By Glenn Smith, Seanna Adcox, Jennifer Berry Hawes, Paul Bowers and Thad Moore
South Carolinians have spent recent decades lamenting the state of our public school system as test scores continued to plummet. One committee after another has studied the problem, filling shelves with fact-studded reports and recommendations.
None of this has translated into systemic change.
While other Southern states have embarked on ambitious plans to remake their school systems, South Carolina lawmakers have concentrated on patchwork fixes that have done little to drive statewide academic progress.
Our students are graduating without the math, reading and analytical skills they increasingly need in today’s job market. And without qualified workers, experts say it will be difficult to maintain the robust economy South Carolina has worked for generations to build.
Our problems run deep. Our racial and economic divisions have roots in the oppression of slavery and Jim Crow. Our apathy for education solidified in the agrarian and textile economies that sustained us without requiring much schooling for workers. And we’ve spent years shortchanging our obligations to properly fund teacher pay, school maintenance and a host of other needs.
Overcoming these obstacles will take a big-picture approach with comprehensive strategies that challenge the way we approach education. There are no easy fixes or magic bullets. This will involve knitting together a far-reaching plan from a host of smaller solutions, drawing from homegrown initiatives that have shown promise, as well as time-tested programs that have produced results elsewhere.
Success will require strong leadership from our top elected officials, vocal input and backing from the state’s business community, guidance and support from educators, and the participation of an engaged public.
Difficult, yes. But the future of our state’s continued prosperity demands it.
The Post and Courier spent months reviewing reports and studies, examining efforts underway in other states and interviewing hundreds of students, teachers, parents, school administrators, politicians and academics.
Those efforts helped us pinpoint these eight critical areas in need of change and a number of measures that could make a difference.
1. Low expectations
South Carolina has set a low standard for its public schools, pledging to provide a “minimally adequate” education. This offers little impetus to correct historic disparities and enormous achievement gaps.
We could follow other states that have set a higher bar, incorporating language in our constitution to mandate a high-quality education for all. State lawmakers have introduced at least 13 resolutions over the past decade to do just that. But all went nowhere, despite having the backing of key legislative leaders.
Passing such a constitutional amendment would raise expectations, set a higher standard for accountability, and bring South Carolina in line with Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Montana and other states that have made stronger commitments to providing all students with quality educations.
2. Lost teachers
South Carolina has a crippling teacher shortage across most subjects, but particularly in the fields of math, science, social studies and special education. One solution would be to raise teacher pay at least 5 percent, bringing the state in line with the southeastern average, as Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has suggested. To help recruit and retain teachers, the state could also consider:
Adopting a teacher development program pioneered by the University of Texas, which allows college students in the math and science fields to graduate with a teaching certificate, as well. The UTeach program has been credited with greatly expanding the availability of science, technology, engineering and math teachers in 22 participating states. South Carolina is one of only three southern states that hasn’t adopted the program.
Expanding Clemson University’s successful Call Me Mister program, which provides tuition assistance and mentoring guidance to aspiring teachers from diverse backgrounds, especially black men educated in the state’s lowest-performing districts. From 2004 to last year, the program graduated about 240 teachers, all of whom landed jobs. About 90 percent remain in South Carolina classrooms.
“It’s proven that growing your own works,” said Roy Jones, a Clemson professor who directs the program. “Once given that opportunity, they stick and stay.”
Spreading a University of South Carolina program that provides three years of mentoring and hands-on assistance to its teaching graduates to help them acclimate to the classroom environment. The program is currently small, with 70 participants. But USC education dean Jon Pedersen sees room to grow. He estimates that retaining just 25 percent of the teachers who quit would reduce the state’s shortage by 1,000 and save as much as $12 million spent on training new instructors.
Exploring a similar statewide effort in Louisiana that pairs novice teachers with veterans for year-long residencies in which they learn how to navigate curriculum and the reality of leading a classroom.
“It’s akin to the way we prepare physicians, architects and engineers,” said Hannah Dietsch, an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education.
3. Small thinking
South Carolina lacks a cohesive strategy for improving its schools, instead relying on a hodgepodge of quick fixes and short-term programs that have sown confusion while yielding few appreciable gains. Other states have employed more methodical, comprehensive, data-driven approaches to enacting change. They include:
Kentucky, which passed a massive reform act in 1990 to overhaul its flagging school system. The act changed the way the state designed, delivered, governed and financed education. There have been challenges and misses along the way, but the top-to-bottom overhaul succeeded in moving the state from a 48th in the nation ranking in 1990 to 33rd in 2011, according to a University of Kentucky study. More recently, the Bluegrass State ranked 24th in the nation in the pre-K-12 education category of U.S. News & World Report’s 2018 ranking of states.
Tennessee, which hiked teacher pay, tried new approachesto improving its lowest-performing schools and raised its academic standards, which lagged far behind national benchmarks. As a result, Tennessee’s math and reading proficiency standards rose from an F grade in 2009 to an A in 2017, according to an Education Next study.
Louisiana, which has embarked on a sweeping plan to remake its school system centered around curriculum-driven reforms that teachers helped draft. The state worked to boost early childhood learning, better prepare teachers for the classroom and raise academic standards. This effort has drawn national interest and some promising early results, including a highest-in-the-nation growth rate for 4th graders in reading in 2015.
The key to success is having a well-coordinated strategy and buy-in from everyone involved in the process, experts said.
“It’s really about getting folks at each level of the education system to think about what they control and make sure that whatever they are doing is in the interests of the students, particularly historically underserved students,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, a policy director with the nonprofit Education Trust. “More resources always help, but it’s not always about getting more resources. It’s also about how they are used.”
4. Uneven access
Students in rural and inner-city schools often lack access to high-quality instructors who are leery of working in under-performing schools or lured away by wealthier districts that can pay more. Changing that dynamic could include:
A program that the Dallas school district uses to evaluate teachers across a range of performance data, including test scores, student surveys and professional evaluations. Those rated most effective move quickly up the pay scale. Those who score poorly get mentoring and smaller raises. Top performers can then earn stipends of up to $12,000 to teach at the lowest-performing schools. The approach costs more, but it has led to a higher than 90 percent retention rate for the best teachers, a more equitable sharing of teachers throughout the district and a boost in performance for low-achieving schools, district officials said.
Some 43 Dallas schools were on the state’s needs-improvement list when the program started. That number has since been cut to four, said Suzy Smith, a manager in the Dallas teacher evaluation system. The program has now been adopted by other districts in Texas, with talk of taking it statewide.
For such an approach to work in South Carolina, however, education leaders would need to take a lesson from Charleston County’s discarded “Bridge” program for merit-based pay increases, which spent millions of dollars on teacher evaluators and coaches while providing little in the way of raises for affected teachers.
Greater use of “telepresencing,” a video conferencing tool that allows students to interact with acclaimed instructors and other notable speakers throughout the world. The Charles County school district in Maryland has made extensive use of the technology, creating theaters in its schools where classes have conversed with a Native American chief, a scientist in Africa working on the Ebola epidemic and a pathologist conducting an autopsy, among others.
“It’s really valuable from a teaching standpoint for them to hear about interesting stories that are happening right now from the people who are living through it,” said Kevin Barry, a geography teacher at Maryland’s La Plata High School who uses the technology regularly.
5. Accepted failure
Many low-income and low-performing schools continue to lose students and post dismal test scores despite turnaround efforts, trapping the remaining students in a cycle of low expectations and poor outcomes. Some schools struggle to provide basic offerings as achievement gaps widen.
Adopt Tennessee’s “Innovation Zones” program, a concentrated effort to improve the state’s lowest-performing schools. The program yielded significant and sustainable changes in reading, math and science scores over a 5-year period between 2012 and 2017, an independent study found. Among other things, iZone schools added an extra hour to the school day and provided intensive leadership training to principals, concentrating on homegrown talent who understood the district and its needs. A support team monitors progress, and coaches help teachers stay on track. Principals have greater leeway to work with teachers to develop plans and approaches that work for each school.
“The No. 1 driver is the leadership,” said Antonio Burt, chief academic officer for schools in Shelby County, which includes Memphis. “They knew how to take the additional hour and get creative with the schedule to make sure it was time used effectively.”
Expand the successful model employed by Meeting Street Schools at its Charleston campus and at two struggling North Charleston public schools that serve predominantly black and low-income students. Using an infusion of private money, Meeting Street placed two teachers in each classroom, extended the school day and year, hired in-house therapists and social workers, and raised expectations for student performance.
“It has to start with a culture of excellence inside of a school,” Meeting Street founder Ben Navarro said. “Then you build off of that.“
Explore adopting an intensive data-driven program used in Massachusetts that examines patterns in teaching and student performance to help districts identify gaps and better pair resources with needs. The system helps pinpoint groups of students who are struggling and why, taking into account disabilities and other factors, as well as the experience level of the teachers involved.
If a group is struggling in math, for instance, evaluators can see whether the students are being taught by someone who is new to the profession, teaching outside a field of expertise or is perhaps a veteran who is more effective in other classes. In another example, a review might show low-income students are twice as likely to be assigned an inexperienced educator than others. That could be an issue, or further examination might show that new teachers are more effective with this group. Assignments can then be made based on what is best for students.
“It’s all very contextual,” said Meagan Comb, the commonwealth’s director of educator effectiveness. “It’s designed to be a flashlight into a district’s potential gaps rather than a hammer from an accountability standpoint.”
6. Widespread segregation
Schools across South Carolina remain locked in a state of de facto racial segregation brought on by several factors, from economic disparities to school choice and the legacy of Jim Crow. Experts and studies say students benefit from greater diversity and integration, but our schools are moving in the opposite direction.
In Charleston County, diversity consultants hired by the school district have recommended redrawing attendance lines to integrate schools, several of which are nearly all-black or all-white. The state could also:
Build upon the strategy used by a Greenville County school aligned with the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, a movement centered on breaking down racial and economic barriers. Lead Academy has a student population that is roughly a third white, a third black and a third Hispanic. Many are underprivileged. Yet the school has a strong record of academic progress, earning a distinction as a Palmetto Gold school of distinction.
The school goes to great lengths to attract students that reflect the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the area, principal Chase Willingham said. They actively recruit from a variety of neighborhoods and work with single moms, homeless families and others to help them enroll and get their children to school each day, whether it’s by paying for buses or having teachers pick them up on their way in. It takes work, but Willingham maintains it gives his students a more rounded educational experience that’s reflected in their grades.
“It really pushes the kids to learn from each other, and I think it offers a richer environment to build from,” he said. “They can go to just about any environment and find ways to interact because of that.”
The concept has support from Andre Perry, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution whose research focuses on race and structural inequality. Diverse-by-design schools could be placed strategically, he said, to attract white and black students where de facto segregation remains intransigent. A new school could attract parents from both to offer a diverse option.
“You’ve got to create voluntary buy-in from parents,” he said.
Learn from Haut Gap Middle School, which went from a mostly black school with a high suspension rate to a thriving, diverse institution by instituting a partial magnet program with more academic rigor. It has black and white students in roughly equal numbers, with strong Hispanic representation, as well.
7. Under-educated workers
South Carolina businesses are struggling to find qualified workers to fill today’s highly skilled jobs. Students are coming up short on math and reading skills, and tests show one in three leaves high school without being career-ready. The state could:
Create a more comprehensive plan for identifying regional job opportunities and ensuring students in all areas have access to classes, internships and other avenues to learn the skills needed for those jobs. In doing so, the state could build upon the offerings of a handful of public high schools around the state that now offer niche career training.
At PALM Charter High School in Myrtle Beach, for instance, students learn welding, engine repairs and other skills needed to work in motorsports. And at Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5’s High School for Health Professions, students learn the foundations of anatomy and biology, getting a head start on nursing or medical school while earning technical college credits.
Start and maintain an executive-level workforce skills cabinet that brings the chiefs of education, labor and economic development together to chart a comprehensive plan for growth and marry skills training to available jobs. Massachusetts has such a cabinet that reports directly to the governor.
“So this goes all the way to the top in order of priority,” according to Keith Westrich, a Massachusetts’ associate commissioner of education. “Everybody in terms of policy is all on the same page from the governor on down.”
Employers are brought to work collaboratively on the cabinet with state officials to find training opportunities and high-level internships in health care, manufacturing, life sciences, technology and other sectors. To date, more than $24 million in workforce skills grants have been awarded to 63 different institutions, impacting more than 7,100 students per year, according to Massachusetts officials.
Expand participation with New Tech Network, a national nonprofit that became a pioneer in the educational trend of “project-based learning” and technology integration in the classroom. New Tech currently works with 11 South Carolina schools to create problem-solvers and collaborators who can succeed in the contemporary workforce. A number of case studies have suggested New Tech programs can improve academic results. Among the schools participating in the network is Burke High, a predominantly black high school in Charleston that has struggled in recent years to produce students who are ready for college or the workforce.
8. Broken promises
South Carolina lawmakers have consistently shortchanged their own mandates on education, stripping away money they had pledged for classroom needs, expanded kindergarten, new school buses, teacher pay and a host of other initiatives.
Money is always in short supply for state needs. But the Legislature could start meeting its education obligations by funding the initiatives it has already prescribed by law. For example, the state came up $500 million short this year on money it is required by law to spend to provide students a basic education. The state also lags behind the standards lawmakers set for teacher pay, which ranks 46th in the nation when it comes to starting salaries.
There is general agreement among lawmakers that the state needs to retool the 1977 law that sets spending on students’ basic education needs — a law that has grown so complicated that most legislators no longer understand how it works. Not only is the Legislature off the mark on its spending targets, those distributions were designed to cover the basics of 41 years ago. High-poverty districts in particular insist the system, as it stands, does not meet their needs.
Some GOP lawmakers, including Summerville Sen. Sean Bennett, maintain that the state, which ranks 32nd in per pupil state funding, is putting enough money in the pipeline. They argue that too many controls on spending that money handcuffs districts and stifles innovation. Lawmakers could approve changes that would allow Spearman, the education superintendent, to give more flexibility on spending to districts with a proven track record of sound financial management.