Georgia Groups Divided on How to Pay Our Teachers

By Alex Estroff

Sonaraville High School English teacher Kelli De Guire felt like she was being held prisoner behind her desk while her tenth grade class took the Student Learning Objective test this past winter. Filled with anger, she could only watch as her students, whether they cared about the test or not, determined how big her next paycheck would be.

SLOs are standardized tests that are apart of the state’s Teacher Keys Effectiveness System, through which Georgia teachers are evaluated. Test scores account for exactly half of a teacher’s total score, which then determines whether or not they receive higher pay based on their merit.

De Guire was not angry because she felt like her students would do poorly on the test, but rather that she simply had no power over how seriously the students took it. If a student decided to employ the “Christmas tree” method of filling in answers, they were free to do so, and De Guire could merely sit quietly at the front of the class.

De Guire’s experience is not a unique one for a Georgia educator. In fact most teachers in the state bemoan the practice of tying test scores into their salaries. But the issue at hand is not whether teachers feel they are being treated fairly or not, but rather whether or not the students are benefitting as much as possible.

This issue has been generating buzz around Georgia because of Governor Deal’s intention to implement a more merit-based pay system in public schools. While Deal was unsuccessful in pushing reform in the legislative session that ended last month, it is evident that efforts will continue. Drastic changes are on the approaching horizon, and everyone is trying to influence them.

Given the complex and contentious nature of this topic, it should come as no surprise that there is no clear answer to the question of which method of teacher pay produces the best results. What is clear, though, is that the consequences of this debate have significant personal effects on educators and students alike, as evidenced by De Guire’s account.

De Guire is a board member of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher association. PAGE is a proponent of merit pay, so long as that merit is not judged according to test scores.

Craig Harper, the director of communications for PAGE, contends that there are simply too many factors out of a teacher’s control that can influence a student’s test scores. “We believe in accountability for our teachers,” Harper said. “But a test cannot possibly account for all that happens in a school environment.”

Harper explained that a teacher can be very effective in the classroom but test scores can be weighed down by a student’s personal problems such as being bullied, having parents going through a divorce, or even, “having your girlfriend break up with you the class before.”

PAGE suggests that another problem inherent in the testing component of merit-based pay is its use of the student growth percentile, which compares a student’s test scores only to his or her own previous scores, not to those of others students.

They argue that this method could severely disadvantage both students with special needs and students at the top of the class because their potential for growth is rather small. If a student requires special education, he or she is unlikely to see the same academic growth as other students. Similarly, if a student is already excelling, there may not be much room to grow further. Harper believes that this blunted growth is then inappropriately attributed to the teacher.

According to PAGE, evaluations conducted by school administrators serve as the best means of judging a teacher’s effectiveness. When a teacher is assessed in person based on skills such as knowledge of the curriculum and level of engagement with the students, the teacher can actually, as Harper says, “be responsible for what he or she’s being evaluated on.”

However, the Georgia Association of Educators argues that the subjectivity of evaluations carries too great of a risk for teacher pay to be dependent on it. While GAE opposes test-based merit pay essentially for the same reasons that PAGE does, it believes that there is no place in Georgia schools for merit pay of any sort, including the in-person evaluation system.

“What one administrator might see as ‘proficient’, another might see as ‘needs development,” says the GAE director for twenty counties, including Clarke, Sally Swift.

Swift also cites teachers’ lack of opportunity for redress as another flaw in the evaluation system.

Swift recalled that last year a teacher received a “proficient” rating in all ten categories except one in which she received a two out of a possible four points. Even though this teacher has no avenue through which she may challenge this score, if she receives another rating of two within the next five years, she will be at risk of losing her teaching certification.

GAE’s preferred pay system is the salary-based schedule. In this system, all teachers receive a base pay and then higher pay is rewarded for seniority and gaining additional degrees. A variation of this system is currently in place statewide, but Governor Deal’s proposed reforms would take it away.

Swift contends that this system incentivizes teachers to receive higher education which, in turn, will improve student performance in the classroom.

“If the Georgia Legislature wants to do away with a salary-based schedule, teachers will be paid the same no matter their degree” Swift says, “which ultimately hurts the kids.”

She cited research on the matter that supports her claim that there is, in fact, a correlation between higher degrees for the teachers and the success of their students. For this reason, Swift and GAE assert that the state should reward their teachers for investing in a better education for themselves. If no such reward exists and teacher pay is based solely upon, what she believes to be arbitrary, standards of merit, in the end, the students will pay the price.

Entirely contradictory to this school of thought is the position held by Michael O’Sullivan, the Georgia state director for StudentsFirst. This organization differs from PAGE and GAE in that, while those two groups advocate exclusively on behalf of Georgia teachers, it does not represent any one set of players within the broad scope of education.

O’Sullivan and StudentsFirst contend that the only way for Georgia’s education system to thrive is to reward excellence in teaching, regardless of by whom it is being done. StudentsFirst shares Governor Deal’s belief that in order to determine which teachers are performing best, they need to be assessed according to observational evaluations as well as test scores.

While decidedly unpopular among teachers, StudentsFirst maintains that the student growth percentile component of testing is an effective means of judging a teacher’s performance.

In response to the argument that personal issues out of a teacher’s control can bog down test scores, O’Sullivan says, “It’s important to isolate outside factors as much as you can. And it is possible to do so.” He also referred to a recent Harvard study that supports this claim.

O’Sullivan dismisses GAE’s notion that salaries should be dependent on simply being at a school for a long time, calling this system “survive and get paid.”

He also is hesitant to adhere to GAE’s position that teachers with higher degrees ought to be paid more. His organization believes that all teachers should be assessed on a level playing field, rewarding the effective teachers, no matter how many years they spent in college.

O’Sullivan’s main criticism of the current teacher pay system is that it encourages good teachers who do not hold as high degrees as some of their colleagues to leave the school.

The current structure allocates greater state funds to districts with more teachers with high degrees. It is no surprise then that the districts wish to hire more teachers with Master’s degrees, given that it will result in additional funds. This then may cause an effective teacher without such a degree to find a job elsewhere, even if it was a top teacher.

The fact of the matter is that the right answer to this question is not readily available. Nor will the state legislature serendipitously stumble upon the right answer in the next legislative session.

Three of the most predominant education organizations in Georgia offered three entirely distinct solutions to the matter of teacher pay. This is also not to mention the wealth of additional issues that are directly tied to teacher pay, such as charter schools and common core.

What should be acknowledged throughout the course of this debate, though, is that its consequences will have a dramatic toll on the way our schools function. Whatever reforms are passed next legislative session, it will be De Guire and her tenth grade English class that feel their effects the most.


Groups Around Athens Turn Focus to Equality in Summer Learning

By Alex Estroff

In a drab warehouse located off the Athens Perimeter between a Dollar General and a Hardee’s, the attorneys of Morgan & Morgan Law Firm stack children’s books into boxes.

“Man, did any of you guys ever read the Goosebumps books as a kid?” Andrew Morgan, office manager for the firm, asked his colleagues as they scrupulously minded the detailed instructions they were provided with before they got to stacking.

The firm visited the warehouse because it has a partnership with Books for Keeps. The firm donates to the organization every time someone refers someone else to Morgan & Morgan. During this visit, they were to box as many of the over 100,000 books coating the warehouse’s 30-foot cement walls as they could. These books needed to be placed within boxes with the utmost care so that they could be distributed undamaged to local schools for the upcoming book drives in May. There was no room for recklessness for these lawyers.

Founded in 2009, Books for Keeps gives children from low-income families books to read over the summer in an effort to end the annual learning loss these children suffer. While they are not in school, kids simply regress in the learning they did during the year unless they engage in some sort of intellectual activity, like reading.

Books for Keeps director, Leslie Hale, explains that this “summer slide” is more pronounced on students coming from poorer households.

“You take a child from a poor community and you take a child from a wealthy community, and they’re going to gain roughly the same amount of knowledge during the school year,” she said, citing academic research on the subject.

The difference is that, during the summer, wealthier students have access to things that allow them to make strides forward that their lower-income classmates do not, simply because they do not have the financial means to afford them.

The lack of access to educational camps, tutoring, and books during the summer is what creates a gap in literacy within students in the short run, and income in the long run. By no means is this a new a problem, but groups around Athens, like Books for Keeps, are now addressing it with new solutions.

Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services approaches this issue through the scholarships they provide for their summer day camps.

These day camps have become very popular across Athens, as they explore topics such as history, science, and art and try to do so in a seamlessly educational way. They have even been recognized recently by the Georgia Recreation and Park Association for the quality of their programming.

Cathy Padgett, public information coordinator for Leisure Services, claims that these camps can be simultaneously educational and enjoyable.

“They don’t realize they’re learning because it’s presented in this fun way,” Padgett said. “If you’re not careful you might learn something.”

She cited the popularity of camps such as Zoo Camp and 50 States in 50 Days Camp as proof that these programs can both entertain as well as slow the summer slide.

The problem, however, is that all of these camps require a registration fee, which could potentially exclude lower-income children from participation, thus accentuating the issue of income inequality that Athens is far too familiar with.

Padgett assured, though, that no child would be turned away if they met the financial need criteria for a scholarship. Last year, Leisure Services offered over $250,000 in scholarships and, according the Athens-Clarke County budget summary, actually ran a deficit because of that.

“It is a loss for the department but a tremendous gain for the community,” Padgett says.

Even with Athens-Clarke County’s best efforts, a sizable need for educational programming in the summer remains.

Beginning this summer, Camp DIVE (Discover, Inquire, Voice, Explore) will launch, hoping to overcome the summer slide, particularly for kids who are in need, while also providing an opportunity for UGA students.

Since 2008, UGA has been dedicated to creating a bridge between the College of Education and the Clarke County School District. Through this partnership, College of Education students have been able to actually engage with local Clarke County children.

This partnership is now extending to a summer camp that Dr. Janna Dresden, the director of the partnership program, says will engage and educate kids in a unique way while providing UGA students firsthand experience with children. The underlying purpose of Camp DIVE is to advance a sense of civic action within the children. But the theme for each camp will be entirely dependent on the kids’ interests, giving them control over the topics with which they interact.

For example, if the teacher brings up global conflicts as a possible topic, the children are free to take that general theme of how people treat other people and say they would rather talk about bullying or violence at school. The kids then do activities around the topics they request.

And most importantly, it’s free.

“Kids need this,” Dresden said. “Especially kids who come from families that don’t have the financial resources that other families do.”

The camp will be financed entirely from existing resources the College of Education and the school district already have, so no financial burden will be placed on a child who wishes to participate.

Whether it be giving time that would otherwise be spent in a law firm, swallowing a yearly deficit, or molding a curriculum around what the kids want to do and not the teachers, it is clear that people around Athens are willing to sacrifice for the benefit of children. For years, the tragic disproportionate effect of the summer slide on lower-income children was seemingly neglected. Recent local efforts suggest that is changing.

Perhaps these sacrifices are inspired by the wish for every child to be able to experience that feeling of joy we get when remember our favorite childhood book, like Goosebumps. Or perhaps these acts of selflessness are rooted in a fundamental desire to live in a society that has equality, beginning with the youngest members of it.

Either way, as Dresden said, “everybody learns best when everybody learns together.”

The Faces Behind the Numbers


By Alex Estroff

To the state of Georgia and his superiors, Jim Synan is a behavior specialist for two Clarke County high schools, tasked with implementing the new State Systemic Improvement Plan. To the eight to ten students Synan meets with every day, he is a trustworthy friend that always leaves his door open. To Synan himself, he is just a school counselor helping students actualize success.

Synan is a rather short and stocky man who can be described as anything but intimidating. Sitting behind his desk square in the middle of his seemingly oversized office, Synan works with students at Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals high schools that are on the cusp of not graduating. “The other 25 percent,” as Heidi Hill, director of special education for Clarke County, calls them, is where Synan dedicates all of his time as a counselor. For Synan, this 25 percent, referring to those Clarke County students who do not make it to graduation day, represents more than just a statistic.

“The biggest thing that would make me happy,” Synan said, “would be to see kids that I’ve worked with that are successful.”

In speaking to both Hill and Synan, an apparent disparity existed in each one’s description of Synan’s position. While Hill’s account of his job included “looking at graduation rate” and “pulling data,” Synan’s did not allude to the numbers so much as it emphasized “one-on-one” relationships.

To gain a better understanding of how he goes about his job, one must look to Synan’s past. His entire life has revolved around two central tenets—education and religion. With two educators for parents, and a family full of pastors and bishops, Synan learned from a young age both the value of a good education as well as that of each person. He carries this blend of ideals in his work.

“I can’t separate the two,” Synan said, referring to his faith and his career, “it’s part of who I am.”

While he will not openly demonstrate his Christian faith, Synan employs it in his counseling. Sometimes he will even paraphrase bible verses when offering advice to kids without telling them its source. His faith also serves the crucial purpose of keeping his spirits up when he becomes discouraged, which, unfortunately, can be quite common in this line of work in Clarke County.

In many jobs, if you fail you will always have tomorrow to make up for it. As a school counselor for the one of the most impoverished counties in the state, Synan is not afforded such a luxury. If he fails and a student does not graduate, it is far more likely for that student to become incarcerated or to live the rest of his or her life earning a low income, as far too much of Clarke County already does.

Yet Synan tries not to think that far into the future. Instead, he focuses on his approach to helping these kids right now. Specifically, he is most attentive to his ability to develop trust between him and his students.

This can be difficult in Clarke County because there are students that, as he said, “have confided in people before and have been let down,” and “have never really trusted an adult.”

When confronted with such a student, Dr. Bethany Hamilton-Jones, a clinical assistant professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Education, contends that, from an academic perspective, it is absolutely necessary that the counselor, “be skilled in building relationships,” and abide by proven methods that are supported by research. Synan meets both those criteria, as he strives to always stick to the proven Person-Centered Approach, developed by famed psychologist Carl Rogers, and also possesses a unique ability to connect with anyone—an ability that I was able to sense only a short time after meeting him.

Perhaps it is Synan’s strong foundation in education and faith that allows him to see the value of each individual student as a person, not a statistic. Or perhaps it is the fact that the stakes for his job are simply too high to neglect the fact that each student, if they do not graduate will be at an extraordinary disadvantage in society. Either way, it is clear that Synan’s personal connection with each of his students does not allow him to be blind to the faces behind the numbers.

Synan knows that in order for his students to succeed, they must know that he does not see his job as crunching numbers. They must know that, “my job is to see you graduate,” and “I’m not going away.”

How the Athens-Clarke County School District Stacks Up Against the State and Country


By Alex Estroff

High poverty rates and poor education systems typically go hand-in-hand in communities across America. For many years, Clarke County was no exception to that generality. However, recent data suggest that while many students still come from low-income families, the future is looking brighter for local public schools.


GA_ED_Map (2).png

Source: GA Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (View interactive version here)


This map demonstrates that at least half of all students in most counties in Georgia are economically disadvantaged. This statistic is measured by the number of students who are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches. At 77 percent, Clarke County has one of the highest rates in northern Georgia. This rate actually pales in comparison to other counties, such as the fifteen counties in which every student is economically disadvantaged.The concentration of bright red counties in southern Georgia indicates poverty levels across the state is somewhat dependent on geography.

Money_Spent_on_Each_Student (2)

Source: Digest of Education Statistics (View interactive version here)


Despite the high level of low-income families, Clarke County is actually spending more money on its students than both the rest of the state and the rest of the country. In fact, while Georgia’s expenditures per student decreased each year from 2010-2013, Clarke County’s increased each year. Most of these funds go to direct instruction but they are also used for support services, such as social work and counseling, and general operations costs. A possible result of this increased spending in recent years is the growth in graduation rates:


Source: Georgia Department of Education (View interactive version here)


Over the course of a decade and a half, Clarke County high school graduation rates have gone up drastically. In 2015, Clarke County saw a 30 percent increase in graduation from its 2002 level (the earliest year with available data) and is now only two percent behind the national rate of 82.3. Georgia’s rate as a whole grew constantly over this time period, indicating that many counties across the state have also benefitted from recent education efforts.