What are the top 10 education issues in Georgia for 2017?

Dana Rickman, policy and research director at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, presents the “Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2017” during a symposium Jan. 6 at the Georgia Public Broadcasting headquarters in Atlanta.
Dana Rickman, policy and research director at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, presents the “Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2017” during a symposium Jan. 6 at the Georgia Public Broadcasting headquarters in Atlanta.

Now that schools are back in session after the holiday break and the new calendar year has started, it’s a good time to wonder what Georgia’s major educational issues might be in 2017.

Thankfully, the folks at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education already have done gobs of such deep thinking for us.

GPEE, founded 25 years ago by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Economic Developers Association, comprises business, education, community and government leaders. The partnership is an independent and nonprofit organization with a mission to “inform and influence Georgia leaders through research and nonpartisan advocacy to impact education policies and practices for the improvement of student achievement.”

During a symposium Jan. 6 at Georgia Public Broadcasting’s headquarters in Atlanta, GPEE policy and research director Dana Rickman presented the partnership’s “Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2017.”

Rickman cautioned that the issues aren’t ranked, so they aren’t listed in a particular order. “They’re all exceedingly important,” she said. Here are highlights:

Issue 1: The shifting federal landscape and state policy -- what’s ahead?

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law in December 2015. ESSA replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, which was enacted in 2002 under President George W. Bush.

NCLB required states to create accountability systems for their public schools, including mandatory tests that expected all students to achieve the same academic standards. By 2010, educators had convinced enough legislators that requirement had become unrealistic, and the Obama administration joined the bipartisan effort to find ways to improve the law.

As a result, ESSA reduces the number of mandatory statewide standardized tests and increases the emphasis on college and career readiness. Instead of the federal government setting student performance targets and basing school ratings on only test scores, ESSA allows states to formulate their accountability system based on multiple measurements. Instead of one-size-fits-all intervention for struggling schools and students dictated by the federal government, ESSA allows states to develop their own interventions.

Georgia Department of Education superintendent Richard Woods in 2016 conducted eight sessions around the state, including Columbus, to explain and receive questions about ESSA. The GaDOE recorded those comments and gave them to six committees helping it to develop the state’s plan. A draft is expected to be ready for public review in early 2017, and the final plan is due to be by Sept. 18 to the U.S. Department of Education.

And with the nation’s transition to a new president and a new education secretary, more change could be coming from the feds.

Issue 2: Teacher recruitment and retention -- keeping teachers teaching.

Among the Georgia teachers who were hired in 2010, Rickman said, only 44 percent still were teaching five years later, according to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

“That’s a significant problem for our teacher pipeline,” she said.

Compounding the problem, we have fewer new teachers to replace the ones that leave.

“The number of students electing to go into teaching in institutions of higher education is down by over a third the past couple of years,” Rickman said.

Gov. Nathan Deal in January 2015 appointed an Education Reform Commission that includes a committee for teacher recruitment, retention and compensation. In December 2015, Deal appointed a 90-member Teacher Advisory Committee that analyzed the ERC’s recommendations. The TAC agreed with the ERC on implementing a media campaign by using current teachers to recruit new teachers, according to Rickman’s report. They also supported:

· Yearlong student internship for preservice teachers.

· Intense mentoring for induction-level teachers and support for teacher mentors.

· Preservation of teacher planning and instructional time to enhance teacher effectiveness.

· Reinstating provisions for service-cancelable loans as a recruitment and retention tool.

· Teacher participation in the development of a new compensation model.

Issue 3: Leadership -- new challenges and new opportunities.

To improve student achievement, Rickman said, having strong leadership in schools and school districts is second in importance to only a high-quality teacher in the classroom.

She asked, “So what is the state doing to support these leaders?”

Rickman wrote in her report, “Legislation is likely to be introduced in the 2017 General Assembly that would grant more flexibility and control to the district level as policymakers consider recommendations from Governor Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission. Governor Deal charged the funding committee of the ERC to develop a new formula to distribute state dollars to public schools to replace the current formula. The governor specifically requested that the commission provide district leaders with greater flexibility in how they spend state money.”

Issue 4: Preparing the workforce -- role for K-12.

The GaDOE’s Career, Technical and Agricultural Education program is among the ways the state tries to give students in grades 6-12 skills that will prepare them for the workforce.

The high school graduation rate for Georgia students who completed at least one CTAE program was 94.9 percent in 2015, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2014 and significantly higher than the overall state graduation rate of 78.8 in 2015, Rickman reported.

The Georgia College and Career Academy Network, founded by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in 2006, is another initiative. The Chattahoochee County School District is the closest system to Columbus out of the 40 academies in Georgia to receive a grant ($3.1 million in ChattCo’s case) from the Technical College System of Georgia to partner with institutions of higher education (Columbus Technical College and Columbus State University in ChattCo’s case) for career training. Troup County opened one of these academies in 2015, and ChattCo’s partially will start its academy next school year.

“Historically, the role of K-12 was just to get students graduating with a high school diploma and let them move on,” Rickman said. “... We have a growing skills gap, not only in Georgia but across the country, where what the employers need and what our employable population has, in terms of skills and abilities, do not match. … There’s a lot that Georgia is doing to try to fill that gap.”

Issue 5: Higher education -- barriers to completion.

Since 2010, employer job postings in Georgia have grown 154 percent while the national growth rate has been 142 percent. But the state has a talent gap, a mismatch between degrees and skills needed by employers versus the degrees and skills of the population, Rickman wrote.

For example, Rickman wrote, 60 percent of job postings require at least an associate’s degree, but only 38 percent of Georgia’s adult population has at least that level of education.

“We have a problem in Georgia where kids are falling out of that pipeline at an accelerated rate,” Rickman said. “We’re one of the few states that do not have a statewide, need-based aid program, so it’s time we look at that again.”

Rickman was referring to the HOPE Scholarship program, Georgia’s financial aid system for in-state tuition that is based on merit, meaning a student’s academic achievement. So students from wealthy families are eligible for this assistance along with the middle class and the impoverished.

Meanwhile, the state’s funding per full-time student in the Technical College System of Georgia is about 3 percent below 2007 levels in inflation-adjusted dollars and 50 percent below the 2001 level in the University System of Georgia, according to Rickman.

All of which has resulted in tuition increasing by an average of 99 percent at USG institutions from 2007 to 2017 and by 147 percent at TCSG institutions from 2009 to 2015, she reported.

Issue 6: Funding -- equity for all.

Another task Deal charged the ERC with is developing a new formula to determine the amount of state revenue each public school district should receive. The ERC recommended a model called student-based budgeting, which funds districts based on student needs in addition to enrollment size.

Georgia’s current formula, called Quality Basic Education, is 37 years old and considered outdated.

“Because the QBE model is based on teacher allotment determined by segments of time students are in particular classrooms,” Rickman wrote, “it restricts any flexibility districts may have or need over how to expend state dollars or be strategic with their resources. The formula also does not account for poverty. By not considering poverty, particularly concentrations of poverty, the formula can drive inequalities in funding allocations.”

Issue 7: Early learning -- increasing quality and access for all children.

A student who can’t read on grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school by age 19, and, if that student lives in poverty, that student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time, according to the American Educational Research Association.

Georgia’s child poverty rate is 26 percent, ninth-highest in the nation, Rickman reported.

Education experts say the effort to combat this trend must start before children reach kindergarten.

“By now, I think everybody knows there’s really no silver bullet in education,” Rickman said. “But the closest thing I think we have is high-quality early learning to help level the playing field, especially for at-risk students and students in poverty.”

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning in 2012 launched its voluntary Quality Rated program. It uses 1-3 stars to show how well childcare providers meet state standards, Rickman reported. As of Dec. 1, 2016, 47 percent of the state’s 5,989 eligible facilities participate in the program and 20 percent of them are star rated, according to DECAL.

Issue 8: Student mental health -- time to take center stage.

Georgia lacks the mental health providers it needs, Rickman reported.

Out of 159 counties, 76 don’t have a licensed psychologist and 52 don’t have a licensed social worker, according to Voices for Georgia’s Children. The recommended ratio of social workers to students is one for every 250 students, but the state has one for every 2,742 students, according to Voices for Georgia’s Children.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a program that has shown success in Muscogee County, is one of the ways the GaDOE helps school districts to improve their learning environments. PBIS schools repeatedly teach behavior expectations, reward positive results and track discipline data to strengthen weaknesses.

As of 2015, according to Oregon researcher Rob Horner, 20,384 of the nation’s schools, approximately 20 percent, have implemented PBIS. Rickman reported the number of Georgia PBIS schools increased by almost 300 from 2014 to 2015.

School environment matters, Rickman insists, because it affects student achievement. For example, more students scored proficient or higher in third-grade English language arts at schools with higher climate ratings, she reported.

Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) is another program addressing this issue in Georgia. It was launched in 2015 and is funded by a five-year federal grant. Muscogee County, Newton County and Giffin-Spalding Schools are the state’s only three districts in the program, which provides training in Youth Mental Health First Aid and connects children and their families with appropriate services for behavioral health problems.

The Georgia House of Representatives study committee on children’s mental health has recommended the creation of a statewide children’s mental health strategic plan, including a state budget for children access to mental health prevention resources and early intervention based on an assessment of available services and resources, Rickman reported.

“Trauma, stress, mental health issue, they significantly affect how a student is able to perform in school,” Rickman said. “This is an issue that we feel has not been looked at. It’s starting to gain some traction, but it’s time that we really put the spotlight on student mental health and the whole child.”

Issue 9: The economics of education -- breaking the poverty cycle.

On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Georgia average for fourth-graders reading at or above proficient was 34 percent, but it was 23 percent for economically disadvantaged fourth-graders and 55 percent for fourth-graders who aren’t economically disadvantaged.

The gap also was stark in eight-grade math for percentage of students scoring at or above proficient. The state average was 28 percent, but it was 15 percent for economically disadvantaged eighth-graders and 52 percent for eighth-graders who aren’t economically disadvantaged.

Rickman said this issue impacts all the other issues on the list.

“These achievement gaps have serious implications not only for the individual students and their ability to move out of poverty, but also for Georgia’s long-term economic development,” she wrote. “For example, children who are not reading on grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, which makes them significantly more likely to be incarcerated, become a teen parent and be recipients of Medicaid and welfare.”

Georgia’s implementation of more rigorous learning standards, dual enrollment programs and job-skills training is challenged by this poverty cycle, Rickman noted. Out of the state’s 159 counties, 51 have more than one-fourth of their population living in poverty, she reported, and 32 counties have more than 40 percent of their adult population lacking basic literacy skills.

“If Georgia could improve educational outcomes for all students to a minimal ‘basic’ level on the NAEP eighth-grade math, the state would realize a 204 percent increase over the current state GDP,” Rickman wrote, citing a study by Stanford professor Eric Hanushek. “In 2015, 67 percent of all eighth-graders in Georgia, and 57 percent of low-income students, met at least this basic standard. Georgia has a long way to go.”

Issue 10: No Opportunity School District -- what now?

Georgia voters in November rejected the constitutional amendment that would have established a state-run Opportunity School District empowered to take over chronically failing schools. The proposal was the governor’s initiative, and he has two more years left in office, so folks are waiting to see what he proposes instead.

“The fact remains that we have thousands of children who are in schools that are chronically struggling,” Rickman said. “What do we do about that? Just because there is no looming threat now of an Opportunity School District takeover does not mean that we should stop with this urgency about how to turn around struggling schools and how to support these schools.”