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Commentary: State should focus on real goals to improve education
will schofield 0409
Will Schofield

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Each Sunday through the beginning of the 2011 General Assembly, The Times is taking a look at some of the key issues that Gov.-elect Nathan Deal and state lawmakers will face.

Last Sunday: Val Perry, the executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association, the challenges that state leaders will face reaching a compromise on water. Read it here.

Today: Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield examines what the legislature can do to improve education.

Next Sunday: Former DOT board member Mike Evans gives his thoughts on how transportation needs can be paid for.

Dec. 26: Gainesville businessman Doug Carter, the incoming president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, suggests ways that state leaders can help jump-start the state’s economy.

Jan. 2: Former state Sen. Lee Hawkins gives advice to the many new faces in Atlanta on how they can quickly learn how to do their new jobs.

Recent legislative sessions have provided ample opportunities for those of us charged with the duty of educating the next generation to develop a high tolerance for ambiguity. Given Georgia's current political and economic climate, I expect no less during the upcoming session.

The issues of "school choice," funding for public education and compensation of educators are sure to be debated, legislated, mandated and measured.

We may also find a few surprise packages beneath our legislative Christmas tree: Schools may be asked to measure blood sugar levels, post new rules in school agendas or provide opportunities for students to bubble in test answers during 30 percent of their days in school rather than the current 20 percent.

I would be pleasantly surprised to see our lawmakers take up important issues such as industry certification training, using the arts or digital resources to improve student engagement, support for the practice of aligning students' God-given passions with relevant curricula or the development of tools to help us assess young adults' readiness for college, work and life.

With that being said, here is my Las Vegas line, predicting this year's education legislative favorites.

Leading the parade will be the annual proponents of "school choice" and raising academic standards. I would interject that I have never found anyone in favor of lowering standards. Einstein and Menken warned, "Complex challenges always have simple solutions, and they are always wrong."

I believe schools belong to their communities and should always be seeking new ways to provide the educational opportunities desired by the families served. For too long, public schools have errantly provided generations of families with only two choices — take it or leave it — and this is a practice that must change.

However, voucher programs that divert public funds to private schools have, in reality, provided choice to only a chosen few and depleted remaining resources, thereby increasing the percentage of high-needs learners left behind for public schools to serve (the Washington, DC, program is a possible exception).

Public schools, while proudly opening their doors to all learners, are held to a higher standard of accountability, not just for student performance, but also for teacher quality and financial disclosure than private institutions. Diverting resources from the public schools, especially during these unprecedented challenging economic times, through voucher programs with little or no supporting research or track record of success seems at best questionable; at worst, irresponsible.

Instead, our public schools must lead the way in providing innovative programming to engage students in meaningful learning that will prepare them for the future. We must seek the input of our parents and act upon it. Children should sit at the family dinner table each evening and describe in great detail the activities they participated in at school, with a look of eager expectation toward the next day's learning.

I fear that rather than encourage and expect this type of transformation of our public schools, our leaders — either because they do not believe we can more effectively focus on individual students' strengths and interests or in the name of political ideology — may capitulate to overly simplistic choice programs.

Like trauma care, transportation and social services, Georgia's commitment to funding public education will be debated. Many will argue, and rightly so, that we should utilize our current resources more effectively. Digital resources such as video conferencing and online learning must become components of modern blended learning environments.

While I believe it would be naive to expect large increases in educational spending, I am hopeful our leaders will consider unprecedented levels of flexibility and necessary investments in the technological infrastructure to allow world-class experiences for all of Georgia's boys and girls.

Furthermore, time on task should be protected at all costs. Students need to be learning in school as many days as possible. Let us not forget that in spite of flexibility, innovation and heroic efforts on the part of our teachers to do more with less, there is a minimal level of support that is necessary for schools to survive. We are at that precipice.

Finally, a legislative session will not be complete without debate regarding the means of compensating teachers. Evidence is mounting that current compensation structures based upon experience and degree levels are poor predictors of academic performance. It is equally clear that little success has been derived from the burgeoning attempts across the country to implement performance pay.

Do we really know how to quantify what great teaching looks like? It is my hope that we will deliberatively and thoughtfully continue to struggle with this important question and forever seek to define, celebrate and reward our most effective teachers accordingly. While messy and controversial, our children and their teachers deserve no less.

In an age that our culture seems to have lost the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable, I hold great appreciation for our elected representatives. They are servant-leaders who, often at a significant personal cost, fill Senate and House seats for the good of the people. We are blessed to have a local delegation of "good men" who listen to the voters who elected them.

However, it seems that the 40-day sprint we term the legislative session provides numerous opportunities for last-minute compromises resulting in legislation that in no way resembles the honorable intent of the men or women who originally penned the ideas.

Teachers, students and schools are resilient. We will play the ball where it is thrown. We will continue to seek new and better ways to support our families in helping boys and girls ready themselves for a future we cannot foresee.

It will be my prayer that reason, temperance and integrity rule during the upcoming days in Atlanta. I am thankful for the men and women who have entered the ring on our behalf.

Will Schofield is superintendent of Hall County schools.

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