Georgia’s BOE Chair Aims High
There is a quiet intensity to Wanda Barrs’ voice as she discusses the need for change in Georgia’s K-12 curriculum.
“Our standards clearly haven’t been what they needed to be,” she says. “We need to align them with those at the national and international levels.”
As chair of the state Board of Education, Barrs (BSHE ’74, Home Economics Education) has been actively pursuing that goal, spending the past six years working with her board colleagues, the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox to develop, review and adopt the Georgia Performance Standards, which have been greeted with mixed responses by teachers, parents and others in the state.
For generations, Georgia’s K-12 education system has labored to strike a balance between local, state and federal expectations for public school students, as well as to steer a reasonable course amidst the wide variation in local communities’ wealth throughout the state, according to Dana Tofig, communications director at the Georgia Department of Education.
“For too long, we haven’t had high expectations for all of our students,” Tofig says, and this insufficiency could be especially problematic at present. “Because the 21st century is so much more high-tech, possibilities are disappearing for a person with just a high-school diploma to get a job that would support a family.”
Toward Standards that Measure Up
But under the guidance of Superintendent Cox and the state Board of Education, expectations are changing in every course in every grade, Barrs says. “We’ve had some hard discussions, but we’re sticking with the process of making sure that our standards measure up. We don’t want to migrate back to a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep.”
As of fall 2008, the board had approved new standards for all of the academic areas and was beginning to concentrate on standards for the career and technical tracks, physical education and health. In addition, the department is conducting annual “precision reviews” based on results of Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and teacher input, Barrs says.
“Precision reviews are how we determine if we are hitting the mark in regards to where we want to be,” she says.
Barrs disagrees with those who have complained that the new standards require rote learning in order for students to pass the required end-of-course tests.
“There are many different ways these standards can be taught,” she says, “and teachers do so in any way they want to. It’s not rote.”
In any case, “you don’t know if you’re getting the job done unless you have aligned assessments, says Barrs. “To do any different would be a disservice to our students.”
Currently, students taking high school level courses are required to take end-of-course tests, accounting for 15 percent of a student’s grade.
“As our teachers teach and students learn at higher levels, the value of the end-of-course test may be higher,” Barrs says. “This process is critical for raising expectations and achievement for all our leaders and students.”
None of this will be easy, but Superintendent Cox says Barrs is providing outstanding leadership as chair of the state BOE. “In her kind and gentle way, Wanda has a steely resolve when it comes to education and she has dedicated much of her life to the cause.”
A Lifelong Commitment
Barrs understands the real world faced by Georgia’s teachers, having served on multiple front lines. The Cochran resident was a teacher for eight years, a school board member for 12 years, a mentor, a 4-H volunteer, the leader of Project Learning Tree (a K-12 environmental-education program), and the mother of two students who attended public schools in Bleckley County. Motivation, after all, begins at home. “Nothing is so personal,” says Barrs, “as your child’s education.”
And then there is her present position. Originally appointed to the state BOE by Gov. Sonny Perdue in January 2003 to represent the Eighth Congressional District, Barrs’ fellow board members elected her chair only a month later and she has served in that position ever since. Her board member term ends in 2013.
“As chair,” she says, “my role is to provide leadership in coordinating the board’s work with the work of the Department of Education, ensuring that board members have the information they need to make sound policy decisions that lead to improved student achievement,” she says.
Unlike many who pursue teaching degrees, Barrs describes herself as having been an average student. “I wasn’t in the top one or two percent of my class,” she says. “I had to work hard.”
It was the combination of an inspiring sixth-grade teacher and the opportunity to tutor younger students that spurred Barrs to pursue a teaching degree.
“Ms. Layfield was a dynamic, energetic teacher,” Barrs says of her sixth-grade reading teacher. “Reading wasn’t really my area—I preferred math and science—but Ms. Layfield had so much energy, was so solid on content, and loved reading so much that she showed me how exciting it could be.”
In seventh grade, Barrs had the opportunity to tutor younger students.
“That’s when I knew I was going to teach,” she says. “I saw what a powerful experience it was to be able to teach. That was so noteworthy to me.”
Barrs taught family and consumer sciences for her first three years, and math and science for her last five, to students in fifth through eighth grades— an age span that many consider the hardest to teach.
“I love the fact that they’re so full of energy,” Barrs says of middle schoolers. “They’re on the cusp of being adults and they struggle emotionally, so the hard part for the teacher is that you have to stay tuned in. One day a student may be a semi-adult, the next day like a third-grader.” Moreover, during her tenure the ability levels in her classes were diverse, ranging from students with special needs to those who were highly motivated.
Although Barrs left her teaching career to work in the timber consulting and real estate business that she and her husband own, she didn’t leave education. In 1989 she ran for the Bleckley County Board of Education, was elected and served for 12 years—until she was appointed to the state BOE.
Bleckley County, located south of Macon, is considered a “low wealth” county. In 2005, the per-capita income for its 12,000 or so residents was $24,467, more than 20 percent below the state average of $30,914. Although nearly 30 percent of older-than-25 adults residing in Bleckley County that year hadn’t finished high school, more recent statistics show a county increasingly committed to seeing its students achieve—nearly 77 percent of the class of 2006 did graduate.
Barrs points out that recruiting teachers is difficult for Bleckley County because of its rural setting and generally modest levels of affluence. Nevertheless, “we have focused on hiring the best teachers and leaders,” she says, “because we view every hire as an opportunity to move closer to excellence.”
Barrs and her husband Earl also have been active in Project Learning Tree for close to 20 years, teaching educators and youth leaders how to use the environmental curriculum with their students. And, they have hosted more than 6,000 students on their Gully Branch tree farm for activities that highlight natural resources.
Useful Data and Great People
While Barrs emphasizes the importance of continuing to develop and monitor the Georgia Performance Standards, she also has other areas of focus. They include ensuring that school systems, teachers, and parents receive accurate information from the state, together with the implementation of a new training program for local boards of education.
“One of the state board’s responsibilities is providing training to local boards,” she says. “Over the past 20 years we’ve contracted this out, but now we’re planning to accept the recommendations of the Governor’s Excellence in Local Board Governance Commission and begin a process of identifying and developing local board standards. This will become a basis for a relevant curriculum for local board members. When effectively implemented, I believe we can lead the nation in preparing local board members to better serve their communities.”
Barrs says she recognizes the pain pending budget cuts will cause for school districts throughout the state, but believes the state BOE’s strategic plan and the new student information system are providing guidance to Superintendent Cox.
“We have a curriculum that is viable and rigorous and a workforce that is growing in its capacity to deliver high quality instruction. As long as systems have great teachers, leaders and parents, that’s the bottom line to success in our schools.”