Amplifying Teachers’ Voices to Improve Student Outcomes in Georgia

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by Ebony Lee
Clayton County Public Schools assistant superintendent

Too many of Georgia’s students arrive at school each day dreading six words: “Can you read the next paragraph?”

According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, a majority of students are not proficient at reading grade-level texts or completing grade-level tasks that require mathematical thinking. So there are a lot of frustrated students who sit before us each day void of the tools to have full access to the learning.

Failing to address these gaps with high intention will only lead to countless students leaving high school ill-equipped for a world where the skills they need for college and the workforce are becoming increasingly indistinguishable.

The latest KIDS COUNT® Data Book released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation last month, which measures progress and identifies areas where this state struggles, shows that Georgia ranks 38th in the nation for overall child and family well-being—35th for economic well-being, 46th for health, 39th for family and community, and 37th for education.

The percentage of high school students not graduating on time fell again, from 19% in 2017 to 18% in 2018. However, reading scores did not improve compared to the previous year, with 68% of fourth graders scoring below proficient in reading. In the math domain, 69% of eighth graders scored below proficient compared to the national average of 67%.

Georgia is to be commended for ensuring that more students have a high school diploma as the graduation rate steadily increases. However, we know that this is not sufficient for today’s global and information-rich economy. When we examine college and career readiness data, such as the SAT and ACT “on track” benchmarks, far too many students are not hitting the mark. This means that copious graduates cannot comprehend complex texts, communicate effectively and construct viable arguments, and utilize mathematical thinking to problem solve or make sense of complex tasks.

These skills—along with being innovative, self-regulated, and well—are essential to being college- or work-ready. In Georgia, we have to open up dead-ends by increasing all students’ access to the conditions that help to cultivate college- and work-ready graduates. The critical building blocks are early learning for all, wrap-around support for children and their families, and quality teachers who are adept at meeting the needs of all learners.

Among school-related factors for improving student outcomes, the teacher matters most. Georgia can support teachers by creating opportunities to listen to them and use their feedback to inform policy and legislation that place students’ needs first. Teachers are on the front line and understand the areas of need and opportunity based on their context.

In addition to allowing teachers’ voices to influence decision-making, Georgia should ensure that all students have quality pre-K or early learning experiences to increase learning readiness. The years prior to kindergarten are formative, and it’s during these approximately 2,000 days that students should be washed in rich language and exposed to foundational learning skills. Research has repeatedly shown that students who have a strong early learning experience are better prepared for future learning experiences.

As district and school administrators, we are having to lead learning during this global COVID-19 pandemic. I’m grateful to our leaders, teachers, and community for their flexibility and resilience. The local and national collaborations have been helpful as we all work to finalize our plans for how we will reopen schools.

One challenge leaders are grappling with in the event that schools reopen virtually or have to pivot to a virtual model during the school year is students’ lack of access to a reliable computer device or the Internet. Our Board of Education in Clayton County approved issuing laptops to our students. Now our focus is implementing a reopening model that supports a safe, secure, and student-focus return to school. Whether we are virtual or face to face, we will be prepared to welcome students in August.

Our state must ensure that schools and communities are well-resourced and equipped with educators who possess the knowledge and skills to teach reading and mathematics in ways that lead to deeper mastery. The future of our economy is contingent upon the type of graduate that we produce year after year from all communities. The future starts today.

Watch Lee discuss leading literacy and advancing learning in Clayton County, including a solution-oriented approach to give more kids a “master key”—literacy—that unlocks potential and pathways to successful, productive lives.