Acclaimed educational philosopher John Dewey once said, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be what the community wants for all its children.” I believe this is especially true in the Clarke County School District community.
Regardless of the social-economic and environmental challenges that some students bring to our classrooms, our instructional staff, parents and public education advocates must demand the exact same goals and levels of educational attainment for all students. The disappointing reality is that our students are currently woefully behind the state and area school districts in terms of academic performance on the Georgia Milestones.
It’s true that students are more than data points. However, we must also recognize that proficiency on state and other assessments is a precursor to potential success on college admission examinations like the ACT and SAT, military entrance exams and exams necessary for apprenticeships. Therefore, we cannot assume that data points are unimportant.
According to the Get Georgia Reading Campaign, “Children who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to experience poor health, have disciplinary problems, perform poorly in eighth-grade math, become teen parents and drop out of school. As adults, they are more likely to spend time in prison, struggle with unemployment and face shorter life expectancies.”
Reading at proficiency level is literally a life-or-death issue. It is one reason why I am so disappointed in the disparities in performance between white and black students in the district.
It is simply unacceptable that only 15 percent of our black students in grades three through five can read at the state’s proficiency level. This reality requires us—the professionals in the school system—to approach and apply our instruction in different ways. If those new ways do not work, then we need to try something else. We will demonstrate supreme relentlessness until our racial disparities and gaps are closed.
I want to make clear that this is not an achievement gap. It is an opportunity gap. An opportunity gap is the disparity in access to quality schools, instruction and the resources needed for all children to be academically successful.
Across the state and nation, test scores and access to rigorous academic courses have become the modern-day poll tax for this generation of American schoolchildren. When students are ill-prepared to enter the postsecondary pathways of their choice, they are effectively excluded.
Why is it that, when we are discussing historically marginalized students, it’s about chasing test results, but when we are discussing results for affluent students, it is widely accepted to share which teachers will best prepare students for Gifted and Talented programs and Advanced Placement courses? Why is it acceptable for certain students to have access to the very best SAT or ACT prep courses to help them gain an advantage on college placement exams? We must create a system that is committed to true educational equity for all students.
If proficiency is expected for some students, it should be expected for all. We must be unwavering in our commitment to educational equity, system transformation and continuous improvement.
Educational equity is both a long-term goal and a mechanism for system change, which is complex and requires strategic leadership. Our equity work looks to transform and address some of the most uncomfortable educational and societal issues of past and present generations. We aim to prevent the next generation from having to address the volume of issues currently before us. It is futile to admire past periods of success or marvel at pockets of excellence within a system that is failing to meet all its students’ needs.
The results from the 2017–2018 Georgia Milestones reveal that our children are in crisis. We are determined to no longer get distracted by inconsequential and trivial issues. Our focus is squarely on implementing our strategic plan and individual school growth plans to increase student achievement. The district will also continue to invest in preventive academic measures, such as expanding high-quality early childhood education.
I am encouraged by the strategic plan and systems our team implemented last school year. We now ask our community to allow us to operate Clarke County schools in a manner that demands educational equity, rigor and standards-based instruction on every campus, in every classroom and for every student. We need the public to acknowledge and support the fact that turnaround work is required in all our schools—efforts that include developing smart goals at every school and ensuring every school has commonly applied strategies to improve instruction, culture, systems and leadership. We need the community to ensure these strategies are implemented with fidelity.
We are committed to meaningful improvement in all our schools. We are also committed to turning around the performance of historically marginalized students. Some of our schools may have good academic scores in the aggregate, but when we unearth the data, these schools are also failing our most vulnerable, historically marginalized and school-dependent students. In short, every school in CCSD must now double down on the systems-thinking, educational equity work ahead of us.
We cannot blame students for poor performance. The responsibility rests with us: the educators. The work required to turn around the district’s current pattern of performance will demand an unprecedented level of professional urgency. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
I sincerely hope that everyone in our community will join us on this critical journey for all Clarke County children.
Demond Means is superintendent of the Clarke County School District.
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