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March 16, 2016

What's Wrong With Our Public Schools: A Teacher's Perspective

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Editor's note: This column was adapted from a series of public comments to the Clarke County Board of Education.

I’ve been a teacher at Cedar Shoals High School for 15 years and have four children who attend Clarke County schools. I have long advocated for students’ rights. But in no way are the rights that students have today good for our students or our communities.

Students have the right to skip class and then show up after school for private instruction.  

Students have the right to openly use their phones without the threat of confiscation.

Students have the right to sleep during class and ignore instruction in general but still show up for remediation and retake tests and quizzes as often as needed to “meet course standards.”

Students have the right to refuse to take a test because they did not prepare or just don’t feel like it.  

Students have the right to curse at a teacher in the hallway and even in class without fear of real consequences.  

Students have the right to remain in school even when they have crossed lines that should never be crossed.

I could list many more “rights” that students have in this broken and cowardly system, but what about a student’s right to learn? What about a student’s right to be challenged every moment of every day until he or she recognizes and learns to honor the strength, courage and personal power that was bestowed upon each of us by the Divine?

As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards… Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string… Great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the Eternal was stirring at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.”

The genius of Martin Luther King’s age was that an oppressed people rose up against the entire “justice” system of the United States and declared it a lie. And through their own blood and sacrifice, they transformed that hideous lie into truth. I hope that one day people will say that the genius of American society in 2016 was that local communities rose up against nonsensical, corrupt and ineffective education policies. Policies that take away control from local school districts. Policies that bind the hands of teachers, administrators and superintendents. Policies that harm students by allowing them to succumb to their basest impulses, because they have no fear of consequences.

Everyone makes mistakes and often says to others, “You learn from your mistakes.” But what are our children learning from their mistakes under the current system? Are they learning that their actions have consequences, and they must think very carefully before they do or say anything? Or are they learning that the system is so broken that they can do whatever they want to do, say whatever they want to say, and then stand by and watch as adults make excuses for their poor choices and do whatever it takes to push them through the broken system in an effort to reach state mandated rates of graduation?

“Accountability” is the defining educational buzzword of our time. Teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests. Administrators are held accountable for student performance on standardized tests. School district personnel are held accountable by scores, ratings and consequences from the state that affect district funding and the district’s ability to self-govern.

As adult accountability continues to grow, student accountability continues to shrink. However, at the same time, the state has recently removed the Georgia High School Graduation tests as a requirement for graduation. These tests have been replaced by course-specific End of Course tests that only factor in as 20 percent of their course grade, and students do not have to pass the test in order to pass the course. Paired with trends of relaxing discipline measures, we are communicating to students that the system expects very little of them. A system that holds educators solely accountable for student performance is destined to fail.

A few years ago, Georgia Charter School Amendment 1 passed by large margins because it claimed that it "[p]rovides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options."

This is a classic half-truth. It is true that each of us wants to improve student achievement in our community. It is true that each of us would like to increase parental involvement in our community. However, the claim that Charter School Amendment 1 has brought us closer to achieving either of those goals is absolutely false.

In November, Georgia voters will be asked at the polls to answer the SR 287 Opportunity School District question: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?” Who would vote no to intervene in “chronically failing public schools”? Who would vote no to “improving student performance”? This is yet another example of our state legislature and our governor using rhetoric to confuse and beguile voters.  

The fact is that the state already has the power to intervene through a progression of measures over time. The fear within education that drives us to conform and do whatever we can to stay off the Focus Schools List is that the state can and will take over schools that do not meet the state’s expected timeline of progress. The “Opportunity School District” Amendment would remove due process and the opportunities of school districts to make changes over time that could result in higher student achievement. SR 287 will further prevent local school districts from crafting their own policies to best address the needs of their own students.  

We must develop a plan to get everyone in this community, regardless of race, political affiliation and income level, to come together to oppose the Opportunity School District Amendment. We cannot consent to losing all control of how our children are educated, but we must also not consent to following policies we know as educators to be harmful to authentic learning. I hope Superintendent Philip Lanoue will help lead this charge.

Clarke County needs to reinstate a district attendance policy at the high school level that sends the message that classroom instruction is important—so important, in fact, that if you miss too many days without documented excuses, you cannot earn credit. If one feels he or she deserves the credit due to special circumstances, he can present the case before a review panel.

I hope the school board, Dr. Lanoue and administrators at every school in this district will focus their energy on making sure that students learn to make good choices in life and function healthily in a collective manner by supporting teachers in their efforts to provide disciplined and productive learning environments. I hope that every educator rises up to achieve the genius of our current age and stop the insanity of punishing school districts simply because they happen to serve students with many challenges to overcome.

We must all demand through our votes and our voices that local, state and national politicians operate with integrity and seek real solutions to the problems facing communities, rather than allowing legislators to mislead and deceive the public.

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