Forget Shakespeare, Dickens and Thoreau. Never mind about geometry, trigonometry and calculus.
State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais says students shouldn’t be required to take courses in the literary classics or study any kind of math more esoteric than basic algebra if they have decided by ninth grade that they don’t want to go to a four-year college.
Zais, who left the GOP field wide open when he announced that he doesn’t intend to seek a second term, made the comments during a talk to the Greenville County Republican Women’s Club that covered topics ranging from Common Core to social promotion to school funding.
“The fact is 70 percent of our students will never go to a four-year college. And most kids, by the time they reach ninth grade, have figured out in their own mind if they are on a four-year college track,” Zais said.
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“And if they’ve determined that they are not, they are uninterested in plot development in British novels, the difference in structure between a sonnet and an ode, or what iambic pentameter is.
“And likewise, they know a lot of very successful people who cannot factor a polynomial, compute sine or cosine or solve a quadratic equation.”
Many of those students perceive what they’re learning in school as irrelevant to their futures, he said. “Should we be surprised if they are disinterested, disengaged are in many cases, discipline problems.”
Zais drew applause when he spoke against the Common Core State Standards, which he described as “a one-size fits all curriculum that expects all children to learn the same material on the same schedule.”
Jackie Hicks, president of the South Carolina Education Association, a teachers group, said Zais is incorrect in saying most ninth-graders have made their decision about college. She argues that students need to be open to the possibilities for their future throughout their high school years, and that the Common Core is a good guide in that process.
“Just because someone may think that they’re not going to college does not mean that you’re not going to need a little more advanced mathematics to understand the world around you,” she said.
In the past decade or so, the emphasis has been on covering too many standards but not going deeply enough into any them for students to really understand them – the mile-wide and inch-deep approach, Hicks said.
Common Core will give teachers the opportunity to slow down and go deeper, she said.
“I want our students to know what they need to be successful for whatever career they go into and have some rigor,” she said. “I think we’ve done an injustice to our students for the past decade when it was just test, test, test, and we can’t make that mistake with the Common Core standards.”
She also takes issue with Zais’ assessment that Common Core is a “one-size fits all” set of standards any more so than the state’s current standards. Standards don’t mandate how teaching is to be done – only the material that needs to be covered, she said.
“Within our classroom, within our district, we can decide what the curriculum will be to meet these standards. And that’s kind of how it’s always been,” she said.
Two Republicans seeking to succeed Zais spoke in opposition of Common Core.
Meka Childs, who was Zais’ deputy superintendent until last month, and Sheri Few, founder of a nonprofit parents group, derided Common Core as a misguided federally driven initiative.
Childs said she voted against it as a member of the Education Oversight Committee. “I knew then as I know now that we have to be careful about anything that’s going to allow federal overreach into public education in our state,” she said.
Few said she would fight to overturn South Carolina’s adoption of Common Core. “I will not let a day go by as superintendent that I am not trying to pull Common Core out by its roots,” she said.
Other Republicans in the race include Sally Atwater, a former Colleton County teacher and widow of GOP operative Lee Atwater; Gary Burgess, a member of the Anderson County Board of Education; Amy Cofield, a Lexington attorney; University of South Carolina professor Don Jordan of Columbia; and Charleston County School Board member Elizabeth Moffly.
State Rep. Mike Anthony, a retired coach and teacher from Union, and Montrio Belton, a former principal and teacher from Fort Mill, are running as Democrats.
South Carolina is one of 45 states that have adopted the standards, designed to outline what students need to know to be prepared for college or jobs in the world economy. The state this spring is trying out a new test called Smarter Balanced that tests the Common Core standards in English language arts and math, but the future is unclear.
Full implementation is scheduled for this fall, but the state hasn’t settled on whether to use Smarter Balanced or consider other options.
Common Core wasn’t dictated by the federal government but was developed by the states, although the U.S. Department of Education encouraged states to adopt it by offering financial rewards in its Race to the Top competition.
Zais opposed Common Core as a candidate but has been working to carry out the state’s implementation of it, as mandated by the state Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee.
“I don’t have a vote on it,” he said.
A bill that would have done away with the state’s use of the standards was amended earlier this week to require a review in 2016 of the math and science standards already adopted and legislative approval before any others are adopted.
Upon questioning, Zais told The Greenville News that 90 percent of the Common Core standards are already part of the state standards, but he thinks the state should eliminate the requirement for math courses above Algebra I and allow non-college bound students to take classes in personal finance and business math instead of such courses as trigonometry and statistics.
For students who don’t plan to seek a four-year degree, learning to write and speak clearly should be the focus for English courses, he said.
“We have more college graduates than the jobs available for them, which is why so many college graduates are waiting table, tending bar and working retail in jobs that don’t require those skills,” he said.