Opinion: Our public schools are better than most Georgians realize

By many measures, including high school graduation, Georgia is improving, says an education advocate.

Matt Cardoza is the communications director for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and former spokesman for the state Department of Education where he got to visit schools across Georgia on a regular basis.

In this piece, Cardoza says Georgia schools are unfairly labeled as failing. He cites several examples of measurable improvement and says the trend lines are moving upward.

By Matt Cardoza

Have you ever heard that Georgia is first in education? Probably not. Have you ever heard that Georgia is last in education? Probably so.

When you hear Georgia is last in education, that is typically based on one measure – SAT results. Like many education measures, apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult to glean from SAT results. For example, the top-ranked state in the nation based on the most recent comparable (2016) SAT results was Illinois. Only 3 percent of their students took the SAT, compared to 67 percent of Georgia students.

However, if someone insists on using the SAT to rank states, Georgia is far better than “last in the nation.” While not exactly where we want to be, we ranked 36th in the nation on the 2016 comparison, with 67 percent of Georgia’s students taking the test.

Matt Cardoza

The same story can be told with the ACT. This year’s ACT results revealed Georgia’s average composite score of 21.4 was higher, for the second consecutive year and the second time in history, than the national average of 21.

In fact, over the past decade, educational outcomes have been steadily improving as Georgia has raised expectations around standards and instructional systems to ensure that students are college- and career-ready when they graduate high school. Georgia has implemented some of the highest graduation requirements in the country, including four credits of both science and math.

Georgia is seeing the results of these changes. The high school graduation rate has increased more than 10 percentage points since 2012 and is above 80 percent for the first time since using the adjusted cohort calculation now required by federal law. Even better, 50 Georgia school districts recorded 2017 graduation rates at or above 90 percent. Since 2010, the number of graduates requiring remediation upon entering post-secondary education has dropped over six percentage points for English and nearly 10 percentage points in math. We are increasing the percentage of graduates and better preparing them for college and careers.

Despite these gains and achievements, considerable public discourse involving the K-12 public schools is around how they are “failing.” While much of this narrative began under the era of No Child Left Behind, it has most recently been fueled by debate over the Opportunity School District and Chief Turnaround Officer legislation. The public attention has primarily been focused around schools on “the list,’ which schools received an “F” and how long have they been “failing.”

That narrative needs to change. This is not to suggest that addressing the needs of schools, especially schools that are chronically underperforming expectations, is not a real and pressing issue. There are in fact students who attend schools for their entire academic career that are unable to provide the teaching and resources needed for them to be successful. This is not acceptable. However, labeling these schools – and by extension the students, educators, families and communities that make-up the schools – as failures inaccurately identifies the problem and hinders the ability to find a solution.

Much of the root problems around chronically low-performing schools can be found in the impacts of poverty and a history of disinvestment in local communities. In an excellent AJC article examining the costs of educating low-income students, a metro Atlanta elementary school was highlighted as having more than 50 students living in an abandoned apartment building with no electricity or water. When the building was demolished, educators struggled to help their suddenly homeless students and families find new housing and MARTA passes. They provided luggage and clean clothes, and other needs of homeless children. Knowing this, I ask: Is this a school that is failing its students?

The existence of chronically struggling schools is but a symptom of a larger problem. The problem is that many schools are being overwhelmed by issues of poverty and community disinvestment at a time when expectations around student achievement are being raised exponentially. Yet still, on average, student achievement is rising.  It’s not where we ultimately want it, but educators are getting impressive results under difficult circumstances.

As I ponder Georgia’s public education system, I think about all the students and the educators who serve them. Educators, particularly those who work in impoverished communities, need support and encouragement. They need resources and training to serve all the growing needs of their students. These needs include the gaining of knowledge, to be sure. But their needs also run the gambit of social, emotional, and physical health supports. Sometimes that need is as basic as a winter coat and breakfast.

There is much to celebrate in Georgia’s schools. Georgia is no longer ranked in the cellar but has moved up to the middle of the pack. We need to be talking about our successes and how we can get better, rather than past failures. We need to identify problems, lift up solutions, and provide supports to help communities improve their schools. These are things we can do to build a stronger Georgia and keep it the number one state in which to do business.

The next time you hear someone say Georgia is last in education, let them know they are living in the past and that our schools and students are having successes that are going to keep Georgia’s future bright.

 

Reader Comments 1

19 comments
Patrick Ballenger
Patrick Ballenger

Why are you boasting about being 36th on SAT results? hahahha

BAW
BAW

Matt makes some good and valid points, but I'm not sure if he believes that all or most of the problems experienced by the "failing" schools are the fault or byproduct of the failing communities or there are deficiencies in the quality of teaching or the curriculum that also need to be addressed.  His anecdote about 40 kids living in a condemned apartment building sensationalizes the community problem as well.  When my wife did her clinical training in medical school at Grady 25 years ago, she would tell me stories all the time of patients calling at 2 or 3 am in the middle of the week and there would be kids carrying on in the background.

Many of these parents can't even afford to feed their kids (i.e., close to 100% participation in free lunch) or they choose to spend their money on other "priorities" (she saw many instances of this as well) and they can't even provide their kids with enough structure that they get a good night sleep, let alone do their homework.  For the most part, it is not failing schools or "disinvestment" in the community that is to blame, but unfit and irresponsible parents who are dumping financial and personal accountability for raising their children on society. 

Yvette Hill Smith
Yvette Hill Smith

Not buying this. I just moved my kids to new schools in another state and they are way behind.

Helen Muirhead
Helen Muirhead

GA has had consistently failing schools over time by more than any one measure. The state is primarily responsible for the schools/education. The state has to make education and transportation priorities to get better results.

Melvin Gibson
Melvin Gibson

Let's see! The Dept of Education does away with books. They can't afford books. They change the math to Eureka based gibberish. This is a major change to the methods used for math. They can afford to buy this but nothing comes to explain it to the parents, who are expected to help with homework. After this, they seem to be surprised that they aren't getting accolades for improvements to education. I understand the SAT based ratings are biased but I don't think that is the total reason for the poor perception with the public. I think the teachers are generally great people and doing a great job with the resources they are given. However upper management of the Dept of Education needs to examine their implementation of math techniques that are radically different.. Something needs to be provided as a guide for the parents if we continue this. I think the better answer is to go back to the math techniques that have worked for years but that's easier for me.

Greg Chandler
Greg Chandler

I’m still waiting on someone to show me how to balance a check book using common core math.....

Willie Johnson Wonka
Willie Johnson Wonka

I am so glad that he wrote this and is speaking to individuals who do not understand where many of these statistics come from. People are really quick to jump to a conclusion about education in Georgia when they hear a ranking or they hear that he school is on a failing list but they do not understand the dichotomy of everything that goes into those rankings...

Magyymae
Magyymae

Schools do not fail. Students fail for different reasons. Poverty contributes to many of those reasons and until we can help students overcome the difficulties in their home lives nothing at school can improve. I'm a retired teacher and I have observed students struggling with this.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

“That narrative needs to change. This is not to suggest that addressing the needs of schools, especially schools that are chronically underperforming expectations, is not a real and pressing issue.”

Spot on. The narrative needs to change from “failing” and even “struggling” and “underperforming” to “improving.”  Every school, without exception, stands to experience improvement.  However, sustainable improvement requires learning to get better at getting better, and that requires leadership, quality leadership.

Interestingly, however, the “adjusted cohort calculation now required by federal law” – specifically, 34 C.F.R. §200.19(b) – is an example of hindering learning to get better at getting better.

How?  First, see that the name “adjusted cohort calculation” represents truth in advertising.  It is what it says.  Even so, the name should beg asking: Well, okay.  Adjusted.  But what about unadjusted?

Briefly, on the one hand, the adjusted cohort calculation effectively deflates the usually much larger, officially defined 9th grade “starting cohort” count of students – the denominator – to be closer to the usually much smaller count of students who graduated – the numerator.  Therefore, the more deflation of the denominator, the more inflation of the graduation rate.  That is, the more the size of the denominator is made to come closer to the size of the numerator, the more the graduation rates approaches 1.00, or 100 percent.

On the other hand, an unadjusted cohort calculation would take as the denominator the officially defined 9th grade “starting cohort” count of students and simply divide that into the count of students who graduated.

Another contributing factor is adjusted and unadjusted district-level graduation rates being different from and better than school-level average of adjusted and unadjusted graduation rates, respectively.  Thus four different graduation rates, with the adjusted cohort calculation providing the “best good news” story.

And that’s rub and an inhibitor to learning to get better and getting better.

It is, for example, an inhibitor Atlanta Public Schools leadership relishes, for it allows them to brag a self-serving, “best good news” 2017 graduation rate of 77.0 percent.  Fine.  But then they refuse to look at and learn from what school-level unadjusted graduation rates and the 56.2 average beg them learn.  And so they excuse refusing to learn by claiming the federal regulation does not require them to do so.  Moreover, their refusal to learn had them using a proxy for calculating graduation rate until they were called on doing so.  In fact, after they refused my open records request, I found it necessary to appeal to the state’s Attorney General Office to get from APS leadership each Atlanta high school’s 9th grade “starting cohort” count of students needed to calculate school-level unadjusted cohort graduation rates.  If a non-educator could do it, surely they, the educators, could do it.  If interested, read here and see the presentation here and notice Drew Charter Secondary School graduated more students than it had officially enrolled in 12th grade just prior to graduation.

redweather
redweather

The least reliable number is graduation rate, in my humble opinion. Especially now that in some systems no one gets an F.

Sid Chapman
Sid Chapman

I agree! We focus on the wrong things— we call struggling— failing! There are many factors! We must focus on the communities — not false narratives and all the emphasis on standardized testing— and tell the truth how these scores are used to mislead the public for political ends!

feedback1
feedback1

If every parent were free to enroll their child in the public or private school which wins their confidence—would Mr. Cardoza still have a job?

Carla Duffell Houston
Carla Duffell Houston

Yes, they are, and they do more everyday than schools were ever meant to do and be!!

Astropig
Astropig

 Could you please define "disinvestment"? How do you "disinvest in a neighborhood"? By taking money out of a given community? How can you do that in poverty stricken communities? There's no money or resources to take out of there to begin with.


Or would it be more accurate to say that people won't risk their own money in a neighborhood that is crime ridden,unsafe and where the police have no control of the streets except in the daylight hours? To "invest" in any community implies that there will be some return on that investment,either in improved quality of life or rising property values or whatever.The only entity that can "invest" in a community that you describe is government,and in places like Atlanta,that means that the boys in city hall get a cut,their cronies get a cut,their cronies cronies get a cut and so on.We pour money in,around and all over these areas and they end up like they began-full of crime and hopelessness.In the rare cases that people actually DO invest in buying properties,fixing them up,protecting them and actually acting like OWNERS instead of renters,they are taken to task for "gentrification". 


The problem is the culture of generational poverty and dependency,combined with a cultural aversion to education.All of our "fixes" so far have only made the problem a lot worse.

Mack68
Mack68

Very clearly you do not live within city limits. Limit your exurban commentary to your own neck of the woods.

Astropig
Astropig

@Mack68


So,do my questions bother you? (Like this one?) Does pointing out facts about corrupt big city machines make you uncomfortable? 


Kasim,is that you?

BAW
BAW

@Astropig @Mack68 I doubt it is Kasim.  He's too busy trying to get airport contracts bid out before his term ends.