Georgia Tackles School Reforms Accountability Is a Consistent Theme

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ATLANTA -- In about a month, when the General Assembly convenes, Georgia will join a wave of states already well under way in their efforts to reform education.

But the chief proponent of school improvement thinks it has benefited to wait to see what others have done.

"We have been patterning much of what we are doing out of North Carolina and Texas and trying not to make the same mistakes that they did," said Gov. Roy Barnes, chairman of his hand-picked Education Reform Commission.

One lesson learned is that parents and administrators will be jolted when schools are ranked according to how well students perform on standardized tests.

"Is there pain in this? Yes, because every year, and this is true in North Carolina, when scores come out showing some schools aren't making the grade, it's tough," Barnes said.

Preparing the public beforehand wasn't done adequately in Texas, either.

"If you look back today, they might have gone a little slower," said Judy Bray, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "They might have spent more time making sure that was clear enough and simple enough to educators and parents."

Several factors contributed to the latest wave of reforms in various Southern states. Many attribute the movement to a 1982 report, "A Nation at Risk," which compared American student achievement to other countries. It was followed by discussions at the annual National Conference of Governors.

The momentum built on itself as governors compared notes and implemented programs tried in other states. The states most often identified as models fine-tuned their efforts without making radical changes in direction even when new governors were elected, Bray said.

The consistent theme in this wave of reform has been accountability. Advocates like Barnes say it is based on the notion that every child is teachable and that educators should be rewarded or sanctioned based on their success with each child.

"The idea is that no child is going to be placed in a school that is not improving and nobody is doing anything about it," he explained during a recent joint meeting of the Georgia School Board Association and the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

"We need to have accountability for adults before we have accountability for children," said Mike Moses, former Texas commissioner of education during the reform era and now deputy chancellor at Texas Tech in Lubbock. "In Texas, we kind of jumped out there and required children to take the test for graduation before we had the mechanics for holding teachers accountable."

Texas now annually ranks schools according to how each segment of its student body does on standardized tests. A school with all but one segment, for example Latino pupils, scoring high on the tests can still be ranked as subpar.

"That is the genius of our system in Texas because it has caused teachers not to turn their back on one subgroup of students," said Moses. "And there is a lot of shame if you get rated low performing. …