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Givens: Education reform is incorrectly focused
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In an attempt to reform education, we are moving toward more intense scrutiny of teachers. This makes sense, as teachers are the largest factor behind a child’s learning while in the classroom. Unfortunately, the way it is being done, with yet more testing, will only work to destroy teachers’ morale while further replacing instruction days with testing days.

Even with the best teachers, a student living in fear without his or her love or food needs being met will not have the emotional energy to focus on learning or concentrate on tests. Because of this, public education in general and teachers, in particular, have become the whipping boys for the state’s failure to deal with social problems. The proposed system for measuring teachers’ ability punishes the teachers who are working in high poverty areas. The system encourages the best teachers to abandon these schools for schools with fewer students facing such difficulties, further harming these children.

Educating children involves not just classroom and academic lessons; it involves the emotional and physical well-being of the children as well. This is traditionally the domain of the family and churches, but in many of these areas family structures are strained and the churches themselves overwhelmed. The Department of Family and Children Services is to help when nongovernment support isn’t enough.

As a teacher, I am appalled that Georgia plans to underfund education by about $1 billion this year, but the struggle that that creates is nothing compared to what DFCS faces. DFCS has lost 28 percent of its budget over the last five years while seeing an increase of 19 percent in its caseload.

DFCS is responsible for investigating abuse and neglect especially among children, and either finding a suitable home for the children or providing support for the family. So DFCS serves the poor, neglected and abused. The abused and neglected are mostly children who are largely invisible outside of the context of school performance. They don’t vote, so sadly, their needs go largely ignored.

One effect of our underfunded social service system is that our schools are full of children whose basic needs are not being met. Schools in districts with high rates of substance abuse and poverty face great challenges. Instead of recognizing the social problems that should be addressed through community action, the local school itself becomes the focal point of frustration. As if only we were to increase these children’s test scores, their futures would be brighter and neighborhoods safer.

Some schools have reduced violence and discipline problems with programs such as Restorative Justice and Alternatives to Violence. These programs teach kids how to assert their needs in a healthy way, to empathize with others, to manage anger and to resolve conflicts, skills not traditionally taught but needed to create mature adults capable of building stable families.

The programs resemble group therapy, something all too many children need. Though not academic in nature, and despite my reluctance to add another responsibility to schools, it makes sense to fund these programs in schools as they help create a safe environment for learning.

To make schools safer some schools have metal detectors with additional police monitoring the hallways. If we treat school like a prison can we be surprised that students act like criminals or try to escape?

Some might want to fix the social ills in high crime neighborhoods with harsher prisons, as opposed to social services. As I write this, I am in Guatemala. This country has a very high crime rate; it also has a harsh prison system, which doesn’t lower crime. There are also no social services here to speak of except some free hospital care and the charity of neighbors and the church.

Education still offers a way to improve one’s lot in life but public schools here are poorly funded. I’ve talked to a number of people here about how lack of education keeps people poor. The most depressing comment I get is, “We shouldn’t have good schools. If we did, no one would want to work in the fields.”

Do we in Georgia want to follow the economic and social policies of a developing nation and underfund education while gutting social services? Is that how we pave the road to a brighter future?

Interestingly enough there is growing interest in giving psychological support to prisoners instead of just releasing them with their addiction issues untreated. That’s great but why are we focusing on people after they are criminals instead of reaching them before they become criminals?

Brandon Givens is a Hall County resident and occasional columnist.

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