Georgia schools superintendent on testing, teacher pay, CRT, trans athletes and more

·29 min read

Aug. 13—MARIETTA — In a wide-ranging interview that touched on testing, teacher retention, accreditation and more, the Marietta Daily Journal sat down with state School Superintendent Richard Woods, who is running for a third term this year.

Woods, of Tifton, fended off a primary challenge in May and in November will face Democrat Alisha Thomas Searcy of Marietta.

The son of a Navy man, Woods' family moved around a lot in his youth, but his roots are in south Georgia. He graduated from high school in Fitzgerald and earned a bachelor's at Kennesaw State University, Class of 1988.

Woods spent 22 years as an educator in Irwin County, where his parents hail from. Fourteen of those years were spent in the classroom, eight as an administrator. He taught high school social studies, and was inspired to do so by his own teachers.

"My high school social studies teachers were all World War II veterans. So, you feel like you were maybe sitting at the feet of Socrates, I guess, in that sense," he said.

He also coached football, baseball, basketball, golf and cross country.

"When it was time to put down one ball, we picked up another."

Woods first ran for office in 2010, but came up short in the primary. He gave it another shot in 2014.

"Some people reached out to me, and at that point, me and a friend, we sat in my office down in Tifton, Georgia, and we created the campaign, and at that point I was all in," he said.

He spent about a year and a half living out of a suitcase. Woods credits his victory to "old-fashioned retail politics" — showing up at every event that would have him.

Woods decided to enter politics because he didn't like the direction education was moving during the era of No Child Left Behind.

"Really what kind of set me off was that all we talked about was data points, testing. We didn't talk about children anymore ... I think for us as teachers getting into it we always pride ourselves on building relationships. ... I think good teaching in itself will take care of testing. But you have to get to know kids — they're different, they're unique in each and every way," Woods said.

He also wanted to enhance technical academies and other non-college options for young people, feeling that too many students were being told they had to get a four-year degree to be successful.

Woods is married to Lisha Woods. The superintendent, who wore a cross pin on his lapel during the interview, said he has a close relationship with God. In Atlanta, they attend Passion City Church. Back at home in Tifton, they attend Northside Baptist Church.

Woods enjoys drawing and painting as hobbies, and said he's sought to champion the arts in Georgia education.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

MDJ: Why should voters pick you over your opponent?

Richard Woods: Well, I think one thing, experience. I've been in the classroom, a 14-year teacher, the only candidate who can say they've been a teacher, an administrator and a wide variety of experience. I've actually held this office now for going on eight years. So we've been there. I think the mission and the vision of what we've had is preparing our kids for life. We've lived up to the promises that I set up and stated in 2014. We've reduced testing, we've put emphasis back on the children, we're expanding our graduation pathways, putting more real life and practical life into our school system, and been very successful. And I think at the end of the day, you look at two years, two and a half years of dealing with COVID-19, and we've come out on a pretty strong place. So between experience, and I think a very clear vision, and a needed vision for where we want to move our kids, we've been there.

Q: Do you support school districts putting security in schools — guards who are not law enforcement, but do carry guns, as some districts have done?

A: I think it's definitely up to local districts, but you definitely just don't give a person a gun and freedom to do. I think it has to have a lot of training. ... I mean, we really want to work with law enforcement. ... Many districts are now kind of leaning at even having their own police force, so that is an option. But I think you'd have to look at the need and time. Of course, in some areas, you may not even have the personnel, (it) may be an issue as far as attracting and having personnel. So it may be an option that's there. But I think we have to be very specific in what the need is, and the individuals that are there. Definitely background checks with that. But that's one part of a very comprehensive approach to school security.

Q: What does the state do to help the school systems with this problem?

A: Yeah, well, I think for us, school safety is No. 1. Before you can even think about learning, you have to feel safe, your environment has to be safe.

Every school is charged with creating a school safety plan. So we work with them on that, work with a template, we work with (Georgia Emergency Management Agency), our school resource officer entity as well. We've actually launched a website, I think now, that helps schools facilitate their plans and increases resources. We have several conferences that we help support during the course of the year which addresses school safety overall. We're trying to, or working on a process by which we can maybe change some of the drills that we require. We're required to have a fire drill each and every month. I'd like to maybe see if we can change that in which we can maybe have a safety drill or an intruder drill in that. Definitely, we have weather-related hurricane, tornado type drills as well. So we just have to be proactive.

Q: What should the state be doing to remedy learning loss created by the pandemic?

A: Fortunately, I think we've been on the proactive side of doing that. We've worked with our districts in providing resources with our afterschool network. So that has actually begun, it's the second year that we'll be doing that.

Navigating the money that we received from the federal government, there were actually three grants, two under the Trump administration, one under the Biden administration, that sent lots of money down here. Each school I think has worked on presenting a plan with that.

We've looked at our testing. I think trying to make sure that we kept our schools open was something I think was very valuable. Gov. Kemp did a great job with that in partnership with giving our schools that flexibility. Our testing, as I said, we're looking at the data now, last year was actually our pretty much full year in which we had some good solid data to pull from. So we know where those deficits are, we know where we landed pretty strong. And so we're going to continue to work with our schools. We have our school improvement team out and about. We provided resources online as well, for not only our teachers, but parents, that they could use. Because we still have some that keep their kids at home. And we do have to be mindful, we may eventually get back to a virtual delivery system at some point in time.

Q: It seems like standardized testing changes every other year. What's your view of the Milestone tests and other standardized tests?

A: Well, coming on board in 2015, when I was sworn in office, we were about to take a step in which every child was going to be tested in every single course. We would have been, or would have become, a test prep state, to be honest. One of the things I ran on was the reduction of testing.

We have seen the largest reduction of testing in our state's history, we're pretty much down to the federal level. I'm not anti-test, but I think that you have to make sure that you're, you know, why are you testing? Is it to improve our kids' performance? Is it a way in which we can support their learning and aspirations? Right now, we look at Milestones, we have seen maybe a move to try to move to a formative test. In other words, instead of an end of year summary, and everything being based on that, doing some things that allow our teachers to get information along the year.

With our testing company, DRC, who also is in charge of the Milestones, we have something called BEACON. BEACON is a formative module on which you can test your kids through the course of the year, find out where they are, and make the corrections and hopefully better support learning. So, is it the perfect system? Probably not.

But I think that when we look at testing itself, we have made strides compared to where we were taking office. I think we're more focused, we've given our teachers more time in which they can build those relationships, find out where their kids are, allow them to be more proactive in their kids' learning. What we're looking at now, what we found out with our teacher burnout report, even though we have cut back on testing, we are now looking at where our districts need to examine what they are doing. And I think that's where we could, you know, cut back on some of the testing as well.

Q: Standardized testing, the name implies this is going to be a benchmark. But repeatedly, and even before the pandemic, if scores go up, we're celebrating that. If scores don't go up or go down, it's 'We caution you on doing a comparison to last year's numbers.' We've heard that for the last couple of years.

A: Last year, again, we had enough students that were participating... The year before, we had an issue in which we had probably between 25% and 30% of the kids not take the test. So it's unreliable data at that point.

I would dare say that our teachers know where our kids are. They test, they work with their kids each and every day. Milestones give us a summary of the year. It is not necessarily the test that I would go with. Any type of test we've had for the past 30, 40 years, it's always been a snapshot of grade level. It's not taken into consideration the growth of a child. You may have a child that starts the year in third grade, maybe they're reading at first or second grade level. But yet, at the end of the year, maybe they've moved up to second, third grade level. But our test doesn't necessarily show that. And I think that's where we're trying to look at, because ultimately, what do we want to achieve? And I think it is very important that we have a testing system that tells us where the kids are. Because each kid, they come into our school system at various levels, they progress at various levels, the light bulb comes on at different times. And so we want to treat these kids as individuals, and I think try to address those individual needs.

Our teachers do a great job with that. I think, looking at our test scores this year, what we definitely have found out is our kids need to be face-to-face. That's one of the biggest takeaways that we have. Looking long-term, our kids, we look at SAT, ACT scores, we've been beating the national average for the past five years. ... When you look at the top performing states, I mean, they test 3-5% of their kids. And Georgia, we're testing between 60-70% of our kids. And so, I have no fear of accountability. I just want it to be fair. But ultimately, my goal is to make sure our kids are moving forward and improving. We're preparing them for life. And I think we just have to have a system that recognizes differences, but allows us to move those kids wherever they are in life and progress at a pace in which they are comfortable with, in which they can adequately move and learn.

Q: The Georgia school board passed a resolution against critical race theory. Local school boards have banned it. The legislature passed the divisive concepts law. What's your position on all these steps taken by Republicans? Do you agree with those steps?

A: I had no disagreement with the steps. Something that I think we did need, because we want to make sure that we honor our parents, because when you look at every child that comes into our school, they're not our kids. They're a son or a daughter of some parent out there, or guardian. I think we have to be respectful of that.

Our mission is to make sure that we teach and prepare our kids for life. We shouldn't be agenda-driven. It's not a political statement. We're not trying to drive political ideology. I was a history teacher, and when I looked at the laws themselves and what was there, I looked at it and said, would it prevent me from being a great teacher in a classroom? I had no disagreement that that was there. I think when you look and actually read the law, there was nothing that I saw that was disagreeable.

At the end of the day, I would tell any teacher, if you are teaching Georgia Standards, you are A-OK. You don't have to worry about a law, you don't have to worry about anything that's out there. We have a lot of different groups throughout the state. We recognize that. But our focus is, can our kids read, can they do math, can they be successful once they leave a K-12 institution in Georgia? So, we have the laws, we have processes now that are in place. And it puts a lot back at the local level. And that's, again, where it should be. With some of the law, you can actually move up to the state level, and I know the (state) Board of Education will have to respond to that. But overall, I don't see anything, don't have any problems with it. Let's just teach our kids, get them a good solid foundation, and we're fine, it becomes a non-issue.

Q: What would you tell teachers who are worried about getting in trouble because they taught this or that book, or because a parent doesn't agree with a lesson?

A: Well, I think there are steps, and I don't think any teacher should see it as well, I'm going to get in trouble. As I shared with people, we talk about topics that may be uncomfortable. We still talk about slavery, that's not been taken out. We talk about the Trail of Tears, that hasn't been taken out. Segregation, Jim Crow, reconstruction ... the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Those are things we don't shy from, I mean, it's a part of our history, it's a part of world history. I think about, even sex trafficking that goes on, even today, and Atlanta being one of the major hubs for things such as that.

So I think with teachers, it is just using what you know as common sense. As I shared, you teach our standards, there's no problem there. I think being open and transparent with parents, let them know, this is what's coming. There are safeguards in which, if a parent objects to something, they don't have to have their child read something, there's an alternative. We've done that for years, even in health class. If a parent didn't want their child to be in certain parts of the health class, they can opt out. So we have mechanisms that are there. I don't think teachers should feel uncomfortable. ... Kids may bring up topics. And if they initiate topics, you have to look at it, just make sure you're not trying to push an agenda one way or the other. That's where we allow our kids to become critical thinkers as well. So, no problem on my end.

Q: We've received reports of increased fighting, increased disciplinary issues in local schools. Is that something you're seeing statewide? And if so, what's causing it? And what's the solution?

A: Well, some of the allegations of why this has happened is that our kids are coming back from COVID. Maybe there were some issues that they had to deal with, what did home look like during that time? Just some emotional issues, 'how do I deal with people?' You know, actually having to relearn some of that. Maybe that has pushed some of our kids to a little bit of an edge. COVID, for me, even physically, yeah, it was a rough period of time for me. And I think for kids, emotionally, maybe there's some things that were out there that we just don't know the impact, when we talk about long-term COVID. ... Putting our kids, some of our kids, in a situation in which maybe home was not really the safest place there.

Some kids come from a very hard background. Now, where school used to be the safe place, a year and a half of baggage has now been transferred. Because what happens at home doesn't stay at home, it comes to us each and every day at the school.

What our kids are exposed to today, we didn't have to worry about when I was growing up. We had three TV stations, and two of those were kind of iffy if the weather was bad. Social media, some of the things I've seen out and about, like these TikTok challenges, they don't put kids in a good safe spot. And I think that's where some of our kids, they're still learning, they're still maturing. And sometimes the decision making is not in the best frame of reference. Because when you do something, you're putting kids in danger, and especially if it can harm other individuals, we have to really look at, what is the value there? And, again, going back to my statement, social media has had a big impact on the lives of all of us as Americans and throughout the world, but especially our young people. And I don't know that I can say that it's always been in a positive light.

Q: Should transgender girls be allowed to compete with the cisgender girls in high school athletics, is that something that the government should be getting involved in, as it has here in Georgia?

A: Well, I will say this, I coached for years, coached both boys and girls. There's definitely a difference there, at the level in which you're able to compete. For myself, I think boys and girls, boys should compete against biological boys, as they were assigned at birth, and girls should compete against girls.

I think about Title IX, and I think about how women and girls have fought for years and years to get that level of recognition, to get that level of competency and competition out there. You're talking about individuals that, this means scholarship, it means potentially thousands of dollars for them to pursue something at the collegiate level. For us, of course, it's underneath the Georgia High School Association, that's our sporting entity within the state. Now, whether there'll be some expansion in which you could have co-ed sport in a sense, in which that may eventually evolve, that may be a possibility. But I think that if you have a male sport and a female sport, we need to keep it relegated to that. In fairness, and again, I'm thinking overall, I feel like I need to stand up for the girls, and be fair to them.

Q: Sen. Lindsey Tippins carried a bill last session that would have reformed the way accrediting companies operate in the wake of Cognia's botched review of the Cobb County School District. Should Georgia create a new oversight agency charged with regulating accreditation firms to ensure they're accountable to taxpayers?

A: I think, working with Cognia ... do you have to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Maybe not. Maybe it's looking to work with Cognia and say, is it time to reform? To look at that. Is it something where we need to examine how we accredit our schools, maybe that's a possibility, forming a commission to see what's out there. I think just to say, a blanket 'let's just get rid of something,' why don't we try to fix the problem before we maybe unintentionally create something that may be perhaps even worse than what we have?

So is it an option I think we need to look at, sure, I think we could do that, we could definitely improve. We've learned some stuff, I think, from Cobb and some of the other districts that have went through a few things over the past couple years. But for myself, that's why who you elect on local school boards is extremely important. You know, those are your elected officials, they have a lot of weight and they have an important decision-making process here at local levels. So yeah, we can look at it. But let's kind of look at something where maybe we can fix it internally before having to completely gut everything.

Q: Speaker David Ralston set up a special committee to look into this. And Rep. Ginny Ehrhart. R-west Cobb, is on it, among others. There aren't a lot of accrediting agencies for school districts, and I wonder if that is a concern for you? Should more options be available?

A: Well, I think that definitely when you look at the free market system, is it, would it be advisable? It could be. I think we do have natural monopolies when we talk about that in economics. I mean, do you need thousands of power companies? That may not be necessarily the best thing when you're trying to run power lines. And so I think there has to be some area that we look at that is concise.

Right now we are looking at it, and I think that's a good thing. Now, out of the process, we may have new entities come out. I mean, you've got to have individuals and groups that can make a profit. Is that something that is viable? This is kind of a unique niche, definitely not everyone does that. But could there be a choice between Cognia or someone else ... If we can get one entity that does a really good job, then is there a need? But I think there has to be, I think, continuous review of whoever it is, if it's Cognia, to make sure that we're really getting what we need in Georgia. Do we have an entity that is fully supporting the improvement of schools and school boards? And so I would applaud the speaker again, for creating this committee to look and explore, and let's look at the information, where it lands. And from there, I feel like we can make a good case of where we need to go in Georgia.

Q: Should Cognia be subject to open records law?

A: For us, again, I would say, yes, I think everything we do at the state level is open records, everything we do at the local level is open records. Again, looking at some things, should some things be behind a veil, that may be a possibility, especially if you're dealing with personnel or certain things, we have to respect individuals' rights. I mean, for us, we can't give information — like, we deal with FERPA, we deal with things that are out there that are sensitive, we have state board meetings in which we have executive sessions in which personnel and things are discreetly talked about, which again, is the proper place. ... But overall, what are you trying to hide? So, that would be my question.

Q: So you would be supportive in general of extending that open records law to two accrediting groups that receive taxpayer dollars?

A: I think that's part of the cost when you deal with the public. Because I mean, we as Georgians have to have the right, we have the right to know where our money's being spent and how it's being spent. And you want to be transparent. So I would have no issue with that.

A: Should Georgia be providing public funding to private schools? And if so, what expectations should come with that funding?

Q: I know currently, we do provide a service, especially when it comes to kids with special needs, we have special needs scholarships there. And that seems to have gone well. ... Obviously, some parents felt they wanted to go in a different location.

For myself, again, I would speak as a taxpayer, as an individual. Any time that you begin to take state money, federal money, I think you have to take that with a bit of caution, because it comes with strings attached to it. So if you're out there, and you're a private school or private entity, you begin to lose some of your private control once you open up that door. And I think you have to be kind of cautious with that. But for me, my role is to address the public K-12 education system. And so my focus right now is to make sure that every school that falls underneath that purview, hopefully is the school of choice for our parents. And so that's where I kind of put my focus.

Q: How can the state help districts cope with staffing shortages? We've seen them in teachers, bus drivers, food service workers.

A: Name your institution or name your job profession, there's a shortage. One of the things we looked at, we had our teacher burnout report. That was something that, trying to get a sense of what teachers were feeling, what were some of the things that were maybe driving them into retirement or leaving the profession? That was quite insightful.

I think mentioning testing, mentioning things where they felt overburdened, overused, in a sense, in which they were now being steered away from their primary role as teacher. Other duties as assigned, I guess, you could say. COVID definitely had an impact with that. ... A lot of people who drove buses, who work in our cafeteria system, who are substitutes, tend to be a little more on the senior side. And so there were a lot of concerns about COVID. They seemed to be the ones that were more susceptible. And so we saw a transition with that. But that being said, I think we have looked at some things, especially with some of the legislation, allowing teachers to come back at full retirement.

One of the things we're gonna continue to work on is looking at extending, or increasing teacher step raises or pay raises, past 21. Right now, once you reach 21 years of service, you get no more pay increases, it's set, unless you have something given by the legislature, or some type of (cost-of-living adjustment) raise, in that sense. ... We would like to see that change, in which we can see more step raises as you continue on, I think that would keep teachers in service longer.

One of the things we have been in discussions with is having maybe a unified pay scale for non-certified people, our bus drivers, our cafeteria workers, janitorial people. So, being creative in that sense. I appreciate the governor with the pay raise, definitely I think that did help out. During the pandemic we facilitated where we gave our teachers and many of our educators a $1,000 bonus. A lot of districts have come up to that and tried to match that.

But within some districts it becomes hard. ... And so I think between a combination of things, between COVID, a lot of us who are baby boomers, we were the teachers, we're hitting that retirement age. ... Thinking about where we are, as well, a lot of our districts and what we're helping to support is "grow your own." So a lot of districts are starting a teacher recruitment program, teacher prep program, they're doing so at the local level, and hopefully, that'll see some fruit.

The economy has been good. So people, especially in the non-certified areas, potentially could go somewhere else and make more money than what they potentially could have in some school districts. So it's a very competitive market out there. We're not alone in that competition. And just like everyone else, we're trying to discover ways in which we can make this the most attractive environment. Because there are things that I think are conducive to help support the recruitment of people that are out there. But it's a challenge.

Q: Gov. Kemp gave $5,000 raises to teachers. Stacey Abrams says she wants to raise the minimum pay of teachers to $50,000. We asked Alisha Thomas Searcy about this, she threw out the number $60,000. What do you think?

A: We're always in favor of trying to increase pay. But I think you have to live in the reality of the world. I mean, I could throw out a number that would be higher than that. Sounds great. But in Georgia, we live on a balanced budget. So whether it's Ms. Abrams, or Ms. Searcy, how are you gonna pay for it? I think that's the big thing. Show me the numbers. They gave you a pay, but tell me how you're going to pay for it. Because what that means is once you move everybody up to the starting, well those that are now making that, you've got to move them up as well. That's why I think for myself, looking at what can we do in reality, what is achievable? And I think taking that 21-year limit, and increasing step raises that extend beyond that to retirement, to 30 (years) is doable within the state of Georgia. With those figures that were thrown out ... I just know how state government has worked. What happens if a recession hits again? I think that's just political rhetoric going on.

Q: If Stacey Abrams is elected governor, and you're reelected, she's going to appoint your state school board. So how would you govern in a situation where you had a Democratic board?

A: Stepping on in 2014, in 2015, I had a state Board of Education that didn't necessarily agree with everything I brought to the table. I think that you learn to work with people to try to say, where is there common ground? For myself, being elected, it's what I promised the people of Georgia I would do. And so I've tried to live up to that ... I've been very diligent in achieving that. And sometimes I don't get to achieve it when I want to. But I continue to hit the grind. You build relationships. And I think we have a lot of cross-party relationships that are out there that are very positive for us. My anticipation and expectation is that Brian Kemp will be governor, and we will continue the great relationship that we have. And so that's my focus, until the day comes in which I see something different, that's the world I'm going to live in.

Q: Is there anything we haven't asked you that you'd like to say?

A: Well, I'm looking forward to November 8, I think anybody who's running for political office sees that as a high-water day. It's been a pleasure to serve the people of Georgia for the past eight years. COVID has definitely been some challenges. But you know, we as a state have come out pretty strong. And I just really want to thank the teachers for doing that. But also the bus drivers, cafeteria workers, it was a team effort. The governor and the members of the General Assembly, I mean, everyone rallied together.

So I think we and Georgia came out strong with that. I think if you visit us at, you look at a plan that is twofold. It shows yes, I have the experience to continue leading Georgia. I have the vision that I believe is right for our state. And you know, you can compare that. We both have records, me and my opponent, and I would encourage you to look at that record. She has a record as a member of the General Assembly, I have a record as elected state school superintendent. But, you know, I feel good about where we're at. I really thank the people of Georgia and the parents and everyone for entrusting me with this, it's definitely one of the highest honors that I've had as an individual. Never thought I would become state school superintendent of Georgia, it was not on the bucket list. I'd always thought that I was going to be a classroom teacher for 30 years, and I was happy. People ask me, 'Would you ever go back and do it again?' In a heartbeat. I would not miss it. I love working with young kids. And my days in the classroom, definitely, were some of the most fulfilling as well.