State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman on Monday blasted a recent U.S. News and World Report ranking that pegged South Carolina as last in the nation in public education.
The report focused too much on the ACT, a college readiness exam, and failed to emphasize what the state is doing to prepare students to actually succeed in today’s economy, Spearman said.
“They didn’t even look at our apprenticeship programs, they didn’t look at career programs,” Spearman said at TransformSC, a conference in Greenville aimed at promoting innovation in education.
“It was all based on that one test,” she added. “We’re leading the country in our apprenticeship program but of course that didn’t get mentioned.”
The magazine actually also looked at high school graduation rates, national math and reading tests and other factors as well, but the college readiness rank of 48 pulled the state's K-12 ranking down to No. 48. The report doesn't explain whether the percentage of students taking the ACT was factored into the ranking.
The bottom ranking was an overall ranking that included such higher education factors as "percentages of adults with associate’s degrees or higher, the rates of students completing public four-year and two-year college programs within 150 percent of the normal time, the average tuition and fees for in-state students at public institutions and the average debt load of graduates from public and private, colleges alike."
The state tied for 4th best in the nation for pre-K quality.
Not all students have to earn a four-year college degree to enjoy a prosperous career, Spearman said.
“We have to let students find their passion and to follow it, and to get away from this parameter that the only way to success is a four-year degree,” Spearman said, addressing about 450 educators and business leaders at the TD Center.
“The truth is there are outstanding careers out there and they pay very well,” Spearman said.
The Republican superintendent offered a real-life example of a young South Carolinian in Fairfield County who excels in welding.
“He’s got a job waiting on him and they’re going to pay his way to go to Tech,” Spearman said. “But we took him out of his welding program for three days for ACT preparation and to take the ACT exam when he didn’t need it. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’m ready for us to start focusing on what is best for every individual student.”
Too often, educators push students toward getting a four-year college degree rather than helping a student identify his or her passion and building on that, Spearman said.
“My expectation and hope is that every child is going to have a fulfilling life and a fulfilling career,” Spearman said. “The old parameters of what that is going to be like have changed, and we’ve got to accept that in South Carolina. Some students may want to be cosmetologists, some want to be welders. We’ve got to make it OK. We have got to remember that whatever their passion, we support that for our young people.”
Many students, however, will continue to seek a four-year degree, followed by graduate or professional school, Spearman said.
“Absolutely we need doctors, we need teachers, we need engineers who are going to have to have four-year degrees,” she said.
The state Department of Education is working closely with business leaders to make sure students’ skills are aligned with the needs of South Carolina’s employers, she said.
“We’ve done a lot of work in moving this over the last few years,” Spearman said. “We have put time into making sure educators understand the careers available. We’re working very closely with the business community. The state Department of Commerce is working with us. We’re at the table, talking together. I don’t know that that’s ever happened in the history of South Carolina education.”
The state also has invested in career centers in school districts, she said.
“That’s one of the easiest things to get funded these days,” Spearman said. “Legislators are certainly on board with this. We have a commitment that we must make to all the industry that has moved into South Carolina that we’re going to supply them with an educated and ready and skilled workforce.”
The annual conference, hosted by the nonprofit South Carolina Council on Competitiveness, was attended by representatives from more than half of the school districts in the state, officials said.
Summer Ramsey, spokeswoman for the council, said South Carolina schools readily embrace innovation to improve education.
“I think the fact that over half of South Carolina’s school districts are represented here at the conference is evidence of the fact that they’re willing to think outside of the box,” Ramsey said. “They’re looking for something new. They’re looking to do something different. They recognize that the world’s economy is changing and we need to take a look at how that affects our education system.”
TransformSC officials and many educators are particularly interested in moving away from “teacher-centered lecturing toward models that really engage the student more in their own learning,” Ramsey said.
Among the hot topics at the conference was project-based learning, which many schools have embraced.
“Project-based learning is basically the idea that students receive the academic content through a real-world problem that they have to solve,” Ramsey said. “Through that they not only learn the academic content but they also learn skills like teamwork, collaboration, communication and other soft skills that are necessary to be successful in life.”
Also much discussed was “competency-based progression,” which allows students to learn at their own pace.
“Basically, students advance when they master the content,” Ramsey said. “You could have a student in a seventh-grade classroom working on ninth-grade math. With technology, teachers can adapt content for each individual student and that allows them to progress based on when they master that content rather than in lockstep by age.”
Technology is at the center of many innovative practices discussed at the conference. For instance, “blended learning” combines face-to-face and digital instruction, allowing teachers to use technology to design instruction for each individual student.
Technology also can allow teachers to assess student progress on an almost immediate basis and adapt instruction accordingly. Parents no longer have to wait on report cards or high-stakes testing results to understand how their children are faring in school.
Schools with strong leaders are more likely to champion technological innovation, Ramsey said.
“What we’ve found is that the most critical ingredient for change is leadership,” she said. “There has to be a transformational leader at the helm.”
Key leaders in South Carolina’s education and business sectors support school innovation, Ramsey said.
“Molly Spearman encourages innovation in the public schools,” she said. “Our business community supports innovation and our higher education community realizes there needs to be a shift.”
Greenville Schools trustee Chuck Saylors, who attended the conference, said improving education requires multi-pronged efforts such as reducing drop-out rates, hiring the best teachers and administrators possible, and ensuring that the latest technology is available for students.
Monday’s conference was the fourth annual TransformSC event but the first ever to be held in Greenville, Ramsey said.