Elsewhere in today’s edition of The Times, you will find pages spotlighting this year’s Teachers of the Year for both the Hall County and Gainesville school systems.
The teachers recognized on those pages represent the “best of the best.” They are professional educators who have shown themselves to be innovative in teaching techniques, passionate about their students and successful in turning their classrooms into true learning centers.
While it seems everyone and their brother has an idea about how public education should be improved, there are few who would disagree with the premise that the classroom teacher is the cornerstone of the system, and that public schools can only be as good as the teachers who interact with students on a daily basis.
Yet even as we recognize the excellence of the outstanding teachers honored by being named Teachers of The Year for their respective schools, we also have to wonder what the future holds for the careers in which they are so personally invested.
At the state level, Georgia voters last month said “no thanks,” to Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal for a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state to take over failing schools that local school systems proved unable to improve.
But defeating the measure doesn’t solve the problem. There are still too many schools that repeatedly fail to meet minimum standards of academic achievement, often due to the socio-economic status of their student bodies. In some instances, poor communities cannot adequately fund schools so as to give students a fighting chance; in others, local school boards simply aren’t up to the task of reforming failing schools.
The voters of Georgia have said what they do not support as a means of improving school performance, but where does that leave the state when it comes to solving the problem?
One of the issues raised by those opposed to the constitutional change in Georgia was a concern that allowing the state to take control of failing schools would be a route to more privatizing of education — that, in fact, tax funds would be channeled to private companies, which in turn would be asked to turn schools around.
That same concern has surfaced in recent weeks at the national level, with president-elect Donald Trump’s announcement that he will appoint as secretary of education someone who is a strong advocate of charter school programs and school vouchers for use in private schools.
The basic organizational framework of public education in Georgia has remained the same for decades: Local school boards and the superintendents they hire are responsible for oversight of schools at the local level. Funding is primarily provided through taxes levied at the local and state level, and the schools themselves are expected to provide educational services to student bodies that are reflective of the communities in which they are located.
But the noble intent of public education is often hampered by the bureaucracy of public education. Politicians at the state and national level enact sweeping educational reforms with increasing regularity, like the federal No Child Left Behind, or the highly controversial Common Core curriculum initiative. It seems that as soon as one proposal for improving schools begins to be implemented it is shuttled aside and replaced by something else.
The needs of classroom teachers and local school administrators are often forgotten in the rush for governing bodies outside the education field to put their stamp on the newest wave of educational revolution. Accountability is measured by a sea of standardized test scores rather than the accomplishment of individual students. Funding becomes dictated by complex formulas and politically correct posturing rather than realistic needs. Cookie-cutter approaches to problems are used when customized solutions are needed. Mandates are issued, but funding to finance them is not provided.
And then, as with this year at the federal level, we go through a new election cycle, and suddenly last year’s priorities are no longer important and everybody is expected to embark on a totally new path toward improvement. In two years, Georgia will elect a new governor, and odds are the direction will shift again at the state level.
The only consistency about public education is that there is none. Each time a new political wind blows, the ensuing hot air fills the sails on the ship of school reform and sends it shooting off in a different direction.
Which makes the job being done by the teachers recognized locally this week, and thousands of others like them across the nation, even more remarkable.
In the ever-changing world of public education and the highly charged political storms that seem to forever surround it, the one constant remains the success of truly good teachers and the difference they make in the future lives of their students. Sometimes in the sound and fury of the debate over what needs to be done to make public schools better, we lose sight of what is already being done to make many of them great.
No matter what changes reshape and redefine the structure of public education in the future, its success or failure ultimately will be decided by the quality of the teachers called upon to fill the classrooms. We can only hope that whatever the future holds for public schools, the profession of teaching continues to attract and retain those who are the “best of the best.” If that’s not the case, no attempt at reform nor improvement will be successful.