Category Archives: The State

“Minimally Adequate” in SC: Funding and Understanding Public Education

At first blush, Robert Ariail’s political cartoon in The State (15 December 2017) warrants praise for unpacking South Carolina’s historical political and judicial negligence in terms of public education:

aria171215_cmykx

Taken at the most basic level, a case for equitably funding all public schools in the state so that all students receive what has become the bar—”minimally adequate”—seems beyond reproach.

However, looking panel-by-panel at the implications and assumptions in Ariail’s cartoon exposes that too often the media and public argument for public school funding are also “minimally adequate.”

First, I want to acknowledge that the political cartoon as a form is a challenge that depends on concision, like poetry and Op-Eds. That concision in visual form works through representation and symbolism.

My concerns here are not with Ariail’s skills as a political cartoonist or his broad intentions (advocacy for equitable school funding), but my recurring criticism is that even the best and most ardent in the media have fundamental misunderstandings about education that mars their efforts to support public education, reform, and funding.

The first panel captures the essential flaw with “minimally adequate” through showing a school house in disrepair. This triggers another sincere but deeply flawed effort to support public schools in SC—The Corridor of Shame documentary that proves to be mostly emotional pandering and itself a vehicle for perpetuating horrible stereotypes and misinformation about public education, children and families in poverty, and the role of teachers in high-quality education.

None the less, panel 1 confronts the current and historical problems with “minimally adequate” funding as that approach remains inequitable across the state, primarily for children of color and the poor. But while fully funding school buildings is neglected in the state, the greatest funding issues remain hiring and retaining high-quality teachers and then insuring that all students have access to small class sizes as well as veteran certified teachers.

Panels 2, 3, and 4 offer a much more complicated and flawed case for funding schools.

First, panel 2 suggests that schools alone produce student quality. The truth is far more complicated since measurable student quality is driven mostly (60%) by out-of-school (OOS) factors—the home and community—with teacher (10-15%) and school quality (20%) constituting a much smaller role that cannot counter the greater OOS influences.

Panel 3 is a popular, but misguided belief that formal schooling and worker quality are directly and causally related; they are not. Gerald Bracey and others have documented for years the myth that so-called educational quality, workforce quality, and the economy are strongly inter-related. Here, the problem is seeing formal education as mostly about preparing workers (instead of the larger call for schools contributing to our democracy) and failing to recognize that worker quality and the economy are much more influenced by public policy than schools.

While SC is negligent about equitable funding of schools, the state is horribly negligent about workers’ rights, creating high-quality and stable jobs, and sustaining a stable economy for all levels of workers—regardless of the education they receive in the first 18-22 years of their lives.

So by panel 4, our entire gaze is on the impact of schools on the lives of everyone; the myth of education as the “great equalizer” is perpetuated by the cartoon—a belief that is fully discredited by the evidence that being white and relatively affluent trump effort (educational attainment) and that the US remains significantly inequitable by race, social class, and gender (again, regardless of education attained).

Ariail is being clever in panels 5 and 6, and the cyclic message of the entire cartoon. I am, however, ultimately troubled by how often even sincere advocates for public education and equitable funding of our schools tend to depend on false and misleading arguments in their advocacy.

The media, especially edujournalism, in fact, are too often both willing and unaware accomplices in the political and judicial negligence in SC and across the US in terms of failing to acknowledge the foundational purpose of universal public education (to create and preserve the democracy) and to advocate for human agency and the broader need for social equity in the state and the country.

It is simultaneously true that states and the country as a whole have failed public education (it has not failed us) and that education will never be the great equalizer or a silver bullet for the entrenched social and political failures of America.

The time is far past due to focus on equitable funding and support for all schools as a social contract with every family and child in every state of the US. But with that, we must also begin to be honest and clear with our advocacy—schools are not now and have never been an institution we can treat as separate from all of society or one that drives the entire society.

Our schools both reflect and perpetuate what matters to the political leadership of the state, but formal education is rarely revolutionary or a change agent since it is a mechanism of the political system.

Schools are being neglected, and then some children are being neglected in SC as they have been for decades; those children and their families are the most vulnerable among us because of racism and extreme poverty, and it is unconscionable that we persist in that negligence.

Sentiment without accuracy ultimately is part of the problem and not a path to the solution.

28 November 2017 Education Reader

I am the teacher South Carolina wants to retain, and I am barely hanging on, Rachel Caulder

Teachers need autonomy. Thankfully, I teach in a school that does not use curriculum alignment documents or strict pacing guides, and my administration values the judgment of teachers within our classrooms. Teachers in districts that are solely focused on numbers are restricted, and students suffer because no allowance is made for differentiation or reteaching for content-mastery. In districts with strict pacing guides, teachers are left with no option but to stay the course — even when they know they are failing their students.

Why do schools use grades that teach nothing? Jonathan Lash

At the college where I serve as president, we do evaluate student work; we just use a higher-quality method. Our students receive written evaluations not only on every assignment, but also for every course and learning activity. These evaluations are designed to be formative teaching tools.

For similar reasons, we completely stopped accepting SAT and ACT for admissions two years ago, after an internal study revealed standardized test scores are poor predictors of student success at Hampshire. We also recognized the bias of standardized tests against low-income students, and the negative influence of standardized testing on education.

A North Carolina Teacher’s Guest Post on His/Her EVAAS Scores

NEPC Review: Tackling Gaps in Access to Strong Teachers: What State Leaders Can Do (The Education Trust, October 2017)

The Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) directs states and districts to identify equity gaps in students’ access to excellent educators and transformative school leaders. States are encouraged to use Title II funds strategically in order to identify and remedy these gaps. A new report from The Education Trust draws on ESSA documents and state teacher equity plans to provide guidance to state leaders, including some sound advice—but with significant omissions. The report does not engage with thorny issues around alternative pathways into teaching, and it largely skirts issues around incentives for supporting teacher recruitment and retention in hard-to-staff schools. The report also does not consider what attracts teachers into the profession and into particular school environments. Likewise, the report fails to draw on the explicit remedies sought by ESSA to link high-quality leadership with strong teacher recruitment and retention. Instead, the report casts the teacher equity problem primarily in terms of labor supply shortages and treats teachers like interchangeable widgets. Relying heavily on advocacy sources, it misses an opportunity to unpack the root causes of the teacher retention problem, particularly the corrosive impact of past federal and state policies on the teaching profession. The report does not help state leaders understand how they might build incentives and cultures that draw strong teachers into high-need schools, and they will thus be left with an incomplete and insufficient set of tools for ensuring that all students have equitable access to excellent educators.

Go public and perish? Supporting the engaged scholar, Jennifer Ditchburn

Despite the fact that university presidents and the people who run university communication departments are only too happy to have their scholars out building a profile, the academic system is not set up to help them connect with the public. Writing a piece for Maclean’s or appearing on CBC’s The National doesn’t count toward tenure or get you a promotion: publish or perish is about peer-reviewed journals and books.

Time for public engagement is not often budgeted into a professor’s employment – scholars do this on top of their personal and academic responsibilities (I always feel a bit sheepish when I approach a busy prof to write something for me). The challenges are arguably tougher for some women in academia, whose pursuit of tenure or awards is already interrupted by maternity leave or childcare responsibilities.

The Missing Link In Student Writing

Judicial Negligence Compounds Political Negligence in South Carolina

Conservative politics as a very thin veneer for racism and class warfare has long characterized the South, including South Carolina, regardless of party affiliation—once Democratic and now the same sort of recalcitrant Republican.

Strom Thurmond personified this ugly fact of my home state—him a brash racist and among the now seemingly endless line of powerful white men who also viewed and treated women as subhuman as well. The current disaster of Roy Moore stands as yet more of that same, embodying a crass blend of political, judicial, and morally bankrupt popular in the South, the Bible Belt.

The twenty-first century, regretfully, has not exorcised these ghosts in the machine, as SC remains nearly a cartoon version of Southern stereotypes.

SC public schools (and public universities, in fact) exist in 2017 as a bold middle finger to everything promised by a democratic nation. But despite the political rhetoric, SC has failed its public schools; public schools have not failed our state, whose political leaders care none at all about poor, black, or brown children being currently (and historically) mis-served by K-12 education.

Political negligence of public schools—or more accurately, negligence of public schools that serve the most vulnerable children and communities in the state—is one of the perverse traditions that defines SC.

That tradition has a willing accomplice in the judicial negligence of the state as well. Cindi Scoppe explains:

In the three years since the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature had to provide a decent education to all children, one justice wrote in this month’s final chapter of the quarter-century-old school adequacy case, “we have had the benefit of seeing the defendants make steady progress toward remedying their failure to provide our state’s children with a minimally adequate education.”

Particularly encouraging, he wrote, is the fact that the state has “recently come to realize that merely pouring more money into an outmoded system will not lead to success.”

Popularized as the Corridor of Shame, political and judicial negligence actually thrives in pockets all over SC, not just along the I-95 corridor that does in many ways bisect the more affluent midlands and upper state from the crippling rural poverty dominating much of the lower state except for pockets of affluence in coastal havens for the wealthy and the riches of tourism.

The conservative ideology driving political negligence has withstood the slow drag of the courts in SC, which has now fallen lockstep into that same sterile argument about “pouring more money into an outmoded system”—as if SC has even flooded public institutions with money.

Political and judicial negligence in SC—a microcosm of the same negligence nationally—remains entrenched in commitments to ideology over evidence, hard truths neither political leadership nor judicial pronouncements will admit.

First, and foremost, one hard truth is that public schools in SC are mostly labeled failures or successes based on the coincidence of what communities and students those schools serve. Schools serving affluent (and mostly white) communities and students are framed as “good” schools while schools serving poor (and often black and brown while also over-serving English language learners and students with special needs) communities and students are framed as “bad” or “failing.”

This political lie is grounded in the three-decades political charade called education reform—a bureaucratic nightmare committed to accountability, standards, and testing as well as a false promise that in-school only reform could somehow overcome the negative consequences of social inequity driven by systemic racism, classism, and sexism.

The ironic and cruel lesson of education reform has been that education is not the great equalizer.

Education reform is nothing more than a conservative political fetish, a gross good-ol’-boy system of lies and deception.

Second, and in most ways secondary, another hard truth is that while education is not the great equalizer, public schooling tends to reflect and then perpetuate the inequities that burden the lives of vulnerable children.

In-school only reform driven by accountability, standards, and testing fails by being both in-school only (no education reform will rise about an absence of social/policy reform that addresses racism and poverty) and mechanisms of inequity themselves.

Affluent and white students are apt to experience a higher quality of formal schooling than black, brown, and poor students, who tend to be tracked early and often into reduced conditions that include test-prep, “basic” courses, and teachers who are early career and often un-/under-certified.

Nested in this hard truth is that much of accountability-based education reform depends on high-stakes standardized testing, which is itself a deeply flawed and biased instrument. Tests allow political negligence since data appear to be objective and scientific; in fact, standardized testing remains race, class, and gender biased.

Like school quality, test scores are mostly a reflection of non-academic factors.

Ultimately, SC’s children and then the state itself are being cheated by a failure to admit hard truths. I agree, then, with the big picture conclusion drawn by Scoppe:

It was never clear to me whether our constitution requires the state to provide a good education to all children, or simply to operate public schools. What was always more than clear was that it is the job of the Legislature to provide an education to every child in this state. And that it is insane — and morally indefensible — not to provide a decent education to all children. What was always more than clear was that it is up to the Legislature not only to provide the funding but also, as Justices Beatty and Toal and Kay Hearn always emphasized, to make sure the districts are organized appropriately and school officials have the right powers and duties and we have the right laws about what is taught and how it is taught and that the problems are corrected when the schools don’t deliver.

This is a moral imperative about children, about human dignity and agency.

Let me end with the ignored but obvious hard truth: Education funding matters, but doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is insanity.

Millions and millions of tax dollars in SC have been squandered on ever-new standards and ever-new tests; where is the political and judicial rhetoric about that? SC for decades now has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on school report card that have accomplished nothing except demonizing schools that happen to serve poor and black/brown children.

SC must seek instead the political will to implement first social policy that addresses the scar of poverty and racism in our state. Concurrent with that, education reform must end its affair with accountability and begin a journey committed to education equity.

Our children deserve more than the accidents of their births, and then, as a people, we owe every child an equitable and challenging education that invites them into an honest attempt at democracy and freedom.

Political and judicial negligence is inexcusable, but remains a SC tradition.

Crass Edupolitics, Failed Mainstream Media in South Carolina

An Op-Ed in The State and Paul Bower’s Charter school advocates shifting gears in South Carolina (The Post and Courier) inadvertently reveal the same message: South Carolina remains mired in crass edupolitics.

StudentsFirst and 50CAN have become SouthCarolinaCAN, but the merging and renaming hasn’t changed a truly ugly fact: these education advocacy groups across the US have no credibility and are created to provide individuals political platforms that benefit the so-called leaders and the pro-privatization forces funding and supporting these constantly morphing organizations.

Yet mainstream media continues to allow these groups and their leaders significant platforms for their misleading propaganda while educators are nearly absent from the public debate.

Crass edupolitical organizations are a sham, but as long as mainstream media continues to shirk their responsibility to support credible sources, it is the media who are at fault here.

Edujournalism has been and continues to be one of the elements contributing to post-truth fake news.

The crass edupolitics infecting SC remains committed to failed policies such as takeover districts, charter schools, and school choice because these organizations and their leaders are not concerned about education, but about their own political agendas.

Since I have addressed these issues repeatedly, I offer here a few posts below:

The Zombie Politics of School Choice: A Reader

Resisting Fatalism in Post-Truth Trumplandia: Charter Schools and the End of Accountability

The Post and Courier: Beware of ‘turnaround’ school districts

The media must choose credibility over press-release journalism if our public institutions, such as public schools, and our democracy has a chance to recover from post-truth fake news.


For Further Reading

‘Fake News’ in America: Homegrown, and Far From New

The State: ACT scores expose state’s unwillingness to act

ACT scores expose state’s unwillingness to act

[original submission posted below before edits]

Education reform in South Carolina suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: New standards and new tests, but the outcomes remain disappointing.

Now, recently released ACT scores serve as the newest reason to panic. As reported in The State: “The latest scores from the ACT college entrance exam suggest that many of this year’s high school graduates aren’t ready for college-level course work.”

SC’s data are troubling: 14% of test-takers not ready for college and the race gap even more alarming (2% of black students met standard on the four sections of the ACT).

SC also appears to compare poorly to the other 20 states requiring all students to take the ACT—notably Tennessee has a similar poverty rate as SC but a higher average ACT score.

However, I urge caution about interpreting ACT scores from one year of data since SC has recently adopted Common Core standards and tests, dropped Common Core, adopted yet new standards, and then chosen the ACT for annual testing.

Thus, my concerns about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores include the following:

  • Scores are depressed due to standards shuffling across the state over the past 3-4 years.
  • ACT tests, like all standardized tests, remain more strongly correlated with race, social class, and gender than the quality of the schools or teachers.
  • One year of data when a new test is adopted is inadequate for drawing hard conclusions.

ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, test scores in the U.S. (notably our residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the most important lesson from this data is that SC has yet to address the equity gap in the lives and education of vulnerable children.

To persist with labels such as the “achievement gap” is to keep our eyes on the outcomes while ignoring the root causes of those outcomes.

SC has spent three decades changing standards, tests, and accountability, but refuses to address directly the race and class inequities facing our state and those same inequities reflected in our schools (both traditional and charter).

Ultimately, I am not trivializing SC’s ACT scores—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I must stress we did not need more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity cheats those black, brown, and poor students, and our obsession with changing standards and tests fails to address the root equity problems reflected in low test scores.

The real failure in education reform lies in the inability of education reformers to do something different beyond accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses problems directly and all of which increases those problems.

Hand wringing over results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation. Therefore, admitting that weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. Instead we need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.

While problematic, recent research suggests that even when schools can raise test scores, those higher scores do not translate into benefits once students enter the real world. In other words, if education is to have real life-long positive consequences, we must confront a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike raising test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.

Instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impact negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need to erase food, health, and work insecurity, and we need to addresses equity of opportunity (access to experienced and certified teachers as well as access to challenging courses and then affordable college)—and not more accountability driven by ever-new standards and tests.

No one needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students. Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity those test scores represent?

The State: South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability

The State: South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability

[original unedited submission below]

Former Governor and Secretary of Education Richard Riley established South Carolina as one of the first states to move education reform to the top of any state’s agenda. That journey for our state is now three decades-plus old, and political leaders, the media, and the public remain unsatisfied with our public schools.

With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era behind us and the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) now returning a great deal of power to states for school reform, The State has called for SC to recommit to accountability, warning: “[R]emoving that oversight provides a tremendous temptation for states to lower the bar. We must not let that happen in South Carolina.”

My entire 34 years as an educator in SC has been during the accountability era in which the state has changed standards and high-stakes tests five or six times each. While I agree with The State’s editorial that the transition from NCLB to ESSA is a great opportunity, I caution about doubling down on accountability.

First, SC political leaders, the media, and the public must finally confront that our public schools are a reflection of the tremendous burden of poverty on children and families in our state. The schools along the Corridor of Shame (the I-95 corridor) as well as other pockets of high poverty across the state present us with a very disturbing lesson that school reform alone has never worked, and will likely never work.

Across the U.S., in fact, accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing has failed in both fifty different experiments and the more recent national effort with Common Core. The quality or even presence of standards and high-stakes tests has never produced higher student achievement or closed the so-called achievement gap between wealthy and poor students or racial minorities and whites.

The greatest education challenge, then, facing our state is addressing poverty and racism in our society so that education reform has a chance to succeed. Without adopting policy that deals directly with stable jobs with adequate pay and benefits, healthcare, childcare, and an equitable criminal justice system, our schools are destined to continue to struggle.

Next, we need to reconsider entirely education reform—not based on accountability but on equity of opportunity.

Labeling and ranking our schools—whether we use more than test scores or not—has been harmful, and it is past time to consider another process. As Bruce Baker, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, and researcher Gerald Bracey have argued often, educational rankings tend to reveal more about conditions outside of the school’s control than about the quality of education. Overwhelmingly in all types of educational rankings the greatest predictor of high or low rankings is wealth or poverty.

However, The State actually hits on a better alternative: “But the focus must remain on the core function of the schools: providing all children in this state the opportunity to receive a decent education, of the sort that will allow them to become self-supporting, productive, taxpaying citizens.”

Equity of opportunity must replace accountability in SC—although this doesn’t mean lowering expectations or absolving schools or teachers from their responsibilities to students and the state.

What I propose is transparency about the opportunities to learn that all students are receiving in the context of social programs that help every student enter the doors of those schools on much more equal footing than they have historically or currently.

Those equitable opportunities must include for all students access to experienced and certified teachers, open door policies for challenging courses and programs (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), and equitably funded schools and facilities across the state. As well, we must end inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes, tracking, and harmful current policies such as third-grade retention based on reading scores.

But grading and ranking schools must end as well.

A hard reality of teaching is that we can never guarantee outcomes; students ultimately, if given the conditions in their lives and schools to succeed, are responsible for learning. Schools and teachers are responsible for making that learning possible.

Accountability has not worked for thirty-plus years. The hard question now is: Have the adults learned that lesson and are they prepared to try something different?

See Also

Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB

The State (Columbia, SC): Entrenched racism drives down SC child-well-being scores

Entrenched racism drives down SC child-well-being scores

[full unedited text below]

Two facts about children and poverty are especially disturbing: children make up about 1/3 of people in the U.S. in poverty, but raising children expands those in poverty to 43%.

For South Carolina, children and poverty present a particularly challenging reality, captured by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2015 Kids Count data book.

Our state has long suffered in the bottom quartile of impoverished states in the U.S., but SC’s 2015 Kids Count profile reveals a grim picture with the state ranking 42nd in the nation in terms of child well-being:

  • SC children’s economic status has mostly worsened from 2008 to 2013 with 290,000 children in poverty, 376,000 children with parents lacking secure employment, and 349, 000 children in households with burdensome housing costs.
  • SC children’s educational opportunities remain inequitable. The percentage of children attending preschool has worsened, and so-called proficiency levels in math and reading have mixed results while high school graduation remains, although improved overall, elusive to those young people most in need of education.
  • Healthcare for SC’s children has improved, but 73,000 children remain without healthcare in the state.
  • SC’s children also face harsh community challenges. 420,000 children live in single-parent homes, an increase from 2008 to 2013, and more children, 161,000, live in high-poverty communities now than a few years ago.

The summer of 2015 has brought an intense spotlight on SC with the racist shooting of nine black citizens gathered in their church. Along with that tragedy, many in the state have continued to claim that we as a people embrace heritage and not hate.

However, political leaders and the public rarely identify the exact and real conditions behind claims of “heritage” and “tradition.” In SC and all across the South, our heritage includes crippling economic inequity and entrenched racism—both of which condemn our children to their ZIP codes, not the content of their character, being their destiny.

In the U.S., despite lingering and false stereotypes of “welfare queens,” 80% of people in poverty are from vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, the disabled, students, and the working poor.

As well, despite educational attainment, racial inequity remains powerful. Even with the same level of education, whites earn more than Hispanics and blacks. And blacks with some college have the same probability of employment as white high school dropouts.

Congressman James E. Clyburn has called for SC both to appreciate the symbolism of removing the Confederate battle flag from state grounds and to commit to substantive policy addressing the great weight of poverty and racism that our state still carries, a weight that is particularly harmful to our children.

Clyburn identifies healthcare and voting rights as policy SC must address, but there are many commitments to the lives of our children we could make to give substance to refrains of “heritage”:

  • Insure, as Clyburn notes, that all children in SC have healthcare from conception until their early 20s.
  • Seek public policy that supports all families with children, focusing on ensuring that having children doesn’t push any family into poverty.
  • Abandon the fruitless education accountability process and replace our school reform efforts with a focus on equity of opportunity: equitable K-12 and higher education funding across the state, equitable teacher assignments for all students, access to high-quality courses for all students, and quality alternatives for anyone to complete high school and college degrees despite age or background with substantial financial support.
  • Create stable and well-paying work for the people of SC that reinforces everyone’s access to healthcare and retirement/savings.
  • Confront directly and comprehensively the reality in SC that the state has enough money, but that our problem is the inequitable distribution of that capital. The infamous Corridor of Shame was not created by our school system, but the education inequity that it reveals is a reflection of the larger socioeconomic injustice across our state.

American novelist and public intellectual James Baldwin confronted Noble Prize winning author William Faulkner in the early years of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. because Faulkner called for patience among blacks in the South.

Baldwin responded with words that should resonate today in SC: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts

[provided below with hyperlinks]

South Carolina has contributed significantly to the thirty-plus years of education accountability begun under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, including former Governor and Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s leadership as well as the high-profile court case over school funding detailed in the documentary Corridor of Shame.

On March 19, PBS turns the education reform spotlight on Hartsville, as co-producer Sam Chaltain explains for The New York Times:

[I]n 2011, …[Hartsville] announced a five-year plan to transform its elementary schools. It partnered with Yale University’s School Development Program, which helps schools identify and meet the developmental needs of children. It began to evaluate its schools by a broader set of measurements – including the number of disciplinary referrals a bus driver had to write each morning. And it started to coordinate its social services to ensure a more equitable set of support structures for Hartsville’s poorest families.

This documentary will again raise issues about the powerful intersection of poverty, race, and education while also offering an opportunity for viewers in SC and across the U.S to evaluate the current commitments to accountability-based reform.

SC is now poised with the in-school transition created by the Common Core debate and the election of the new state Superintendent, Molly Spearman, who appears to have begun with a fresh and positive tone, to change not only how we view our education system but also what we do in the name of reform.

Setting aside partisan politics and accepting that a great deal of education reform in the state has been motivated by the best intensions, what do we now know about our major commitments to policy?

SC has like most states across the U.S. worked through several versions of standards and high-stakes tests, linking those tests to accountability for schools, students, and teachers. That we are set once again to go down the exact same path with the exact same promises that haven’t come to fruition, we should consider that the problem is not about standards and testing. In fact, there is no correlation over the past thirty years between the presence or quality of standards and student achievement or educational equity.

The charter school movement in SC has strong proponents, but we must also admit that, again as we see across the country, charter schools perform about the same as public school, including problems such as re-segregation.

Broadly, the primary list of education reform commitments—teacher evaluations liked to test scores, 3rd-grade retention based on reading tests, for example—has proven ineffective not only in SC but also throughout the U.S.

And this may be why the documentary on Hartsville is so important.

The educational problems of Hartsville are not new to our state; they are the exact reasons high-poverty and majority-minority schools and districts sued the state over funding.

Accountability, standards, testing, charter schools, and the like have not erased the shame of the I-95 corridor, but those commitments have shuffled a tremendous number of students and funding that could have been better served and used to confront what the Hartsville community appears to accept, as Chaltain explains:

Across America, more than 16 million children — slightly more than one in five — now live in poverty. And in communities like Hartsville, the need for a healthier social ecosystem is acute….

This clear connection between the percentage of children living in poverty and a school’s overall ranking is not just a cause for concern. It is also an opportunity to think more holistically about the needs of children.

Since No Child Left Behind, publisher Pearson has made 8 billion dollars annually on education reform, 4 billion of that in the U.S.

That investment, we must also admit, has not paid off for our children, our communities, or our state. If it had, we would not now be creating once again new standards and tests.

SC is a vivid example of both the importance of education and the inability of education alone to change the corrosive influence of poverty and racism.

Hartsville may be a call for expanding education reform beyond the walls of the school, but it is also a call for political leadership to seek new policies while admitting the accountability era has failed.

SC’s Zais Mistake

Public education has been under assault and misrepresented by political leaders, the media, and the public since (at least) the mid-1800’s.

Over the past couple of years, I have documented numerous times the key role mainstream media have played in the failure of accountability-based education reform driven by (ever-new) standards and (ever-new) high-stakes tests. So I am putting aside my skepticism (on the edge of cynicism) about the possibilities afforded by a critical free press, and wondering here if Cindi Scoppe’s (The State, Columbia, SC) Boy, did I ever misjudge this candidate is a sign of a turning point, as she admits:

It seems nearly pointless to kick Education Superintendent Mick Zais on his way out the door, particularly since it seems unlikely that he could actually succeed in his plan to sabotage our state’s education standards — any changes have to be approved by two state boards whose chairmen reject his interpretation of the law.

But the fact is that his parting mission to purge the state education standards of any vestiges of Common Core will waste yet more money and time, and so something needs to be said.

Which is this: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I endorsed Mick Zais in the 2010 general election. I was clearly wrong.

Scoppe offers a rare public apology from the media, but many have pointed out that political educational leadership across the U.S. tends to be inept because we rarely demand expertise and experience in education from those elected and appointed to educational positions (note Arne Duncan as the poster boy for such ineptitude, an appointee-by-connections and not expertise and experience).

Scoppe’s initial endorsement simply failed to start with requiring that a candidate for superintendent of education should have qualifications related to public education (and no one in the media ever asked Zais, a former general, if he would support a military leader with no experience in the military).

This apology must be accepted and supported; however, it also should serve as a foundation upon which we move forward—notably in that Scoppe misrepresents the key and extremely complicated issue at the center of the Zais Mistake, the Common Core.

SC adopted Common Core (a mistake) against the (misguided) wishes of Zais, and then after the Tea Party/libertarian public resistance to Common Core emerged across SC, the state dumped Common Core, which has provided Zais with a parting shot during his lame-duck status.

The Zais Mistake parallels the Common Core mistake in one key way: Both are mistakes of a fundamental nature and not simply about the specific person or set of standards. Electing Zais is no different than appointing Duncan since neither is credible in the field of public education. Adopting Common Core is not a mistake of standards type or quality but a continuation of committing to standards, high-stakes testing, and accountability that have never worked and never will because the essential problems of education in SC have nothing to do with standards, high-stakes testing, or accountability.

As I have noted numerous times, political leadership ignores the evidence on standards, but we must also admit that the media ignore the evidence as well:

  • Hout and Elliott (2011), Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education: Most recent decades of high-stakes accountability reform hasn’t work.
  • French, Guisbond, and Jehlen (2013), Twenty Years after Education Reform: High-stakes accountability in Massachusetts has not worked.
  • Loveless (2012), How Well Are American Students Learning?: “Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Core State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning” (p. 3).
  • Mathis (2012): Existence and/or quality of standards not positively correlated with NAEP or international benchmark test data; “Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ and narrowing of the curriculum” (2 of 5).
  • Whitehurst (2009), Don’t Forget Curriculum: “The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy and high hopes attached to it. There is a rational argument to be made for good content standards being a precondition for other desirable reforms, but it is currently just that – an argument.”
  • Kohn (2010), Debunking the Case for National Standards: CC nothing new, and has never worked before.
  • Victor Bandeira de Mello, Charles Blankenship, and Don McLaughlin (2009), Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007: Why does research from the USDOE not show high-quality standards result in higher NAEP scores?
  • Horn (2013): “The 2012 NAEP Long-Term Trends are out, and there is a good deal that we may learn from forty years of choking children and teachers with more tests with higher stakes: IT DOESN’T WORK!”

It was slow and painful in being unmasked, but the Zais Mistake is powerful evidence of the folly inherent in partisan politics mixed with a foundational public good, the public school system.

But that is only Step 1 because the Common Core debate is even more evidence of the folly inherent in the standards Marry-Go-Round that distorts the important work that needs to be done about the crippling inequity found in SC and its public schools. SC has a poverty and inequity problem about which no set of standards can address. Standards may somehow create equality, but the evidence clearly shows that standards-based reform cannot and will not address equity.

We need mainstream media to take Step 2 now and call out the entire accountability era for the mistake it is so that we can start an alternative path to education reform based on the pursuit of social and educational equity. And as well end the long era of allowing educational elected positions to be stepping stones for political careers and bloated egos.

The Zais Mistake: A Reader

Test-Based Teacher Evaluation Earns F, Again

Misleading the State of Education: Zais Plays Partisan with School Praise

The Politics of Misinformation in Education Reform

VAMboozled by Empty-Suit Leadership in SC

Open Letter to the Media, Politicians, Reformers, B/Millionaires, and Celebrities

The Bully Politics of Education Reform

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina

The Assault on Public Education in SC Continues: More Innovation!

The Relentless Bully Politics Continues in SC

Don’t Delay Retention Policy, Reject Retention

Argue with Some of the Logic?: The Expertise Gap

The Disturbing State of Education: SC to Follow Template from LA and TN

Janus: God of Politics?

The Teaching Profession?: Of License, Compulsion, and Autonomy

The Tragedy of Education Transformation: Leadership without Expertise

In SC (and across US), don’t jump from NCLB to more of the same

NCLB: Strange Bedfellows Sprung from Opting Out

Columbia, SC: Thomas: Florida offers flawed formula for SC schools | Opinion Columns | The State

Columbia, SC: Thomas: Florida offers flawed formula for SC schools | Opinion Columns | The State.

SC Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, has introduced an education bill modeled on a third-grade retention policy widely promoted by Jeb Bush as one aspect of the larger so-called Florida formula. Superintendent Mick Zais has endorsed the bill as well as suggested implementing similar policies at seventh grade.

SC political leadership must not follow Florida’s lead in reading or grade retention policy for several reasons, including the following: the Florida formula has been thoroughly discredited as a basis for policy, grade retention has no support in the research that shows retention produces mixed positive outcomes along with many negative consequences for children and tax payers, and initiatives such as Just Read, Florida ignore and replace credible literacy policy desperately needed in high-poverty states such as SC.

First, an essential problem with determining whether or not third graders pass or are retained based on high-stakes test scores is the powerful correlation between test scores and out-of-school factors. Increasing the stakes associated with test scores is guaranteed to impact disproportionately and negatively the most high-needs populations currently struggling in SC schools—high-poverty students, minority students, English language learners, and special needs students.

High-stakes test scores in reading are weak evidence of any child’s literacy, and measures such as “on grade level” are equally flawed. Instead of creating a punitive policy, SC needs to move beyond test-based educational practices, especially with our youngest and highest needs students.

Second, SC political leadership and the public must acknowledge that the “Florida Miracle”—like the “Texas Miracle,” the “Harlem Miracle,” and the “Chicago Miracle”—has been discredited as incomplete data, misrepresented accomplishments, or outright failures masked by political advocacy.

Matthew Di Carlo, a fellow at the Shanker Institute, acknowledges some basic gains in reading made by Florida students, but offers a strong caution:

“That said, the available evidence on these policies, at least those for which some solid evidence exists, might be summarized as mixed but leaning toward modestly positive, with important (albeit common) caveats. A few of the reforms may have generated moderate but meaningful increases in test-based performance (with all the limitations that this implies) among the students and schools they affected. In a couple of other cases, there seems to have been little discernible impact on testing outcomes (and/or there is not yet sufficient basis to draw even highly tentative conclusions). It’s a good bet – or at least wishful thinking – that most of the evidence is still to come….Whether we like it or not, real improvements at aggregate levels are almost always slow and incremental. There are no ‘miracles,’ in Florida or anywhere else. The sooner we realize that, and start choosing and judging policies based on attainable expectations that accept the reality of the long haul, the better.”

Third, while the Florida formula is not a credible basis for any state to create new policy, the most disturbing element of the proposal in SC is that all evidence on grade retention reveals only negative consequences for children (academic and emotional) and taxpayers, the public.

While public sentiment leans toward grade retention based on a popular rejection of social promotion, decades of research show that retention and social promotion are academically ineffective while retention also leads to powerful negative consequences for students. Grade retention has only one clear outcome: increasing the likelihood of a student becoming a drop-out.

In a high-poverty state such as SC, test-based grade retention policies based on reading proficiency will guarantee an increase in the negative outcomes currently being experienced by high-poverty minority students. Following the Florida formula will, then, perpetuate and increase the exact problems education reform should be alleviating.

Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center, has detailed that retention fails students and ultimately taxpayers because retention increases drop-out rates:

“1. She may drop out, meaning she will pay about $60,000 less in taxes over her lifetime, be more likely to commit crimes, and be more likely to depend on government assistance; or

“2. She may complete high school, at a cost of an extra year of school – about $10,000. If retention had a substantial payoff, paying for an extra year of school would be worthwhile (although it nationally adds up to billions of dollars each year). But there’s no benefit. With grade retention, we are paying more and getting a worse outcome.”

Instead of following the punitive and ineffective Florida formula, SC reading reform should include low-cost but evidence-based policy changes that include increasing students’ access to books in their homes and schools, supporting students reading by choice for extended periods during the school day, and creating holistic and authentic models for assessing reading.