Charlie Harper: Georgia earns anti-science rep

March 4, 2014 

Senate Bill 167 passed the upper chamber last week and will likely be considered -- and passed -- by the House before this year's installment of the Georgia General Assembly reaches adjournment. It is the compromise bill to keep Georgia in Common Core, but curtail expansion into additional and more controversial areas such as Science and Social Studies while allowing an independent review of existing standards.

There are real problems with Common Core as currently devised. Educators question the approach to mathematics, especially in lower grades. More importantly, the time and training needed for teachers to fully understand this highly revised approach to demonstrating basic mathematical concepts have been noticeably absent. Educators and parents alike have been frustrated by the implementation.

It's important to note that this is a process that has been under way since math curriculums were revised under former state School Superintendent Kathy Cox, and predate Common Core. It was Gov. Sonny Perdue who, as head of the National Governors Association, used Georgia's revamped curriculum when setting the national standards on a voluntary, state-led basis.

In addition, the federal Department of Education's endorsement of Common Core and, more pointedly, tying "Race To The Top" dollars to it, has fueled additional fears that these standards are no longer voluntary. It is easy to understand how those who value "local control" want to tap the brakes.

And yet, SB 167 doesn't so much address the concerns of educators or delineate a voluntary program from mandatory national ties. It speaks to those who believe Common Core is a creation of an Obama administration's Department of Education. As such, the problems Georgia's teachers are facing in the classrooms are skipped over in lieu of placating a small but noisy and paranoid faction within the GOP base.

If the bill merely repealed Common Core standards for Georgia, it would only be an acknowledgement that a decade of Republican-led education reform initiatives has failed. Instead, it handcuffs the state Board of Education, adds restrictions beyond the scope of Common Core standards, and politicizes education policy with a stance that is decidedly anti-science and anti-technology.

The bill forbids Georgia from adopting "any national content standards established by a consortium of states, or a third party." That's a fairly broad handcuff to the state School Board to continue to adopt science standards that match national and international benchmarks. At a minimum, it ensures Georgia will have to start from scratch when addressing future standards, and won't be able to partner with any others -- including states with similar political ideological majorities.

The bill also calls an appointed board to review the actions of the appointed sate School Board. Fifteen members will be appointed to an "advisory council" in order to oversee the decisions of the 14 appointees of the state School Board. Nothing says "creating political cover" like forming a new group of political appointees to review the work of other political appointees.

As for testing, the refusal to participate in other states' or third-party tests leaves overly broad language that may have unintended consequences. The bill requires "All Statewide K-12 tests and assessments shall be controlled by the State of Georgia" and not be "based on any standards established by a consortium of states or a third party." Advanced Placement tests, The PSAT and SAT, as well as the Military's ASVAB are all tests offered statewide controlled by third parties. While not the subject of the bill's intent, the wording leaves those who wanted to keep those tests from being offered in Georgia's public schools a basis to proceed.

The language restricting technology and data collection goes well beyond what is necessary to ensure that confidential student information does not end up in the hands of third parties, either by sale or by theft. Use of Google Apps for Education and most other online learning tools may be one of the first casualties of this section. In trying to protect data, doors for innovation in content delivery are being slammed shut.

Georgia has amazing institutional assets for science and mathematics such as the Centers For Disease Control, Georgia Tech, Emory, the University of Georgia and Georgia Regents University. We, as a state, should be looking for ways to leverage these and attract science-based industry. Instead, we capitulate to those who deny science and institutionalize their fears with SB 167. On both Georgia's education reform and on positioning Georgia as a home for next generation technological employers, this bill is a major step backwards. But for incumbents looking forward only to the next primary, it's apparently worth a pass.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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