Will the Atlanta Public Schools Make Foolish or Wise Decisions?

Used with permission of Dustin at http://dustn.tv/.

Used with permission of Dustin W. Stout at http://dustn.tv/.

I found this poster while reading over on Dustin Stout’s amazing work on creative design and social media. Dustin was reminded of this Bertrand Russell quote by a colleague, and superimposed it on a photo to make this Russell poster.

Russell’s Fools, fanatics and wise men quote resonated with the most recent posts on this bog that have focused on the Atlanta Public Schools (APS).

Bertrand Russell says that “the problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but Wiser Men so full of doubts.”

Education reform in this country is being led by people  who have convinced themselves that they know what is best for the education of American students.  They shout their claims with money and shenanigans with legislators on the end of their whips.  Whether these people are fools or fanatics is for you to decide.

However, I do know that there are “wise persons” out there who question the claims of these education reformists, and in their work, they document how the persistent attacks on schools, teachers, and students is unwarranted and unsupportable in research.

For years, I’ve written about how these wise persons have confronted the spread of the foolish ideas that dominate public education.  The Atlanta Public Schools are facing two decisions that will affect the future of the school system.  

The APS is about two make two critical decisions:

1. Select a new superintendent: For more than a year, the APS Superintendent Search Committee has sought candidates for the position.  They found one candidate, who they have presented to the district, and in a few days, the APS School Board will vote to accept the candidate as its new superintendent.

2. The APS also has to make a choice to run as (a) an Investing in Educational Excellence” (IE2) district, (b) a “Charter System,” or (c) a “Status Quo” system.


We’ve been making foolish decisions about how and for what reasons schools should be part of their communities. We’ve listened to the shouts of fools and fanatics who have ignored the signals and the research on learning and instead have injected schools with the virus, GERM (Global Education Reform Movement).  According to Pasi Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nations in their march to “reform” education.  In his view, GERM is characterized by standardization (Common Core), core subjects (math, reading, science), teaching to the test, corporate management style, and test-based accountability.    In the meantime, keep in mind that GERM has created opportunity for the flow of money into education beyond our wildest dreams.   Between the Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State Officers, the U.S. Department of Education, billions of dollars has been earmarked to support the GERM virus.  Gates has already spent $2.3 billion on the Common Core, and the U.S. Department of Education has invested more than $4.5 billion in the Race to the Top.  

The GERM virus is enhanced by these organizations who think that the academic performance of students is the most important outcome of K-12 education.

Wise Persons Speak

Yet, there are voices of wise persons who are often drowned out by fools and fanatics.  They oppose the further spread of GERM, and doing something about it.

In many communities, parents are opting their children out of state mandated tests. In other districts, teachers are refusing to give their students some of the mandated tests. All around the country people are raising heck about the Common Core.

In some cities, teacher’s unions, with support from parents, have gone on strike opposing government policies that continue to shut down schools inflicted by that virus.

Closer to home, I’ve reported on the voices of two wise persons, Andrew Young and Ed Johnson.

Leaders In Atlanta

Andrew Young and Ed Johnson are citizens of Atlanta whose work in politics, civil rights, and education are examples of the kind of wise person thinking that follows.

Andrew Young spoke out at the trial of Beverly Hall, suggesting to the judge to end the travesty of trying to convict dr hall and dozens of teachers from the APS. The continuation of this trial will only prolong the healing that is happening in Atlanta. There is evidence that the Atlanta test erasure scandal was an unintended consequence of the GERM virus.  Young is correct to say that we have to move beyond this trial.

Ed Johnson has been speaking and writing (documented here) about how the APS could improve the quality of education in its schools, and has backed up his ideas with research on systems theory, and evidence that achievement scores have not and will not change unless we view education as a humane, public, moral and ethical enterprise.

More than anyone that I know, Ed Johnson has offered the APS advice on how to bring a new sense of leadership to its schools, and how to view and run schools based on Edward Deming’s ideas.  In this regard, he believes schools can not be improved by trying to improve the parts separately.  It is a sure path to failure.

For example, some advocates of educational reform believe that student achievement can be improved by weeding out the bad teachers.  Millions of dollars have been invested in using student high-stakes test scores to check teacher performance using a technique called Value Added Measure (VAM).  Teachers whose VAM scores are low can be identified, and according to these experts, teachers with low scores must be bad teachers.  Getting rid of “defects” in any system will not improve the system or the part that was identified.  Instead, a better investment would be to ask how can we improve the quality of teaching, and what can be done to improve the teaching of all educators.

Systems thinking means that all parts of a school system are interdependent and must be viewed as a whole. The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) is a system of connected and interdependent parts, and to improve the quality of the APS, it is critical to look at the APS as a whole.

Atlanta is set to make two decisions, and these decisions are being made based on the Global Education Reform Model, and Ed Johnson, and others are urging the APS School Board to re-examine their views in light of a quality and systems view of education.

In correspondence with the Atlanta Board of Education, Ed Johnson has worked with other activists in Atlanta to urge the ABE to postpone its vote on a new superintendent until the Search Committee provides a slate of nominees, and not only one choice.  How in a democratic society and for a public education system, can we enable a group to dictate the outcome of such a critical decision.

In a recent email, Ed Johnson talks about the choice that all systems in Georgia have to make about how it will run.  The Georgia Department of Education has mandated that each district choose one of three ways to operate: an Investing in Educational Excellence” (IE2) district;  a “Charter System;” or a “Status Quo” system.

He writes:

During a recent Atlanta Board of Education (ABE) meeting, a board member or the superintendent – someone – mentioned Atlanta Public Schools (APS) needing to prepare a five-year strategic plan. This was mentioned without stating why the plan is needed.

Well, might it be because an APS five-year strategic plan would be necessary in order for the ABE to choose to operate APS as an “Investing in Educational Excellence” (IE2) district, or perhaps a “Charter System?”

The ABE must understand it has moral, ethical, civic, and democracy relevant responsibilities to know to choose but one option: “Status Quo,” pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 20-2-80, Requests for increased flexibility; requirements, paragraph (b), specifically.

The other two options, IE2 and Charter System, violate all that represents moral, ethical, civic, and democratic mindedness and ideals in service to the common good.

Moreover, the options IE2 and Charter System symbolize a kind of abject poverty of thinking some elected officials have brought into our legislative processes, such as this from Rep. Ed Setzler:

“[N]ot only does choice provide options to ALL parents (wealthy parents already have choice), but it creates market forces that reform the nearby public schools who must perform at a higher level to stay attractive to parents; as I watch the NFL playoffs this evening, I wonder if the New England Patriots would be as good as they are if they never had compete[d] with other world-class teams to be successful.”

Then he warns us not to fall for the foolish and intimidating behavior of those who advocate the GERM.  He says:

Please, let not “Choice” proponents, such as Rep. SetzlerRep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, and similar others fool and intimidate with their derisive rhetoric against “Status Quo.” Obviously, they mean for the label “Status Quo” to elicit a repulsive reaction. And that they do this simply exposes the depth of their abject poverty of thinking, in spite of being highly educated, one might suppose.

Contrary to what one or two ABE members and others contend, there is no loss associated with choosing “Status Quo.” There is, however, unfettered opportunity to learn to improve the APS. But that is the rub, as to improve APS requires learning more so than mandating, cooperating more so than competing (à la Rep. Setzler, above), leading more so than managing. It is these matters that challenge “Choice” proponents’ abject poverty of thinking that evidences a laziness to learn to provide for the continual improvement of our public education systems.

Atlanta should reject becoming either an investment or charter district.  It needs to rethink in a systems view the education, such as those described by the work of the Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg or the British educator Peter Barnard.  Ed Johnson writes:

But call it what they will, “Status Quo” is the only choice the ABE must consider and choose. “Status Quo” is the only choice that offers the opportunity for the APS to genuinely recover from its recent messes and then go on to leapfrog abject poverties of thinking, such as that of Representatives SetzlerMorgan, and similar others.

The ABE needs to think differently about the future of the APS.  It needs to heed the remarkable thinking of wise persons such as Ed Johnson.  They might also consult with Diane Ravitch, Lisa Delpit, or Deborah Meier.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University