially more important in areas with high poverty rates.


Also we must crack down on gang violence, and end the failed "War on Drugs". PEW institute study claims this will left 30% of Americans out of poverty which, we know is a key driver in improving education. Students living in war zones with lack of parental involvement is recipe for disaster on a macro.


We must end the one size fit all end of year high stakes testing and curriculum. Instead replace the system with testing that focuses on skill certification related to a job, and or higher education credit. Combine this with an internship or co-op job over education bureaucrats testing system. The above system we will see a lower drop-out rate, and higher success for students prepared based on aptitude.


Finally, we need to combine resources with higher education and high school promoting duel enrollment tracks.The colleges and high schools should cross pollinate buildings, administration and educators to create a cohesive well thought-out process focused on job skills and or prepared for higher education.

Astropig
Astropig

@Jackson


"Also we must crack down on gang violence, and end the failed "War on Drugs""


Okay, how? How do we "crack down" on gang violence without unleashing an even more bitter,polarizing fight in this country over freedom of speech,assembly and privacy? The kind of overwhelming governmental force needed to take control of gang infested areas would hardly be tolerable in a free society,but I'd like to see your ideas on how we would begin.


The "war on drugs"? Okay, we're kinda going down that road now.Marijuana has been pretty much decriminalized and made acceptable in a legal sense these days. But businesses still test for cannabis and that's not going to change as long as there are lawyers looking for tort cases.Harder drugs are out there in copious amounts (trust me, I know this to be true),but  turning our head won't make their effects any less destructive.So why should law-abiding citizens underwrite legions of jib heads that neglect their kids, consume public services and fill our schools with kids that will perpetuate their parents behavior?


Not trying to put you on the spot here,but we need more than broad statements of  intent and more specific ideas for real improvement  in order to ensure that our kids lives are better than our own.

Jackson
Jackson

@Astropig @Jackson One if we end the "War on Drugs we would dry up their money. Two, we could than start going after gang members without low level crimes of non gang members getting caught up in the fight. Three non violent drug offenders still fill our court system. 


Jackson
Jackson

@Astropig @Jackson FYI                                                      http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/01/overcriminalization-of-america-113991                          .........................................We have paid a heavy price for mass incarceration and could benefit by reversing this trend. It has been estimated that at least 53 percent of those entering prison were living at or below the U.S. poverty line when their sentence began. Incarceration leads to a 40 percent decrease in annual earnings, reduced job tenure and higher unemployment. A Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that two-thirds of former inmates with earnings in the bottom fifth upon release in 1986 remained at or below that level 20 years later. A Villanova University study concluded that “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent, or about 2.8 percentage points” and “several million fewer people would have been in poverty in recent years.”..............Reversing overcriminalization and mass incarceration will improve societal well-being in many respects, most notably by decreasing poverty. Today, approximately 50 million people (about 14 percent of the population) are at or below the U.S. poverty rate. Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society—especially for the disadvantaged..........


#Pelosied
#Pelosied

@Jackson 

Perhaps drug peddlers should be granted waivers to sell street drugs to your kids and those of fellow liberals?

You know, to keep down jail populations and preserve their income earning potential.

Jackson
Jackson

@#Pelosied @Jackson We heard the same argument during prohibition. Should we criminalize smoking and drinking? Would that add or subtract to the gang problem?

Astropig
Astropig

@Jackson @#Pelosied


Now just a second...You're completely ignoring the money taken out of poor people's pockets when they purchase drugs,legal or not.You're only looking at the cost of locking up the sales force and completely ignoring the societal cost of allowing hop-heads to get and stay high all day and have the rest of society pick up the tab when they don't feed or clothe their kids,when they can't hold a job (can't pass a basic drug screen) and need insanely expensive care when their lifestyle choices finally catch up with them in their Medicare years.They get to have a "high old time" (literally) and the rest of us get the bill,whether it's sooner or later.


PEW(!) Research doesn't address the overall cost of basically allowing small-fry drug users/sellers to ply their trade with relative impunity,but that cost is real,and it's enormous.

Jackson
Jackson

@Astropig @Jackson @#Pelosied HUH, if it was legal you would not have drug dealers? Do we have illegal beer dealers? Do we have illegal cigarette dealers? HUH???

Starik
Starik

@#Pelosied @Jackson Chicken or egg? Visit your local courts and see how people end up in prison.  (1) They do something really bad, or (2) they do something less bad repeatedly.

time for reform
time for reform

Poverty per se isn't the problem. Poor kids can learn.

The real problem is single-parent households: especially in the inner city, where 3 out of 4 children grow up without a father in the home. Throwing taxpayer dollars at the situation won't change anything.

These kids need two-parent families actively providing them with discipline and direction. Or they need school environments which emphasize same, to an extent impossible within a traditional public school.

But this will never be discussed here.

Astropig
Astropig

@time for reform


"Poverty per se isn't the problem. Poor kids can learn."


Agree. The above opinion is just more of the same-blame the victims.If a reform as mild as this can't pass,may as well just give up and hand out "all access" vouchers to any family that wants them.

elementary-pal
elementary-pal

@Astropig @time for reform I agree - poor kids can learn.  However, many our poor kids start to school with far less background knowledge and/or life experience than kids from middle class neighborhoods.  If a child starts to school with no knowledge of the alphabet or without knowing letters and numbers or no concept of colors and shapes, they are behind from the beginning.  It is not that our students are not learning.  They just have more to learn in the same amount of time.  

teachermom4
teachermom4

@elementary-pal @Astropig @time for reform They come with a lot less vocabulary, too, limiting their ability to understand what they are being taught. You cannot connect new learning to prior understanding if you don't even know the words being used to deliver the new content.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@elementary-pal @Astropig @time for reform The lack of background knowledge is not the result of the "poverty" - it is the result of SORRY PARENTS!  But schools are not set up to change the parents - only the kids.  So address the issues that come with these kids of sorry parents - attendance, discipline issues, falling behind in school.  These are things that schools CAN address - enforce truancy laws (put those parents in JAIL), enforce discipline (send those repeat offenders to alternative schools or at least alternative classrooms - get them OUT of regular classrooms), and retain students who do not master the content (don't socially promote that kid who came into kindergarten not even knowing his name, much less letters, just to keep him with his age group).  Schools should focus on schooling, and leave the social matters to the community.

jezel
jezel

Struggling students have no money......schools are a different story.

Chantelle Kirk
Chantelle Kirk

This is from the Governor. He is "pushing" this through the legislature!

Reina King
Reina King

This hits the nail on the head! Thank you, thank you!