‘It’s a chance for Georgia to speak loud and really put its thumbprint on education’

State Superintendent shares thoughts on new federal education law

Richard Woods discussed the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, during a recent visit to the Ledger-Enquirer.
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Richard Woods discussed the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, during a recent visit to the Ledger-Enquirer.

Georgia Department of Education superintendent Richard Woods, in his second year as the elected leader of the state’s public schools, visited the Ledger-Enquirer last week for a wide-ranging Q&A. Here are excerpts from that interview, edited for brevity and clarity:

Q: What’s going on with public education in Georgia that you want to make sure we know about?

A: I think the biggest the thing right now is the (federal) Every Student Succeeds Act, which is replacing No Child Left Behind. That is really what our world is revolving around up at the DOE as we travel around the state. What we’re looking at is something that will be generational in the impact on our children. … We have been given a chance as states to take maximum flexibility, which we have not had since the inception of the (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) in 1965. So it’s a chance for Georgia to speak loud and really put its thumbprint on education for our children for years to come.

Q: What’s your elevator speech about what the new act does and how it’s different?

A: In a nutshell, it gives Georgia flexibility to look at accountability, to look at assessment, teacher and educator leadership, how we spend our federal funds, and all that revolves around with what we’re doing with our state’s strategic plan as well. It’s an opportunity that’s really once in a lifetime for us.

Q: Is that what you like most about it, the flexibility?

A: Very much so. We’ve lived under No Child Left Behind roughly 16 years now. It was a very autocratic, one-size-fits-all system. The model basically, even in Georgia, was that every child would go to a four-year university. But we know that is not reality in the world, so we’re looking at trying to optimize the opportunities for our children across the board. University is great, but some people may prefer the skills or technical school, the military, start their own business or even join their family’s business. So this is a great, great time for Georgia.

Q: What don’t you like about the new federal law?

A: What I even ran on, I’m not a fan of the federal Department of Education. I think, from a constitutional standpoint, I really don’t think the federal government needs to be involved with that process. There are still some limiting factors; it’s not complete flexibility. There are some things, some guidelines that are set, as far as the tests we have to take, the number of tests. There are still some restrictions on how we spend federal funds; it’s not just a block grant. But, overall, I would say I’m very pleased with it because it gives us a flexibility that’s been unheard of.

Q: You mentioned the reduction in testing. Georgia went even further, passing state legislation that reduces the number of standardized science and social studies tests, not doing it in every grade. What will be the impact of that?

A: I think it gives us the opportunity to really take some of the, I guess, gamesmanship out of the testing system. We have reduced testing, but we’ve also reduced the number of observations for our teachers, so hopefully they can spend more time focusing on the children. One of the things I would say that I was really concerned about with No Child Left Behind was the absence of the word ‘child.’ We talked about subgroups, we talked about data points, percentages, but we did not really personalize the education of each and every child, which, again for me, that means we really have to get back to the basics, allow our teachers to do their job. If we can do that, then tests and all these other associated things will take care of themselves, because good education trumps what I would classify as gamesmanship or chasing points.

Q: If we’re not testing science and social studies every year, will that mean those subject will be emphasized less, and how will we measure progress in those subjects?

A: I think it’s having trust in teachers. I was a social studies teacher in high school. It was not something that we necessarily tested every year, but as a professional I had standards I had to cover. I had a job I had to do, and I took that to heart. We are looking at ways in which we could perhaps better integrate some of our content, especially in the area of literacy. … I’m thinking about students whose English is not native to their tongue. So something has to be done to reinforce those skills. We can integrate, and that’s part of our job, providing resources and direction that show that.

Q: The proposed Opportunity School District, which would allow the state to take over chronically failing schools, is a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 Georgia ballot. If you were explaining to a voter what is at stake and what the OSD would do if it were implemented, what would you say?

A: It would allow the state multiple options as far as what they would consider: takeover or having an influence in what is classified as a failing school. To the extreme, it could mean a direct takeover by a newly appointed superintendent over what is listed as Opportunity Schools. It could involve the acquisition of state, federal and local funds. That is something that is a possibility. But that being said, it’s up to the voters.

Q: The proposed amendment’s wording on the ballot is just one sentence: (“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”) Some say that doesn’t accurately describe what people are voting on. (A class action lawsuit making that contention was filed Tuesday.) Do you agree with that?

A: That’s why it’s important to read the legislation. If this does pass, what does the bill actually say will take place? … It would be just like having my name on the ballot. Well, there’s more than just my name.

Q: What’s your personal opinion? Would this proposed amendment be good for Georgia?

A: We don’t want any school to be listed as failing. That’s my job and will continue to be my job. However it falls, we’re ready to do our job. We’re going to be focusing on making sure each and every school is succeeding and each student has a wonderful, first-class education.

(Woods declined to express his personal opinion about the proposed amendment. Three days after this interview, the Georgia Board of Education, appointed by the governor with consent of the state senate, endorsed the OSD.)

Q: If there is an Opportunity School District superintendent that reports to only the governor, how would that affect your job?

A: Whatever schools were taken on that, they would be under the purview of this new position. So that means for the vast majority of schools, they still remain under the Department of Education’s guidance. We’ll continue to look at our school improvement division, looking at how we can reach our schools to make sure that we’re moving in the right trajectory. It will take some time.

Q: Is there an opt-out provision or an escape clause? If the OSD takes over a school, and three years, four years, five years later, it’s not doing one bit better, what then?

A: Looking at the legislation itself, they could come back and convene a new governing board or committee or seek to go a different route. If it was a private provider, then it could come back in to a more localized provider.

(According to the proposal, schools would stay in the OSD for no less than five years but not more than 10 years and then return to local control.)

Q: Regardless of whether this amendment passes, what are you paying attention to the most?

A: Literacy is something that we’re really focused on. K-5 foundational education is definitely a priority for us. … Being a high school social studies teacher, I could teach our kids content, but it was really literacy and reading where we had the issue. We’re right now somewhere in the neighborhood of about a 34 percent proficiency in third grade. Those numbers have to change. But we are seeing commitment and hearing commitment. In the upcoming year, we’ll hopefully see the governer’s (education) reform commission, but we also have a statewide literacy plan, and I think trying to make sure that is instituted with fidelity and making sure we get that correct is going to be top notch. What education research shows is making sure our kids have numeracy mastery by fifth grade as well. Those are going to be really the big, big components of what we’re looking at. For the high school areas, Move On When Ready and dual enrollment continues to be a blossoming opportunity across the board, and we’re looking to increase our opportunities there. It adds relevancy to education. We’re not saying that all children have to go to a four-year college, but there are a lot of great opportunities across the board. We’re even seeing some new legislation with apprenticeships. We’re talking with business and industry. We’ve been listening to them as well. What they have shared with us is really the importance of teaching our kids soft skills. … Fine arts, offering that to our kids is extremely, extremely important. … We have our science, technology, engineering and math initiative, which is STEM. We have, I think, 36 schools that are STEM certified, but we have 1,000 schools that are in the STEM certification pipeline. This is a movement that’s been taken on by our schools, so this is an exciting time for us. We also have STEAM certification, which adds that fine arts component to it, so we’re looking forward to see who will become the first STEAM certified school in the state. … We’re seeing a lot of great things in Georgia. It’s building on the success and providing solutions for where we need to move forward.

Q: Is the graduation rate (increasing each of the last five years, from 67.4 percent in 2011 to 78.8 percent in 2015) one of those success stories?

A: We haven’t seen the (2016) numbers, but we hope to maybe push over 80 (percent). I’ll probably have more of a policy statement next month, which will be kind of big for us. But my goal is, and I firmly believe, we can see Georgia reach a 90 percent graduation rate. With the things we’re seeing now, especially with dual enrollment and Move On When Ready, we’re really moving in a right trajectory. We’re seeing some great things with our special-needs children. Their participation is moving this in the right direction. Our CTAE (Career, Technical and Agricultural Education), with the expansion of that program, I think they’re already at almost a 95 percent graduation rate. If you take one AP (Advanced Placement) class in Georgia, we have a 97 percent graduation rate for those individuals. So we’re seeing some good trends, and we just have to look at building and providing accessibility across the state. That’s a tough issue, but it’s a great issue to have, trying to increase capacity.

Q: What has been moving the graduation rate in the right direction? What have you seen around the state that’s been successful?

A: We’re seeing something called dual immersion (a program in which students spend half of the school day speaking and hearing a foreign language). In fact, Georgia will be recognized up in Washington, D.C., with our work in this area of foreign language. Our kids are starting foreign language early. We’re looking at K-5 experience. I’ve seen some kindergarten students speaking better French than I did in high school. … Why not look at college credit for that?

Q: What concerns you most when you think about public education in Georgia? What’s not working, and what do you want to do about it?

A: Sometimes it’s the perception. … Sometimes we get pushed into the national narrative, unfortunately, but we’re seeing a lot of great progress in Georgia. People are looking at Georgia, especially in the area of CTAE. We are recognized as probably No. 1 or No. 2 (in the United States) dealing with career tech. ACT testing this year, we actually were above the national average, which has not happened in quite a while, and this has happened as we’re increasing our numbers (of test takers). So perception is probably the biggest thing. Some people say, ‘Why do you have to get out there and be a cheerleader?’ But you’ve got to market your brand, your product, in a sense, and public education is what we’re doing. Literacy is probably the No. 1 academic area that concerns me. I do believe if we can get our literacy and reading up, then a lot of issues will be taken care of. If kids can read, it’s going to have an impact on everything they take and well beyond high school as well.

Q: In the federal lawsuit against GNETS (Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support), what role do you have?

A: Well, we have an ongoing litigation with the federal department on that, so I can’t necessarily comment too much on that. But I will say this: Our role is that we still have these units in operation. We’re looking at making corrections where we need to make corrections. There were some oversight issues that we had, but we have an individual who is actually overseeing GNETS now, and she is working with individuals across the state, which has been a very positive move. Our contention is that we’re going to win the suit, so we’re doing what we have to do. We’re inspecting the sites, talking with our regional contacts and saying, ‘Hey, what can we do to help you?’ And that’s really where I believe our role should lay.

Q: There are two issues with GNETS: the idea of the program itself (educating special-needs students in facilities separate from regular-education students) and the condition of the facilities. So is it your contention that the concept of GNETS is not unconstitutional but there were deficiencies in the facilities? (The Woodall Center in Muscogee County is one of nine out of the 24 GNETS facilities the state declared unsafe and unhealthy and ordered closed. The Woodall students were moved last month to Davis Elementary.)

A: Yeah, I think there definitely were concerns with some of the facilities themselves. We’ve been going around and inspecting them, and the school systems have really responded well. They recognized that, and I think they’ve been very appreciative of that. Whether it’s constitutional, I think they provide a good role. They act as a bridge. Instead of moving from the home school to a residential facility, it kind of gives you a middle ground. Not all students need to move there. Our goal is not to keep them in GNETS but hopefully to move them back into their regular facilities, if at all possible. But there again, education, what that looks like for each individual, I mean, that’s why we have home school, private school, and this fits a niche. We want to make sure we provide the best educational options for our kids.

Q: You formed a parent advisory council and student advisory council, what do they bring up?

A: I would say our students and our parents were very instrumental in Senate Bill 364 (which reduced the number of standardized tests and the impact the results have on teacher evaluations). It was listening to them. A lot of their concerns were being over-tested. They can feel the pressure. When all we talk about is the test, something has to give. For me, especially for our children, listening to them, I mean, these are the individuals we serve. It’s who we are about. … You ask kids what’s going on, and they give you critical feedback. They are across the state. … Parents and especially students, they are honest, and they’ll give you an honest answer. I want to make sure I’m providing the best service possible, to give them opportunities, and that means listening to them. They had some wonderful insight on ESSA (helping the state develop its plan to implement the federal Every Students Succeeds Act). … The teacher group will come in a week or so, and we’ll listen to them. … I tell them I want them to come to Atlanta and receive more than just a boxed lunch. This is a time when your voice can be really heard. We bring in our board members, our personnel across the department, and we just listen. … It’s reflective of my mentality when I come into a school. I don’t want to come in just for a photo op; I want to hear what’s going on. We’re here to serve, and the only way you’re going to serve effectively is to listen.

Q: (Gesturing toward Woods’ shoes) So did you wear cowboy boots before you were state superintendent or do you need those to do some butt-kicking?

A: (Laughs) I guess it’s just part of south Georgia. I come from a rural background. They’re comfortable.