Three Things to Fix Education in South Carolina
Jon Butzon has spent years working to improve and reform education in South Carolina. He believes that not only should we have great schools but we can have great schools for every child in South Carolina. Here is what he thinks we should do.
There is no point in waltzing around it. K-12 public education in South Carolina is not working.
The 2020 Vision for South Carolina states all students will graduate “with the knowledge and skills necessary to compete successfully in the global economy, participate in a democratic society and contribute positively as members of families and communities.” Assuming our education and political leaders were serious about these goals, we are not even close, especially for disadvantaged children and children of color. It turns out our 2020 Vision is not a vision at all but simply wishful thinking.
Last Spring, our public education system taught fewer than half of all tested students to the minimal state standard in English Language Arts in grades 3 through 8. In Math, our public education system managed to teach 54% of all 3rd graders – but only 54% – to the state standard and fewer than half of all students in grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 to the standard in Math. When these results are broken down demographically, they are even more shameful. Keep in mind these are not standards formulated someplace else and laid on us, nor is this a test that somebody else wrote and told us to take. These are OUR standards, standards which rank nationally in the bottom 20% in rigor, and they are measured by OUR test, and these sorry results are OUR school systems’ sorry results.
Match the 2020 Vision and these results with the “Profile of the South Carolina Graduate” and it becomes clear that we talk a much better game than we play. So, what do we do?
Let’s focus simultaneously on three fundamental areas: talent, model, and accountability.
Talent. Of the three focus areas addressed here, this one is sure to prompt the most ire and fire. But it is, by far, the most important factor in improving the education outcomes of our children.
Academic research shows that the greatest determining factor regarding a student’s academic success within a school is teacher effectiveness. Every student deserves the opportunity to learn from a great teacher. It is the teacher that makes programs, curricula, text books, teaching strategies and school and grade configurations work. An effective teacher makes them work. An ineffective teacher cannot make them work. The data shows us they are not working for most children in South Carolina.
There is evidence that indicates that a quarter of South Carolina’s teachers actually take children backward in terms of academic achievement. Half of our teachers don’t make students any worse, but no better either. Only a quarter of our teachers take kids from wherever they are and improve their level of achievement. That mix cannot work in a state where more than half of our students do not meet even our low standards, or in spite of an 82% graduation rate, less than a quarter of our graduates are ready for college or careers.
The focus on talent cannot stop at the classroom, it must include a laser focus on leadership. There is no such thing as an effective principal in a bad school or an ineffective principal in a good school. The same is true for Superintendents and school districts, and I would argue, school boards.
Model. The model of public education we employ today has its roots in 1840 in the work of Horace Mann. While the trappings and technology of public education have changed over time, especially in technology, the model by which we organize public education and the process by which we deliver education has changed little if at all in the last 175 years. And it is not working. To fuel your thinking on this matter, make yourself a list of the institutions and processes in our country that are essentially the same as they were 175 years ago. Think retail, medicine, transportation. But the vast majority of schools are still a collection of rooms with one teacher and 20 plus children in desks.
The Law of the Hole applies here. If you find yourself in a hole trying to get out, put down the shovel. We need to put down the shovel and pick up new models -plural- for the education of our children. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we always got. We don’t need another minute of the educational outcomes we are getting for most children now, especially but not limited to disadvantaged children and children of color.
Accountability. In school year 2015-2016, the school year that produced the results for South Carolina’s children cited above, the South Carolina Department of Education reported revenues for K-12 public education of more than 8.8BILLION dollars. This does not include money obtained from bonds for construction. I suggest that with fewer than half of all tested students meeting the state standards in ELA and Math, the 3Rs, somebody needs to account for those results given an expenditure of almost NINE BILLION dollars. Presently, we don’t have that kind of accountability for public education. We don’t have any accountability for public education.
The 2015-2016 Accountability Manual, authored and published by the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee (EOC), mentions the word “accountability” just seven times in 51 pages. Five times it appears as part of the title of the document, “Accountability Manual.” Once it appears in the title of the Education Accountability Act (Section 59, Chapter 18 of the SC Code of Laws if you are curious). And once the word accountability is use in identifying some work of the EOC. Nowhere does it say how districts and schools will be held accountable for results where fewer than half our students meet even our puny standards (bottom 20%) for academic achievement in the most basic subjects of ELA and Math.
Our system of public education does not meet our standards for educating our children because we, you and I, don’t require it. And we, you and I, don’t require our elected leaders and policy makers to deliver it. Until that changes, until you and I insist that public education in South Carolina meets the standard implied in the 2020 Vision, we are going to continue to spend BILLIONS for excuses and a fifty-plus percent scrap rate and our children will ultimately pay an even higher price.
Making the necessary improvements in all three of these focus areas will require significant investments. Notice that money is not one of those investments. But key in those investments is courage. Do we have the courage to make the changes in talent, model, and accountability that we have avoided thus far? If we don’t we will continue to make lame excuses, wring our hands and fail. We will continue to be cowards for our children.