Departing education leader reflects on changes and challenges in Georgia

Former state Department of Education leader Garry McGiboney has received many recognitions in his 42-year career, incuding being recognized in 2002 by the NAACP  for his work on alternative schools. (Renee Hannans/AJC)
Former state Department of Education leader Garry McGiboney has received many recognitions in his 42-year career, incuding being recognized in 2002 by the NAACP for his work on alternative schools. (Renee Hannans/AJC)

Credit: AJC Staff

Credit: AJC Staff

After 42 years, Garry McGiboney moves to private sector after working at DeKalb and Department of Education

I always appreciate straight shooters in government. Garry McGiboney was one of them.

In his 30 years with the DeKalb County School System and 12 years with the state Department of Education, McGiboney advocated for students and furthered the public awareness of the importance of school climate.

On Friday, McGiboney left DOE to become executive director of education programs for Sharecare, a digital health and wellness company led and co-founded by Jeff Arnold, founder of WebMD. McGiboney will focus on helping Georgia employees in the State Benefits Health Plan better understand their health, including mental health, and how they can improve their health and that of their family.

At DOE, McGiboney, who holds a doctorate in psychology and educational administration, was deputy superintendent for school safety and climate and, in August, became the agency’s public health liaison to help schools deal with COVID-19. (Here is a video of a speech he gave explaining school climate.)

I asked McGiboney a few parting questions about his four decades in public education:

What do you see as the challenges ahead for public schools in Georgia?

The impact of COVID-19 on public education is now part of the essential discussion about the future. We hear that many students and teachers have struggled with remote learning while some have done well. While almost every parent wants their child to return to school, the concerns will continue for perhaps a long time; consequently, some parents will prefer that their children remain in the remote learning mode. Also, some parents find that they children have excelled with remote learning and might prefer that to continue. So, it is possible in some communities that the discussion about school choice may shift to a discussion about instructional delivery choice.

Another challenge is finding the right balance for student assessments that measures learning in a method that can influence instruction while meeting accountability requirements. Accountability is important, of course, but not at the expense of effective, supportive, and engaging instruction. I think most teachers and parents would agree that formative assessments need to be used to meet accountability requirements while assisting teachers in formulating instruction that improves learning. How to match accountability with formative assessments is a challenge.

The needs of Georgia’s rural communities, including schools, is another challenge. Much of the challenge is related to access to support services, such as mental health and physical health, and fundamental quality of life access such as adequate housing, transportation, and internet services. What the Tennessee Valley Authority did to bring electricity to the rural America is needed to bring internet access to rural Georgia. The access to the internet is as vital now as access to electricity was prior to the authorization of the TVA in 1933.

It will take an effort such as the TVA for rural communities to rise out of their desperate and in some places deteriorating conditions in order to build local economies from which the quality of life can improve. Across Georgia, there are many examples where education improved on the heels of the local economy improving.

Related to access are the challenges of the health of our children. There are health barriers to learning that need more attention. Students that have untreated or undertreated health conditions are less likely to thrive in school, and to expect students and teachers to overcome those conditions is disingenuous. There needs to be an overall effort to increase the number of school nurses as a top priority for the state, and the availability of telehealth in every school should be on everyone’s agenda.

Many experts worry that COVID-19 will cause teachers to leave the profession and college students to avoid it. Do you agree?

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the state was concerned about the retention of teachers and the number of college and university graduates going into the profession. Obviously, the pandemic heightened those concerns, and understandably so given that teachers are not only worried about their own health but are also worried about their possible exposure and the subsequent risk to the health of their loved ones.

While the pandemic has created conflicting feelings among teachers, when the pandemic ends the same factors that were prevalent before the pandemic will still be there but with perhaps a heightened sense of importance. An important key is how teachers feel about the climate of the school.

Research on workplace climate reveals that employee retention has as much or more to do with how employees are treated and how they feel about the workplace than any other variables. Teachers want to know:

Does the school administration provide support for teachers? Is the school clean and safe? Are issues and problems addressed promptly with a focus on solutions and just short-term remedies?

Do teachers feel they are part of a collaborative process at the school where their opinions and ideas matter?

Are parents encouraged to participate in the education of their children and are they provided ideas and resources on how to do that?

With so many complex variables, the evaluation of teacher effectiveness has and can be a deterrent for graduates considering the teaching profession as well as for those that want to continue in the profession. Georgia needs to reconsider how it evaluates teachers.

What has changed most about Georgia public schools over your time in education?

The most significant change I witnessed was the shift from the perspective of what cannot be done in Georgia’s public schools due to constraints to what can be done. Local superintendents and local boards of education, as well as school principals often felt burdened by the weight of state laws and State Board of Education rules. They wished to be innovative but too often they felt that innovation was stymied and even discouraged by the state.

The landscape changed dramatically when Georgia became the first state to encourage strategic innovation at the local school district level when educators and legislators collaborated to create Charter Systems and Strategic Wavier School Systems, which provided local school districts the opportunity to waive education-related state statutes and State Board rules in exchange for increased student academic outcomes.

This “quiet revolution” for the first time allowed school districts to use the flexibility to try innovative approaches to education without the burdens of compliance restrictions. However, school districts could not use the flexibility without considering the impact on student academic outcomes, which inherently encouraged school districts to reconsider many practices and evaluate innovation before implementation. School districts are still learning how to best utilize flexibility, but it has changed the landscape of public education in Georgia.

What are you proudest of during your tenure with GaDOE?

During my entire career, I have advocated for schools to improve the climate of their schools as a major strategy to address many issues that prevent students from learning and teachers from teaching. The research about the importance of school climate is compelling. If students feel connected, engaged, safe, secure, and encouraged while at school, they are much more likely to succeed and reach their potential. If teachers feel the same way, they are more likely to stay in the school and the profession.

A positive school climate is foundational to the effectiveness of a school and school improvement starts will focusing on improving the climate of the school. With that in mind, Georgia has focused on improving school climate in its schools. Improving school climate has been a laser focus for the Georgia Department of Education with considerable support from other state agencies, legislators, non-profits, juvenile courts, and advocacy groups. Georgia has encouraged schools to use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports as the research-based framework for improving school climate.

The number of Georgia schools implementing PBIS has increased to 1,400 from a humble start of 50 in 2007, which represents the fastest growth rate of any state. To support PBIS schools and other schools, school climate support personnel were added to each Regional Education Service Agency for the purpose of providing on-going support to schools to improve and monitor school climate. This was possible because of legislators. The outcomes of improving school climate are compelling, with many schools improving academic outcomes, student behavior, and school climate ratings. Also, when schools improve school climate, they have in effect created a system of care where everyone in the school cares about each other. This led to more requests from teachers for mental health awareness training.

With support from legislators, the GaDOE partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the RESAs to offer mental health awareness training. During the past two years, over 28,000 teachers and other school personnel have received mental health awareness training.

What will you miss most?

I will miss working directly with school districts to solve problems. I will also miss working with the cadre of GaDOE staff members and partners from across the state who are trying to improve school climate, increase access to services for children and families, expand mental health awareness, address barriers to learning, and so much more that offered me the opportunity to work with wonderful people who have a good heart for children.

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