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What do our school systems need?
Give them accountability, choice, transparency and it will fix whats wrong with education
0829David Pusey
David Pusey

Growing up, I loved my public schools. My parents were happy with my education, I had great teachers, some of whom I still keep in touch with, and got a great foundation for my career.

But as I have transitioned from student to adult over the past decade and a half, it has become apparent that my experience was not the norm. At schools across our state, children are being left behind and their needs undermined by the selfishness of adults.

In short, our education system is sick. And the cheating scandal that has enveloped Atlanta Public Schools for more than a year shows us once again that there are accountability and transparency problems that need to be examined.

In case you aren't up to speed, here's the latest. In Georgia, all elementary and middle school students must take the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests or CRCTs, which are designed to evaluate how students are performing when compared to state standards. Students take the exams in the spring and, if they do not pass, can retake them over the summer.

What happened in June 2008 began a chain of investigations that led to the exposure of possible cheating by educators statewide. Later that year, reports of a suspiciously large percentage of kids passing the CRCT after retaking it prompted the Governor's Office of Student Achievement to investigate. It was discovered through an "erasure analysis" that an abnormal number of students' answers had been changed from incorrect to correct at four schools in Atlanta, Fulton County and Glynn County.

Normally, a student will erase one or two incorrect answers and re-answer the question correctly. In the schools investigated, as many as 25 or 30 incorrect answers were erased and re-answered correctly.

In the wake of this staggering revelation, Governor Sonny Perdue ordered that all CRCT tests across the state be analyzed for abnormal erasures. The results were mindboggling. Using a standard that many analysts deemed generous to school systems, 191 schools, a full 10 percent of elementary and middle schools in Georgia, came under suspicion for cheating. Fifty-eight of those were in Atlanta.

What has transpired since borders on surreal. Atlanta Public Schools conducted a state-demanded investigation and its "blue-ribbon" panel found that only 12 schools had widespread issues. Thirty-three were deemed clear of suspicion.

Not surprisingly, many were suspicious of the report's findings. That suspicion seems to be warranted as evidence of collusion on the part of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Atlanta Public Schools in picking the "blue-ribbon" investigative panel was recently made public.

Top this all off with allegations of artificially inflated graduation rates, which have risen meteorically over the past decade, and you have the makings of a major scandal for the school system.

Many people are calling for resignations of top administrators and board members and rightfully so. Those responsible should be held accountable.

But here is something to keep in mind. This is just one flair up of a major systemic problem that we have in our educational system. Only addressing one school system's problems is like giving someone an aspirin to treat a broken back. It may mask symptoms for a while, but you haven't taken care of the root cause of the issue.

The scandal in Atlanta should truly be a call-to-action for a state that, despite our decades-long low student achievement rankings, is hesitant to embrace real reform. It is time to fundamentally remake education in our state. Only by implementing meaningful reforms can we address the issues in Atlanta, help prevent them from happening in other places and ultimately get about the business of providing a quality education for all children - who stand to lose the most from a failing system.

To do this, our leaders must embrace three principles: accountability, choice, and transparency. All are interrelated and successful reforms around the nation are based on these three principles. Allow me to explain.

Accountability doesn't mean a new regime of tests and benchmarks, although new methods of measuring a student's year-over-year progress are sorely needed. It means rewarding effective teachers and being able to fire ineffective ones. It means raising academic and behavioral expectations for our children. It means school performance answering to the community. And above all, it means schools answering to parents, which is where choice comes in.

The ultimate form of accountability is choice. One major advantage of allowing money to follow children to private and other public schools (like charter and magnet schools) is that those schools must be chosen by parents to stay open. If they fail to provide a quality education, parents can simply transfer their child elsewhere and do so immediately. This is a powerful, transformative concept. Today, a child enrolled in the public school system has almost no alternatives available. Whether it's in the Atlanta Public Schools or anywhere else, it is simply an injustice that any child should be forced to stay in a school that hurts their academic development.

Choice is also critical because it breaks down the one-size-fits-all model of education that still exists in our public education system today. Parents should be permitted to have their child educated in an environment that best suits their needs, not the needs of school officials. Children are not widgets to be manufactured or cogs in a machine. Each is different and has different needs. Parents recognize this, teachers recognize this, but the system is not built to accommodate it.

Finally, transparency is desperately needed. Parents and taxpayers should be able to quickly and easily access any fact about our public schools. Reports should be easy to understand and not filled with jargon and legalese. Earlier this year, some legislators called for a system of grading schools on an A to F scale, just like kids are graded. This is a great example of what a more transparent system could look like.

These three reforms: more accountability, expanded choice and greater transparency are medicine for a sick educational system. The scandal in Atlanta is the wake-up call we all needed. It's time to come together and demand that our schools once again put children first.

David Pusey is director of the Center for an Educated Georgia at Georgia Family Council