How to Improve Public Education

On Sunday, January 12, 2014, I wrote the following words on two different Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogs in which I described in detail, based on my educational experiences in instructional leadership, how traditional public education can be improved from within. I hope that readers of “Mary Elizabeth Sings” will find my words valuable to the future of public education. I have, also, given praises to Dr. John Barge, Georgia’s present Superintendent of Schools, who did not support an amendment to Georgia’s Constitution which created a special Charter School Commission to approve of charter schools not aligned with their own school districts. For this act of courage, Dr. Barge has received political fallout. His outspokenness in behalf of traditional public education was an act of self-sacrifice to keep Georgia’s focus on improving public education from within. Below are my words in the two AJC blogs:

“If you want to learn some of the complex problems in public education – which can be solved – that have contributed to student failures and too high a percentage of students not graduating from high school with their peers, I would recommend that you take the time to read the substantive discussion among teachers, past and present, on Maureen Downey’s current thread, “Top 10 Georgia Education Issues to Watch in 2014,” on her blog, ‘Get Schooled.’ (Link: ) I especially hope readers will read my comments at 10:44 a.m. this morning, January 12th, which will give a comprehensive overview of the myriad functioning levels of all students in a school and on each grade level, as well as describe how all of the students’ various instructional needs can be met. The idea is to work ‘smarter,’ not simply ‘harder,’ to that end. All teachers and administrators must be trained to understand, and address effectively, mastery learning and varied rates of learning with students. Having all students meet with success is not an impossible task to achieve. However, we must fund public education with more commitment than we have in the past 12 years in Georgia in order to achieve this end, and we must invest in educational personnel whose sole job function would be to monitor the continuing progress of every student in every school in Georgia, while working with teachers to insure that every student is well placed, continuously, and instructed, continuously, on skills and concepts to which he/she is capable of mastering, at point-in-time. This was my sole job responsibility when I had functioned as an Instructional Lead Teacher during the 1978 – 1984 school years. I know, firsthand, that this approach can work. My principal had been the former Associate Superintendent for Instruction for the metro school district in which he had worked, before he designed and created his model school in the same school district, in which all teachers practiced successfully for a decade (until he retired) the instructional concepts of continuous progress, mastery learning, multi-aged groupings.

Our society has greatly changed in the last 50 – 60 years, and public education has absorbed the results of those necessary changes in society. We must not give up on public education. We must believe in public education and support it, as Dr. John Barge has done, even to the sacrifice of his own career. I have stated, previously, that Dr. Barge’s name should be submitted to the Kennedy Center as a nominee for the award of a “Profile in Courage,” which Ambassador Caroline Kennedy presents from time to time. No one sacrifices his own career except for a belief in, and a commitment to, a cause greater than himself. Dr. Barge’s self-sacrifice will benefit public education, and public school students, in Georgia for decades, and perhaps even for generations, to come. Well done, Dr. Barge. Thank you.”


“Thank you for your response. I do sympathize with teachers today with all the demands placed upon them combined with little respect shown to the teaching profession by the general public, as a whole. These factors have not done much to boost teacher morale. I believe, however, with input such as yours and that from other teachers that the over testing of students will come to a more reasonable expectation in the near future. I believe, from what I have read lately, that that “pendulum swing” that has been a part of education since I became a teacher 44 years ago, is moving toward limiting testing only to that which is essential for good instruction. I have stated often that I think testing should only be used for diagnostic purposes to enhance student placement and instruction and not used as a means of teacher dismissal or salary variations. There are other, more accurate, ways to determine if teachers should be dismissed and those ways do not create fear and intimidation in the entire school environment, as fear of test results would do.

When I was an Instructional Lead Teacher from 1978 – 1984, in the model continuous progress school to which I have referred, students advanced at their most optimum rates through a series of levels in Scott-Foresman curriculum skills and content, in reading and mathematics, which were adopted by the school system. The average or norm level advancement was for levels 1 – 4 in grade one, levels 5 – 8 in second grade, levels 9 -12 in third grade, levels 13 – 15 in fourth grade, levels 16 – 18 in fifth grade, 19 – 21 in sixth grade, and levles 22 – 24 for students in seventh grade, the last year in that school.
Additional levels were provided for students who were advanced beyond their peers and completed the curriculum early.

Each level was, as you can imagine, developed around specific skills and concepts in reading and math. As I recall there were about 40 to 45 skills to be taught and tested within each level, both in reading and math. I did not teach students during these years in which I worked as ILT. I analyzed every level’s test results turned into my office by every teacher for all of her students. Students had to have mastered 90% of the test items before being allowed to advance to the next level. If the student scored lower that that percentage, he or she was retaught on those particular skills missed until the student did master the skills before going on. If the student’s test score was so low that a quick remediation was not feasible or instructionally sound, that student had to redo that level before going on, so that that student had to be moved to another group in the school. I followed all group advancement in the school so that I knew immediately where that student could be switched. (I saw some students who needed extra work in reading but advanced more quickly through math levels than the average students, and vice versa. I also saw some students start slowly and then have a spurt of growth in reading and math later. I saw many, many other permutations of academic growth – and emotional/social growth – in students. The idea was for me to work with all teachers in diagnosing continuously whether all students in the school were moving at their individual rates at an optimal level for them within the groups that were within the whole school. Thus, there was much multi-aged grouping of students. Students in a reading group of 9 children functioning on level 12 (end of 3rd grade) may be 2nd graders, 3rd graders, 4th graders and even an outside 5th grader who needed remediation in specific skills in that level. You can see that keeping up with all of the instructional variations and needs in that school of 750 students needed my fulltime attention. Without the diagnostic testing of every student on the completion of every level, accuracy of placement and accuracy of instruction would not have been possible. If students scored 90% or higher on end of level tests, there was no need necessarily to give great attention to specific skills not mastered in that level. Anything below 90%, however, did require great attention to the specific test questions missed and that was easily ascertained through the Scott-Foresman end of level diagnostic test scoring sheet which itemized every question in terms of skills concept named and taught for that question.

When I later became a high school teacher of advanced reading (SAT prep and college study skills), I incorporated the same testing design to help students increase their SAT verbal scores. They took practice SAT tests in my class and each student received an itemized answer sheet showing where his or her weaknesses were, i.e. analogies, sentence completions, vocabulary development, various comprehension skills (compare and contrast, predict, correlation of ideas, etc.). By analyzing the specific skill weaknesses each student had on his or her practice SATs and by my teaching how to build those weaknesses into strengths (by pinpointing specific weaknesses in individual students), students significantly increased their verbal SAT scores, which allowed them to be more selective in the colleges and universities they could attend, as well as merit scholarships.

I have stated all of this detail to demonstrate that specific testing (and analyzing test results) has been around for at least 40 years and no doubt before that. At the end of my career, I was working with the Testing and Research Department in the county office to try to convert the standardized test score results for individual students into printouts that teachers in my high school could utilize for instruction just as they had been utilizing the in-house Nelson Reading Tests we had done for a dozen years. I felt that that would eliminate some testing but that test results from the county office level could still be used by teachers in individual schools.

I can visualize a future in education in which test scores of students, itemized, can be contained on computers which can easily be pulled up by the present teacher of the students and those teacher can see a developmental history of each student in a moment’s time. When students transfer from one public school to another, that centralized data base of instruction would be sent with the student by computer in a moment’s time. Teachers would always have students below grade level, on grade level, and beyond grade level in their classes, but because of the accuracy and speed of technology and computers, the teachers would know exactly what levels needed to be addressed in their classes immediately and they could work with other teachers to “swap” students to subgroup into correct instructional placement, thereby teaching every student on his or her level, and minimizing the number of groups any one teacher would have in his or her classroom. The bombing of Pearl Harbor can be taught to students reading on 4th grade level in 10th grade, as well as to students reading on 12th grade level in 10th grade, but the details will be refined for the level of understanding of each group if teachers team and if blocks of time in the day are allowed for groups of teachers to diagnose and prescribe instruction in their areas of the curriculum.

All this is to say that testing goes hand in hand with the excellent practice of teaching, just as testing goes hand in hand with the excellent practice of medicine or “doctoring,” but the good doctor knows how to limit the testing to pinpoint the need, and so must good educators, including those at the top.”

Please read the following links. The first link is written on Jim Galloway’s Political Insider blog by columnist Greg Bluestein. The second link is from a link from the article, which is of another article, also penned by Bluestein, which highlights computer/technology online access currently being created and implemented for public schools in Georgia:



This entry was posted in Computers and Technology in Education, Continuous Progress, Dr. John Barge, Greg Bluestein, Individualized Instruction, Mastery Learning, Rate of Learning Varies. Bookmark the permalink.

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