State Requirements and Local Decisions
In 1985, The Georgia General Assembly defined the broad requirements for a quality basic education curriculum (O.C.G.A. § 20-2-140). State law requires that each student be provided ample opportunity to develop the competencies needed in a number of areas but delegates the details to the Georgia Board of Education. The state board must do the following:
- Establish the competencies that each student is expected to master in order to graduate
- Establish competencies for which each student should be provided opportunities, at the discretion of the student and parents, to master
- Adopt a uniformly sequenced core curriculum for grades kindergarten through 12
A massive overhaul of the state curriculum, begun in 2002, resulted in the adoption of the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS), followed by a transition to the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards (CCGPS). The Georgia Department of Education has information about the CCGPS online at http://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/Curriculum-and-Instruction/Pages/CCGPS.aspx
State law further specifies that five courses of study must be taught to each student:
- Federal and state government
- U. S. and Georgia history
- Alcohol and drug abuse information related to operating a motor vehicle
- Health and physical education
- Sex education and information on AIDS
The State board approves a list of state-funded courses, including electives, which local boards may choose to offer. Each local board must adopt at a minimum the state core curriculum, but they may expand and enrich it as they deem necessary and appropriate for their students and community. Selection of courses to fulfill the curriculum requirements should be done after considering the recommendations of the superintendent. Local board members will hear three terms used frequently when discussing curriculum. Curriculum is the “big picture” look at what is to be taught. Standards break the curriculum into clear, specific statements of student knowledge and performance. Benchmarks are standards identified as being critical to successful performance in subsequent grade level courses.
High school graduation requirements set by the state board may be increased by the local board. High school courses grant credit measured in Carnegie units. State board rule requires that students earn 23 Carnegie units in specified subjects to receive a diploma, but the local board can increase these state requirements. For instance, a local board may choose to require two years of a foreign language in order for a student to graduate from their school system. School board members may want to review the latest State Board graduation rule on the Georgia Department of Education website, http://www.gadoe.org/External-Affairs-and-Policy/State-Board-of-Education/SBOE%20Rules/160-4-2-.48.pdf
There is a great deal of research available on the common practices of effective schools. The Georgia Department of Education offers extensive information on school improvement. Also, “Nine Characteristics of High Performing Schools,” published by the Washington State Department of Education summarizes much of the research and is available online at http://www.k12.wa.us/research/pubdocs/ninecharacteristics.pdf. The local board’s role is to set the policies and provide the resources needed for the superintendent and staff to carry out school improvement efforts. Local boards impact curriculum and instruction through the expectations set and the budget choices made. Decisions on instructional methods to deliver the curriculum are the responsibility of the superintendent.
Instructional Time Requirements
State law and state board rules require a minimum of 180 school days or its equivalent for students. Beyond the school year for student, each local board must determine the number of days to be used for professional learning for all employees. The local board must submit an annual calendar to the Georgia Department of Education that specifies the beginning and ending dates of the school year and the selected school holidays. If changes are made, an amended calendar must be submitted.
Exceptions to the required number of days may be made due to the following special circumstances: emergency, disaster, act of God, civil disturbance, or shortage of vital or critical material, supplies, or fuel. If no more than four days are missed for one of these reasons, the school board may elect, without prior state approval, to end the school year for students as originally planned. Certified personnel, however, must work the number of days specified in their contracts.
Schools may operate in excess of 180 days to provide summer school or to offer year-round school. By local board policy, schools may operate beyond 180 days with no additional state funding.
State law and board rules also define and set limits on instructional time. The amount of required instructional time differs by grade level. Instructional time is defined as being when instruction related activities based on state approved courses are provided or overseen by a certified teacher or substitute. Rest periods, recesses, breaks, class change time and lunch periods are not considered instructional time.
- Kindergarten must be scheduled for a minimum of 4.5 hours of daily instruction.
- Grades 1-3 must be scheduled for a minimum daily average of 4.5 hours based on the 180-day school year
- Grades 4-5 must be scheduled for a minimum daily average of 5 hours based on the 180-day school year
- Grades 6-12 must have a minimum daily average of 5.5 hours based on the 180-day school year
- Only days in which students in grades 1-12 are present at least half the instructional time required shall be counted as a school day in the school year.
State law authorizes and supports regular education programs, including college preparatory and technical/career, as well as programs for students with special needs. The local board is authorized to organize their schools and determine the grade levels to be taught in each school. There are many different grade configurations used throughout the state. Several instructional programs are divided by grade level for funding purposes:
- Primary (1-3)
- Upper Elementary (4-5)
- Middle Grade and Middle School (6-8) Middle grades must meet certain statutory requirements (O.C.G.A. § 20-2-290) to be funded as a middle school program.
- High School General Education (9-12)
- Vocational labs (9-12)
- Remedial instruction programs include the early intervention program in grades K-5 and the remedial education program in grades 6-12. Qualifying factors for the programs are in state law and state board rule.
Special education programs serve students who have emotional, physical, communicative, or intellectual characteristics which require modified educational programs. Programs include gifted as well as disabled students. Under federal and state law, preschool students, ages birth through four years, who have severe disabling conditions may receive special educational services. There is extensive federal law on education for students with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare began requiring public schools to provide a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) “to each qualified handicapped person regardless of the severity of the handicap” after Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requires, among other things, an individualized education plan (IEP) for each student qualifying for special education services. The Georgia Department of Education website includes frequently asked questions (FAQs) on special education and other information at http://public.doe.k12.ga.us/ci_exceptional.aspx.
Local boards have several options among alternative education programs. These programs are available for grades 6-12 and are funded through the QBE formula as long as students are pursuing a high school or special education diploma. Any model that meets the requirements of state board rule 160-4-8-.12 may be used including In-School Suspension, Non-Traditional Alternative Education Program, Attendance Recovery or Credit Recovery Program, a Community-Based Alternative Education Program or an Educational Management Organization Program run by a private vendor. The alternative education program may serve a single system or multi-systems. It may be located on or off a regular school campus. Alternative education program students must be provided with access to the same instructional materials and resources as are provided to students in the regular program. These programs must follow the state curriculum, must provide courses that will satisfy state and local requirements for earning a high school diploma, and must award course credit in the same manner as other programs.
Magnet programs are an additional instructional delivery choice available to local boards. Magnet schools began in the 1970’s as a way to implement voluntary desegregation by encouraging students to attend schools outside their neighborhoods. Eligibility requirements for federal magnet assistance program still reflect the goal of attracting students of different racial backgrounds. The concept of magnet schools, however, has grown far past this initial idea. Sometimes called theme schools, magnet programs often concentrate on a particular area of study such as the performing arts or math and science. These schools may have competitive entrance requirements such as a "B" average in academic subjects or standardized test scores at a certain level. Continued enrollment in the school may also be dependent upon meeting certain standards. The organizational structure for these schools is the same as for other public schools.
Charter schools are a different organizational model that the local board may initiate themselves or approve from an external petitioner. The charter, the contract approved by a local board of education and the state board, defines the requested waivers from provisions of Title 20 of Georgia state law and any state or local rule, regulation, policy, or procedure relating to schools in the school district and specifies the performance-based objectives for which the school will be held accountable. Charter schools may be a new school started by the system, or by private individuals or organizations. If the local board denies the petition, the Georgia Board of Education may grant a charter for a state-chartered special school. Public schools may be converted to charter schools if a majority of the faculty and instructional staff and a majority of the parents agree to the petition and the local board then approves it. Effective November, 2014, all charters for approved local charter schools must be a three-party agreement between the local board of education, the state board, and a Georgia non-profit corporation. An existing private school cannot apply to become a charter school.
Homeless and Migrant Students
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law requiring school systems to enroll and educate "homeless children and youths" defined by the Act as those "who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." This includes students living on the streets, in cars, in shared housing, motels or campgrounds and migratory children. The Act imposes special requirements on school systems to appoint a liaison person and, at times, provide transportation to homeless children moving from school to school based on a determination of what is in the child's best interest.
Migrant students are defined by the Georgia code as a student "who has, within 12 months prior to first becoming a student in such school, moved across state or school district lines with a migrant parent or guardian to enable the child, the child’s parent or guardian, or a member of the child’s immediate family, to obtain temporary or seasonal employment in an agricultural or fishing activity." Migrant Education (MEP) is a federal program providing supplemental educational services to eligible migrant. These services can be academic and/or social in focus. Activities are meant to help eligible migrant children "overcome educational disruption, cultural and language barriers, social isolation, various health-related problems, and other factors that inhibit the ability of such children to do well in school" [20 USC §6391]
Textbooks are a useful resource for teachers, students, and parents, but they are not the curriculum. There is no one text that will cover the state curriculum in any subject area. State assessments measure the students’ knowledge of the state curriculum, not their knowledge of any textbook’s content.
Each local school board must furnish free textbooks and instructional materials for all its students enrolled in a course of study that requires textbooks. The process begins at the state level. A special committee appointed by the state board reviews textbooks for subject areas. The state board approves a list based on the committee’s recommendations and the local board adopts textbooks from the list on a cycle set by the state board.
Challenges to Curriculum and Textbooks
Occasionally a parent or a community member will question the appropriateness of something in the curriculum or textbook. School boards may adopt a policy as to how such questions or challenges will be handled. If the policy permits appeals to the board, this process will enable the board to consider the issues within a framework developed by its professional staff. This will provide a clear and concise procedure to resolve the concerns of parents and others who challenge the appropriateness of any educational material or contend that it violates their constitutional rights. As an example, the policy may require the complaint to be in writing and specify exactly what is objectionable, why the material is inappropriate, and whether the material would be appropriate for older students or only with parental approval.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools/Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS CASI) is perhaps the most widely known of the accrediting agencies. It is a regional educational agency that accredits public and private schools and school districts. The attainment of accredited status certifies the institution has met the policies and standards established by the association. Accreditation is considered an external measure of the quality of education provided in a school. Accreditation is on a voluntary basis. A school’s accreditation is often part of a student’s eligibility for scholarships. The Georgia Student Finance Commission recognizes several accrediting agencies for this purpose including SACS and the Georgia Accrediting Commission.
Both federal and state laws require annual testing in specific grades and subjects to identify students performing below grade level, to provide teachers with diagnostic information, and to assist the school systems in establishing priorities as they plan. Local boards may add additional testing requirements and pay for them with local funds.
There are two types of assessments: criterion-referenced tests and norm-referenced tests. A criterion-referenced test measures how well students have learned a particular curriculum. "Cut scores" determine the intervals for the categories of scoring. For example, the standard might be set so that a score of 300-349 meets the standard. Then any score below 300 would not meet the standard, and scores 350 and above would exceed the standard. Georgia’s end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments are criterion-referenced tests. School systems may elect to administer, with state funding, norm-referenced tests, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), which measure how well students perform on questions of general knowledge compared to the national average. Norm-referenced scores are reported in percentiles of 1 to 99. The 50th percentile is the median and is considered an average score. The 25th percentile – meaning the student performed better than 25% of the students who took the test and worse than 75% of those taking the test – and below show significant weakness in the subject area.
These assessments and the "report cards" publicizing results are the centerpiece of the single statewide accountability system. Under this system, schools and school districts must meet certain standards or face specified consequences which escalate each year that the school or district is judged to be in needs of improvement. Those schools and systems that do meet the standards are to be rewarded. Federal law, state law, and state board rules govern this complex process. Guidance from the Georgia Department of Education and Office of Student Achievement is available online at http://www.gaosa.org/ssas.aspx