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No excuses for mediocrity
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Many Georgia schools face challenges even before classes start: high student poverty rates, poor facilities, lack of parental involvement or high numbers of students whose native language is not English. Such factors take time to overcome, and often are not. Does that doom children to academic failure? What if Georgia focused on replicating the practices of schools that are overcoming such challenges instead of making excuses?

Each year, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation ranks every public school in Georgia based on academic achievement — reading and math scores in grade three, five and eight and graduation rates and End of Course Test scores for high schools. Although not used in the rankings, poverty rates and site-based spending is also included. The results, compiled in the Georgia Report Card for Parents, present many reasons for optimism.

Those who think poverty is a barrier to success should visit Capital View Elementary in Atlanta or Webster County Middle School in Preston, just below Columbus. Every child tested in both schools was eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. Capital View’s test scores ranked it in the top 15 percent of all elementary schools in the state; Webster ranked in the top 10 percent of all middle schools in the state.

Not only is there a poverty rate of 89 percent at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School in Gainesville, but 50 percent of students are enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. Yet Fair Street placed in the top 10 percent of all elementary schools.

What about those highly publicized funding cuts?  The state average for spending per student at the school level is $7,039. Baconton Community Charter School in Mitchell County in South Georgia spends $5,114 per student, yet had a graduation rate of 94 percent and a ranking of 22nd in the state. Schley County Middle School in Ellaville spends $5,298 per student and is ranked 35th in the state. Walker Traditional School in Augusta spends $4,647 per student and is ranked third in the state.

These examples should certainly not diminish the scale of challenges facing these children. There is no silver bullet, no substitute for hard work and extra time on task. However, visits and studies of high-achieving, high poverty schools across the state reveal several commonalities among the schools the Georgia Public Policy Foundation honors as “No Excuses” schools.

At every No Excuses school is a principal who is a dynamic leader. Critically important is the culture of high expectations these principals create. Of course, parental involvement is always desired but not always what it should be. To blame poor school performance on the lack of parental involvement is an excuse, an easy out, because it’s a tragic fact that there will always be a portion of parents who do not care or are simply not engaged in their child’s life.

No Excuses principals acknowledge that many of us worked hard in school in order to make our parents proud (or because we were afraid of the consequences of bringing home a bad grade) but that for many children those expectations must instead come from the school. And it doesn’t stop with academic expectations. It includes behavior. Students in No Excuses schools are respectful, orderly and often attired in a uniform or in compliance with a schoolwide dress code.

Finally, No Excuses principals hire high quality teachers who share the philosophy of high expectations.  After all, the most important factor in education is the teacher in the classroom.

The Foundation has honored No Excuses schools for more than a decade. They are, unfortunately, still the exception rather than the rule. In too many communities, mediocrity is expected and accepted. For Georgia to realize its potential, school boards must stand firm and refuse to accept excuses for poor academic performance.

Rules and regulations no longer stand in the way. Georgia arguably leads the nation in granting schools and school systems flexibility to adopt innovative, local solutions to their unique situations. But with flexibility must come accountability. If local school boards are unable or unwilling to address a long record of poor performance, then the state should force changes. The 44 No Excuses schools on the Foundation’s 2009 honor roll demonstrate that all children can be successful. They are clear evidence in every corner of our state, in cities, suburbs and rural areas that it can be done. The lesson is clear: No longer can Georgia excuse educational mediocrity.

Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.