Scoppe: TransformSC breaking the mold in education and in politics

Associate EditorSeptember 20, 2013 

— SUPPORTERS say the reason to get excited about TransformSC is the grassroots support it has generated since it was launched in May as a way to, well, to transform our state, by transforming the way children are taught.

And certainly, grassroots engagement is going to be essential if this is to become anything more than just the latest in a never-ending string of smart education initiatives — nearly all of which have gone nowhere.

But honestly, the reason to get excited, and hopeful, about TransformSC is the list of organizations that have signed on: the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, S.C. Association of School Administrators, S.C. School Boards Association, S.C. Education Oversight Committee, the S.C. Teachers Association and the Palmetto Teachers Association, along with state Education Superintendent Mick Zais and an impressive group of individual businesses. It is, says Mike Brenan, a coalition that “I don’t think has ever been together on anything ever before.”

The reason to get excited, beyond all that, is the three people who were sitting around our conference table this week selling the idea:

Jim Reynolds is the evangelist, the man who sold the Legislature on Personal Pathways to Success — and in so doing transformed the way every student in this state is educated, by requiring each one to pick a career focus area that runs through the regular high school curriculum. The heating and air CEO talks passionately about turning the traditional classroom on its head, for instance recounting a tour of a rural N.C. school that has dumped the lecture approach for a project-based model, where kids learn by working in groups to solve real-life problems.

Mr. Brennan is the idea originator, the State Board of Education member who was inspired four years ago when former U.S. Education Secretary and S.C. Gov. Dick Riley told him he needed to stop trying to reform education and instead work to transform it. The bank president likens our current system to a Model T that we need to trade in for “a 700-series BMW with a really nice set of Michelin tires” rather than trying to add modern components.

Pam Lackey is the educator by training who says our education system has done a great job at what it was designed to do, back at the turn of the 20th century; but today we need a new teaching model that produces a “bright, qualified, educated, retrainable workforce.” The president of AT&T in South Carolina told me after our meeting that she sees this as her last opportunity to have a lasting impact on her first love.

What’s so important about these three, beyond their passion, is that Mr. Reynolds is the immediate past chairman of the state Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Brenan is the current chairman and Ms. Lackey is the chair-elect. Which is to say that the very top leadership of one of the state’s most powerful lobbying forces is not only fully and completely onboard but deeply and personally invested.

Not that they’re out to pass laws, which is what powerful lobbying groups generally do. The idea behind TransformSC is to change the culture of education. Not to conduct a revolution but to guide and facilitate an evolution. It’s to assist those schools that already are experimenting with innovative new ways of teaching. It’s to encourage those who want to innovate but have no idea how. It’s to help the transformers and the would-be transformers share information and ideas. It’s to clear away political, regulatory and statutory impediments.

So instead of presenting a grand plan to the Legislature, the group expects to be making what look like modest, discrete proposals, such as this year’s budget proviso that allows schools to use some of their textbook money to purchase ebooks and tablets. On Wednesday, TransformSC will announce the first group of 34 schools that will receive technical expertise, a networking platform and advocacy for any policy changes they need for their innovations.

And maybe that announcement will make this all a lot more concrete. But yes, this really is as squishy as you think it is. Probably more so.

A legislative bypass?

Mr. Reynolds, back in that rural N.C. classroom, describes how teams of students in one math class are told to design a zoo, given the amount of space each animal requires and the total amount of space available. While the group of out-of-state visitors is watching, one student says I don’t understand the geometric formula to calculate this, and another student leans over and says, here, let me show you how to do it. A third student looks up at Mr. Reynolds and says, “I bet when you were in school, you called that cheating.”

And I couldn’t help thinking: Yes, of course, this is the way we learn and collaborate in the business world. But we do this with a certain knowledge base. Someone had to teach the one student about that formula — indeed, had to teach that other student enough that he was able to recognize what he didn’t understand.

As I’m contemplating whether to ask about that, Ms. Lackey notes that “we don’t want to say ‘project-based learning is the way, and here’s a plan for all ninth-graders.’ It’s got to be individualized, not cookie-cutter.”

“We want to make sure what we’re doing doesn’t get co-opted by the Legislature, and they feel like they’ve got to pass a big act,” adds Mr. Brenan, who says legislators keep asking him, “What is that you want from us?” And he keeps saying: “Nothing. Yet.”

You know that cliche about challenge and opportunity? Well, this is where TransformSC will confront that duality.

Not having to rely on the Legislature to direct or even facilitate educational transformation means we might be able to break past the ideological battle that is consuming all the oxygen in the State House and preventing our state from moving forward with common-sense improvements in public education. At the same time, this remains such a legislatively controlled state that it’s hard to imagine how anything significant can happen without legislative involvement.

Or perhaps I should say it’s easy to imagine how anything significant could be stopped by legislators jealous of their prerogatives, determined to put their imprimatur on it.

It’s also easy to imagine the more extreme public-school advocates trying to block anything that involves individualization, for fear that it’s a stalking horse for paying parents to abandon the public schools. It’s equally easy to imagine the private-school “choice” advocates opposing these efforts because they might improve the public schools.

Recall that the people who are determined to divert tax dollars to private-school tuition continuously block bills that require all school districts to provide magnet, single-gender, Montessori or other alternative learning options, lest these efforts shatter the illusion that you can’t get alternative education in the public schools, that choice is limited to the private sector.

Recall also that the reason the rational center supports that legislation is that far too many school districts simply aren’t going to try anything innovative unless they are required to do so. That’s actually the thing that makes me worry most about how successful TransformSC can be.

But that’s a down-the-road problem, one we can always come back and address through some sort of mandate.

For today, let’s be excited that South Carolina’s business elite and our education leaders and a growing number of policy makers are agreed on a smart, forward-thinking vision for making our state smarter. If we can hold that together, we really can transform South Carolina.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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