What are the top 10 education issues in Georgia for 2018?

The nonpartisan Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education has released its “Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2018” concerning K-12 public schools. Here is a summary:

Issue 1 -- EdQuest Georgia: Charting Education Reform

EdQuest Georgia is what the GPEE calls a framework comprising seven core education policy areas that high-performing countries, states and school districts share, according to its research:

“Foundations for learning, which include supports from birth for families, schools, and communities as well as access to high-quality early learning.”

“Quality teaching for all students ensured by providing supports for teachers across recruitment, retention, and professional development and learning.”

“Quality leadership within schools — such as teacher-leaders, counselors, and principals — and those outside the school building, such as district and state leaders.”

“Supportive learning environments that promote positive conditions for learning within schools through fostering positive school climate and social and emotional learning for students, and outside of school in the home and throughout the community.”

“Advanced instructional systems that support high standards, personalized learning, innovation, a strong accountability system, and aligned curricula.”

“Clear pathways to post-secondary success that support the transition from high school into post-secondary education, and ensure post-secondary education access and success.”

“Adequate and equitable funding to support the achievement of all students.”

EdQuest Georgia provides an outline for the subsequent nine issues in this list, puts them into a broader context and shows they are interrelated, said GPEE policy and research director Dana Rickman.

“It seems to me,” Rickman said during the GPEE’s annual symposium this month at the Georgia Public Broadcasting headquarters in Atlanta, “education policy is becoming a lot more complicated and a lot more interrelated with a lot of different things.”

Issue 2 -- Equity and Fairness: The Opportunity to Succeed

GPEE emphasizes in its report, “Equity does not mean creating equal conditions for all students, but rather targeting resources based on individual students’ needs and circumstances so that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed.”

School districts must use information provided by the Georgia Department of Education to “address inequities through their annually submitted district improvement plans, which must include an equity component and school improvement goals,” the GPEE report says.

Issue 3 -- The Early Learning Workforce: A Challenge for Georgia

Rickman called the Georgia Pre-K program, funded by the state’s lottery, “a bright shining star.”

Established as a pilot program in 1992 with 20 sites educating a total of 750 4-year-olds, Georgia Pre-K became the nation’s first universal preschool program for this age group in 1995 and now serves more than 350,000 children.

“One of the strengths of Georgia Pre-K is, over the past 25 years, they have really professionalized the workforce, the teachers within the program providing instruction for early learning,” Rickman said. “What are some lessons that we can learn from the Georgia Pre-K program and apply them to the rest of the early-care industry?”

For example, according to the Economic Impact study, Georgia Pre-K or Head Start programs earned a median hourly wage of $16.45 in 2015 while lead teachers at early-learning centers that aren’t in Georgia Pre-K or Head Start programs earned a median hourly wage of $10.14, the GPEE report says.

Issue 4 -- Teachers: Leadership from the Classroom

Traditionally, career advancement for teachers has meant moving into administration. “With that kind of career pathway, we encourage some of our best and brightest teachers to leave the classroom,” Rickman said. “That’s kind of a disturbing trend.”

The 2013 “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher” found that 69 percent of teachers aren’t interested in becoming a principal, the GPEE report says.

“They love the classroom,” Rickman said. “They love being in front of students. They love the teaching aspect of it.”

The same survey found that one out of four teachers are “extremely” or “very interested” in a hybrid role that would allow them to continue teaching but also help lead education reforms from inside the classroom, the GPEE report says.

“We need purposeful pathways to teacher leadership,” Rickman said, “which are different than what we think of the traditional leadership pathways of professional development that will take you the principal route. So we’re talking about two different routes of leadership and professional development.”

A reporter asked Rickman how teachers can be education reform leaders from inside the classroom if they are afraid to speak about issues because of retribution from administration.

“Georgia right now is setting itself up to have – and they’re deliberately setting themselves up – to have exactly that discussion,” she said. “What do we want from teacher leaders? How would that look? How do we support them? This is still a relatively new area for Georgia.”

Georgia, however, is the only state with a specific certification in leadership for teachers, Rickman said. Focusing on teacher leadership not only will help improve recruitment and retention, she said, but it’s also essential for helping to improve chronically failing schools.

“To turn around a struggling school,” Rickman said, “you need leadership from all levels of a school: the principal and the classroom teachers. It takes about five to seven years on average to really successfully turn around a school and have it hold, so you need a stable cadre of staff in that school to keep any new reforms going.”

Issue 5 -- The Missing 20 Percent: Increasing Georgia’s High School Graduation Rate

The high school graduation rate in Georgia continues to lag the national average, but it’s narrowing the gap.

Georgia has improved five straight years, increasing by 10.9 percentage points, from 69.7 in 2012 to 80.6 in 2017. That’s the highest mark for Georgia since 2011, when federal law required states to start reporting their rates based on graduating within four years.

Meanwhile, the national average since 2011 has increased by approximately 4 percentage points to 84.1, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, an October 2017 document comprising data from the 2015-16 school year, so it trails the state-level reporting by one year.

Still, despite Georgia’s improvement, one out of every five high school students in the state still doesn’t graduate on time. To target these students, schools will need resources beyond academics, Rickman noted.

“We think a lot of them are really associated with hard-to-serve students,” she said, “students with interrupted education, long-term medical problems that keep them out of schools, students in juvenile justice, students in foster care.”

A 2016 analysis by MDRC (Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation) identified the early-warning indicators of not graduating on time: attendance, behavior and course performance. GPEE calls them the ABCs.

For example, the more absences Georgia students have in eighth grade, the greater likelihood they won’t graduate on time, the report says. But the interventions should start sooner, GPEE recommends.

“Early interventions, especially for very young children in foster care, must be built,” the report says. “… It is incumbent upon each school and community to examine the root causes affecting these vulnerable students and work collectively to address them.”

Issue 6 -- Georgia’s Talent Gap: Time to Close It

Georgia’s job postings have grown more than 150 percent since 2010, but the state’s unemployment rate ranks 34th in the nation, GPEE notes.

“There are a lot of job opportunities in Georgia – the economy is growing – but, compared to other states, we have a relatively high unemployment rate,” Rickman said. “There’s a mismatch between the skills that employers want and the skills that our general population has. So what is Georgia doing to close that gap?”

By 2020, 60 percent of jobs in Georgia will require some form of postsecondary education, the GPEE report says. Georgia has set a goal to add 250,000 postsecondary graduates by 2025. But accomplishing this alone won’t be enough, GPEE insists, because “having a credential is not the same as having the right credential.”

To address this, Georgia schools have been increasing the rigor of their curriculum and focusing student choices on career pathways.

“To be a global leader, however, Georgia must take its education system to the next level,” the GPEE report says, “broaden the student base to include non-traditional and adult students, and support career development activities that tie post-secondary education more closely to the employment demands of the state.”

Issue 7, Literacy: A Foundational Necessity

A 2017 study by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement found a direct relationship between third-grade reading proficiency and high school graduation.

The 2016 graduation rate for students who didn’t meet the state’s standard in third-grade reading was 60.5 percent; it was 78.4 percent for those who met the standard and 88.9 percent for those who exceeded the standard, the GPEE report says.

“Language development is the foundation for social, emotional, mental health development – all of which really affects a student’s ability to learn,” Rickman said.

The Get Georgia Reading Campaign summarizes the issue this way: The end of third grade marks the critical time when children shift from learning to read to reading to learn.

“Children unable to make this shift face serious barriers for future learning, because they can’t grasp half of the printed fourth-grade curriculum and beyond, including math and science,” the GPEE report says. “As a result, these children fall even further behind.”

GPEE also links this issue to adult literacy.

“There is a proven relationship between adult illiteracy, poverty, and educational outcomes for children,” the report says.

The ProLiteracy Education Network’s 2016 survey found that children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. In Georgia, 20 percent of the adult population lacks basic literacy skills, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“A focus on the literacy of all the state’s citizens by addressing the factors that impact literacy in young children and increasing access to literacy programs for adults would significantly close the skills gap facing our state,” the GPEE report says.

Issue 8 -- Student Health: A Pathway to Classroom Success

The report cites studies that show visual, aural, oral, nutritional and mental health problems hinder academic achievement. Poverty complicates and exacerbates health problems – and both problems complicate and exacerbate education problems, GPEE asserts.

“It seems like an obvious statement, that research has really highlighted the direct link between student outcomes and all aspects of student health,” Rickman said.

Approximately one out of four children in Georgia live in a home with an income at or less than the federal poverty level, and more than 60 percent of the state’s public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the GPEE report says.

Georgia has a higher percentage than the national average of several problematic health-related indicators, the report says: low-birthweight babies, children without health insurance, births to women receiving late or no prenatal care, children with developmental, emotional or behavioral disorders, and households that are food insecure.

“Expanding health supports for students is paramount for Georgia to see improved educational outcomes for all public-school students,” the report says.

GPEE suggests increasing the number of school-based health centers (22 in the state as of January 2017), addressing the state’s mental-health worker shortage and expanding Georgia Apex, a pilot program supported by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities designed to improve access to mental health services for school-aged youth.

Issue 9 -- Rural Georgia: It Matters, A Lot

A closer look at Georgia’s celebrated job growth reveals an alarming divide in the state. While the number of Georgia jobs increased 9.6 percent from 2010 to 2015 and outpaced the nation’s growth (8.3 percent), Atlanta (10.4 percent) was largely responsible for that boost, leaving behind the state’s rural areas (3.1 percent).

This separation will continue if projections from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce come to fruition: Georgia’s rural job growth through 2026 is expected to be 1.6 percent, compared to 11.6 percent for Atlanta, the GPEE report says.

“That’s a problem for the entire state,” Rickman said.

In 2016, 30.9 percent of Georgia’s schools were in areas classified as rural – serving nearly 380,000 students, the third-most in the nation -- and an increasing number of these students require greater supports for academic achievement, GPEE notes.

“To address some of the inequities that plague rural Georgia, the state has begun some important initiatives that focus on their unique and significant needs,” the report says. “…That commitment must continue and, importantly, it must move beyond the study stage to the action stage. Any intervention supporting rural Georgia must be built on the understanding that in smaller communities, every sector is tied together more tightly than in urban or suburban communities. Thus, cross-sector collaboration and alignment is critical, as each sector immediately affects the others.”

Issue 10 -- The Every Student Succeeds Act: What’s Next for Georgia

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2016. ESSA replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law 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 this 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.

The Georgia Department of Education announced Friday it has received final federal approval of its ESSA plan. The GPEE report says the plan addresses:

Measuring school performance and student progress and setting academic goals.

The state assessment system’s role in teaching, learning and accountability.

How to intervene in struggling schools and what resources could support them.

The report says, “The implementation of this plan in 2018 will begin to answer the question: Did Georgia accomplish its goals?”

Then GPEE predicts part of that answer: “Depending on district capacity, there may be a wide range of effective implementation of the ESSA plan.”

And the GPEE report concludes with this warning: “The State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by Gov. Deal, must approve any changes to the state accountability system. The Governor has already expressed his dissatisfaction with the revised accountability system and the State Board has echoed those concerns.”