Failing to learn the lessons of success

On July 12, the South Carolina Board of Education decided to maintain the status quo at seven low-performing schools around the state, likely ensuring yet another school year marked by low achievement rates. The state board voted against a takeover or instituting any meaningful reforms of these chronically failing schools, abdicating its responsibility to ensure the best education for hundreds of children.

What these schools require are fundamental changes in school governance.

South Carolina is not alone in refusing to take bold action and intervene in lousy schools but its continual resistance to school-governance reform in the face of persistent low achievement indicates that a new model is needed in the Palmetto State.

The state school board did approve school improvement plans that include teacher evaluation (including, but not limited to, tying teacher employment and pay scales to student performance) and the consolidation and reorganization of schools. But these plans are merely a tweak to the status quo. The seven schools they apply to need more than tweaks—each received an “at-risk” grade for at least eight consecutive years. What they require are fundamental changes in school governance. Even members of the state board who voted for these reforms expressed doubt that those in charge will have much success turning these schools around: Member Barbara Clarke stated, “Yes, we’re making some gains [in our school report card]. But we’re not making all that much gain for the monies that’s being poured.”

Ms. Clarke need only look to Burke High School in downtown Charleston to prove her point. Threatened with a state takeover in 2006, Burke remained under the control of local school boards and continued its lousy performance despite reform plans. The same school found itself back under the state microscope this July and was let off the hook—again.

Under the Education Accountability Act (EAA) of 1998, the South Carolina School Board has the legal authority to intervene in, and even take over, failing schools. But, as State Superintendent of Education Dr. Mark Zais has said, local communities have “in the past and likely in the future, resisted any initiatives or directives coming out of Columbia.” Those who fight to keep local control need to acknowledge that locally managed reform efforts are not working for schools like Burke. As another board member said, “I’m hearing the same thing right now I heard twenty years ago.”

The model for improvement is there in Louisiana—tested, analyzed, and reviewed. It works.

In response to habitually underperforming schools and inept local school board leadership, Dr. Zais should work to implement a South Carolina version of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD)—and he should do it now. This new governing body for failing schools would differ from the state control that so many oppose in that it would be an independently established organization solely focused on implementing reforms in failing schools—not an extension of the already ineffective state school board. The new leadership would have the authority to turn schools into charters, invest in new teachers, and increase accountability which has been so absent from South Carolina’s school reform efforts. A South Carolina version of the RSD could mean that, like in Louisiana, failing to meet requirements for four straight years would make a school automatically eligible for state intervention. Several South Carolina schools already meet this minimum standard.  

The Bayou State’s reform model under the RSD led to significant improvements in achievement: students in the RSD “outpaced the state in the percentage of students performing at grade level and above,“ for the fifth consecutive year. The RSD has increased accountability, professional development for staff, and teacher evaluations while engaging the broader community in its reform efforts.  Yet at the same time that the RSD has granted renewed hope to the students in Louisiana, students in South Carolina have suffered at the hands of unaccountable schools. Waiting longer to begin instituting reforms will only extend this failure.

School improvement isn’t easy. It demands tough choices, accountability, incentives, and strong leadership—all components that appear to be in short supply in South Carolina. Instead of engaging in half-hearted reforms that even supporters expect to fail and making threats that won’t be acted upon, South Carolina should institute its own version of the RSD, like Tennessee has attempted to do. South Carolina deserves credit for its overall academic performance growth in recent years: In order to maintain that progress, pockets of failure cannot be tolerated. The model for improvement is there in Louisiana—tested, analyzed, and reviewed. It works. South Carolina’s model for failing schools does not and should not be allowed to continue. Dr. Zais has praised the RSD. Now he needs to champion legislative action to create one in South Carolina.

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