Teachers Are Not the Problem With Clarke County Schools

Several years ago, a wise principal told me, “You know, the real problem is that teachers have less and less control over what goes on in their classroom, but more and more responsibility for the results.” (“Results,” of course, meant standardized test score results.) That was right about the time I started noticing how many good teachers our local schools were losing—the kind of teachers every parent hopes their kids will have, the kind of teachers we had when we were kids ourselves. The teacher shortage is a national problem, but it hurts when you see it happening with real teachers at real schools in your town, too. This year, the Clarke County School District saw an even higher number of teachers leaving than usual, as documented in the Aug. 8 issue of Flagpole. That cannot be a good sign, friends, not if we want good schools for all kids.

That principal’s statement came to mind as I tried to absorb and understand just what CCSD Superintendent Demond Means was getting at in his Aug. 15 Flagpole column.  There is plenty to admire about Means’ latest essay sounding the alarm. He does a compelling job of describing the unacceptability of a wide achievement gap between black and white students in our district. No one I know would dispute that this is a critical problem. He also accurately characterizes what some call an “achievement gap” as, rather, an “opportunity gap.” Unfortunately, Means does not mention that the disparity of resources in the students’ home environments and our unfortunate history of racialized, systemic inequalities are also a significant part of this very real opportunity gap.  

Instead of addressing the out-of-school barriers to learning that so many of our students face, Means falls back on the convenient tactic of blaming our teachers for the disparate test results of their students. “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.”  

For those who read his newsletters or sit in on school board meetings and work sessions from time to time, Means’ leadership is certainly assertive and decisive, which is fine. But he often makes clear his desire for more central-office power and systems thinking to a fault—not to mention the slow-motion gutting of our local school governance teams, from all indications. I think all of that is a real mistake in direction, and I hope he corrects course soon, before we lose more top educators to other districts, as we’ve been doing for a while now.

Our schools must do better at reaching every student, especially those adversely affected from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups. But is it really fair to assign all of the blame for test-score disparities to educators? Doesn’t that discourage rather than motivate the teachers doing the hard work every day? Are there lots of “better” teachers on the sidelines, in a secret pipeline for talent, waiting in the wings to take the place of the many who are quitting? Is it all down to the teaching and learning only, or don’t such inequitable societal variances account for much of the different outcomes? And if so, why the silence from CCSD’s leader on those factors, and on what we as a community can do about this huge problem?  

I don’t understand why Means says that our educators are failing their students and that the community must now blindly support him in implementing what he has laid out as the solution for the schools. This is especially puzzling when the “fix” he advances is devoid of details other than doubling down on blaming our teachers and initiating more pedagogical, curriculum-based programs that our teachers have had enough of.  

Placing the blame for test-score disparities on teachers is not the correct approach, and doing so does not make me sense that we will achieve positive results anytime soon.   The superintendent, more than anyone else, should work to improve teacher morale, rather than telling them that they have failed our children. Teaching and learning are a beautiful, messy, complicated process—not one that improves with such a one-way, autocratic approach as CCSD now seems to now be enduring.

Is there more work to do? Yes, for sure. Do we need to hire and retain more teachers of color? Absolutely. Do we need a comprehensive community-schools approach that addresses the sharply varying out-of-school factors that affect testing results so greatly?  Yes, indeed. Should we be utilizing the talents and skills of our diverse and ready-to-serve local school governance teams? Of course. But no one should think that the gap issue has been ignored in CCSD schools; it has not been.

We need to do better. It’s not just the “do something” impulse that’s important—it is how and what we do that also matters. Let’s get this right, for the sake of our schools, our students and our community. Surely we’d all agree that supporting, rather than alienating, the ordinary, miracle-working teachers of our beloved CCSD is how we best serve all our children equitably.