Despite opposition to the newly implemented standards, Barge remains firm in his resolve to support Common Core Standards, but that was not always the case.
“I was the curriculum director here in Bartow County as we were making the transition to Georgia Performance Standards. I was campaigning for this position in early 2010 when we were notified by the state that we would be making this transition from GPS to Common Core Standards. I was not happy about that at the time. The main reason was we had not even finished rolling out GPS; we had not even fully implemented the math standards. We had just finished the last bit of training in math for GPS and they announce we are changing. As a curriculum director my thought was, ‘We have just gone through years of training and you want us to start over.’”
Barge cites the uncertainty created in education by the rapid change to Common Core as the predominant reason for continuing to support the standards.
“At first, I wasn’t supportive of the change, not because the standards weren’t good, but because it wasn’t good to keep jerking teachers around. For that very reason, I don’t want to change from the Common Core. We haven’t given teachers time to fully implement them. While the standards are not perfect, we are working to refine them through feedback from teachers.”
Barge maintains the opposition to the standards is not based in fact. “It is all based in emotional rhetoric that says, ‘It’s the federal government trying to take over.’ The federal government had nothing to do with the design of the standards. There was not a single person in Washington [D.C.] who had input into the design of the standards. We have no federal mandate that states we have to adopt them.”
One concern that continues to reoccur is the ability of parents to help their children with homework under the new teaching styles. Barge admits the style is different from the way older generations learned but will help children to be critical thinkers and problem solvers.
“The best way for parents to help their children is to stay in constant contact with their children’s teachers. We also at the state level are producing a lot of resources that are available to parents through the Longitudinal Data System, which are not ready for use yet because it’s still in the developmental stage. They should be available within the next year. What we are creating is a parent portal where they can log in and look at the data regarding their children. They can see the data identifying where the student has weaknesses and find, within a few clicks, what standards their children are not performing well. From there they can get resources at home to help their children. They will have access to videos and lessons they can use to practice.”
The Bartow County School System recently voted to increase the millage rate and cited decreased funding from the state as a substantial factor. Barge agreed the cuts to school systems statewide has made an impact.
“The economy has been turning around for a number of years. Governor Deal is in his fourth year of his term and state revenues have increased every quarter he’s been in office. Every year he has been in office, except this year, which also happens to be an election year, the state has withheld more than $1 billion from public school systems that they have earned through the state funding formula. That has had a huge impact on districts like Bartow because when you compound over time the amount of money Bartow County has lost since 2003 when they began the austerity measures, the last four years being the most significant. ...This coming year rather than cut $1 billion they have cut $700 million from education, so we are still a long way from fully restoring the cuts that have been in place for the past decade or more.”
The next biggest challenge Barge sees for Georgia schools is the perception of residents within the state.
“Education Week ranked Georgia’s educational system seventh in the nation two years in a row. Outside the state, Georgia is well respected in terms of education. Our teachers and students have accomplished some great things. Georgia’s African-American students rank No. 2 in the nation in regards to passing AP exams and receiving college credit while still in high school.”
With more than four months left in his term, Barge holds hope that he can change a policy that in his opinion plagues Georgia students. The graduation rule states that in order to graduate from high school students must meet the state minimum, which requires the completion of 23 units of credit. Barge questions the math portion of the graduation elements in which students must pass algebra, analytical geometry, advanced algebra and trigonometry and a fourth unit that must be a level of math higher than advanced algebra and trigonometry.
“The requirements are the same for the student who wants to be a commercial truck driver and the student who wants to attend Georgia Tech and major in nuclear engineering. I wanted to change the graduation rule by recognizing rigor is different for different kids. Some kids may have a goal that does not require advanced math levels or they may have a learning disability in math that prohibits them from passing higher levels.
“I looked at one of the technical programs in the state with 44 programs of study; in 40 of those programs, the highest level of math needed to graduate was either basic math or business math. Yet we are not going to allow kids to enroll there and have an opportunity to be successful unless they have a high school diploma, which they can’t get without advanced algebra and trig plus a fourth math. That doesn’t make sense. Because of politics and people’s perceptions of watering down expectations, they don’t want to embrace that idea.”
Florida and Texas shared Georgia’s math requirement for graduation but rescinded it two years ago.
For Barge, one of the brightest spots in education within the state is the advancement of Career Pathways.
“If you look at trades and industry, we have huge skills gaps. We are graduating all these people but they have no skills. You can have a very successful, meaningful life doing construction or welding. We have so denigrated those jobs.
“There is an incredible opportunity for kids to be successful with a two-year degree or a technical certificate. Technology has created a huge growth of jobs that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree. And to be clear, its not that a four-year degree is bad but it’s not for everyone. Eighty percent of the jobs out there require some type of training beyond high school but only 30 percent require a four-year degree. So I see our job in regards to Career Pathways is to help kids find their passion and once they do that, we need to develop the educational opportunity for them and help them define their path after high school, as well as what it will take to obtain their goal.”
Barge said he is uncertain what he will do following his term as state superintendent but is considering several options. For now, he maintains Georgia education is in the forefront of his focus.
“I encourage people to look at the data and see that education in Georgia is valuable. I have had an opportunity to visit almost every system and by the time my term is finished I will have been to every district. We have some amazing teachers out there doing some incredible work under really difficult circumstances. They could use the support of their communities,” he said.