As students return to schools across the state on Tuesday, a nagging question vexes many South Carolinians:
Does South Carolina have the worst educational system in the nation?
Yes, says a U.S. News & World Report study.
Absolutely not, say many educators.
Others suggest South Carolina has pockets of excellence in education but also large areas of low achievement.
What’s the truth?
Melanie Barton, executive director of the state Education Oversight Committee, said the U.S. News report should serve as a wake-up call.
“What the Education Oversight Committee has been trying to do is to take national rankings and say, ‘Where are our challenges? Let’s figure out where we’re not doing well and try to improve that,’” Barton said.
The U.S. News “Best States for Education” study pegged South Carolina as 50th in the nation based equally on the state’s K-12 and higher education systems.
Among the 11 categories measured, South Carolina was ranked poorly in such areas as:
• Preschool enrollment (43rd in the nation).
• Low math and reading scores (40th in the nation).
• College readiness (48th in the nation, based on the ACT, a college readiness exam).
• The two-year college graduation rate (48th in the nation).
• High tuition and fees at South Carolina colleges and universities (43rd in the nation).
One bright spot in the survey: The state tied for 4th best in the nation for pre-K quality.
But the study highlights problems that other reports have identified and that have plagued the state for years: for instance, the state’s high college tuition rate.
South Carolina has the eighth highest tuition rate in the nation but the second lowest per-capita income in the nation, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.
That combination of high tuition and low income puts higher education out of the reach of many young South Carolinians, education advocates have said.
South Carolina state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, however, has sharply criticized the report as unfair.
“Characterizing our state as last is not something that we agree with,” said Spearman’s spokesman, Ryan Brown.
Brown noted that other studies have come to different conclusions. A WalletHub report released in July ranked South Carolina as 35th in the nation in education.
An Education Week study from December placed the state at 37th in the nation.
“As you can tell by viewing the various ranking reports, different organizations use different metrics and weightings that produce a variety of results,” Brown said in an email.
“The accountability system used in South Carolina is very different than that used in California, Massachusetts, or even that of some of our neighboring states,” he said. “Different assessments given to different student populations can drastically change outcomes.”
Spearman blasted the U.S. News analysis during a visit to Greenville in March, drawing attention to programs that reflect positively on the state.
“They didn’t even look at our apprenticeship programs, they didn’t look at career programs,” Spearman said. “We’re leading the country in our apprenticeship program but of course that didn’t get mentioned.”
At the bottom
Barton, however, said that while people may disagree with the conclusions of the U.S. News study, “All of the national data is pointing to us to being at least in the bottom 10 (states in the nation).”
The U.S. News analysis, to its credit, looked at educational statistics at both the K-12 and higher education levels, Barton said. It’s more comprehensive that most other reports on education.
“The US News report goes from childhood to higher education,” Barton said. “It looked at early childhood, K-12 and higher ed.”
The study underscores real problems in the state, such as the shortage of high quality preschool programs, Barton said.
“We need better access and better quality programs, and more parental involvement early on,” Barton said. “In some of our counties, we have only one private daycare center. How can you improve if we have only one private daycare?”
The state needs to invest greater resources in preschool programs, said Brooke T. Culclasure, research director at Furman University’s Center for Education Policy and Leadership at the Riley Institute.
“We support the idea of quality preschool opportunities for students, particularly for children living in poverty who don’t have other preschool opportunities at home or in the private sector,” Culclasure said. “We feel it would make an impact if more children were enrolled in pre-K and there were more investment in pre-K in the public schools, especially in those regions that most need those opportunities.”
At the other end of the education spectrum, South Carolina’s high tuition rates result in enormous student debt, Barton said.
“We have the ninth-highest student loan debt in the nation,” Barton said. “The average level of debt for college graduates is $30,664.”
The personal experiences of many Upstate parents, however, contradict the findings of the U.S. News study, said local parent Lawson Wetli.
Wetli’s son recently graduated from Wade Hampton High School and will major in biochemistry as an honors students at Clemson University.
Her daughter, meanwhile, just finished her 10th grade year and is headed for the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
“My own experience with the public school system here has been universally and tremendously positive,” Wetli said. “My son started out at Blythe Academy in a French immersion program. He was given bilingual instruction in a public school. Of the kids who were in his kindergarten and first-grade class, three are National Merit Scholar finalists.”
Greenville County students have an abundance of educational options in the Upstate, although young people in poorer parts of the state may not be so lucky, Wetli said.
“I do think there are disparities,” she said. “There are educational opportunities here in the Upstate that are clearly giving them (students) a platform for success and achievement. My daughter is about to go to a pubic, residential arts-focused school. These opportunities are incredible but I don’t think they’re universal.”
One measure that weighed down the state’s overall ranking in the U.S. News analysis was South Carolina’s two-year college graduate rate.
The report placed that rate at 48th in the nation.
But the study uses data that have been widely denounced by two-year colleges, said Keith Miller, president of Greenville Technical College.
“It (the two-year college ranking) doesn’t even come close to reflecting reality — not even close,” Miller said.
At Greenville Tech every year, for instance, up to 4,000 students (25 percent of the student body) attend classes for a semester or two and then transfer to a four-year college. Those students count against Greenville Tech’s graduation rate, Miller said, because they don’t actually graduate but rather transfer to a four-year program.
An additional 1,400 high school students who take dual-enrollment courses (college credit classes) may count against Greenville Tech’s graduation rate as well, Miller said.
“The reason they count as a negative is that they’re attending classes but their intent is not to graduate from Greenville Tech,” Miller said. “It’s simply to attend some classes while they’re in high school, so that counts against us.”
The two-year college ranking is based on first-time full-time students, Miller said.
At Greenville Tech, however, 60 percent of students attend classes part-time.
“This data doesn’t even consider 60 percent of our student body,” Miller said.
Studies on education have to be considered critically, Miller added.
“These reports are intended to achieve a certain level of transparency and help inform the public about different colleges and universities across the nation,” Miller said. “That’s a laudable goal. Having said that, what’s sad and so deceiving is not only do they not tell the full story, they tell a misleading story. They don’t give an accurate picture.”
Helpful and harmful
High-poverty states such as South Carolina almost always perform poorly on educational rankings that use test scores for state-by-state comparisons, said Jacki Martin, the deputy director of Furman University’s Riley Institute.
“The issue in South Carolina is that we have such a high rate of poverty,” Martin said. “It’s among those children that scores are lowest, so comparing a state that has such a high rate of poverty to a state that has a far lower rate of poverty is entirely predictable. We know that those scores will be low because they correlate to socioeconomic circumstances.”
State education rankings can be both useful and detrimental, Martin said.
“I think it’s helpful in that whether in fact we are 50th or 45th or 38th, it’s helpful to cause policy-makers to focus on these issues — that’s positive,” Martin said. “On the other hand, it can be harmful to suggest to people who work so hard in public schools across the state and who are 100 percent committed to these children — and they’re battling circumstances beyond their control — to suggest to them that they are failing is inaccurate and harmful.”
Educational leaders appear to agree that there’s always room for progress in South Carolina and that lawmakers and other educational leaders should redouble their efforts to improve student academic achievement.
“It is no secret that we have a ways to go in improving educational outcomes for allstudents in our state but we do have pockets of excellence that people from around the country come, see, and learn from every day,” said Brown, Spearman’s spokesman.
Barton, with the state Education Oversight Committee, said initiatives must focus on the entire educational system: from preschool to higher education.
“There are multiple opportunities to improve our educational system for all children,” she said.