ATLANTA – Aside from political affiliation, few issues divide the candidates for state school superintendent when it comes to the future of public education in Georgia.
Democrat Valarie Wilson and Republican Richard Woods both advocate for more support for teachers, less emphasis on standardized testing and a cautious approach to tying student achievement to teacher paychecks.
But the issue that divides both candidates is the implementation – and future – of the national Common Core Standards (CCS) for Georgia public school students.
During a candidate forum Aug. 18 hosted by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, both Wilson and Woods explained their stance on the standards. Depending on who prevails in the November election, students in Georgia could continue their Common Core journey through Wilson, or see a gradual pulling back, if not end, under a Woods administration.
In January, either Woods or Wilson will replace current superintendent John Barge who chose to run for governor instead of seeking a second term.
Wilson, president of the Georgia School Boards Association and a school board member from Decatur, supports the CCS, pointing to a survey of teachers showing 75 percent support the standards. A change in standards would mean the fourth state curriculum in place over the past decade.
“I think we have to move forward with implementation,” said Wilson. “It is critical for us to prepare our kids to be successful locally, statewide and globally. But we have to work closely with districts to ensure the level of training and support is there to implement [the standards] correctly.”
On the other side of the aisle, Woods discounts the survey results, noting the sampling was not extensive, and supports a step back to determine if the standards are what is needed in Georgia classrooms. He noted the previous standards – the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) – contained 85 to 90 percent of the Common Core standards and questioned how much improvement one could expect.
“As far as whether Common Core moves forward, my plan is for Georgia to move forward,” said Woods, a classroom teacher and administrator in South Georgia for more than 20 years. “As far as the standards itself, I think we could have done better, and we should have done better (than the CCS). I think there is room for improvement.”
Jemelleh Coes, the 2014 Teacher of the Year, said what CCS added to the GPS were skills necessary for students to succeed in life after high school.
“As a classroom teacher that difference [between CCS and GPS] is something that we previously missed, [and that is] the fostering of critical thinking and critical analysis,” said Coes, who served a panelist for the forum.
The CCS curriculum was adopted by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue during his tenure as Georgia’s governor. It is in its third year of implementation.
One area of concern with the CCS is the new assessments set to begin next year in grades 3-12, Georgia Milestones. Both Woods and Wilson agree the new assessments are rolling out too quickly to adequately gauge achievement. And with teacher evaluations, and potentially pay, linked to achievement, the stakes are too high for low-quality assessments.
“I asked for a two-year moratorium on the [Milestones] where we can look at the test,” said Woods. “The implementation has not been field tested and we are developing it on the move.”
He also dislikes assessments that come at the end of the school year, likening it to an autopsy, instead of throughout the year to assess progress.
“Do you want your doctor to look at you when you are dead or take a series of physical throughout your life?” he asked.
Wilson also supports a more cautious view of assessments, noting the current format is punitive to teachers.
“We have to evaluate the Milestones and see if we are providing the information that is necessary for our teachers to be successful and for our students to learn,” said Wilson. “We test, test, test, test way too much. Whatever assessment we use, we need to make sure we are using that tool correctly.”
Both candidates also addressed the controversy in the Fulton School System over the math curriculum. A question from the audience asked if the candidates would support funding to develop assessments for both integrated and traditional math. Currently, the state only supports the integrated path, but Fulton is pushing for a traditional option as well.
Wilson indicated she supported both options, but indicated finding the money could be difficult in lean budget times.
Woods said the proposal from Fulton was fair and probable.
“We should work together to support our local school systems and as your next school superintendent, my intent is to make sure we reach the goals,” Woods said.
To view the entire two-hour forum, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-fqSW8hqPk&feature=youtube.