What we teach is the foundation of Georgia’s education reform puzzle

By Guest Columnist DANA RICKMAN, director of policy and research for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education

Nearing the end of the 2014 legislative session, Georgia’s House Education Committee voted down Senate Bill (SB) 167, the anti-Common Core bill, essentially killing it.

Had it passed, it would have prevented the state from its continued participation in the Common Core State Standards, known in Georgia as the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards (CCGPS).  Why does this matter?  To answer that question, one must have an understanding of the educational reform landscape that has shaped Georgia.

In an attempt to raise student achievement the Georgia Department of Education has introduced a host of new programs and acronyms that go with them: CCGPS, CCRPI, TKES, LKES, TEMs, LDS and SLOs, just to name a few.

Changes have been made to standards, student and educator assessment and evaluation systems, teacher preparation programs, school and district accountability measures and a host of other instructional practices to keep pace with 21st Century classrooms such as the use of technology, focus on STEM, and on-line learning and professional development.

One key to the success of these efforts is the understanding of how they all fit together.  All the pieces are not individual random acts, but related initiatives that can be leveraged together to support students and educators in raising the achievement outcomes of all students in Georgia.

Dana Rickman

Dana Rickman

Understanding how all the new policies, programs, and practices fit is like putting a puzzle together. The outside edges of the puzzle always help define the size and shape of the picture being put together.  The defining edges of what is happening in Georgia can be described by four questions:

  1. What do we teach?
  2. How do we know students are learning?
  3. Are teachers effectively delivering the instruction?
  4. Who makes sure all that happens?

This article examines the first question in detail.  The foundation of all educational systems is what gets taught in the classroom: What do we teach?   This is a question of standards and curriculum.  In 2010, Georgia adopted the CCGPS as a new set of standards for English/ Language Arts (ELA) and math.

These new standards incorporate much of the previous standards, and take them a step further in aligning content with college and career readiness by providing increased rigor and incorporating higher order thinking and reasoning skills.  Second, adopting these new standards allows for a meaningful comparison of Georgia’s student achievement with students in other states.  Since Georgia students will be competing with those from all over the world, the state needs to be sure they are providing students the tools to be competitive.

For the past two years, Georgia school systems have been implementing these higher standards.  Due to their increased rigor, these standards have been a steep learning curve for Georgia’s teachers and students.  However, the implementation is starting to pay off.  A recent survey of Georgia teachers found that more than three-quarters (77%) of teachers in Georgia are enthusiastic about their implementation their classrooms. More than 80 percent math and/or English language arts teachers in Georgia believe the more rigorous standards will have a positive impact on students’ ability to think critically and use reasoning skills.

It must be made clear that standards are not a curriculum. Standards are designed to outline what students should know at a certain point in their education so that when they graduate from high school, they are ready for college and/or career. A curriculum involves how standards are taught, including teaching methods, lesson plans, textbooks, reading materials and so forth. The new standards outline the learning goals.  Over the past two years, local school districts and teachers have been developing and implementing their own curricula to ensure their students can meet these new standards.

In addition to curriculum changes, Georgia has also begun to realign its teacher training programs to match the level of rigor required to teach to the new standards. New teacher evaluations and student assessments are also being developed to reflect the higher rigor now needed. Nationally, the SAT and ACT college entrance exams are being aligned to the Common Core standards. Therefore, students who have not been taught to the college and career ready standards provided by the Common Core will be at a disadvantage.

The education puzzle

The education puzzle (click to enlarge)

This brings us back to SB 167.   Not only would the passage of the bill have severed Georgia from its current standards, it would have also forbid student assessments that reflected any national or multi-state standards and imposed technology limits that would render our data system useless and online learning challenging.  It is alarming that this bill passed out of the Senate very quickly and seemed to be headed to an easy victory in the House before people were provided an opportunity to take notice and speak up.

Georgia has done a good job in identifying areas of education reform that will lead to increased student outcomes and high school graduates that are ready for college or embark on a career.  The focus on increased rigor of standards and supporting curriculum is the first step upon which other reforms are built.  However, without support and a focus on the foundations of these changes, Georgia is in danger of not realizing the potential gains this complete puzzle can deliver.

This is the first in a series of entries that will detail the 4 defining edges of Georgia’s education reform puzzle. Stay tuned for detailed discussions on the delivery of instruction, how we know students are earning, and who makes it all happen.  This issue, as well as other key education issues, is addressed in the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education’s Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2014 report.

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