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Lessons in Education from South Carolina?

Publication Date: 2011-02-08

This is from Daily Censored, Feb. 8, 2011.

Paul Thomas offers important research-based commentary at Living & Learning in Poverty. The site is "dedicated to storing and exploring all available research and resources related to poverty as it impacts the lives of children and the learning of children." No education issue could be more important.


My home state of South Carolina has achieved a regrettable pop-culture status as the focus of recurring jokes on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. But as I discussed in a scholarly piece in the late 1990s, criticism of SC is not uncommon; in fact, part of my discussion over a decade ago centered on candidates for governor from both major parties running their campaigns (and posting billboards) proclaiming SC as 50th in education.

Recently, SC has received a scholarly ribbing as a report coming from the South Carolina Policy Council Education Foundation received one of the National Education Policy Center's 2010 Bunkum Awards (The "Magic Potion" Award) "for the most fatuous cause-and-effect claim. The claim is that school choice will miraculously (our word, not theirs) decrease the unemployment problem of five poor, rural South Carolina counties. Reading this report, one feels transported to an old-time traveling medicine show peddling magic potions."

So the irony of my point here--the lessons in education SC can offer our nation--is not lost on me. However, I believe in the wake of President Obama's and Secretary Duncan's education agenda focusing on teacher quality and more accountability, the "manifesto" by major school leaders published in The Washington Post, and the media blitz including and surrounding Waiting for "Superman," SC's thirty-year pursuit of educational reform is the ideal context for examining where we should go and where we are currently making serious mistakes in education reform.

Also, as SC faces yet another year of economic hardships that jeopardize education funding, our political leaders are considering shifting teacher pay to a merit-based system despite evidence that such policies are unfair and seem poised to commit more funds to charter schools also despite evidence that charter schools are questionable investments.

First, one of the most powerful elements of the current debate over education reform is the charge against teachers unions. South Carolina, though, is a non-union state; teachers do not work under union contracts and do not have tenure. As well, union membership is low and even muted throughout the state. While union representatives do lobby in the state, we can start this discussion with the fair claim that SC’s educational system and reform have existed primarily outside union influence.

Next, SC represents one of the states leading the accountability reform movement spurred by A Nation at Risk in 1983. In fact, I started my teaching career under the sweeping education accountability reform promoted by then Governor and future Secretary of Education Richard Riley, a sincere and highly regarded champion of public education throughout his long public career.

With both of those conditions as our foundation, let’s consider what educational reforms SC has pursued and what those policies have produced both for SC and as a lens for viewing calls for reform coming from Duncan and the new reformers-- Gates, Rhee, and a growing group of celebrities who have adopted education as their cause.

â€Â˘ SC has historically characterized itself and been characterized from the outside as ranking last, or near the bottom, of education throughout the nation. Part of that ranking rests on the flawed practice of ranking states by SAT averages. As a result of the charges of “last in education,” SC has pursued three decades of accountability, standards, and testing (begun nearly two decades before No Child Left Behind) along with implementing education policy and funding that support increasing the number of students taking the SAT and providing in the schools extensive SAT preparation coursework and technology/software.

  • SC has also stood at the leading edge in terms of teacher quality with several phases of state-wide teacher assessment/evaluation programs and one of the most aggressive campaigns for teachers to achieve National Board Certification, including the state providing fee reimbursement for the board certification process and rewarding board certified teachers with a yearly supplement of $7500.


  • As reflected in a court case and resulting documentary, Corridor of Shame, SC has wrestled with pockets of poverty impacting negatively schools across the state, particularly along the I-95 corridor. Again, SC has been proactive by creating several programs offering teachers incentives to teach in high-poverty schools; concurrently, the state has implemented an aggressive accountability system, identifying schools quality through report cards and intervening where reform appeared ineffective.


  • While SC has resisted powerful efforts to bring school choice to the state, SC’s largest school district has practiced public school choice for many years, presenting a snapshot of choice dynamics, which resulted in greater stratification, pockets of affluence and poverty.


  • And SC has experimented with a number of reforms being championed today: charter schools, single-gender education, on-line schools.


  • Since I have been a public school teacher (eighteen years) and teacher educator (nine years) in SC for almost three decades, I can attest that the people leading these policies and reforms have overwhelmingly been sincere, and while education reform has often been contentious throughout the past thirty years, many bright and dedicated people have worked tirelessly to improve the schools of SC.

    So as SC stood in 2010, what was the result of decades of high accountability? Let me offer a snapshot: A headline from The State (Columbia SC) on 14 September 2010 announced, "SC SAT scores decline."

    And as politicians campaigned for SC elections in November 2010, once again, both parties' candidates for governor and superintendent of education highlighted the failure of SC schools and the need for reform.

    Lesson one from SC: When current voices for reform call for high standards, better tests, and greater accountability, we can say, "Look at SC." When current voices for reform call for focusing on teacher quality, we can say, "Look at SC." When current voices for reform call for an end to control by teachers unions, we can say, "Look at SC."

    In fact, we can say that the political and corporate claims of crisis are misguided and misleading because we have a long history of such claims that were exposed and confronted a decade ago before the most recent cycle of high accountability driven by George W. Bush and perpetuated by Obama.

    But this is not the most important lesson--although it is a sweeping rejection of the dominant arguments today--because we should recognize at least two other lessons to guide us as we move forward.

    Lesson two from SC: Our public schools, as a generalization, are never the failures we charge, never suffering from the "crisis" label we use so carelessly. Educational quality and failures are far more complex than we ever acknowledge, and educational hurdles will always exist because our schools are microcosms of our society. Teaching and learning do not exist and can never exist in a social vacuum.

    Which leads to the most important lesson from SC.

    Lesson three from SC: What has been constant over the past three decades of school reform in SC? Let's turn once again to the SAT.

    SC students preparing for and taking the SAT are more affluent than the general population of students, they are enrolled in more challenging courses than the general population of students (including courses designed to teach directly taking the SAT), and as a result of those courses, they are being taught by the most experienced and well qualified teachers throughout the state.

    With all of these advantages, however, the most powerful correlations with SAT scores in SC (and throughout the nation) are parental income and parental levels of education-- out-of-school factors.[Berliner research]

    The third lesson from SC is that despite thirty years of rigorous educational reform, SC has remained about the tenth or eleventh most impoverished state in the country and has suffered from pockets of affluence and poverty throughout the state that correlate directly with school quality and student achievement as designated by the state's school report cards.

    SC has a message for the nation and for all leaders and people interested in public school reformâ€"one that isn't as soaring as the discourse from our President or Secretary of Education or as dramatic as educational documentaries or episodes of Oprah:

    Education reform must work within a societal acknowledgement and addressing of the influence of poverty on the lives and learning of children in the United States of America as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century with our heads buried, unwilling to face more than one in five children living in poverty in the wealthiest country in the history of civilization.

    Calls for greater accountability, national standards, more rigorous testing, and increased charter school options along with school choice are exposed as political and corporate agendas when examined through the lens of SCâ€"a state marred by not only the plight of historical poverty but also unfair labels and rankings created by our leaders who want to mask their culpability for social inequity by demonizing schools, teachers, and children.


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