Kathy Cox, the superintendent of schools for Georgia, believes "excellence is not an accident."
She made a name for herself by winning $1 million proving she was smarter than a fifth-grader on a popular television show. And since her election in 2002, Cox has earned complaints and kudos for tackling testing and implementing new curriculum standards and graduation requirements for Georgia.
As she prepares for possible reelection next fall, she remains committed "to be part of the solution"— a promise she made to her students when she entered politics over a decade ago.
When Cox took office as superintendent of schools, her biggest challenge was bringing credibility back to the office following a scandal. Her predecessor, Linda Schrenko, stood accused of diverting some $600,000 in federal education money to her unsuccessful 2002 campaign for governor. She later pled guilty to fraud and money laundering.
"The whole state was splintered," says Cox. "There was no coordination between districts. We were supposed to implement No Child Left Behind, but no one knew what the program would look like. We had to get testing right. There was a disconnect between what was taught and what was tested by the state—the two weren't aligned. Plus, we had to bring teaching up to 21st-century standards."
Who Is Kathy Cox?
Although she isn't a Georgia native, Cox comes from a long line of Georgia educators. "My family includes a lot of teachers, preachers and salesmen," she says. "Being an elected education official put it all together for me."
Cox earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from Emory University. Married to John Cox for 23 years, they have two teenage sons. In 1987, she began teaching American government and world history at Fayette County High School. Then, in 1999, she dove into politics, in part because she wanted to change the low opinion students had of politicians.
Between 1999 and 2003, she served in the Georgia House of Representatives. She also wanted to bring the voice of teachers, parents and students to the legislature. As a representative, Cox served on the education committee, the health and ecology committee, and the industry committee.
Then in 2001, when no other Republican candidate with education experience emerged, she ran for state superintendent of schools. As one of only 11 independently elected chief state school officers in the nation, Cox heads the Georgia Department of Education and reports directly to the governor, Sonny Perdue.
She also serves as the chief executive officer for the state board of education, which is composed of 13 members, each representing one of Georgia's federal congressional districts, and which is a division of the education department. One requirement of her job is to visit schools, and when she does, she often teaches a class. "I spent 15 years in the classroom, and I miss being with the kids," Cox says. "I get my energy from being around young people."
Morgan County Board of Education member Dave Belton cites her achievements: Georgia is 15th in the nation in AP scores, and ninth in the nation for seniors who passed at least one AP exam. Moreover, 42 percent more Georgia seniors took the AP exam in 2008 than in 2003, and 38 percent more passed.
Even more impressive, says Belton, was that 22 percent of these Georgians were African-American, and their pass rate was third-best in the nation—triple the national average and double what it was five years ago. And in 2008, the graduation rate was higher in the state—78 percent—than it had ever been. "The improvement in our graduation rate is happening across the board for all students in every subgroup," Cox says.
"We still have a lot of work to do, but we are making steady progress by focusing on what works for all students." Cox has also brought more focused and rigorous curriculum changes to the state, and she looks forward to realizing more gains, like the recent rise in ACT scores. In 2008, Georgia's ACT scores boosted the state's national ranking to 41st, up from 47th in 2002.
Effective Teachers, Academics
Cox's success lies in part in her energy to meet various goals. Last year, Cox's office reported that Georgia students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed significant improvement in eighth-grade math. In part, the success could be attributed to her push for effective teachers.
Early in her role as superintendent, in 2003, Cox said "all of the laws, policies and rules in the world won't make a difference unless we have an effective teacher in every classroom. Towards that end, we must dramatically improve our ability to recruit, train, and retain the best and brightest teachers and thus ensure that a quality instructor is in every classroom across the state."
That same year, Georgia's NAEP score of 270 was six points lower than the national average. But six years later, in 2009, Georgia's eighth-graders scored 278, up three points from 2007 and just four points behind the national average of 282. Cox helped bring more focused and rigorous curriculum changes to the state, and views the increased scores as "evidence that Georgia Performance Standards are helping our students be more competitive at the national level."
She is confident this is "just the beginning of the gains our students will show on national tests as our new curriculum takes hold." Cox's office rewrote all K12 standards in English, math, language arts and social studies to align with testing. She realized that getting serious about math would require an even more serious investment.
In 2008, 14 percent of all Georgia math teachers were not fully certified, according to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. To remedy the situation, Cox established a task force, and in 2009, the Georgia legislature voted to increase the starting pay for new secondary school teachers with proper math or science certification to that of a fifth-year teacher—a boost of about $4,500.
"Math is a chronic part of the achievement gap," says Cox. "I am most proud of tackling that issue, especially the issue of low expectations. I wanted to show that, in Georgia, we are as serious about numeracy as we are about literacy."
The Evolution Controversy
For all of her accomplishments in beefing up the curriculum and posting gains in math, Cox's tenure has not lacked critics or controversy. Her 2004 proposal to strike the word "evolution" from the state's textbooks and replace it with "biological changes over time" raised the ire of educators, legislators and even former President Jimmy Carter.
He released a press statement saying,"As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University," Carter wrote, "I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox's attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia's students. There is no need to teach that stars can fall out of the sky and land on a flat Earth in order to defend our religious faith."
During her campaign, Cox had not masked her feelings on the matter of creationism versus evolution and wanted to make sure teachers were well prepared to deal with the controversy. But after a week of public outcry, Cox quickly reversed her stand. Today, evolution is in the curriculum, and Cox says, "If anything, the discussion around evolution gave us an even stronger science curriculum."
She cites the approval of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit think tank that reviewed state curricula in 2006. Georgia received an overall grade of B+. The science review stated, "Life science is done brilliantly. The treatment of evolution is is straightforward, too. It's a peach of a document."
Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader
Cox's enthusiasm and popularity among the state's residents could also be evident in her one-night appearance on the television game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th-Grader, during the 2008 season. Before her debut, she was confident she'd win and had promised her winnings to "enhance the educational experience for students" at three schools: The Georgia Academy for the Blind, the Georgia School for the Deaf and the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf.
She won $1 million by answering the final question: "Who was the longest reigning British monarch?" (Queen Victoria).
But the question of if and when the schools will receive the money has been held up due to bankruptcy claims. Kathy and John Cox are $3.5 million in debt. The bulk of that debt is related to John Cox's home-building business in Fayette County. And now, creditors and lawyers insist that the contract Cox signed with Fox TV says the money is hers, and they are seeking their share of the prize money to help repay the debt. "I have made it clear that I went on television as the state superintendent of schools and always intended to give the money to the state schools," Cox says.
She is determined to see all of the money being used at the three schools. And state officials have vowed to fight for the money. The question still remains if it will affect Cox's bid for re-election.
Virtual Tech Counts
An early advocate for the Georgia Virtual School (GAVS), which makes rigorous courses available online to all students in Georgia, Cox believes "technology is a key component to improving education and preparing Georgia's students to be competitive in the 21st century."
In 2005, Gov. Perdue signed GAVS into law in part as a way of leveling the playing field for students across the state. More than 6,000 students have received high-school credit since 2005 through the program. It is particularly valuable for students unable to attend school traditionally, and it can enable them to graduate on time. GAVS, which will cost the state $5.2 million this fiscal year, offers 21 Advanced Placement courses, a half-dozen languages (including Chinese and Japanese), and a credit recovery program, which was established in 2007. A total of 127 GAVS courses are offered online.
"Our main purpose," says Pat Blenke, Georgia's interim director of virtual learning, "is to provide access to courses. A smaller school system might not have enough students or a teacher for calculus or German." Belton of the Morgan County Board of Education is pleased with technology advancements made under Cox's administration.
"Thanks to our challenging AP and IB curriculums, 25 percent more seniors took at least one college-level course, and 30 percent more passed them than both the state and the nation. One in five of our sophomores are taking and passing AP classes through GAVS," he says.
Kudos for Cox
Forsyth County Superintendent Buster Evans, who served as a state superintendent for 13 years, says Cox increased the rigor of Georgia's performance standards and created an assessment program that matches the state curriculum. "Superintendent Cox has taken on some significant challenges and made some fantastic achievements over the past eight years," he says. "She has done an overwhelming job with the performance standards, which are fueling the increases we are seeing."
He noted Georgia's high school graduation rates. "There is room to grow, but from where we started, there is at least a 10 to 15 percent increase," he says. "Plus, like the rest of country, we have experienced austerity reductions for the entire time she has been in office, so she has had to accomplish her goals without a full complement of funding.
Evans applauds Cox for the faster turnaround of data from curriculum-based assessments and pushing for training at 180 school districts. "We're getting more timely feedback so students can get remedial education during their current school year," he says. "Cox recognized that Georgia needed an assessment program that matched the state's curriculum."
Another of Cox's strengths that Evans cites is her accessibility. "She recognizes the importance of making herself available to educators across the state. That is not an easy thing to do," he adds. "She visits and teaches at schools across Georgia to demonstrate her background and her belief in what makes a difference in web text
student learning. "There are disparate needs across Georgia, and Cox understands the needs of both ends of the spectrum—from highachieving, affluent districts to low-tax-base districts," he concludes.
Despite her public problems, Cox is running for re-election in November. However, five other candidates, including three Democrats and two other Republicans, are vying for her slot. One of her challengers is Roger Hines, a 42-year teaching veteran with two terms of experience in the state House of Representatives. Hines' motto is "We can do better."
As he explains, "Georgia is still 46th in many areas. We have not moved." Hines wants to improve the teaching climate. He says, "Teachers are weary from things that keep them from teaching. They want more time for instruction, more freedom; let my teachers teach."
Along with other critics, Hines takes issue with the touted graduation rate, which he says is closer to 70 percent. There is a 16 percent gap between state and independent calculations, ranging from 56 percent to 72 percent, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.
But Cox believes she has accomplished much, despite the challenges. "I have lived up to my promise to my students to be part of the solution. It's a tough job," Cox says, acknowledging that it may never be possible to please every citizen. "It's like asking someone about Congress. If you ask, 'Do you think they're doing a good job?' everyone says no. But if you ask about their own congressmen, they will say, 'They're doing a great job.' It's the same phenomenon." People might have a negative opinion of schools in general, but they are generally happy with their schools' performance, she says.
"Lack of knowledge about the big picture is my biggest enemy," she says. "Education isn't about instant gratification. "We have moved, but there is more to do," says Cox. "I am proud of our public education system. And we don't give it enough credit."
Stephanie Johns is a freelance writer based in Mountain Lakes, N.J.