School & District Management

Ga. ‘Boss of Schools’ Weathers Setbacks

By Linda Jacobson — May 12, 2004 9 min read
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Kathy B. Cox leans over the cluster of desks and watches while the 4th graders use eyedroppers to mix colored water into light and dark shades of green.

Kathy B. Cox

Position: Georgia state schools superintendent
Age: 39
Education: Emory University; bachelor’s degree in political science, 1986; and master’s in political science, 1990
Career: Taught high school social studies for 15 years in the Fayette County school system, south of Atlanta. First taught at Fayette County High School, and then at Sandy Creek High School, where she also served as the chairwoman of the social studies department
Other service: Member, state House of Representatives, 1998-2002
Personal: Married to John H. Cox for 16 years; two sons, ages 13 and 10

Coker Elementary School science teacher Pam Bishop then lets the class chat so she can take advantage of her one and only chance to talk in person to Georgia’s schools superintendent.

But the ticklish question of how evolution will be treated in the new state curriculum—an issue that drew national attention just a couple of months ago—never comes up. Instead, Ms. Bishop tells Ms. Cox how pleased she is that she, like other teachers, will soon be allowed to cover fewer topics, but in greater depth.

The teacher’s one complaint: There just aren’t enough classrooms. And because she has to travel between two schools—often carrying materials for experiments with her—the pupils, she said, don’t spend enough time on science.

Here in Murray County, Ga., roughly 20 miles from the Tennessee line, reactions to Ms. Cox’s handling of the curriculum-revision process are much the same. Controversies that not long ago were making headlines have faded away. They’ve been replaced with questions about how teachers will be trained to cover the new material and when students will be tested on it. (“Ga. Chief Backs Down on ‘Evolution’ Stance,” Feb. 11, 2004.)

At other stops on this leg of Ms. Cox’s “border tour,” teachers and principals are just eager to show the woman whom one boy calls “the boss of schools” their most outstanding work.

At Chatsworth Elementary, Superintendent Cox is escorted by Cathy Brooks, a 1st grade teacher whose son is stationed in Iraq, down a hallway lined with students’ patriotic artwork and tributes to members of the military.

Later, at Gladden Middle School— also part of the 8,000-student Murray County district—the Republican state chief is greeted by a steel-drum band.

Perhaps this community’s ability to move easily beyond the debate over evolution and other curricular decisions has been due to how quickly Ms. Cox admitted she had made a mistake. In the case of evolution, for example, she recommended that Georgia’s performance standards, which the state board of education is expected to vote on in July, exclude the often-inflammatory term and instead refer to “biological changes over time.”

“It’s one time where I focused maybe too much on the classroom teacher and maybe missed the bigger picture,” she said during an earlier interview in her office in Atlanta. “I should have gotten other people’s input.”

In other areas, though, it is Ms. Cox’s teaching experience that is viewed as her greatest strength.

“She has been very conscientious about the needs of teachers, the needs of principals,” said Allene Magill, the executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, or PAGE, a nonunion organization for teachers.

Leap From the Classroom

Many education observers here in Georgia also give the first-term superintendent credit for rebuilding what had been called a dysfunctional state education department into a more service-oriented agency, led by well-respected educators. And, they say, she’s done that in spite of her lack of conventional leadership credentials.

“She went from the classroom to a $6 billion organization,” said Stephen D. Dolinger, the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a business- led group.

Before Ms. Cox’s election in 2002, the department was headed by another Republican, Linda C. Schrenko, a maverick whose two terms were marked by power struggles with governors and state board members and poor relationships with education associations.

Many district officials— particularly those in the smaller systems that depend the most on the state department of education—complained they couldn’t get answers to their questions when they called the agency.

Ms. Cox “inherited a DOE with a lot of gaps, a lot of disconnect,” said Ms. Magill, a former district superintendent.

She also inherited problems with the state’s testing program, including scoring mistakes and results that were delivered too late for schools to make timely decisions about student performance. But her staff has already been meeting with the testing company Riverside to develop the new assessments and to make sure the contracts are clear.

In the 1½ years she’s been in office, the schools chief has also partially succeeded at restoring functions that were removed during the administration of former Gov. Roy E. Barnes, a Democrat. Projects such as a new student-information system are once again responsibilities of the education department.

What Ms. Cox wanted to bring back the most, however, was the agency in charge of school accountability—now called the Office of Student Achievement. The Democratic- controlled House rejected that move for what Ms. Cox calls “partisan reasons.”

Regardless of the formal separation, Martha R. Reichrath, the executive director of the student-achievement office, is a member of Ms. Cox’s Cabinet, and their agencies hold joint planning meetings.

Ms. Cox has also showed creativity by establishing a position at the department to work specifically on raising SAT scores in the state—which ranks last in national comparisons on the test—and increasing the availability of Advanced Placement courses.

For the first time in almost a decade, Georgia also has a governor and a state superintendent of the same political party—a situation that many observers find refreshing. While Ms. Cox says she and Gov. Sonny Perdue, who also was elected in 2002, tend to agree on education goals, her perspective as a teacher and his as a businessman sometimes clash.

Still, Benjamin Scafidi, the governor’s education policy adviser, says the two offices communicate on a daily basis. “Who advises [Gov. Perdue] on education?” he said. “She is right at the top of his list.”

But Merchuria Chase Williams, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, a National Education Association affiliate, worries that Ms. Cox might not be as quick to speak up about ways to improve schools in order to maintain her collegial relationship with the governor.

Ms. Williams said she realizes that with a tight budget, it’s difficult for Ms. Cox to push for greater funding.

“But she can still be a voice,” Ms. Williams added. “She can say, ‘Look, Governor, some things just have to happen to raise student achievement.’”

‘Like Night and Day’

Others who have worked with Ms. Cox so far say the superintendent of schools has shown her willingness to learn by welcoming an audit of the proposed curriculum while the finishing touches are still being added.

It was a similar audit in 2002 that sparked an initial revision of the state’s Quality Core Curriculum under Ms. Schrenko.

Conducted by the Curriculum Management Center in Johnston, Iowa, an affiliate of Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional association for educators, the critique called the state’s curriculum “bulky and awkward,” said it lacked rigor, and was not well-aligned with national standards. Interviews conducted state wide also revealed that few teachers even used the document.

Ms. Schrenko, however, viewed the audit as a politically motivated move made by the state school board and wouldn’t agree to an interview during the process.

Working on the new audit has been like “night and day,” said Bill Poston, the executive vice president of the audit center, who also conducted the original study. Ms. Cox is a “breath of fresh air,” he said. “She’s without an ax to grind.”

Still, for a while this winter and spring, it looked as though she might be headed for some of the same troubles that afflicted her predecessor.

First, she shocked educators and parents alike with her recommendation to keep the word “evolution” out of the new curriculum. Then an uproar occurred over plans to move much of the study of the Civil War from the high school level to the elementary and middle grades—a shift that some teachers said would not treat a pivotal period in the state’s history with enough depth. Finally, the state board scrapped the proposed language arts standards for K-3 after the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy refused to allow the state to alter any of its standards.

But because of her willingness not to draw a line in the sand, Ms. Cox has moved beyond those issues—what Mr. Poston calls “bumps in the road"—to face the real challenge: implementation of the proposed curriculum.

Implementation Anxiety

Already, some educators have expressed anxiety over delays in the development of the K-3 language arts standards.

Mary Lou Jordan, a curriculum director for the 2,200-student Jasper County district in central Georgia, said she’s worried she’ll have to be training teachers on the new curriculum at the very time the district is getting ready to open school this coming fall.

“I don’t think she’s really thought it through,” said Ms. Jordan, who also serves as the president of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, an umbrella organization for five education groups in the state. “She was a teacher, and she should know how it feels to have things dumped on you.”

Otherwise, Ms. Jordan said, she supports the new performance standards and believes the new curriculum will finally show teachers how to help their students meet expectations for their respective grades.

In spite of years of talk about standards-based instruction, many teachers outside the Atlanta area “do not know how to do that,” and still rely on textbooks, Ms. Jordan said.

That is why, Ms. Magill of PAGE said, the state needs to offer professional development in more than just an online format.

“If you roll out a curriculum without professional development, it just lands on your desk like a new phone book,” added Tim Callahan, PAGE’s director of member services and publications.

Ms. Cox is hoping to better explain her implementation timeline—which is expected to last six years—this week at a state board meeting. For example, because the state’s weakest area is middle school math, the 6th grade math curriculum is among the topics teachers will be trained on this year. Training will begin in September, the state chief said, after the first hectic days of school.

One political challenge Ms. Cox will continue to face is pressure from policymakers who want to see results much faster, said Mr. Dolinger of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

“There are some people saying, ‘We’ve got to fix Georgia,’” he said, “and we can’t wait six years for a rollout.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as Ga. ‘Boss of Schools’ Weathers Setbacks


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