Former Gov. and U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley established South Carolina as one of the first states to move education reform to the top of its agenda. That effort is now more than three decades old, and political leaders, the media and the public remain unsatisfied with our public schools.
With the federal No Child Left Behind era behind us and the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act now returning a great deal of power to states for school reform, The State has called for South Carolina to recommit to accountability, warning: “(R)emoving that oversight provides a tremendous temptation for states to lower the bar. We must not let that happen in South Carolina.”
My entire 34 years as an educator in South Carolina have been during the accountability era, in which the state has changed standards and high-stakes tests five or six times. While I agree that the transition from the old federal law to the new one is a great opportunity, I caution against doubling down on accountability.
S.C. political leaders, the media and the public must finally confront the fact that our public schools are a reflection of the tremendous burden of poverty on children and families in our state. The schools along the Corridor of Shame (the I-95 corridor) as well as other pockets of high poverty demonstrate that school reform alone has never worked and will likely never work.
Across the United States, in fact, accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing has failed in 50 different experiments and in the more recent national effort with Common Core. The quality or even presence of standards and high-stakes tests have never produced higher student achievement or closed the so-called achievement gap between wealthy and poor students or racial minorities and whites.
The greatest education challenge facing our state, then, is addressing poverty and racism. Without adopting a policy that deals directly with stable jobs with adequate pay and benefits, health care, child care and an equitable criminal-justice system, our schools will continue to struggle.
We need to reconsider entirely education reform — based not on accountability but on equity of opportunity.
Labeling and ranking our schools — whether we use more than test scores or not — has been harmful, and it is past time to consider another process. As Bruce Baker, professor in the graduate school of education at Rutgers, and researcher Gerald Bracey have argued often, educational rankings tend to reveal more about conditions outside of the school’s control than about the quality of education.
Overwhelmingly in all educational rankings, the greatest predictor of high or low rankings is wealth or poverty.
However, The State actually hits on a better alternative: “But the focus must remain on the core function of the schools: providing all children in this state the opportunity to receive a decent education, of the sort that will allow them to become self-supporting, productive, taxpaying citizens.”
Equity of opportunity must replace accountability in South Carolina — although this doesn’t mean lowering expectations or absolving schools or teachers from their responsibilities to students and the state.
What I propose is transparency about the opportunities to learn that all students are receiving in the context of social programs that help every student enter those schools on much more equal footing.
Those equitable opportunities must include for all students access to experienced and certified teachers, open-door policies for challenging courses and programs (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate) and equitably funded schools and facilities. We also must end inequitable disciplinary policies, tracking and such harmful policies as third-grade retention based on reading scores.
Grading and ranking schools must end as well.
A hard reality of teaching is that we can never guarantee outcomes; if given the conditions in their lives and schools to succeed, students are ultimately responsible for learning. Schools and teachers are responsible for making that learning possible.
Accountability has not worked. The hard question now is: Have the adults learned that lesson, and are they prepared to try something different?
Dr. Thomas taught high school in South Carolina for 18 years before becoming an education professor at Furman; contact him at Paul.Thomas@furman.edu.