Thursday, January 5, 2012

Turnout low for Zais's first public meeting on NCLB waivers

Here's one area where the state Superintendent of Education and the Obama administration apparently agree: Both want to be freed from the restrictions of the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind." While Congress dawdles over the law's reauthorization, the Obama administration last year rolled out NCLB waiver options for states that wished to apply for them. Coincidentally, Superintendent Mick Zais has shown that he wants federal authorities to have as little influence -- and oversight -- over South Carolina's schools as possible, so an application for waivers from NCLB is one application that Zais is all too happy to send to Washington.

But, perhaps owing to Zais's lack of credibility on matters pertaining to strengthening and improving public schools, and on his responsiveness to public opinion generally, residents of Darlington reportedly reacted the first of Zais's 21 planned "public comment sessions" with a collective yawn. "About a dozen" attended the meeting, according to reporter Robert Sloan.

Good enough, as Zais himself neglected to attend. The superintendent sent instead his deputy, Charmeka Bosket, who previously worked as Governor Mark Sanford's third education advisor and for the state Chamber of Commerce's political action committee.

Interestingly, Bosket represented her superintendent's motives this way:

“We want to stress and emphasize at the stakeholder meetings that we are not trying to opt out of the No Child Left Behind program,” Bosket said. “We will not lose and federal funds by receiving these waivers. What we will gain is more flexibility to better serve our students. We want to stress that this process will not have a negative impact.”

Message: We like No Child Left Behind; we just want federal dollars without federal requirements.

Instead, Bosket explained, Zais has a better idea: Give schools letter grades according to his own grading system.

Under the Zais' plan, schools and districts would be given letter grades -- A, B, C, D or F -- based on their test scores, graduation rates and several other factors. Improvement in each of these areas and other categories would be recognized.

Just as Zais has never taught students in a public school classroom, I've never treated patients in a hospital. How might medical professionals react if I created, out of my own imagination, a plan to give letter grades to hospitals based on factors like how many patients died in them, and how many were cured of their ailments, and how much it cost to treat each patient? What about if I added a wheelchair-wheel-size criterion in my grading formula?

Indeed, I suspect the Zais Letter Grade Plan will go far with average education professionals across South Carolina. Imagine the size of that gradebook.

At least one of the dozen attendees at the Zais (without Zais) "public comment session" in Darlington was an educator. [Note: It is never a good idea to invite educators to attend public hearings on education issues; they tend to ask pertinent, logical questions and expect good, rational answers.] Sloan writes:

One question asked during the meeting came from a Darlington County teacher who asked about the cost of the program and whether teachers would get the necessary resources and instruction materials to implement the new plan. He cited the state’s present suspension on purchasing new textbooks and asked whether that suspension would be lifted.

“Without the proper resources, it will not help our kids,” he said. “We are being asked to do more and more with less and less.”

Bosket agreed with his assessment on the importance of cost and the need for proper materials in the classrooms. She said the suspension on buying text was driven by the poor economy and said that it is not likely the suspension will be lifted until the economy gets better.

My own translation: Yes, it is an expectation of this state and your elected employers that you will do more and more with less and less. This presentation was not designed to change that expectation, and you should not interpret this information as a proposal to lighten your burden. Do your work, and don't ask for more resources until the economy improves, which will allow more revenues to flow into the public treasury, which will allow lawmakers to give more of those revenues back to corporate entities in the form of tax breaks, incentives and loopholes. Only when corporate income tax is eliminated entirely, and then personal income tax eliminated, and then sales tax dramatically reduced, might we consider investing more of available resources in public schools, if public schools still exist then. We, as a state, cannot afford to invest more in the education of one another's children until that time.

Is there evidence to suggest that this translation is wrong?

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