Nancy Jester Interview
The no-nonsense candidate for State School Superintendent talks about her approach to education in Georgia.
By Dave Emanuel
Each of the 15 candidates for Georgia School Superintendent has a unique background and type of experience. Among them, Nancy Jester stands out as the only one who has been in the trenches fighting for transparency and accountability in an effort to redirect funding from bureaucrats to classrooms. Jester was the lone voice, when two year’s ago, she attempted to correct what she saw as financial irresponsibility within the DeKalb County Board of Education. When the irregularities finally gained public attention, they resulted in the governor removing six members from the school board.
As state school superintendent, Jester plans to use her accounting and actuarial background to right what she sees as an educational system that’s being bowled over by a bureaucracy that’s more focused on perpetuating itself than in making improvements in the classroom. She is very candid about what she sees as problems in Georgia’s educational system.
Emanuel: You have absolutely no teaching experience. What makes you think you’re qualified to be Georgia’s school superintendent?
Jester: I have what I believe to be the most appropriate background and experience for the job. We don’t need an educator as superintendent because educators tend to focus on telling others how to educate. The biggest obstacle we have to improving education in Georgia is dealing with a bureaucracy that interferes with teachers’ ability to teach. We have elected many an educator to this position and that’s what got us to where we are today. What we need is a superintendent who can get the bureaucrats out of the classroom.
Emanuel: In what ways is the bureaucracy such a big problem for the educational system?
Jester: Bloated bureaucracy diverts money from the classroom, places unnecessary burdens on teachers and administrators and prevents parents from getting a clear picture of the education that schools are providing. Bureaucracy also tends to promote centralization and I think that’s the wrong approach.
Emanuel: How do you see Common Core fit into the mix?
Jester: Common Core is centralization. I don’t think centralization is a good philosophy. I don’t think it’s a Republican philosophy. I think that decentralized governance, closest to the people, is better. Common Core is not compatible with school choice and parent empowerment because parents may see different approaches in different school environments as being better suited for their child and I think you’re going to run into conflict there.
Emanuel: What about the standards themselves? Aren’t they needed to put Georgia on a par with other states?
Jester: Saying you’re against Common Core does not mean you’re against standards, doesn’t mean you’re against high standards, doesn’t mean you think everything is okay with Georgia’s standards, because I don’t think they are okay. But I don’t think the way to improve student achievement is through yet another bureaucracy– a standards bureau that is not going to be within the purview of Georgia or any state. It’s another national type organization and we don’t have a good track record with that- the federal Department of Education does not have a good track record. It’s bureaucracy, and bureaucracy perpetuates bureaucracy and compliance with bureaucracy and the incumbent paperwork. From the structural viewpoint of how you want to do things, I think that’s a bad idea.
Emanuel: You certainly don’t want Georgia’s educational system to exist in a vacuum. Doesn’t common Core give you a means of comparison?
Jester: People say we need to be able to compare state-to-state and I love numbers and comparisons, but it’s a fallacy to say you can’t compare today and it’s also a fallacy to say you’re going to be able to compare tomorrow because of Common core because many states (including Georgia) have already pulled out of the PARCC assessment of the standards. (Only 16 states are listed on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers web site.) Georgia couldn’t afford it, it’s very expensive– several times more expensive than administering a CRCT test (Criterion-Referenced Competency Test). But we don’t need PARCC for comparison. I tacitly reject the thought that you can’t compare right now because you can.
Emanuel: What test protocol do you see as providing an accurate assessment?
Jester: I don’t like Criterion-Reference tests because they’re subject to manipulation because someone can say, “Well, the cut score is here, but not enough kids passed so I’m going to put the cut score here”. So they can manipulate how many kids passed by moving the cut score. Right now, what we’ve had decades and decades of data on, are Norm-Referenced tests. You and I probably took those when we were children. They test a broad range of skills that children should know at various points in their school career. Then the scores are given so you can see how your child performed relative to every other child who took the test that year. These are given to the parents so you know, in the third grade, that your child is at whatever percentile. If your child is at the 80th percentile he or she is scoring at or above 80% of the children in the nation taking that test. So there is a way to test students and understand their achievement relative to children around the country. The need to try to create this whole new bureaucracy and this whole new test seems like a full employment act for test makers, bureaucrats, lawyers and consultants. And it’s not really helpful.
Emanuel: We’ve spoken about tests and standards but we haven’t talked about achievement. How do you see standards like Common Core affecting achievement levels?
Jester: I don’t fundamentally believe that the standard will drive achievement. For instance, in “No Child Left Behind”, the law said that by 2014 everybody in every sub-group tested is going to be measured as proficient these specified categories. Okay, that was the standard– everybody was going to be proficient– but that’s not a method, that’s a hope. Setting a standard is like a hope– I hope that this will be taught. Well, that’s not a method and I don’t think you can set a method nationally either.
Emanuel: What about programs like “Race to the Top”– do they help drive achievement?
Jester: They can, but they have to be managed properly. In general, I don’t like the federal government’s involvement in education. Since the federal DOE was founded, student achievement growth has been flat, while spending has increased. The “Race to the Top” grants came from stimulus money when the tax base was declining and revenues for schools weren’t coming in and local schools systems were in desperate need for cash. Qualifying for the “Race to the Top” money was conditioned on adopting Common Core standards– which weren’t even defined at the time.
Emanuel: So the state agreed to accept grant money when they hadn’t even seen the standards?
Jester: Yes, and that was not the best practice to engage in. But Georgia took the money and the bureaucrats promptly mishandled it because one of the requirements was to define a new evaluation for teachers and use it to rate teachers and give them merit pay. Well, the bureaucrats took their money and came up with a new teacher evaluation system. I believe the document that tells you how to fill out the teacher evaluation form is over 350 pages long– something that could only come from the mind of a bureaucrat. They have students, even little 1st graders evaluate their teachers and there’s no parent input. Absolutely no parent input. Then there’s this very Byzantine, very cumbersome and a very difficult evaluation to administer. But the bureaucrats got their money to develop it, yet come time to link it to merit pay for teachers, the state Department of Education couldn’t roll out the teacher evaluation system statewide in such a way that they can give out the $10 million in merit pay money that’s sitting out there. So Georgia became the first and only state to forfeit “Race to the Top” money and that’s because of mismanagement. I think perhaps we shouldn’t have gone down the “Race to the Top” path because federal grants have strings, not all of which I agree with. We should have at least had that discussion. What you need is a system that’s easy enough to administer and robust enough to evaluate people and flexible enough to understand the differences in classes and teachers. But the bureaucrats didn’t do that. They mismanaged the federal money and teachers didn’t get their merit pay. I think that’s just unconscionable.
Emanuel: You’re elected superintendent, you still have Race to the Top, Common Core and other programs to deal with. What’s your plan?
Jester: First, the Race to the Top grant will end over the next year or so. There is no need to tie Georgia to an untested and costly standards bureaucracy. I would like to have a conversation with the School Chiefs association about what has gone on with Common Core. I think an important message is that we should have voluntary standards because “one size fits all” doesn’t work. We need to drastically improve the standards in Georgia, but we need to tailor them to address a variety of schools and children. And we need to implement programs that drive achievement. I think that’s the message we need to communicate to the federal government and to Georgians.
Emanuel: What do Georgians need to know about where the school system is now, and where you plan to take it?
Jester: Every Georgian should know that we are spending more per pupil than every state that borders us and yet have a lower graduation rate than all. We have overspent on bureaucracy at the expense of the classroom. This has driven costs up and achievement results down. It has overcrowded the classroom and resulted in low morale for teachers and frustrated parents. As State School Superintendent I will measure and disclose the spending practices of districts around the state. I will incentivize spending tax dollars where they matter – in the classroom. I will bring a new era of financial accountability and transparency to education in Georgia. These changes will directly result in higher academic achievement and more value for taxpayers.