THE FIRST THING that ought to be said about South Carolina's most recent performance on the Nation's Report Card is that it was disappointing and that we must find a way to reclaim the momentum that until recently had produced some of the nation's fastest gains on this as well as a number of other measures.
But the political climate that has poisoned debate over education policy for the past seven years forces us to start somewhere else: The National Assessment of Educational Progress - the only test available that can be used to fairly and accurately compare educational progress among the states - finds South Carolina clustered with many states around the national average.
Our state was tied for 31st in eighth-grade math and 34th in fourth-grade math, the only results released this month. (Only fourth- and eighth-graders are tested, and reading scores will be released in the spring.) Our eight-graders scored an average of 56 percent on the 500-point test, compared with the national average of 56.4 percent; those figures were reversed when the test was last administered two years ago. Our fourth-graders scored an average of 47.2 percent (down from 47.4 percent), compared with the national average of 47.8 percent (unchanged from two years ago).
The scores demonstrate, yet again, that South Carolina is not "dead last in education." That we are not bad and getting worse, as some are determined to make us believe. That our public schools are not hopeless.
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But being in the middle is nothing to celebrate, less still when our scores actually drop, even if by only a fraction of a point. We need to use this latest report card as a wake-up call, as a reminder that we cannot continue to let ourselves be distracted by those who want to start throwing money at the private schools whose (highly varied) quality we never will be able to control. Instead, we need to get back to the task of improving the schools that we do control - and that we have a responsibility to make work.
The best way to do that is to put the best teacher we can in front of every student - starting with the most disadvantaged, who need great teachers the most but are the least likely to have them. (The one tidbit from the NAEP that suggested a way to address stagnant math scores was the fact that students whose teachers majored in math did better than those who didn't.)
Putting a great teacher in every classroom is easier said than done, particularly when finances are tight. But we can do a much better job than we are. We can give principals more flexibility, in crafting attractive recruitment packages, rewarding the best teachers and getting rid of the ones who aren't getting the job done. We can make sure school boards aren't standing in principals' way. We can recognize that it's better to have one great teacher teaching 30 kids than a mediocre one teaching 18 - and adjust our laws accordingly.
And if we really want to get serious about educating all children, we can work on making sure that every child has supportive parents who consider education important and work with teachers to make sure their children learn. Of course, that's a monumental task, which can neither begin nor end with the schools. But if we ever hope to make South Carolina a safe, healthy, prosperous state, a state where businesses want to locate and our children and grandchildren can make a good life for themselves, it's a task we must take on.