By Mark Beardsley
The Commerce News
March 27, 2002
Too Many Standardized Tests To Track
All right. Most of you have probably known this for years, but I am not up to speed in writing news reports about the standardized tests conducted in our school systems.
After the SAT, which I understand, come all of the others, which befuddle me. There was the ITBS, the CRCT, the Stanford 9, the Chicago 7, the Graduation Test, the PSAT, the Rorshach Test.
Some are required to get a diploma or to get into college; others are used to explain why Johnny can't read or to help the educational bureaucracy of Georgia meet its goal of keeping Georgia in the top 49 states in education. Locally, some of the results help administrators figure out where the curriculum is lacking and where students are strong or weak. At the state level, the numbers are dumped into a computer, sifted and sent back at random to the school systems with dire warnings that, if things don't improve, Linda Schrenko and Roy Barnes will participate in Celebrity Boxing in your gym.
Results are used like batting averages to compare school systems. This week, someone whose time would have been better spent wagering lottery funds on the Final Four, came up with a list of 436 "Title I" schools that "need improvement."
Commerce Elementary School was one of them, so I dialed up Kim Savage, principal.
With the patience of a kindergarten teacher explaining the difference between chewing gum and laptop computer to a child of two crack addicts, Mrs. Savage tried to explain the unexplainable, the upshot of which is that if the state wants to come in and operate Commerce Elementary School, she'll be happy to let them try. No, that wasn't it. OK, the gist of the conversation, conducted for my benefit in simple, one-syllable words, is that in 2000, 23 percent of fourth graders did not meet reading goals; the next year that number was 21 percent, and never mind that almost 80 percent met or exceeded their goals - a school is subject to being declared to "need improvement" if its failure-to-meet group does not fall by five percent from one year to the next even though the kids are different.
So what? I thought. Didn't the numbers indicate that a large percentage of those kids were kids with disabilities who might be expected to be behind? Not important.
Commerce Elementary School does better than average on whatever test is in vogue, though there are always weaknesses in some grade and subject. But every time staff and students get comfortable with a testing system, out comes a new one that interprets things differently.
Meanwhile, the Department of Education writes guidelines for conflict resolution, anger management, character education, drug and alcohol awareness programs and those are just for the teachers coping with the standardized tests.
I cant keep up with it. I cant keep the Stanford 9 separate from the CRCT and ITBS, but Im thinking Ive figured out where the real problem lies. That is that kids spend too much time taking tests and not enough learning stuff and educators spend too much time studying test results and not enough teaching.
Dont worry. Soon there will be a standardized test to measure that.
The Jackson Herald
March 27, 2002
Plan for new jail at courthouse site
During last Thursday nights public hearing about the proposed Darnell Road site for a new courthouse, one citizen made an astute observation: We need more facts, not just opinions, she said.
We agree. The public should have more hard information in order to understand just what the Jackson County Board of Commissioners has in mind regarding a new courthouse.
This newspaper has attempted to get those facts, but has not had much success. All the boards discussions on the Darnell Road site were behind closed doors. The board has refused to release any of its documents related to the site. Beyond a rough map and the general size of the site, there isnt much hard information that has made its way into the public domain.
We have said in this space before that because the board failed to do a thorough site search, we dont know if Darnell Road is the best location for a new courthouse or not. Our hunch is that if the board would do an in-depth site search, better locations would rise to the surface.
But our hunch is just like the boards hunch neither of us can say for sure what the best site is because there arent any hard facts on which to form a reasoned view. All the public has to go on are the opinions of five BOC members, or the opinions of critics of the proposed site.
There are many different layers to this issue, but one important component has been overlooked in the discussions so far. In addition to the need for a new judicial facility, the county also needs to be planning to build a new jail. The current jail was adapted from the old county work camp and has never really been suitable as a jail facility.
It would make sense to us for both a new judicial center and a new jail to be located close to each other. If planned correctly, the two facilities could complement each other and serve the needs of the countys citizens effectively.
Putting both of those facilities near each other would likely mean that any small-acreage site in downtown Jefferson would be ruled out. While there are some strong feelings about keeping the courthouse in the downtown area, we believe other alternative sites should also be considered so that both a judicial center and jail could be located close together.
There are some good sites available to do just that, but so far the BOC hasnt studied that idea or looked at any other sites outside Darnell Road.
We believe the best solution to serve the public interest would be for the BOC to initiate a site search that considers other locations in addition to the Darnell Road site. If they want one of the criteria of that search to be enough land to site both a judicial center and jail, then we have no problem with that.
But as the citizen said last week, we need more facts and the only way to do that is to do a site search that stacks Darnell Road against other potential locations.
Every member of the BOC has said he hasnt yet made his mind up on the Darnell Road location. If that is true, then why wouldnt they want to compare it to other potential sites?
By Mike Buffington
The Jackson Herald
March 27, 2002
Why I write what I write
We newspaper folks dont do a very good job of explaining ourselves. For an industry whose business is communication, most of us do a poor job of communicating when it comes to our own backyard.
I plead guilty to that charge. While Ive written this column for 22 years, between 900-1,000 columns, Ive seldom written about the process of opinion writing, or why I write what I write.
A lot of the countys newer residents may not know me beyond what you pick up in these weekly musings. While I would hope there is more to my life than just what I write here each week, I accept the fact that anyone who writes on a regular basis in a newspaper presents only a one-dimensional view of themselves. Its just part of the job.
Within the newspaper industry itself, theres always been a lot of debate about how opinion pieces should be written. Some newspapers have dropped opinion writing and editorials in recent years out of a fear that they might make someone mad. Other papers write opinions, but shy away from local issues and focus only on state or national concerns.
Then there are those papers where opinion writing is viewed as being one of the key elements of a newspapers mission. Aggressive editorials, columns and cartoons are used to foster public debate about a variety of issues.
Lest there be any doubt, this editor follows the latter school of thought. Its always been my view that newspapers are community institutions and as such, have a responsibility to air and debate public issues. If that means stepping on toes or pricking inflated egos of public officials, so be it.
But aggressive editorial writing isnt always an easy task, especially in a small community. I cross paths outside work with many of the people I write about and its sometimes awkward.
Yet I believe my first responsibility is to the readers of this newspaper. No matter what the fallout, I think most of our readers want this newspaper to put our public officials under the glare of accountability and to ask questions about their actions.
We have other responsibilities to our readers as well. For one thing, neither I nor anyone in our company engages in the buying and selling of real estate beyond our own homes. Because we have access to a lot of key information before it becomes general public knowledge, we could profit from trading on that information. But we dont do that because to do so would call into question the motives behind our writings. Our motive should be public interest, not personal profit.
In addition, no one at this newspaper is a public official. We dont want to blur the line between commentator and politician so our policy is to refrain from becoming a politician.
That doesnt mean we dont have political opinions, but we think its important to air those without wearing the robes of politics ourselves.
So what are my own beliefs? Politically, Im a fiscal conservative and social liberal. I dont affiliate with any particular political group and vote for the person, not the party.
In general, there are four main principles that govern how I approach opinion writing and public issues:
1. The process of public decision-making is often just as important as the decision itself. I try to examine both the process and the outcome.
2. All politicians should be held accountable for their decisions on public issues. The more public officials hide, the more a newspaper should dig.
3. Tax money is OUR money, not the politicians. Follow the money if you want to know a politicians real priorities.
4. Be fair, but dont be coy. Tell it like it is and let the reader decide for himself if he agrees or disagrees with what I write on this page.
I grew up in Jackson County and its because I care about my home community that I write what I write. Over the last 22 years, Ive written about a lot of issues and a lot of politicians, sometimes good, sometimes unflattering.
But in the long run, Im just a temporary caretaker of this job. This newspaper existed long before I was born and it will hopefully continue long into the future. I happen to be the person sitting in the editors chair today, but the success of this newspaper is carried by many others besides myself. Somewhere down the line, someone else will fill this role and they may do things very different than what Ive done.
And I know that it wont be in my lifetime that these weekly writings will be judged. Only in the future with the clear vision of hindsight will their meaning, good or bad, find any kind of context. I hope that judgment will weigh to the positive side.
In the meantime, politicians and issues will come and go and Ill keep writing about them.
And in 22 years at this task, I havent yet run out of material.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald.
The Commerce News
March 27, 2002
God Is Still In Charge
Sunday, Christians throughout the world will celebrate their most cherished holiday. It was on Easter that Jesus arose from the death by crucifixion to establish to the faithful that he was and is the son of God.
The man/deity known as the Prince of Peace was killed for challenging the status quo of the time, and it is not overlooked that one who taught his followers to love one another was treated so violently by the leaders of the religion into which he brought fulfillment. That the message of God's love should result in such narrow-mindedness and violence is all the more sad because it neither started with Jesus nor ended with him.
No religion, it seems, has cornered the market on violence or found perfect peace, for adherents to every religion are mere humans and subject to all of the shortcomings thereof. No news broadcast is complete without the latest updates on clashes between religions, whether it's in Ireland, Israel, India or Pakistan. Or America.
Easter is a Christian holiday; this is the first Easter since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the escalation of tensions caused by those attacks between Christians and Moslems. Many Christians, since then, view their faith differently; far more Christians have a different view of Islam, whose third-world adherents appear to hate Christians in general and Americans in particular. Easter calls on Christians to repent of their sins, however, to follow the teachings of Jesus without regard to what followers of other religions may be doing or seem to be doing.
Thus, as Christians observe their most sacred day, the message has not changed. Christians are to respect one another, to refrain from being judgmental, to love their neighbors, be they Christians, atheists, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, followers of Islam, or agnostics. Sept. 11 may have changed the way people think about religion, but it has not changed the expectations of Easter and the teachings of Jesus. If those who profess to be Christians want to make the world a better place, the best thing they can do is rededicate themselves to living Christ-like lives.
Certainly the world is more troubled now than it was last Easter, and while it may seem clear that mankind is incapable of living without religious conflict, the expectations and responsibilities of those claiming to be Christians have not changed at all. The cross and the empty tomb call Christians to look inward to repair their personal relationships with God. The world may be violent and uncertain, but Easter promises Christians that their God is still in charge.
On Higher Education
A Harvard University study indicates that in spite of all the education about the dangers of alcohol, 44 percent of college students are binge drinkers. About half of student drinkers are younger than 21, which is the legal age for drinking.
The figures are higher for students in fraternities and sororities - almost three-fourths of them binge drink. Binge drinking is described as deliberate drinking to excess; 70 percent of college students who drink fall into that category, according to the study.
While the ramifications of this finding suggest that colleges and universities may be training ground for problem drinkers, the most interesting finding is that the rate of drinking has not fallen in the face of public and private assaults on alcohol. The kids who binge drink know what they are doing and what it can lead to, but they do it just the same. That, in turn, suggests that the traditional remedy of education is key to changing behavior, whether drinking, drug use or something else.
Educating people is one thing. Getting them to change their behavior doesnt necessarily follow.