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School chief says much to be done to education system

By Greg Gelpi

Renee Descartes was drinking a beer in a bar when the bartender asked if he wanted another.

He replied, "I think not," and disappeared. Descarte is known for his saying, "I think therefore I am."

So goes a joke said prior to State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox's talk to the Clayton County chapter of the Rotary Club.

If the state Department of Education "thinks not," then the economic prosperity of the past decade could disappear, Cox cautioned.

"I have no problem standing up here and saying with confidence that we will lead the nation in improving student achievement," Cox said.

Cox, the state's top-elected education official, outlined her plans for her term in office, stressing that education is key to sustaining economic growth in the state.

The media tend to point out only the bad, leaving out the good, Cox said, noting the same is true for Clayton County, despite the fact that the county's school system is on probation.

"It's easy to focus on the negative, but there is a lot of good going on," Cox said of what she has witnessed in all levels of the county's education system.

Choosing to provide the resources and flexibility for schools and school districts to thrive, she is focusing on more overarching issues.

"We've assembled a world-class team that is focused on one thing," she said, explaining her desire for Georgia to lead the county in student achievement. "There is a lot of work to be done in Georgia, but the good news is that it's getting done," she said.

Since taking office in January, she has engaged in a number of endeavors to reverse the high school dropout trend, which she points to as a major hurdle in meeting the standards set forth in the No Child Left Behind Act.

The act mandates that 95 percent of the students of a school be tested, but on average truancy in the state is well below that, Cox said, adding that only four states have higher dropout rates.

"It's an element that smacked Georgia in the face," Cox said.

Part of keeping students' attention is challenging them by making the curriculum more difficult.

"It's not a question of just keeping them there," Cox said. "It's a question of keeping it relevant."

Overhauling the state curriculum, Cox launched a massive effort to institute a phased change in the curriculum.

"The curriculum is the key to getting it right all the way around," Cox said, explaining that, like spokes on a tire, the curriculum is the core that touches on many other education issues.

One essential spoke directly affected by the curriculum is testing, she said.

Prior to Cox, no one in charge of state testing ever formally met with anyone in charge of the state's curriculum, she said.

"The person stuck in the middle, the person getting hurt is the student," Cox said.

By 2013, all students must be proficient at their grade level in accordance with No Child Left Behind, she said.

Cox unveiled her curriculum overhaul plans Sept. 30 with a predicted roll out date of the curriculum set for implementation in the fall 2004.