South Carolina has contributed significantly to the 30-plus years of education accountability begun under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, including the leadership of former Gov. and Education Secretary Richard Riley, as well as the high-profile court case over school funding detailed in the documentary Corridor of Shame.
On Tuesday, PBS turns the education reform spotlight on Hartsville. As co-producer Sam Chaltain explains for The New York Times, in 2011, Hartsville “announced a five-year plan to transform its elementary schools. It partnered with Yale University’s School Development Program, which helps schools identify and meet the developmental needs of children. It began to evaluate its schools by a broader set of measurements — including the number of disciplinary referrals a bus driver had to write each morning. And it started to coordinate its social services to ensure a more equitable set of support structures for Hartsville’s poorest families.”
This documentary will again raise questions about the powerful intersection of poverty, race and education while also offering an opportunity for viewers in South Carolina and across the United States to evaluate the current commitments to accountability-based reform.
With the in-school transition created by the Common Core debate and the election of the new state education superintendent, Molly Spearman, who appears to have begun with a fresh and positive tone, South Carolina is now poised to change not only how we view our education system but also what we do in the name of reform.
Setting aside partisan politics and accepting that a great deal of education reform has been motivated by the best intensions, what do we now know about our major commitments to policy?
Like most states, South Carolina has worked through several versions of standards and high-stakes tests, linking those tests to accountability for schools, students and teachers. Since we are set once again to go down the exact same path with the exact same promises that haven’t come to fruition, we should consider that the problem is not about standards and testing. In fact, there is no correlation over the past 30 years between the presence or quality of standards and student achievement or educational equity.
The charter school movement has strong proponents in South Carolina, but we must also admit that, again, as we see across the country, charter schools perform about the same as public schools, and they create problems such as re-segregation.
In fact, the primary list of education-reform commitments — teacher evaluations linked to test scores and third-grade retention based on reading tests, for example — has proven ineffective throughout the country.
And this may be why the documentary on Hartsville is so important.
The educational problems of Hartsville are not new to our state; they are the exact reasons high-poverty and majority-minority schools and districts sued the state over funding.
Accountability, standards, testing, charter schools and the like have not erased the shame of the I-95 corridor, but those commitments have shuffled a tremendous number of students and funding that could have been used to confront what the Hartsville community appears to accept/
As Chaltain explains: “Across America, more than 16 million children — slightly more than one in five — now live in poverty. And in communities like Hartsville, the need for a healthier social ecosystem is acute….
“This clear connection between the percentage of children living in poverty and a school’s overall ranking is not just a cause for concern. It is also an opportunity to think more holistically about the needs of children.”
Since No Child Left Behind, publisher Pearson has made $8 billion annually on education reform, $4 billion of that in the United States.
That investment, we must also admit, has not paid off for our children, our communities or our state. If it had, we would not now be creating once again new standards and tests.
South Carolina is a vivid example of both the importance of education and the inability of education alone to change the corrosive influence of poverty and racism.
Hartsville may be a call for expanding education reform beyond the walls of the school, but it is also a call for political leadership to seek new policies while admitting the accountability era has failed.