Allene Magill: What have we done to schools?

June 14, 2013 

Over the past decade or so, a great many changes have come to our schools in Georgia. Many have been top-down from Washington, others top-down from Atlanta. Too few have been bottom-up from enterprising and creative educators at the system and school level.

Some of these have been welcome changes and PAGE has joined with educators across the state in welcoming them. Many others, however, have been less than welcome (or have worn out their welcome) and PAGE has joined with educators in raising valid concerns and bringing forward constructive criticisms.

I believe that the time has come for some serious questions and critical discussions about the current status and future of K-12 public education both within and outside the public education community. I salute state school superintendent John Barge, who has already begun publicly asking some of these questions. He, like many of us, is concerned about the overall impacts on our students, our teachers and the quality of public education in our state. He has not always been popular in the halls of policy and power for raising his concerns, but he has persevered on behalf of the 1.6 million students our public schools serve each day.

Given the fiscal impact of cumulative education budget cuts, the financial crisis that hit in 2008, the sharp decline in tax digests and education funds derived from them, our schools have suffered severely during the past several years. Salaries have flat-lined, Reductions in Force (RIFs) have been all too common. Educators and their families have suffered from the effects of furlough days that seem to increase each year.

No Child Left Behind may have brought forward the academic progress of groups of students who may have been less prominent in prior years, but NCLB and its successor Race to the Top have carried with them an over reliance on one time testing as a measure of virtually all things. As if narrowing the curriculum were not bad enough, we have seen what happens when teaching and learning get shorted over the pursuit of test scores. A toxic attitude gets set loose and the fruits of such attitude have, in certain cases, led to criminal indictments.

What have done to our school culture in this mindless pursuit of test scores? What have we done with our school year - severely truncated by teacher furloughs, "making up" the lost time by fiddling with the school day? How have we affected teaching and learning - particularly with our younger students? We can't pretend that these policies, coupled with starvation budgets will have no short or long term effects on the very culture of our schools.

What about the teaching profession? What has been the cumulative effect on it? We have seen that professional growth opportunities for educators have been drastically reduced. The overall teacher workforce has shrunk and many systems have all but ceased hiring, choosing instead to increase class size and absorb retirements, allowing attrition to cover budget gaps. Are our schools also enduring a similar attrition?

In the coming months and years it is incumbent upon as all to step back a bit and question what have we done to our schools? Those discussions are critically important and we need to have them at every level. We also need to involve the larger community in these discussions. Our business leaders as well as educators need to be engaged, right along with our politicians and policymakers. We applaud the courage of Dr. Barge to step forward, but he must not stand alone.

Allene Magill, executive director, Professional Association of Georgia Educators; wwwpageinc.org.

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