State Superintendent John Barge spoke to an audience of education alumni, education majors and local educators at the Charter Fellows Conference at the Berry College Ford Auditorium on Friday, and he said now is the time to make education work, not just for students, but for everyone.
“My vision for education is simple,” he told an audience of nearly 200 people. “I’m tired of all the excuses, just make it work. It doesn’t matter what party you are, none of that matters. Just make it work for all Georgians, and I’m not just talking about our students. Make it work for teachers too. Make it work for parents.”
Education and economic development, he said, are inextricably linked. Therefore, Barge said his main concern isn’t just filling children’s heads with knowledge but helping them figure out what to do with their education in order to succeed.
“We have focused in education for a long time on educating the head,” Barge said. “But if we don’t teach our children how to apply the knowledge that we’re giving them and develop it in the leadership and the skills to apply that with integrity within the work place and society, we haven’t fully prepared our children to be successful.”
Barge, being an alumnus of Berry College, said he focuses on educational reform “the Berry way, with educating the head, heart and hands,” referencing Martha Berry’s philosophy.
Educating the head
Barge discussed the Common Core Curriculum Georgia Performance Standards, which raise the bar for children, introducing them to more rigorous educational material at an earlier age. Though they are based on a national set of standards, each state can decide how they teach them, he said.
“They are a more rigorous set of standards for all students,” Barge said. “It will allow transient students to receive the same standards regardless of where they live, and then national assessments will follow.”
The national assessments, he said, should be introduced within the next few years. Barge said the No Child Left Behind approach to education was, overall, a good and noble idea. However, there were some consequences that negatively affected students. Teachers had to focus on getting all students graduated on time and particularly focused on those students that needed more help in the classroom. Because of that, the more gifted students suffered.
“These are the standards they need to know,” he said. “Because each and every classroom, even the folks that are in this room, even in the same school building, the needs of children will differ. And a one-size-fits-all approach to education does not work.”
Educating the heart
Barge said years ago, Georgia passed a law requiring schools to teach character education in the schools, but did not necessarily provide the resources to make them work for students and teachers. But now Georgia is figuring out how to teach those leadership skills in the classroom that will make students successful beyond high school.
“We’ve got about 30 pilot schools that are piloting a new curriculum that we’re providing that is all about teaching students leadership skills,” he said.
The lessons, he said, engage students in ways they understand using visual images that create analogies. He used an example of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. What caused the ship to sink was what was beneath the surface. Therefore, students have to be prepared to lead from inside in order to be successful in whatever they choose to do with their lives.
Barge said educators are also being trained on how to educate students about the effects of bullying as well as how to spot human trafficking.
“It’s going on in our state, big time,” he said. “And if our counselors and teachers know the warning signs, to know what to look for, then hopefully we can save some kids from getting involved in stuff they don’t need to be involved in.”
Educating the hands
Barge said high school students are being introduced to career pathways that will help them succeed in post-secondary education and in the workforce. “It’s making sure our students are prepared,” he said. “When I was (at Berry College), I knew a lot of people who were prepared to be teachers. And they went all through four years of school, maybe five, and they got to that last year and they got to that last room to teach and they realized they didn’t like kids.”
With the new career pathways initiatives, that would be far less likely to happen.
“It’s an effort to ensure the children know what’s out there and they have an opportunity to experience it before they go,” he said. “When they get to post-secondary education, they’ll be prepared.”
In the first years of high school, he said, all students will take the same core courses in English, math, science and social studies. But those last two years will focus heavily on their specific futures.