ATLANTA — Because of the pandemic, more people are invested in the conversation around schools and children than ever before.
For several weeks, 11Alive is getting to know the people running to be the next state superintendent.
First, incumbent Richard Woods sat down with Christie Diez to discuss the biggest challenges facing Georgia schools.
COVID & Schools
Christie Diez: You are running for state superintendent as the incumbent.
Richard Woods That is correct, yes.
Christie Diez: You are in your seventh year, second term. You notoriously fly under the radar, but what have you done in your role as superintendent in these last two terms that should convince voters that you deserve a round three?
Richard Woods: Well, I think more importantly, we focus on kids. That's one of the things that I look back on where I think we lost our way prior to coming to office. Teaching and education became more about the test than actually our kids. We've expanded opportunities for our students whether they want to go to university system, technical school, the military, straight into the workforce. And I think that has been key to everything we've done.
We've cut back on the amount of testing we've done and really just promoted opportunities for kids, things like STEM and STEAM, or foreign language opportunities, career tech expansion. So anything that that definitely aligns with our students, we have been all in and we've been very successful with that throughout the years.
Christie Diez: These past couple of years have probably thrown you a curve ball you didn't expect with the COVID pandemic. What are the biggest lessons you've learned through the pandemic, and how to change and pivot in education?
Richard Woods: Well, I think one of the good things about education and teachers, we have always been flexible. And even though the pandemic did catch us, you know, a little off guard. But I'm glad to say that by and large, in Georgia, we came out pretty good. Our graduation rate has remained steady. We saw a little dip in some of our testing in grades three through eight, but we're catching our kids up. When you think about, you know, some of the silver linings, I think we found out what we could do when it came to virtual. You know, the best place for our kids, we definitely found out is to be face to face, we got to be in school. And so, our commitment to that across the state has been strong.
When I look and talk with my counterparts throughout the United States, it's a blessing to be the state school superintendent of Georgia. But, we'll take the lessons we learned and get our kids caught back up. I think connectivity is something we're continue to work on because that was a challenge. When we went virtual, even though we had a lot of students, had their laptops and computers and tablets, connectivity in some parts of the state definitely made things very interesting.
Looking at virtual education, I think it does have its place. It does give us opportunities. I do envision that we could have a teacher maybe perhaps up here in Gwinnett County teaching young people, you know, in Irwin County or down in Seminole County. For us as a department, it means we can serve more schools, more districts more efficiently and quickly because we don't have to spend a lot of time on the road. So a lot of things I think we look at and we'll continue to look at and evaluate over the next few years as we see the impact of COVID 19. But you know, there are definitely some things that we will take with us and improve education overall.
Christie Diez: What's your position on masks in schools now and moving forward as we potentially hit more spikes or ups and downs and potential new variants?
Richard Woods: Well, I think that what we have learned is it may vary from district to district. I've been an individual where I don't favor mask mandates. I think it does need to be left up to parents. But everything we're seeing right now, we seem to be moving out of the pandemic. By and large, our schools are open throughout the state. We are seeing rollbacks with mask mandates and I think we just have to look at each situation.
If a spike does occur, we have to look at the information. We know what's the best way to deal with it because we do know more about the pandemic and how to address things than we did just say two years ago. So, we'll take the information and knowledge we've learned and we'll make the best decisions as far as the need arises. But right now, I see that we're opening up and we're probably getting rid of the mask throughout the state.
Christie Diez: What about vaccines in school? There is current legislation going through the Legislature right now that as it's written, as it stands today, as you and I speak, it would ban all vaccines in schools, which would set a new precedent. Now, the sponsor has said he'll change it to clarify that it would exclude only the COVID vaccine. What are your thoughts on that legislation and what it should be moving forward?
Richard Woods: I was vaccinated and yet caught a very serious case of COVID 19 in August, but that was a choice that I made. I think that we have to look at that. That really is a family decision on what to take and especially when it comes to the children should be left up to the family. I've encouraged people to get vaccinated. You respect people, but we adjust to that. And as we found out, it really has not had a big impact on student population.
I think this year we saw more of the adults being out. And again, it's kind of hard to have school if you don't have teacher subs, bus drivers or cafeteria workers. So, you know, we encourage people to look at that. Talk with your local physician, the people that you know best and have those conversations. But as I said, I definitely do not support the mandates, but I encourage getting the vaccine.
Christie Diez: Do you think the COVID vaccine should be treated differently than what's already required in schools such as measles or mumps? Those kinds of vaccines?
Richard Woods: You look at measles and mumps and you know, and certain diseases like that, they have a historic place with trying to make sure it does not become widespread within schools. We know that does have an impact of young people.
I think we have to look at it (COVID) as very similar to the flu. We don't mandate a flu vaccine. It does appear that this may be the way COVID 19 is going. I think we have to look at the information, read the science. But you know, families need to be talking with their medical physicians and making the best decision based on what they know.
Christie Diez: The pandemic has been tough on kids on parents and teachers. I've heard from many teachers, they're burned out. How do you combat that and how do you make sure we keep incentivizing good educators to enter this field?
Richard Woods: It's almost like your house is on fire. So, you know, let's save the most important pieces we had. Definitely our kids. Definitely our teachers. And that meant taking things off the plate, things that were more bureaucratic in nature, cutting back on some of the testing.
You know, I think the pay raise will kind of help out. Last year, of course, we gave a $1,000 bonus to many within our education field. Continue to think about what are the ways that we can we can look at and take more off the plate of the teachers.
Testing is something that even though we have peeled back, I encourage our local districts to really look at and don't use testing as such an overburdensome mechanism within your school, because our teachers know where our kids are. Let them do their job and we'll be in good shape.
The pandemic will be something we will be dealing with for the next several years. And we want to take advantage of that. In fact, we actually now are talking with teachers and having some groups meet to say, 'Hey, how do we address some of the needs and concerns that you were having?'
Christie Diez: You mentioned having to deal with this pandemic for years to come. Do you think that the pandemic has already created an educational gap that will have to deal with some students spending so much time disrupted from the classroom and trying to learn from home as we figured out how to do education during a pandemic?
Richard Woods: Well, very much so. I think in talking with districts and schools, we know that a large part of our student population came back and they were not where we wanted them to be academically. In doing so, we've reached out trying to make sure that what we are expecting our kids to do, giving flexibility at the local level.
Make the changes you need in your scheduling to catch those kids up, working with the after-school. Education for some needs to take place after school, but also during the summer. You know, looking at, hiring resources as far as coaches and personnel that will help bring our kids up throughout. So, we've been working with our regional educational support agencies and putting funding that really puts extended time into the hands of our kids and school so that they can get caught up.
RELATED: This metro Atlanta school district will continue requiring masks in facilities, buses for rest of school year
Critical Race Theory
Christie Diez: You do tend to fly under the radar as school superintendent, but at this moment in time, you are also involved in arguably one of the most controversial topics of this time, and that's educational content in schools. It seems like everybody is looking at what should be taught, what should be available to children in schools. And one of the hottest topics right now is critical race theory. This is a two-part question. One, what is your position on critical race theory, whether it should be taught in schools? And why do you think it has become such a tense issue?
Richard Woods: I think for myself, when you're looking at any ideology, and I would say, what is the benefit? Where does it get its history from? You know, and so I think looking at that and taking in all things considered consideration, looking at the critical race theory. But, I would say any divisive type of language or content really does not benefit us in public education. Now, it does not mean that we do not teach or avoid controversial things in our history.
If you look at our standards, we talk about slavery, Jim Crow segregation, Trail of Tears, the Holocaust. But, you know, I think it's in its proper historical context. But I think also teaching about American exceptionalism, how we've overcome and actually improved as a nation. If you just follow along and teach the standards, which is what our expectation is for all kids, then really there is no controversy. I would just lean upon that and and everyone will be fine.
Christie Diez: There is also legislation regarding this that would ban it from being taught in the schools, but something that seems to get muddled in this conversation is that it's not currently being taught in schools. So, do you think there needs to be a ban on something that's not currently happening right now? Do you think it's based out of fear?
Richard Woods: Well, I think there are certain isolated events. Again, what we are seeing that some of this ideology is being presented, you know, and really it's twofold. The proactive measure is that we look at protecting our young people, but also protecting our teacher workforce.
Right now we are dealing with some things but I think the legislation will iron that out and we'll be able to move on from here.
Christie Diez: There is another bill, Senate Bill 226, that would potentially limit certain reading materials available in libraries throughout schools. How do you, as superintendent, look at a bill and possible legislation like that while straddling the line to make sure that we're not crossing the border over into censorship for our students? What are your thoughts? What are your thoughts on the legislation and how do you straddle that line?
Richard Woods: Well, I think again, you look at the content. know, does it cross the line as far as being indecent or inappropriate or perhaps even not age-appropriate for young people? Some of the things that have been brought or sent to my office, you know, books and things that appear in some of our schools, they are concerning. I would say that that even for you, as with within your line of work, that probably some of the pictures that I've seen depicted in some of the books we cannot show on TV. Some of the words I have definitely seen cannot be spoken in TV. So, you know, trying to look at that, does it benefit our children? Does it advance their academic knowledge? Does it advance their academic learning in any way?
We want to be very proactive with that because it's not banning books. It is not burning books, but I think it is protecting our kids and protecting our teachers and workforce. I mean, we are funded by the taxpayers of Georgia, whether you have a child in school or not. I think communities have certain values and we want to make sure that that we support our communities each and every day, we have to earn the public trust and we have to maintain the public trust. And I think one of the ways in doing that is being transparent, letting people know what they have or what their students are being exposed to on a day-in, day-out basis.
Christie Diez: Speaking of parental insight, it has been reported that you and Governor Kemp are working together on what's being called a “Parental Bill of Rights.” Will you explain what that is and what it would mean for parents?
Richard Woods: Well, I think for parents, it is just giving a glimpse and further supporting that relationship between public education and the family. We want to make sure that we are transparent, that our parents actually have a clear insight of what their kids are being taught, what they're exposed to, how to engage in the bureaucracy. Sometimes education can be a little bit overwhelming, especially with all the acronyms that we tend to use. So, it is just something right now that we're looking at. How do we solidify our relationship and give some process or putting some process in place so that parents can more easily navigate education and some of its bureaucracy at times.
RELATED: These parents questioned critical race theory and DEI programs in public schools. They interviewed experts and here's what they found.
Working with others
Christie Diez: How well do you work with those you disagree with?
Richard Woods: Well, I would say that obviously I get along pretty well. I did receive the most votes of any one in the last election in 2018, so that meant I had a lot of crossover. I think that what I have found out is that as long as we're focusing on kids and putting their best interests forward, I tend to get along pretty well with anyone. I think the work that we've seen so far demonstrates that because this position, it takes a lot of negotiating. It takes a lot of working with other entities. Just because there's not a lot of direct or inherent power, even though there's a lot of influence that comes out of this office. But it does require a lot of relationship building.
Christie Diez: Georgia is large and diverse. You've got more than 2,300 schools that you're responsible for as state superintendent. And each one has very different needs and philosophies. How do you make decisions for all of them knowing that the needs of a rural school system may be very different from the needs of an urban school system?
Richard Woods: Well, I think you look at it from two different ways, one of which is that all students have a base knowledge that we want them to learn. That's universal. Whether you're up here in Metro Atlanta or Hall County, that doesn't change. But one of the things I've charged the staff up here in Atlanta is that we are here to serve and support. We all want our kids to land at the same destination. But the pathway in which they get there is going to vary.
I think we're trying to look and expand opportunities, whether you're in rural education, looking at grants, looking at needs, going back to even just listening to our school districts to say 'what do you need,' not assuming that what we are trying to plan is the best but having good dialog with those individuals. We make sure that we tailor our information and our support to what they need. So yes, we do have some commonality and some things that are universal throughout the state.
Challenges facing Georgia schools
Christie Diez: What do you believe is the biggest threat facing education right now?
Richard Woods: Well, I think overall, one of the things we have faced throughout Georgia continues to be our high poverty rate throughout the state. That puts a lot of stress on families. We have individuals that have generational poverty and they have been hurt as far as looking at having some generational educational deficit. So I think trying to overcome poverty, giving our kids a leg up, expanding roles and job opportunities and career opportunities is something we want to push.
Coming from a family of low means, education was really the door that opened up many opportunities. I think when I was in high school, becoming state school superintendent of Georgia was not on the bucket list, but because of the good education I received, it did open up that door and here I am today.
Christie Diez: Kids are facing a lot of issues outside of the classroom that undoubtedly affect their performance at school and when they're in the classroom. How do you make sure that the education system has the support and provides the support to those families who are facing those obstacles outside the bounds of a school?
Richard Woods: Well, I think for other areas, there are probably specialists outside of the Department of Education that are better suited to address the issues, whether it's behavioral health or other entities. And I think that's what we looked at.
We have tried to expand our outreach, talking with other state agencies, talking with private and public business and industry to bring all of us together. I think for us, this is not just a Department of Education issue, but it is one that can have lasting effect in the community.
So, it does behoove all of us to come together to unite just for our kids.
Christie Diez: Would you care to expand which groups you're working on and what some of those creative solutions might be?
Richard Woods: Well, we just brought in all of our our teachers of the year as far as our top 10. We'll continue to expand that out to our teachers throughout the state. One of the things we did when we first came on board is a survey. We were talking to teachers about 'what are some of your needs?'
We addressed a lot of those needs, especially in the area of testing, the pandemic, and challenges right now throughout the rest of the year. I'm going to be having some deep conversations with teachers, administrators and even family members as well to say, 'what do we need to do to improve education and keep that morale, and to make sure that we're retaining teachers but also recruiting teachers for the future as well?'
Christie Diez: Let's pivot for a moment to the conversation about equity. More school districts across the state are hiring diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI administrators. What place do you believe that has in a school district?
Richard Woods: With something like that, I think schools have to be very measured in what they look at. You know, there is a lot of controversy when you talk about DEI and is it associated with critical race theory? What is the purpose of having teachers with that? What is the purpose of education? Are we improving our kids’ reading scores or math scores, communication scores? That's what we need to be focused on, providing them a pathway to the next level of education and career opportunities.
And you know, for all of us in education, we need to be focused on our true mission. Sometimes we can look to the left and right and get distracted. I would just be very wary about such things and make sure that our mission stays focused on what we're about, because that's ultimately our grades.
Christie Diez: Let's talk budget now. Education is constantly facing budget cuts. Teachers are constantly reaching into their own pockets to buy supplies that they need for their classroom basic needs. How do you work to make sure that the education system, one, has the funding it needs, which always arguably needs more? And how do you support teachers to make sure they have what they need in the classroom?
Richard Woods: Locally, our school districts definitely can help out in that area. For us as a state, looking at our budget and making sure that we have the flexibility or we're giving our school district flexibility to use funding to reach out to support what our teachers need.
I came from a rural district where I'm well acquainted with spending your own money to make sure that that your kids have things. But I think, you know, trying to put a priority on on our budget process here in Atlanta and also down at the local level definitely helps out.
I think that as we actually put things in place so that they see it's not just words, but action as well, that's going to be very encouraging to teachers. So, we definitely want to put those words and actions together and not let it just be lip service.
Christie Diez: You campaigned on bringing back the tax-free holiday, which a lot of people supported, but Georgia hasn't observed that since that 2016, I believe. Why has it been so difficult to work with the Legislature to bring back that holiday again?
Richard Woods: I would probably have to defer that to the members of the General Assembly. You know, coming out of the recession may have had some issues with that. But, we'll continue to fight for everything. I mean, I always enjoyed the tax holiday as a person myself, and perhaps that'll be something we can definitely reinstitute, especially with our numbers looking pretty good.
Violence in schools
Christie Diez: Let's talk about violence in schools. That has become a major issue, depending on certain school districts. How do you combat this issue without criminalizing a child before their brain is even fully developed?
Richard Woods: I think one of the best things we could do is actually build relationships with our students. The impact of a teacher can not be underestimated at all. If I were to ask people to name your favorite teacher, that name would come up very quickly. It wasn't because of the great test they gave, but because the relationship they had. That's where I think we’re trying to move away from the bureaucracy of education to the relationship building. You know, our teachers got to have time to do that. If they're spending time with testing and just paperwork, then that means less time that they can spend with the priority or putting that prioritization on their kids.
I think also what you find out is that leadership is extremely important. The school principal is probably the most important person in that building because that individual sets that those expectations. And just like adults, young people want to have guidelines. They want to have barriers, guardrails up there so they know where to operate. We have to be consistent with that.
One of the things I think that hurts us in discipline at times may be some of the inconsistency. But also, it is working with individuals such as law enforcement, behavioral health and these individuals to find out what are ways in which we can engage the community. One of the things we look at is that school was not just nine to three or eight to three, but it does extend out.
I think providing our kids with more extracurricular activities would lessen their involvement in gang or other type of activities. We do find out that the more that a child is engaged in education or in extracurricular activities, their graduation success rate definitely goes up. So, I think it's a combination of a multi-pronged attack. And if we do those things, we'll definitely see the violence curb back.
Christie Diez: Teachers are allowed to carry guns in classrooms if the local school board authorizes it. Do you agree with that policy or not?
Richard Woods: Local policy, I don't have an objection to it. That's what I found out. I don't think most teachers support or would not want to bring a gun to school. But, I think that would have to definitely be with a lot of training.
You just don't hand somebody a gun and say, you know, here it is. If that were the case, I would hope that the school district would require a lot of safety training because that's a big responsibility when you put a gun in someone's hand.
Christie Diez: You've mentioned testing several times in our conversation so far, and you have made significant changes to standardized testing in recent years. Partially, I believe, because of the pandemic, making sure that it's not weighted as greatly and that it's not the sole factor in what decides the child moves forward or not. With testing resuming this year, what emphasis do you think it should play into a student's grades and ability to move forward?
Richard Woods: I think you have to look at an individual basis, and that's one of the things that we do within Georgia, Just because you do take the test, it is not the sole determining factor whether you move on or are retained.
This year is a little bit easier. We haven't had quite as many rolling quarantines. So most of our kids have been in school face to face, which is going to have helped out.
But I think it is just one piece of the puzzle as one tool in evaluating a student's performance. I just encourage school districts to use. Yes. It is a tool, but also to use other markers to make sure that we're making the best decision for any child in our system.
Christie Diez: Some critics argue from what I've read that without the emphasis on this standardized testing, they don't have the same data that they can use to judge how well Georgia is doing against other criteria, or against other states and others other schools. What is the alternative, if not standardized testing?
Richard Woods: Well, I think there are things we definitely use -- S.A.T., ACT, which we beat the national average. You know, and we have done so for several years. At the end of the day, we have to look, what is the purpose of testing? You know, one of the things we look at the milestones as a summative or end of the year test. But I would submit that we need to have formative tests making real life decision making to improve kids along the way, not wait till the end of the year, which basically is an autopsy report.
I'm not anti-test, but I think it is trying to make sure that we wisely use tests to make sure that we're improving our child's education. So it's not do away with tests, but use them in a smarter way. We can collect a lot of data and we have in Georgia, and I think what you'll find out is that many school districts have internal benchmarking tests that they use as well. So, you know, use it for maximum benefit and not just to say it's something we just go through the motions for. We want to make sure we're actually using the data we get.
Christie Diez: What do you think is the biggest goal you've had that you have not been able to accomplish this term?
Richard Woods: Fully expanding our graduation pathways. You know, coming into office, for years, every child had to take the same for math, science, social studies, whatever. And we put every kid in the same sandbox. But we have been able to make progress to say, if you wanted to go to the university system, that's great. But I think even from there, some kids want to be a liberal arts major. Some people want to be math, science or medical, so their education should look a little different. Or, if you want to go into a technical college, military, or straight into the workforce.
That's big on the top priority as we continue to move forward, putting those options out there for our kids and giving them multiple pathways to great forms of careers and education as they move through our system. Education now becomes practical, it now becomes real and it now becomes personal. And I think we put those things together. We'll continue to see the graduation rate continue to rise in Georgia, but it will be more than just a piece of paper. It'll be a career game-changer.
Christie Diez: Before you can get to the Democratic candidate in the general election, you have to go through your Republican opponent, John Barge, in the primary. What differentiates you from John Barge? Why should someone vote for you instead of him?
Richard Woods: Well, we both have occupied this position before, and I think one of the things you'll find out is the success level that I've had. I didn't decide to run for Governor, but I committed completely to the kids and teachers of Georgia.
We have seen the graduation rate continuously go up. We're experiencing the highest grad rate in our state's history. We continue to expand educational opportunities for our students, whether it's STEM, STEAM, computer science, just visual arts or the arts in general. Career tech, those are things that we definitely have built upon our success. Our career pathway graduation rate in the state of Georgia is 98%. So I've lived up to the promises that I made, and I think that's a big difference. I did not quit and I will not quit on our kids nor our teachers and our families.
Christie Diez If you do win the primary, then you move on to face the Democratic candidates. How would you convince someone to vote for you? Obviously, you guys are different parties. So, there are going to be some ideological differences there. But at the core, if somebody is swinging, not sure which way to go, why you?
Richard Woods: Well, I think experience does matter. Roughly my 30 years of experience in education, from teacher to administrator, you know, I've driven the bus, I've served on the food line, academic, leader.
I think when you look at resumes, neither one of those individuals can measure up to the academic or at least to the educational resume that I have.
We've had a good run. We continue to focus on kids. We've expanded opportunities. We did not stop during the pandemic and we've been very successful across the state. So, I'm very pleased where we're going. We're going to run on the record. That's one thing that any individual, whether Republican or Democrat, they cannot match, nor can they compare what we've done in the state.
So, I gladly take on all challengers. And we're going to lay it out there and continue to focus on what we can control and feel good about reelection.
Christie Diez: What would you say to someone who said, 'Hey, you've had a good run? You've had two terms. Thanks for steering the ship during a pandemic you got us through, but it's time for some fresh perspective some new blood in the office.' How would you respond to that?
Richard Woods: I never looked at this as being a career. I think with another four years, there are things that we want to continue to look at, such as the pathways, expanding that, revamping our teacher evaluation and our school evaluation processes as well. Those are definitely needed.
And really, that would kind of complete the package as far as what I'm looking at. There is still work to be done and I feel that I'm the person to help lead that. There's been a vision of mine and here we are ready for re-election, ready for the next four years. I'm excited about what the future holds.
Christie Diez: Any topic you think needs to be talked about and the Georgia voters should know before they make this decision?
Richard Woods: What I do want to encourage all the people of Georgia is that we have a very strong public education system. We're coming out of the pandemic. Our teachers have done a wonderful job, but not only teachers. I think about the bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, front office personnel.
The strength of public education, I think, has been seen through the pandemic. We have wonderful, wonderful leadership here, and support throughout the state and it is something that all Georgians should be proud of.
I'm very humbled to be the state school superintendent of Georgia. But success does not rest on me solely. It does largely as I reflect back the great team we have here, but definitely the great educators and school personnel that we have throughout the state. So, I just want to say thank you for that and just allow me to be a part of this time.