It’s complex: Experts both extol, criticize Georgia’s education plan

Georgia’s education plan is getting mixed reviews from expert observers as the state awaits its approval by the federal government.

Gov. Nathan Deal disliked state Superintendent Richard Woods' proposal so much that he refused to sign it. The 111-page plan is being praised and criticized in two early reviews by national education organizations. One calls it among the best in the nation. The other says it ought to be revised before U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos signs off on it.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, in a report released Tuesday, says Georgia failed at a fundamental task: defining an "ineffective" teacher. This is important because the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to ensure that poor and minority students are not assigned to a disproportionate number of those teachers. But how can a state know whether a certain group is getting bad teachers when bad is not defined?

“From our perspective, this is an area that should absolutely be addressed before this plan is approved,” said Elizabeth Ross, who directs state policy for the non-partisan research and policy organization.

About two in five state plans had a similar deficiency, the group found. It also faulted Georgia and most other states for not including a commitment to publicly report the rates at which poor and minority students are disproportionately assigned to ineffective teachers and for failing to set a timeline for eliminating these “equity gaps.”

Woods’ office acknowledged that its education plan does not contain this information, but said the state will create an “equity data dashboard” to address gaps in teacher quality and satisfy federal requirements. Woods and his staff “wanted to avoid being overly prescriptive.”

“One of our goals is to provide greater transparency and access to data which, coupled with greater flexibility granted to local school districts, will empower local communities and stakeholders to identify equity and quality gaps,” Woods’ office said.

DeVos has another couple of months to consider Georgia's plan, which was submitted in September. It's unclear whether criticism, even from the governor, will affect her decision. She has approved at least one other state plan, Louisiana's, over its governor's objection.

Deal was critical of Georgia's plan because it didn't emphasize student test results in school ratings to the extent that he wanted. The plan "falls short in setting high expectations for Georgia students and schools," he wrote in explaining his refusal to sign it.

However, another national organization, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which supports both student testing and competition for traditional public schools in the form of charter schools and other student “choice,” thinks Georgia’s plan is plenty tough on schools.

"Overall, it is one of the seven best in the country," said Brandon Wright, lead author of the organization's new analysis of the submissions by the 50 states and the District of Columbia, "Rating the Ratings."

Fordham considers Georgia’s proposed K-8 school report card (their analysis doesn’t compare states’ high school report cards, owing to their complexity) to be easily digestible for parents. The group also thinks it’s thorough because it grades schools on the test performance of all students, not just those at the bottom, and fair because it tries to account for the effects of poverty on student achievement.

Under the previous federal education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, schools only got points for students who passed the state standardized tests, which encouraged them to put their efforts behind students who were failing. Under Georgia’s new proposal, schools get extra points when their students not only pass tests but also excel on them, an inducement to help high-achieving students, too. Meanwhile, the state’s plan adjusts for poverty by giving schools credit for students who made gains on their test scores from the prior year, even if they’re still failing.

“Low-income schools almost always fail no matter what the principals and teachers are doing for those kids,” Wright said, adding that they should be rewarded for at least making gains.