The Cartersville-Bartow branch of American Association of University Women, together with the Georgia Association of Educators, held at Georgia Highlands College Thursday a public forum featuring state school superintendent candidates from the major parties. In attendance were Republican John Barge, currently Bartow County Schools' director of Secondary Curriculum; Democrat Joe Martin, a former president of the Atlanta Board of Education; and Libertarian Kira Griffith Willis, a teacher from Roswell. Howard Miller of Pooler is also running for the office.
The candidates early in the night were asked what were the top issues they thought needed to be addressed by the next state superintendent. Willis cited graduation rates, the need to retain teachers, and past state department of education decisions that have eliminated choice within schools and within their curriculum. On the latter topic, she said an article she read about an Alabama school's teaching of marine biology to its students highlights something Georgia schools should be able to do.
"Why don't we allow that on our coast? Why don't we have that choice for our kids? We have the ability; they're right there on the ocean," Willis said. "I believe that what we can do is offer more curriculum choice and allow the local schools and local communities to decide their curriculum."
Martin said he hoped to see student achievement increased across the board, both in basic skills and in areas where students may be talented. But doing that, he said, requires "adequate resources."
"Money isn't everything, but we do need enough to stop the furloughs. We need to make sure there's a full school year. We must restore class sizes to a reasonable level," Martin said. "That does require resources, and so you can count on me to be down there fighting to make sure that our schools are adequately funded."
Barge also cited education funding as a big issue, adding that other major issues on his mind include the problem of too many standardized tests and the mentality of "one size fits all," that all students should have the same academic plan. He said state education officials went the wrong way when the new graduation rule eliminated the career tech pathway to a high school diploma -- a move he says was in the guise of high expectations for all students.
"High expectations is not necessarily requiring a student who is gifted in construction to take calculus -- high expectations is to identify each student's strengths and each student's talents, and ensure that we have the resources and the curriculum in the place to take that student to his or her maximum potential," Barge said.
Barge and his opponents later had the chance to expand on the topic of high-stakes testing. All three agreed that the current state of education has put an overemphasis on such assessments.
"Think about a jigsaw puzzle -- assessment is one piece of that jigsaw puzzle. The jigsaw puzzle is a child, and we cannot measure a child's growth or their learning or their achievement by that one piece. You've got to look at all the other pieces of that puzzle," Barge said, adding that educators must look at students' projects, essays and performances as measured by assessments other than standardized tests.
"The average 11th-grader today is tested 11 times, and that doesn't include AP testing or the SAT. So we're looking at about 15 tests that these kids are taking in one year," Willis said, adding that she would urge the Georgia Department of Education to do biannual testing. Reducing the amount of tests, she added, would save the state millions in printing costs.
"We all know there are going to have to be some tests -- we have to measure the attainment of basic skills. But we've gone overboard. We've become obsessed with standardized tests," Martin said, adding in addition to the tests themselves, test preparation and other test-related activities have eaten into classroom time. "By placing so much emphasis on one measure, we really do force teachers to put that before everything else in terms of the ongoing instruction, so we need to look for ways not only to reduce the number of tests, but also to lessen the emphasis."
The candidates later addressed the issue of attracting the best teacher candidates and providing better mentoring to keep those educators in the field.
"We need a very clear sense of direction so that people coming into the teaching profession can see an outcome, can see a destination, an attractive career over time. That starts with a very effective mentoring and induction program," Martin said. "I've never seen another profession that takes its new entrants and puts them through such a rigorous process without the support mechanisms that are needed -- a teacher who is there to help in solving immediate problems, the kind of special assistance that's needed, not having the toughest classes and the worst schedule and the most arduous assignments from the very start."
Barge said one of his focuses regarding attracting good teacher candidates would be to make it easier for workers of various specialized fields to come into the education profession.
"I think we need to ramp up our efforts to bring people into the profession who are experts in their field that may not have been in education training programs, but they've been a chemist for Dow Chemical or an accountant for Merrill Lynch, or any of these things," Barge said. "We have a teacher teaching high school physics in one of our high schools that has a degree in physics but spent 20 years in the construction industry -- do you know what kind of value that teacher brings to the classroom by being able to teach physics through the application of construction?"
Willis' response focused on teachers' pay, saying that the key to keeping educators is to retain promised raises that were based on increased education levels, and not furlough teachers even amid diminished revenues. One of the ways districts can free up funds to be used for teacher pay, she added, it to eliminate positions that have little to no contact with students.
"The one thing we can do to keep teachers teaching is to keep the promises we made to them. If we are going to say, 'Your pay will be increased by 6 percent if you get a masters degree, and 6 percent more if you get a specialist degree, and 6 percent more if you get a Ph.D.,' then we need to keep that promise," she said. "You can't take that away from them."
The position of state superintendent of schools will be one of several offices on the election day ballot, and local voters will be able to go to the polls Tuesday, Nov. 2, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
But residents can already go to the polls through early voting, which continues each weekday until Oct. 29 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Bartow County Voter Registration Office, 105 North Bartow St. in Cartersville. The Cartersville Civic Center will become a second early voting location place the week of Oct. 25 when advanced voting is rolled out there; its hours of operation also will be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.