By one measure, South Carolina's public schools have failed, failed, failed their students. By another measure, South Carolina's schools have surpassed their students' wildest dreams, meeting and exceeding their needs, and guaranteeing them access to higher education and great careers to come.
I wondered, How can both be true? Then I concluded that they both cannot be true; one is an invalid measure.
I'll give you two guesses about which I concluded was an invalid measure, and I'll spot you a really big clue: Many, many, many educators caught onto the game in No Child Left Behind way back in December 2001, when it became law.
The State newspaper, I thought, did a great job in putting the NCLB issue in context:
IT’S SCHOOL TEST results season again, and so again a few basics need to be remembered:
• South Carolina has made far more progress in recent years than most people realize — and considerably more than the professional public-school bashers want us to believe — in improving student achievement.
• We still have a long way to go to provide all children with the education they need to be the productive citizens we need them to be if our state is to become the place we all want it to be.
• The federal law that makes our gains look like regression is deeply flawed and in no way reflects either how far we’ve come or how far we still have to go.
The idea behind the No Child Left Behind law is the same as the idea behind the S.C. Education Accountability Act that predates it: To improve student learning, we must set high expectations for all students and hold not only students but also schools accountable for their performance.
The problem is that the federal law set unrealistic standards that forced states to either manipulate the numbers to give a false impression of success, or else be honest and quickly be labeled abject failures, subjecting the schools to political attack that could undermine public support for public education. The first approach cheats students out of the educational opportunities they deserve; unfortunately, the second approach can do the same. For the most part, South Carolina has maintained its high standards, although the Legislature did succumb to a minor bit of manipulation last year.
But even that minor manipulation wasn’t enough to counter the tyranny of the Lake Wobegon law, which requires increasingly unrealistic improvement each year until it reaches its crescendo in 2014: the statistical impossibility that every student in the nation be “proficient” in math and reading.
Meanwhile, at the same time that principals and teachers were in tears at being called failures by those The State rightly calls "professional public-school bashers," news of a completely different sort came, and it changed the game entirely.
South Carolina high school graduates had a record-setting year for college scholarships, the South Carolina Department of Education announced Wednesday.
The South Carolina Class of 2011 earned around $966 million in scholarships — the most since the state began tracking the information 10 years ago. The figure pushed the state’s five-year scholarship total to more than $4.2 billion.
Which means that educators across South Carolina must have been doing something right -- in fact, a hell of a lot right -- for a lot of years to help South Carolina's high school graduates qualify for so much scholarship money.
Failures? Our graduates' record-setting scholarships seem to say different.
Graduates from Spartanburg, Cherokee and Union county schools collectively earned about $87.1 million in 2011 — nearly $6 million more than the previous year.
Spartanburg County graduates from the seven school districts combined earned about $74.5 million in 2011. Cherokee County students received $8.5 million in scholarships, and Union County graduates earned about $4.1 million.
Among local districts, Spartanburg District 6 graduates earned the most scholarship funding in 2011 with about $19.8 million, and with an increase of nearly $6 million over 2010, also showed the biggest dollar figure growth.
Union County saw the biggest percentage increase in the amount of scholarships earned. Scholarship totals more than tripled in a year’s time, increasing by nearly $3 million.
Charleston, the state's second- largest school district and the biggest in the Lowcountry, reported the most scholarship earnings locally with $47.9 million, a $1.7 million increase from last year. Its students' winnings ranked sixth statewide.
Berkeley and Dorchester 2 school districts ranked 9th and 10th statewide, reporting $29.9 million and $25.5 million, respectively. Berkeley saw a $3.1 million increase from last year, while Dorchester 2 had the biggest jump locally with $4.7 million.
Rural Dorchester 4 reported $2.2 million for Woodland High, its lone high school, representing a $400,000 increase from last year.
Make sure you catch that: Graduates from Dorchester 4's only high school collected $2.2 million in scholarships.
And, while we're here, let's give credit to South Carolina's guidance counselors:
Candy Bates-Quinn, the Charleston County School District's coordinator of school counseling, attributes some of the increase to school counselors who do more than talk to students about personal and social issues.
Counselors also are doing career and academic counseling, and they're doing so sooner than they have in the past, she said. When students and their parents are informed early on about what it takes to get into college, they are more likely to understand the process and apply for scholarships, she said.
"With the (poor) economy, students are seeking out the smaller scholarships and seeing the meaning in them," she said. "I'm excited. We want to try to improve and get more funding (for students)."