Taking the Midnight Train to Reform in Georgia

How five districts are making the most of people, time, and money to improve student learning

Education reform can sometimes feel like a slow moving creature, with reforms stuck in the mud of real or perceived barriers, miscommunication between districts and states, and leaders understandably nervous about crossing the bridge into territories unknown. 

However, five districts in Georgia—ranging from large urban districts in metro Atlanta to small ones in the rural south—have managed to defy the odds. In partnership with the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE), these districts are each implementing reform-minded changes that have the potential to improve teaching effectiveness, resource use, and, ultimately, student achievement.  We are inspired and humbled by the great work in Georgia and want to share their progress as a model for what collaboration between state and district leaders can achieve. 

In June, ERS and GaDOE worked with Fulton, Hall, Marietta, Treutlen and Vidalia school districts on crafting resource strategies, as part of a two-year engagement spearheaded by GaDOE’s Race to the Top division.  During the session, the districts shared their academic goals and what they are currently doing to achieve those goals. Here is just a sampling of reform efforts gaining steam in Georgia:

  • Increasing School Level Autonomy: ERS has been working closely with Fulton County Schools as they explore compensation and career pathway options. With the freedom and flexibility that it has earned as a Charter System, Fulton is identifying the most effective ways to allocate its resources to support the theory of action that increasing school-level autonomy is the key to innovation.
  •  Improving Teaching through Professional Growth: Hall County Schools has increased its number of teacher professional development days and is also incorporating more job-embedded growth opportunities for teachers; for example, teachers will now be able to visit model classrooms and see effective teaching in action. Hall is also freezing steps, or automatic pay increases for years of experience, because they have not seen a connection between steps and student learning. In the future those resources will be available for more strategic investments.
  • Putting Student Data to Work: In addition to working with ERS on teacher compensation reform, Marietta City Schools has also been creating a system that will take data related to resource allocation and re-create ERS metrics.  This system will allow for sustainable change and help Marietta more strategically use their people, time, and money on an ongoing basis.
  • Targeting Remediation and Gaining Flexibility: ERS’s school-level resource-use analysis showed that students in Treutlen County Schools were falling behind in the state in math. In order to improve student achievement in this targeted area, Treutlen will be providing additional time for math remediation in the elementary school. Treutlen is also applying for charter status, one of the four flexibility options offered by GaDOE, in order to further facilitate change. 
  • Innovating in School Design: Like Treutlen, Vidalia City Schools is also applying for charter status and plans to include innovative classroom models in the application. Additionally, Vidalia has successfully added 15 minutes to the school day and has recently been awarded a Striving Reader’s Grant, which they will use to meet their academic goal of increasing K-12 literacy. Watch our recent video about Vidalia City Schools to see and hear more about their reform efforts.

From adding time to the school day, recognizing and eliminating non-strategic spending, investing in teacher compensation reform, and taking advantage of flexibility options, these districts are reforming education in ground-breaking ways. Equally as important as district tenacity is state support. GaDOE has created an atmosphere that is conducive to change by investing in accountability metrics, such as a comprehensive and balanced teacher evaluation system, creating flexibility options that put more decision-making authority in the hands of district leaders, and by inviting dialogue between district and state leaders. The progress in Georgia is truly inspirational and serves as proof that change can happen; but it requires courage to make tough decisions, collaboration of key stakeholders, and, of course, the strategic use of people, time, and money.