Tuesday, February 28, 2012

An officer but no gentleman: Zais attacks Inez Tenenbaum

To the best of my memory, former Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum started her career as a classroom teacher, then became a lawyer specializing in children's advocacy, then was elected superintendent of education in 1998 and was re-elected in 2002.

In fact, I believe Tenenbaum was so popular a state superintendent that she collected more votes than anyone else running statewide in 2002, and was the only Democrat elected statewide the year that Mark Sanford defeated Jim Hodges.

I recall hearing Tenenbaum say, time after time, that South Carolina's curriculum standards were already among the highest in the nation before the Bush administration imposed its so-called "No Child Left Behind" on South Carolina and the other 49 states.

And I recall that it wasn't only Tenenbaum saying it, but Education Week magazine consistently ranked South Carolina's standards high.

So I was shocked to learn that the fellow currently occupying the superintendency, Mick Zais, has unleashed a scorched-earth attack on Tenenbaum on the very subject that Tenenbaum was strongest: High standards.

Zais's new attack against a predecessor -- and, by the way, the woman who presently serves the nation as Consumer Product Safety Commissioner, ensuring that consumer products are manufactured to higher safety standards -- came as part of a diatribe against U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Now, just to review, during the same period of time that Tenenbaum was a classroom teacher and a lawyer specializing in children's advocacy, Zais collected an engineering degree from West Point Academy, masters and doctorate degrees in social psychology and organizational behavior from the University of Washington, and other degrees from military training programs, and served in a variety of Army commands on bases around the world.

According to his official biography, Zais's total experience in a classroom has been three years as "assistant professor" at West Point Academy, teaching "organizational behavior, leadership, and management consulting" to West Point cadets, not such basic -- and tested -- subjects as language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, et cetera, to South Carolina public schoolchildren.

So, armed with that awareness, here's what I read of Zais's screed to Duncan, in which he lambasted Tenenbaum and her successor, lifelong educator and former Columbia College president Jim Rex.

“Let me be crystal clear: South Carolina’s standards were lowered through an organized effort by former Democratic State Superintendents of Education Inez Tenenbaum and Jim Rex, the State Board of Education, the Education Oversight Committee, and taxpayer-funded education lobby groups. Their intent was to hide the true performance of our schools from students, parents, and taxpayers.”

“The governance of South Carolina’s system of education is too fragmented. Parents and taxpayers don’t need more unaccountable boards in Columbia; they need leaders willing to take principled stands to transform education so every student receives a personalized and customized education, not an inflexible, standardized one. That is my mandate from the voters.”

Zais continued, “Under my proposal for flexibility from certain provisions of No Child Left Behind, South Carolina would implement a new system of accountability that would grade schools from A through F, something every student and parent can understand. The proposal would set high and achievable standards for every student in every school. I look forward to submitting this proposal by February 28 and working with the U.S. Department of Education to gain approval of the State’s waiver request.”

“As State Superintendent of Education, it is my goal to raise standards as new statewide assessments are implemented in the next few years. History has shown, and President Obama’s Administration has confirmed, the education establishment in South Carolina and their lobbyists cannot be trusted.”

Zais concluded, “I call on all students, parents, and taxpayers to hold those responsible for lowering standards to account, and to stand with my allies and me as we work to transform education in South Carolina. Now is the time to put students first. That is my calling; that is my charge to keep.”

Words of an angry man, to be sure.

So the blame for Zais's inability to command a population that never sought to be commanded rests at the feet of Inez Tenenbaum and Jim Rex, whose primary crime was to advocate for South Carolina's public schoolchildren in times when state and federal lawmakers imposed standards and accountability without sufficient resources, through the old Education Accountability Act of 1998 and No Child Left Behind of 2001.

I would suggest -- and I'm surprised that the superintendent, with his degree in social psychology and certainly his awareness of a concept called "projection," wouldn't recognize this -- that he may be projecting his own negative emotion and feelings of incapacity upon his more-popular predecessors who, for all of their imperfections, retained a measure of trust from the state's community of professional educators because all knew that Tenenbaum and Rex had lived, breathed, walked in the shoes of those professions throughout their careers.

Leading troops in Vietnam, Korea, Panama, Kuwait and Kosovo clearly were monumental tasks, worthy of respect and admiration. But here, in quite a different theater of public service, it is conduct unbecoming a state superintendent to lash out at a woman whose service in the same position position ended more than five years ago. What benefit does one gain from attacking her?

I'm not sure -- I suspect that the vast, and let me say again, vast majority of education professionals are not sure -- that a career in military service, capped by a decade presiding over a small private college, really represents a "calling" to lead a state's public education system. Certainly, voters elected one candidate over another, and the office is occupied, but let's not fall off into hyperbole.

Preside over a classroom of seventh-graders who aren't quite as motivated and disciplined as, let's say, West Point cadets for 29 years, and the vast majority of education professionals would likely not flinch when one claims a "calling" and a "charge to keep" in leading public education.

Have the grace to refrain from ad hominem political attacks on predecessors of the opposite party -- as I noticed the good general didn't reach so far back in his anger as to bruise Superintendent Barbara Nielson -- and at the very least, no one would question one's sense of decorum as the executive officer of an agency in the state that birthed the code duello, Wade Hampton and the glistening swoon.

Tough as nails and committed as a prize fighter, Inez Tenenbaum is still a lady, an ever rarer sort in the Haley Age.

And no matter how badly one grinds one's teeth, a gentleman in South Carolina never attacks a lady.

And over her standards.

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