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Some schools face a steep learning curve
Poorer districts are hit hardest by teacher shortages, testing debates and a lack of funds
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The school year is just a few weeks old and already the drumbeat of opposition to current education policy is banging loudly. The rallying cries against a system many see as failing is coming from several quarters, focused on the intertwined issues of standardized testing, rigid curriculums and inadequate funding.

One chilling effect being felt: Teacher shortages. While local systems have yet to experience major problems filling jobs, some public districts around Georgia and nationwide are having trouble filling faculty positions. Kansas has erected billboards advertising for teachers, while California has eased requirements to fill empty classrooms. Some struggled to find bilingual teachers to handle an influx of English learners. In metro Atlanta and elsewhere, rural and inner-city schools are having the most trouble recruiting and keeping teachers.

Though Georgia and other states have restored some school funds cut during the recession, aftershocks still are being felt. During those lean years, fewer college students sought education degrees amid uncertainty about teacher pay and financial support for schools, and steered toward other professions by an obstacle course of standardized tests and curriculum policies seen as inflexible and burdensome. Whether this is a short-term phenomenon based on an economic hangover or a long-term crisis is uncertain. But even many veteran teachers are getting out.

Parents are striking back against the status quo as well. More choose to hold their children out of testing, believing high-stress exams lead to “paint by numbers” learning that doesn’t engage critical thinking. Because such scores are used to measure teacher and school performance, the more students skip them, the more skewed the results.

That’s the case with the much-maligned Common Core standards created to establish a single nationwide measure by which to compare states. Yet so many have now pulled out of it, that goal has been shot down.

Meanwhile, the exams themselves and programs designed to prepare students for them have spawned a big-money cottage industry that pulls even more vital education dollars away from preferred learning methods.

Despite the intent to even the playing field in U.S. schools, No Child Left Behind mandates have fallen well short of ending what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” That’s because impoverished schools did not get what they needed most to lift students out of that hopeless cycle: Money. The bar of expectations was raised, but resources to help get there were not. It is the very definition of an unfunded mandate.

Tim Slekar, dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis., writes a blog about education issues, bustedpencils.com. In a commentary for Tribune News Service, he writes, “Opting out is simply an act of civil disobedience that targets test-and-punish ‘accountability’ scams.”

Slekar calls accountability measures a “weapon of blame” used against poor schools, and points out the achievement gap remains between well-off suburban districts and those in urban, rural and minority communities. Though other causes can be cited, it’s foolish to think a lack of funding isn’t high on the list.

“Accountability is a massive misdirection away from the real causes of poor educational outcomes for our most vulnerable students,” he wrote. “We need to focus on such social gaps and the dismantling of public education in America, instead of obsessing about testing.”

Some Georgia officials are recognizing the problem. The Education Reform Commission, created by Gov. Nathan Deal to study the state’s education funding structure, is ready to put a dollar sign on the disparity between successful and failing schools. The bipartisan panel’s may propose the legislature allocate to districts additional state money by a percentage formula for each poor student enrolled. The panel is also looking to rework the pay scale for teachers by tying salary increases to student outcomes or give more to those in key areas like science and math.

Critics decry “throwing money” at schools that don’t gain ground despite extra funding, and at times they have a point. Money alone can’t fix all problems at failing schools. Parents and local officials need to stay diligent to ensure revenue is spent wisely in the classroom without infrastructure or administrative costs taking too great a share. Yet spurring that level of engagement is tough in communities where parents struggle to make ends meet; it’s difficult to attend PTA meetings or teacher conference when you work multiple jobs.

In the real world, the only way to judge schools and teachers fairly is to put them on the same level, apples to apples, by providing something close to equitable funding. Despite noble intentions, too many teachers at poor schools are left to weave gold from straw, rendering the process of testing, and grading the testers, ineffective and punitive.

It’s clear that continuing to educate children on the cheap will have long-term negative effects on our economy and potential workforce, and lead to more of what we see now: Classrooms short of teachers, parents without faith in the system and students with a less hopeful future.

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