Barge returned to his hometown last week to speak to a group at Vinings Bank in Smyrna about the quality of education in Georgia and explain what the College and Career Pathways initiative means to public education.
“It didn’t matter when I walked through the doors of Campbell High School who I was, what color I was, whether I was rich or poor, whether my dad was an alcoholic,” he said. “None of that stuff mattered because I had the exact same opportunity as every kid in that building to take what was being offered to me and to do something with it.”
Barge said he was the first person in his family to go to college. He attended what is now Berry College in Rome on a full academic and journalism scholarship and worked his way up through the educational channels to become the state’s chief.
“I am very passionate about public education,” he said. “I call it the great equalizer.”
In speaking about the state’s ranks nationally, Barge said media reports don’t tell the whole story.
“Good news in public education rarely make the media, and if you are basing your opinion on what you hear in the media, you probably have a rather negative opinion about public education,” he said.
He cited “Education Week,” a publication that ranks school systems on 129 factors.
“Their 2011 study came out in January, and they ranked Georgia’s public educational system 7th in the country,” he said to applause.
Barge also said Georgia ranked 13th in the nation in terms of students who do well enough on Advance Placement tests to be exempted from college courses.
“Everything is not rosy, and trust me, I’m not going to put lipstick on a pig, but one of the things that frustrates me to hear … if you listen to just the sound bites, Georgia ranks 48th,” he said. “There’s only one indicator that Georgia ranks 48th on and that’s SAT scores, but here’s the rest of the story.”
Barge said Georgia performs very well on the number of students taking the SAT, a statistic that is not usually reported.
“If you look at the top 10 (states), not a single one of them test more than the top 9 percent of their (seniors),” he said. “Georgia’s participation rate was 80 percent.”
Barge agreed that the average test score for Georgia, which is 1450 out of 2400, could be higher, but when he took the top 5 percent of the test takers in the state and compared them with the leading state, which only tested 5 percent of their students, Georgia students outscored them by 195 points.
“We’re doing a much better job than what the general public thinks,” he said. “We do have issues with graduation rates, just like a lot of other states do.”
To raise graduation rates, the state is starting the College and Career Ready initiative in fall 2013.
Barge said research shows that more than 1 million students drop out annually, and many of those said it was because high school was “boring and irrelevant.”
“How do we make education relevant?” he asked. “How do we make not only education relevant, but (educators) relevant?”
“There are a lot of jobs out there for young people to be successful that don’t require a four-year degree, but if we push them all that way, that’s when they get frustrated and it becomes irrelevant,” he said. “The career pathways initiatives is really geared towards helping children find their passions … (and) designing an educational opportunity for them around that area of interest so they can be successful and teaching rigorous academics through a way they can understand it.”
He told the story of a trip he took to Peach County High School in middle Georgia, where he visited an automotive class of five students who were preparing for a competition in Las Vegas where they disassemble and reassemble an engine as quickly as they can.
Barge said the students were able to do this in 26 minutes.
“It was an amazing thing to see,” he said.
The pathways program will help students like those team members by allowing them to choose from 17 career education tracks, he said.
“Does that mean you’re locking kids into a career?” he asked. “No, absolutely not. It’s trying to help them find their interest and prepare them for post-secondary education.”
After the meeting, Barge said the College and Career Ready program wouldn’t put a financial burden on school districts like Cobb and Marietta’s.
“It’s an organization model more than anything else. It’s making sure students take the right courses,” he said. “There may be the need to develop additional courses to build out these pathways, but that will take place at our level.”
He also said that not every district and high school would be required to offer all 17 pathways.
Following his presentation, Barge took questions from the crowd. The first came from Cobb Chamber of Commerce CEO and President David Connell, who asked about the superintendent’s view on charter schools.
“They are an important part because they grant flexibility to a lot of policies that we have, but they aren’t necessarily a silver bullet,” Barge said. “Just because it’s charter doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful.”
Of the 150 charter schools currently in Georgia, only 38 are meeting their goals, he said.
“It absolutely can fill a need, but it’s got to be done right,” he said.
The president of an engineering firm in Cobb County said her business is having trouble finding qualified employees.
“We can’t find American engineers,” she said. “In the career pathways, where does that fit?”
Barge said one of the 17 clusters focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and that they’ve looked to Lockheed Martin in Marietta for help in designing a pathway for it.
“They were one of the first folks that really approached me with the issue,” he said.
When asked how districts can get rid of “bad teachers,” Barge said the state is working on a new statewide teacher evaluation system.
“We are moving from highly qualified to highly effective, and that is being measured by student performance,” he said. “Did students learn? That’s the bottom line.”
Lastly, Connell asked how the state can prevent another testing scandal like in the Atlanta Public School System.
“The problem, I believe, is really grounded and rooted in No Child Left Behind,” Barge said. “We created an environment for teachers and for our schools where everything hinged on whether students passed a test.”
“That was the main reason when they announced that states could have the opportunity to apply for waivers from No Child Left Behind, we jumped on it,” he said. “We created the College and Career Ready Performance Index. The tests are still a part of the accountability, but it’s not just the test anymore.”
He said 19 indicators on the index at the high school level would address not only college readiness but also career readiness for students.
“We’ll get out of an environment where folks feel compelled to cheat on a test,” he said.
Barge, who graduated from Campbell High School in 1984, was elected the state’s superintendent in November 2010 and has been an educator for 21 years. The 45-year-old was born and raised in Smyrna, where his mother still lives.