Monday, March 5, 2012

EOC: Goals 2020 in jeopardy without 'new sense of urgency'

An opinion-editorial was published in the Charleston Post & Courier on Friday by Barbara Hairfield, social studies curriculum specialist and Teaching American History Grant Project director for the Charleston County School District.

Hairfield is also vice chair of the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, which makes her the highest ranking educator on that body, as state law prohibits the Education Oversight Committee from being chaired by an educator.

That simple fact tells a great deal about how lawmakers view public education -- and educators -- in South Carolina, and it provides appropriate context for Hairfield's column.

She begins by ringing an alarm.

In mid-February, the state received an urgent wake-up call when the S.C. Education Oversight Committee (EOC) released the annual progress report on its 2020 Vision.

One reason why local news broadcasts didn't lead with this "urgent wake-up call" in mid-February and since then may be that an urgent wake-up call is delivered to South Carolina's people three or four times a year, or more, on the same topics. Urgent wake-up calls have been issued by education authorities for generations, and the responses to them have been so uniformly apathetic that it hardly warrants a press release to mark each new warning.

Why is this? Let's go back to the start: Lawmakers tell us precisely where public education ranks among their priorities when they establish business representatives as chairs of the state's highest authority overseeing standards and accountability.

And when they build a state budget by lining up their priorities first, including corporate tax breaks, then backing public education into the budget using whatever revenue is left over, dividing that revenue by the number of public schoolchildren, and calling that the base student cost.

When lawmakers makes public education policy and funding their last budget priority, their attitudes toward it spread out across the land like butter on a hot stove.

In its 2020 Vision, the EOC has set targets in four key areas--reading proficiency, graduation rates, workforce readiness, and at-risk schools--to ensure that by the year 2020, South Carolina students will have the knowledge and skills to compete in the global economy.

Remember Goals 2000, the initiative kicked off by former President George Bush -- the original one, without any initials -- at a conference chaired by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, convened in 1990 at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville? Then, the objective was to meet various education standards nationwide by the year 2000. Bush invested some money in it during his term; Clinton invested some more money in it during his two terms.

But we didn't meet those goals. We all got caught up in one side of the equation -- standards and accountability -- but we neglected the other side: ensuring that every child had opportunities to learn in small classes, with qualified and committed teachers, in safe and secure environments for teaching and learning. Doing both cost too much money; we only chose to afford the standards and accountability, so Goals 2000 went by the wayside.

When Bush's son, George W., took the presidency in 2000, he established a whole new set of goals, based on standards and accountability, and using punishment rather than investment to improve the quality of education. Under his scheme, known as No Child Left Behind, he declared that every child would be proficient by 2014. Oops.

Well, that never was going to happen from the start, but it made a great slogan, and it went a long way toward accomplishing Bush's ultimate goal, dismantling public education and privatizing it, moving public services into the private sector where public dollars could pump up private profits.

Now, as even South Carolina has applied for a waiver to get around the mandates of NCLB and its 2014 deadlines, we've conjured up a whole new program: the 2020 Vision.

Prediction: By 2020, we will have declared this initiative unaccomplished, and we'll draft some new set of goals or objectives with 2025 in the title, or 2030, or 2040, or 2050.

Why? Because, like Uncle Albert said, if you keep doing the same things, you keep getting the same results. Want different results? Do different things.

The things to do aren't rocket science. But they do cost a lot of money, and they do include shrinking class sizes, and they do involve getting private sector profiteering out of public education, and they do involve empowering education professionals to do their jobs.

And, like a lot of states, South Carolina is nowhere near ready to do these things.

So, we have reports like this one from EOC vice chair Hairfield:

The stark data from the report revealed that South Carolina is not making measurable progress in many educational areas. Pockets of excellence do exist, but the state as a whole is static. Simply put, South Carolina is not going to meet the educational goals set for the year 2020 if the state does not set the stage for dramatic and sustained improvement.

All South Carolinians need a new sense of urgency about this limited progress. With a renewed commitment and a laser-like focus on educational improvement, our state must commit the needed resources and take purposeful and strategic action. We cannot afford to be complacent any longer.

Former Governor Dick Riley said the same thing in 1977. It took him eight years to pass an additional one-cent sales tax to support education initiatives, and within a decade, legislators had figured out ways to supplant their old funding mechanisms with this new one-cent stream alone -- and they stick to that attitude today. What the penny affords is what the penny affords.

New sense of urgency.

When educators have replaced the corporatists and retired businessmen in South Carolina's legislative chambers, there will be no need for a new sense of urgency; there will be results.

In reading proficiency, the goal is that by 2020, 95 percent of all students in grades 3 and 8 will be reading on grade level. Analyzing state and national assessments, South Carolina is not on target to meet this goal. In addition, the percentage of all students who read on grade level actually decreases as students move through school. As reported on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation's report card, South Carolina currently ranks 39th in fourth grade and 38th in eighth grade reading proficiency.

The report also reflects sobering statistics on South Carolina's achievement gaps among students of different ethnicities. For example, 2011 NAEP results for South Carolina's fourth graders show that the number of African-American students reading on grade level trails the number of white students by 30 percent.

South Carolina also is not having dramatic, needed improvements in graduation rates, a second area addressed in the 2020 Vision. This goal is that by 2020, 88.3 percent of students will graduate on time. In 2011, South Carolina schools are still 15 percent below that target, and no demographic group -- white, Hispanic, African American -- will meet this goal if current trends remain.

So, what are state lawmakers willing to invest to achieve these goals?


Workforce readiness is the third 2020 Vision measure.

And why is that? Because the corporate community owns our legislature and its various properties, including the Education Oversight Committee, which by law must be chaired by a businessperson.

Workplace preparation was once the responsibility of the private sector. Get a job in a bottling plant, and you'll be trained in the bottling plant how to do that job. Work in a mill, and the supervisor would demonstrate the task. Then the private sector figured out that if it owned government, it could own public schools, too, and use public schools as its own training program at public expense.

Hence, "Workforce readiness is the third 2020 Vision measure."

The fourth accountability measurement is the number of schools rated "at risk" based on the standards for academic achievement and graduation rates. The goal is that by 2020, no school in South Carolina will be "at risk," but as of 2011, the state still has 69 schools that fall into this category.

The message revealed in the 2020 Vision progress report is a critical one for all South Carolinians. Improving education will take every person in this state stepping up to the plate and sharing in the responsibility.

That statement is true to a degree; it does take every person supporting a system of public education, whether or not they have children enrolled in our schools.

But that statement sidesteps a major issue that can be resolved by restating it thusly: "Improving education will take the necessary and unprecedented commitment of our lawmakers to make public education their first and highest budget priority, and to empower education professionals, through policy and resource allocation, to govern and deliver our system of public education for the benefit of every child."

Hairfield understands this intuitively, and she says so:

As an educator, I ask other educators to recognize that we cannot rectify this dire situation alone. True educational transformation will require all of us -- educators, parents, students, business and elected leaders -- working together to achieve educational excellence.

But as vice chair of the state's authority overseeing standards and accountability for the legislature and its corporate owners, she can only go so far.

What's left is a plea for help.

We face a large challenge, but rising to meet the challenge is the right thing to do for South Carolina's children and our state's economic prosperity. Now is the time for us to renew the promise of providing all children in South Carolina with a world-class education, so that our state and citizens can succeed in the global economy.

Educators, I suggest, are at the table. Fewer of them than necessary, overburdened and underappreciated, but present, willing, and waiting for those with power to show up.

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