Words Matter

During the first quarter of 2013, the leadership of Jefferson County Public Schools reacted to a public blast from the state’s education leader.

The blast was a comment in February by Education Commissioner Terry Holliday that JCPS is committing “academic genocide.” Those words will get your attention.

He said the words are deserved because students at some of our schools are not seeing needed achievement gains.

I’ve tried to understand the state’s timing and tactics to know how to react as a Board member.

I have come to the conclusion that these harsh words don’t change the work. It is still quite clear what our charge is as the leaders of our public education system.

  • The bottom line, of course, is still student achievement.
  • The right question we must always ask, “What is getting in the way of student achievement?”
  • The marker that will tell us if we are making progress is the results on 2013 state tests, which will be given in May, with scores made public in August.

Six weeks after the Commissioner’s claim, a constructive meeting finally took place at the request of JCPS including the Commissioner, Superintendent Donna Hargens, Jefferson County Board leadership and our county’s representatives on the Kentucky State Board of Education, where Dr. Holliday provided some background and intention for his comments. This helped, but those words still loom.

Educating children is a tough job under the best of circumstances.  The Commissioner’s comments have made a tough job a bit tougher.  The dilemma as a public official is how to react: defend the institution and you are seen to be defending poor performance; agree with these comments and you minimize the educators, their efforts and the progress underway.

The workers silently soldier on as usual.  Over these weeks it has helped me to take time to visit schools and talk with educators. They don’t have time to wring their hands about who says what; they have always understood the urgency of their work.

  • I had a great conversation with an elementary principal who told me about each and every child who was being targeted with interventions designed to push them to proficiency.
  • At a middle school I got to sit in on a few individual student conferences where students talked to adult mentors about their plans to improve.
  • A high school principal invited me to join a group of teachers in a book study about helping students in poverty.

These educators want to make a difference.  But, they are shaken.  Misplaced words have a tendency to do that.

How we hold the system accountable while encouraging and embracing educators – and students – is a delicate but important task. Of course, we have to do both.

Words affect students, too.  They are more perceptive than one might think.

One principal at a priority school said after the academic genocide comment that a student asked of her, “What do we do now?” The principal said, “We keep working hard.”

Words matter. This principal found the right ones. We keep working hard.

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

— Fred Rogers

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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3 Responses to Words Matter

  1. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful column. I’m glad our schools have you.

  2. John Russ says:

    Debbie: I agree with you completely that “words matter”. Dr. Holliday was obviously trying to make a point and certainly got everyone’s attention while doing so. You made some pertinent comments about your school visits and that really frame the issue we have in Jefferson County. The education community has not defined a “successful” or “good” school outside of high test scores. Now I absolutely agree the first business of schools is student learning and achievement, but many discussions about achievement do not now include the gains schools have made unless they are in a proficient category. Most people outside of education do not understand the enormous and numerous roles schools have undertaken to address the needs of children. Schools with higher numbers of at-risk students meet increased challenges. We need to define and communicate to the public, especially those who have no connection to public schools, that our institutions represent more than just scores on state tests. Good schools are more than just those test scores, and though that will always be the prime mission of the public school, give us credit for all the other work we do. Some examples: Keeping students safe ( building issues, procedures/policies); student issues (referrals, suspensions, retentions); student emotional development (advisor/advisee, morning meetings, etc,); extracurricular and co-curricular activities; parent contacts ( number and frequency). There are many more!

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