New Georgia school superintendent implements popular policies

Former school teacher Richard Woods grew deep roots in rural Georgia, and has equally deep misgivings about far-off bureaucrats dictating how students should be taught.

The retired principal and home school administrator from Tifton brought his gray suits and cowboy boots to the Georgia Capitol after he was elected in November as Georgia Superintendent of Schools. He also brought his antipathy for big federal mandates like testing.

The political newcomer, a Republican, listens as much as he talks in public. He’s also walked a cautious line between being an old-school traditionalist and new-school reformer, earning praise, so far, from public school lobbyists on one side, and on the other lawmakers who are bent on overhauling the system and even eliminating his job.

“It is politics,” he said during a recent interview in his office atop a tower near the Gold Dome. “We have to work with a lot of people, yet things get done.”

Barely seven months have passed since he was sworn in, but Woods has made a couple of low-key moves that many teachers and students will notice upon returning to school this month. He cut back on testing and brought back traditional math teaching methods for older students.

The so-called “integrated” math curriculum — learning geometry and algebra in the same class rather than separately — had befuddled and frustrated parents and students alike. Many parents couldn’t understand what their kids were doing, much less help them.

Many teachers didn’t like it either, but had to teach it because that is what appeared on the annual tests mandated by Washington. So Woods, with the backing of the state school board, gave districts a choice: use the old test or one that he introduced, which uses the old, “discrete” method.

“That seems like progress to me,” said Barb Bowman, a parent in Cherokee County whose children were doing well in math until they encountered the integrated method. When she lived in DeKalb County, she complained to school leaders and even the superintendent. “It was awful.”

That earned Woods plaudits among state leaders. At the GOP convention in Athens last spring, his speech about the coming alternative to “funny math” drew effusive praise and applause from the 2,000 or so delegates.

Woods followed up his math move with another that will surely prove popular with teachers as they return to school: He reduced the number of tests required as part of their evaluations.

“I feel that we do test too much in Georgia,” Woods said, adding that teachers endure “testing overload.”

A spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, an advocacy and lobbying group, said teachers were encouraged by the math and testing changes. “I think definitely these were welcomed by educators in Georgia,” the spokesman, Craig Harper, said. “It’s still pretty early but we’ve been pleased overall by what he’s accomplished.”

Even former state Superintendent John Barge, a Republican who supported the candidacy of Woods’ Democratic rival last year and established the test requirement that Woods is rolling back, said both changes were necessary.

Barge had called for the “Student Learning Objectives” tests to replace an earlier controversial proposal: that teacher evaluations be based in part on student opinion surveys.

“You’re basically saying 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation was going to be a popularity contest,” said Barge, now the superintendent of the McIntosh County School System. He wanted tests to replace the surveys, but there was a problem: standardized state tests covered only core subjects such as math and English. There were no state performance gauges for subjects such as art, physical education or chemistry. School districts were told to create their own tests for these subjects.

Barge said Woods’ move to cut back on the new tests “was the right thing to do.”

Barge also said that, like Woods, he wanted to introduce a test for discrete math. But unlike Woods he didn’t have the resources to write one. Woods got the new test for free as part of a negotiation with test maker CTB/McGraw Hill after hiccups with its administration of the new computerized Georgia Milestones tests last spring.

Next on Woods’ to-do list is a review of Georgia’s school report card. The College and Career Ready Performance Index rates schools on a 100-point grading system (with up to 10 bonus points) based on testing, attendance, graduation rates, school safety and other factors.

It was developed as a response to the test-heavy and much-maligned method of grading schools that grew out of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That system gave schools a “failing” label unless a growing proportion of students passed tests yearly.

The CCRPI grading system downplays test scores, focusing instead on students’ “growth” on tests. That growth, calculated by comparing students against their peers, plays a significant part in a teacher’s evaluation. Woods said he wants to explore whether the test results can be further de-emphasized.

He said he will focus mostly on literacy and math gains in kindergarten through fifth grade, and said he wants to expand flexibility in course selections for older students. For instance, he’d like to broaden what constitutes a math or English course by, say, letting students take accounting in place of a math requirement or financial literacy in place of an English course. And he said he wants local school districts to have more “flexibility” with how they choose to spend their money.

These ideas place him square in the middle of the agenda of some education reformists. Many of these same ideas are being discussed by Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission.

Woods and his department have no formal role with that commission, an absence noted by education lobbyists who attend the frequent meetings. But Woods said his agency has been involved behind the scenes, meeting with some members, including many of the commission’s lawmakers. They may have a significant part in shaping any recommendations that become law.

One of them praised Woods’ performance so far, but said that won’t stop him from trying to eliminate the man’s job.

Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, has been talking about introducing legislation to make Woods’ post appointed rather than elected. It’s nothing personal, he said. It’s about a “long-term alignment of leadership” and “good governing structure.” Local superintendents are appointed and their boards elected, and Dudgeon wants the same division at the state level, though he said, “I think Richard’s doing a good job.”

Woods, for his part, seems unfazed.

“I knew I only had a guarantee of four years,” he said, “so for four years I’ll give it my best.”

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