Monday, April 23, 2012

Zais re-election campaign visits Orangeburg

I read, then re-read, this article in the Orangeburg Times and Democrat last week, and came to the same conclusion each time: State Superintendent Mick Zais traveled to Orangeburg and told educators he was there to hear about their successes, but delivered news and statistics to them that could only have dampened their spirits.

What message does it send, when educators are invited to give their superintendent good news about the hard work they're doing, and he responds to them with a laundry list of complaints and critiques to illustrate what isn't being accomplished?

Is Mick Zais the best we can do in South Carolina? Have we gone so far around the bend that there's no way back?


Administrators at some local high schools had the chance to sit down and share their triumphs and concerns with S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais last week.

Zais visited Orangeburg Consolidated School District Four on Tuesday. He spent about 45 minutes talking with Principal Jeannie Monson at Carver-Edisto Middle School before taking a tour of the school.

“I want to hear what’s working for you, which actually gives you a chance to brag or celebrate your successes,” Zais said. “I want to understand your concerns and issues and problems.”

Monson cited the use of data, the recruitment of excellent teachers and their professional development as the means of moving Carver-Edisto forward academically. Teachers use benchmarks such as the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards to create notebooks that record student scores and their goals and show what needs to be re-taught to them, she said.

What a great report, to show that data collection is being used by teachers and administrators to diagnose issues and tailor classroom instruction strategies, to demonstrate the value of hiring well-qualified and committed educators, and to emphasize the benefits of great professional development.

Kudos to Principal Monson and to Carver-Edisto Middle School!

But Zais took all that great information and delivered a stinkbomb in its place.

Zais spoke about his educational vision. He said his number one priority is literacy.

Students learn to read from K-4 through the third grade, he said. After that, they read to learn.

“Sadly, in South Carolina, 38 percent of our fourth graders are functionally illiterate,” Zais said.

That’s a significant problem. Students who can’t read can’t learn social studies or science or even math, he said.

Instruction needs to be differentiated if every child is going to be reading on grade level by the fourth grade, Zais said. A child who is struggling with learning to read needs to be with a teacher who knows how to teach struggling readers, he said.

Grouping children on performance level may not be necessary in every academic area, but in certain subjects, it just doesn’t work to put all students in the same classroom and expect them to learn the same material on the same schedule, the education superintendent said.

Tailoring the education to fit each student is important throughout school, according to Zais. Technical education is a viable goal for some students, he said.

“All kids don’t need Algebra II to make a good living and support their family — sometimes statistics might be more valuable,” Zais said. “I think we have an all too common assumption that if you don’t go to a four-year college, you’re going to be a failure.”

Zais also spoke about the value of proper leadership in schools.

“The foremost job of the principal is to recruit, develop, motivate and retain great teachers,” he said. “All the research says effective teachers will stay in high poverty schools if they have effective leadership. If they’re abandoning ship, the leadership is not effective.”

Had Monson not just illustrated the value of an effective leader? Then what was Zais's point?

Or was this just an opportunity to deliver another stump speech in his campaign for re-election? If so, the next three years are going to be long and ugly.

Teachers, principals and superintendents weren't Zais's only targets in Orangeburg. He apparently has problems with Orangeburg's board members, too:

Zais also called for school boards to understand their duties and support their superintendents and principals.

“The board’s job is to hire the superintendent, not run the school district,” he said.

They set policy, but shouldn’t take charge of operations, Zais said. The problem is some boards don’t understand the difference between the two, he said.

He cannot be accused of subtlety, our state superintendent.

What convinces me that this was just a stump speech opportunity for Zais was his reiteration of his last campaign's chief ideological proposals: merit pay, and paying teachers according to student test scores.

Another area Zais addressed was teacher pay.

“We don’t pay our best teachers nearly enough, and we pay our worst teachers far too much,” he said. “I think people should be rewarded for what they do.”

Zais said he’s trying to move the state toward better pay for successful teachers by linking them to student success.

“I have a real problem with where we measure the number of students who make 70 percent or more,” he said.

Students who score above or below that and make real progress are not mapped under today’s standards, and teachers don’t get credit for boosting them up, he said.

Unfortunately, Carver-Edisto wasn't the only school subjected to a visit from our present superintendent.

Zais also visited the Hunter-Kinard-Tyler schools, which have new principals this year. Hezekiah Massey is at the middle/high school, and Francina Gregory is at the elementary school.

Last year, high school students increased HSAP scores by 13 points, and eighth grade students’ scores on the PASS test increased from 11 to 21 percent in every subject area. Their score in social studies went up by 25 percent.

These new principals seem to be very dedicated, very energetic, Zais said.

“Looking at the report cards, they’ve been able to demonstrate pretty significant progress within just one year,” he said.

Obviously, it takes more than a year to turn a school around, but if the principals have the support of the school board and the superintendent, District Four can move forward, he said.

Massey said changing the mind-set of students was the main thing that contributed to the school’s success. It was expecting more of them and teaching them that a “C” or a “D” won’t do when they’re capable of making an “A,” he said.

The school also exposed students to the idea that they can go to college, he said.

“We want to make sure the fact that they may not have come from a family of college graduates — that they may even be the first one in their family to go to college — doesn’t deter them from pursuing the goal of attending a higher education institution,” Massey said.

Superintendent Brenda Turner said the district’s conversation with Zais gave some insight on more creative ways to engage the community in training students to learn to read on grade level by the end of the third grade.

She said it was a conversation about some of the celebrations going on in the school. Zais also talked with both principals at H-K-T about using resources to provide meaningful learning opportunities for all students, she said.

Remember Sammy Davis Jr.?

Remember "The Candy Man Can," his cover of a song from the original Willy Wonka film?

If so, you may remember this lyric:
"Who can take tomorrow, dip it in a dream,
Separate the sorrow, collect up all the cream?
The Candy Man can..."

Our superintendent, Mick Zais, is the opposite of the Candy Man.

Give him good news, and he turns it into bad.

Give him something happy, he'll leave you feeling sad.

Three long years more, folks. Three long years.

Pray the damage can be undone.

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