A Failure Of Leadership

If your only source of information about Georgia’s public schools was the news releases distributed by the office of state school Supt. Kathy Cox, you’d think that our kids are surely being educated in the best of all possible worlds.

You can almost hear Cox squealing with delight in the quotes she routinely includes in her press releases: Our teachers are doing a great job implementing our new curriculum! Student performance is rising and the achievement gap is closing! All of our schools are working hard to provide Georgia’s students with a great education!

Judging from Cox’s public comments, it would seem that everything is great and everybody wants to do everything they can to give children the best education they could ever hope to get.

As with all public officials, of course, you have to ignore what they’re saying for public consumption and examine what they’re doing in private. Those private moments will give more accurate insight into what our elected leaders really believe.

One such moment for Cox occurred back in January 2004 when she tried to remove from the state’s science curriculum all references to evolution and other scientific concepts that are opposed by Christian fundamentalists. She added insult to injury by proposing that “intelligent design,” another name for biblical creationism, be taught to Georgia students.

Cox ultimately retreated from that nonsensical position when the media publicized her efforts to scrub the curriculum and ignited a firestorm of controversy.

There have been other revealing comments from our top education officials.

A group of public school systems teamed up to file a lawsuit against the state four years ago in which they alleged that Georgia is not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide funding for an “adequate” public education. The lawyers involved in this litigation have spent many hours questioning school officials as to what, in their opinion, constitutes an adequate education.

One of Cox’s department heads, in the middle of giving a deposition, was asked if she thought science classes were part of an adequate education. “I think you can do without science,” the official replied.

“You think you can have an adequate education without any science education whatsoever?” the lawyer asked.

“My opinion is that I can – I personally can live without science,” the school official said.

A few minutes later, in response to a similar question about social studies courses in public schools, that same official told the attorneys: “I think you can fail social studies and get an adequate education.”

Lawyers also questioned Gov. Sonny Perdue’s education policy adviser. She was asked if she thought it was acceptable that Georgia ranked only 46th among the states in average SAT scores. She replied that she was “very proud” of that ranking, in light of the state’s previous last-place ranking.

“This is perhaps the most disheartening attitude I’ve seen in my 15 years involved with education in Georgia,” said a teachers’ lobbyist after reading the comments of those officials. “If this doesn’t outrage people, then there’s very little hope for K-12 in our state.”

Keep those comments in mind as you consider this: Nearly 40 percent of the state’s eighth graders who took the science portion of the Criterion-Referenced Comp-etency Test (CRCT) in 2008 failed it. More than 70 percent of Georgia’s sixth- and seventh-graders failed the social studies portion of the CRCT.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Many parents have failed to do their duty and make sure that their kids read books and finish homework assignments. Legislators have failed to provide the full amount of dollars required by an outmoded funding formula. Teachers’ groups have resisted the idea of holding bad teachers accountable for their performance.

But this crisis, I think, starts at the top. You have a state school superintendent who wanted to remove evolution from the science curriculum and whose underlings have said that students don’t need to take science or social studies to get an adequate education – not to mention a governor whose staff is “very proud” that the state’s students rank in the bottom 10 percent on college board scores.

If our kids are failing, it’s because we’re failing our kids.

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