Last decade brought frenzy of ed reform to Georgia. Are calmer days ahead?

We already know we’ll see return of battle over vouchers

If I had to use one word to describe education trends in Georgia over the last 10 years, it would be frenzy.

As with many states, Georgia experienced a revolving door of reforms since 2010, many of which were poorly conceived, enacted too quickly or heaped on top of other ongoing reforms.

Much of the frenzy was inspired by the federal contest known as Race to the Top in which states competed for hefty grants based on comprehensive reform plans that incorporated practices endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.

In 2010, Georgia won a $400 million Race to the Top grant. Among the federally favored practices adopted by Georgia was grading teachers based on how well their students performed on standardized tests, an imprecise science known as "value-added."

While many lawmakers contended Georgia was entering a new age of education accountability, the accountability wasn’t imposed across the board, landing largely on classroom teachers.

As I noted in a piece in 2012:

In our ham-handed attempts to overhaul schools, we treated teachers as the stains on the carpet that had to be scrubbed clean or the weeds in the garden that had to be pulled. Fixing schools came down to fixing teachers, as we ignored all the other variables in the success equation, including poverty, resources, parental involvement and school leadership.

As state legislatures whacked school budgets and school boards imposed furlough days, teachers were told it was up to them to do a lot more with a lot less.

"This is the only industry in America where failure is always blamed on the workers. Blame teachers? Bull. Blame leadership as you do in every other industry," said Erroll Davis, the former Georgia chancellor who now leads Atlanta Public Schools, after a long career as a leader and CEO in industry.

To these points, read Education Week's piece on how teaching changed in the last 10 years. Among my favorite quotes in the piece:

"I think the change came for teaching when we made the success of the students the teachers' responsibility instead of helping the students simply succeed," said Frances Spielhagen, a professor of education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y. "Once you make a person's livelihood dependent on the success of someone she's trying to help succeed, it changes the focus of what you're trying to do."

Like many states, Georgia eventually retreated from its test-centric teacher evaluation. (Many researchers challenged the validity of the value-added model.)

In 2016, Georgia enacted a new law that reduced the weight of test results to 30% of a teacher's evaluation, down from 50%. Senate Bill 364 also pared back the import of test scores in evaluations for principals and assistant principals from 70% to 40%. The law also slashed the number of standardized state exams that students take over their k-12 careers from 32 to 24.

The reductions came at a time when there was a national rethinking on high-stakes testing, driven by concerns of both teachers and parents that the testing frenzy was creating joyless classrooms and anxious students.

Two consortia of school districts in Georgia won federal approval to create and pilot home-grown tests that could eventually be used statewide. The Putnam County Consortium and the Georgia MAP Assessment Partnership each will replace year-end standardized state exams with smaller tests given throughout the school year.

As to the decade we are now beginning, Georgia will apparently kick it off dredging up the debate around school choice and vouchers. Republicans in the General Assembly have refreshed and revived vouchers -- a concept that doesn’t poll well with voters -- as “education saving accounts.”

No matter the name, the intent is the same as vouchers. The unsuccessful education savings accounts bill endorsed last session by Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan -- and expected to be resurrected this year -- reallocates monies that would have gone to the local school system to a savings account directed by parents.

In the handful of states with education savings accounts, most parents use the funds to pay for private school tuition, but the money could also go to books, tutoring or therapy.

Republicans cling to the myth that school choice will somehow dramatically raise student achievement. Yet, if you look at the five top performing states, as ranked by the 23rd annual report card of state education systems issued by the Education Week Research Center, none has built its success on broadly expanding school choice. The No. 1 state in the 2019 Quality Counts report was New Jersey, followed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland and New Hampshire.