Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Key to improving poor schools: a good teacher in every classroom

kkfoster@thestate.com

AFTER 10 MONTHS of work, testimony from 29 experts over four public hearings, a dozen other meetings, 130 recommendations reviewed and 121 of them adopted, the House’s Education Policy Review and Reform Task Force came to this conclusion: It’s all about the teachers.

“Research documents that, for school-related factors, the quality of the classroom teacher has the single greatest impact on student achievement,” the report concluded. “It is estimated that a teacher has two to three times more impact on a student’s success in reading and mathematics than any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.”

Fill the poorest schools with good teachers, and you transform underprivileged children into voracious learners. Fill the poorest schools with good teachers, and you provide students the opportunity that all children deserve — and that our Legislature has a constitutional mandate and court order to provide — to get a decent education. An education that will prepare them to get decent jobs or go on to higher education, that will break the cycle of poverty and ignorance that holds back whole communities, particularly in rural South Carolina. The cycle of poverty and ignorance that leads to despair and crime and drags down our entire state.

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Fill the poorest schools with mediocre or even bad teachers, even if there’s a sprinkling of good ones, and you get … what South Carolina has. What the state Supreme Court determined was an unconstitutional failure to provide even a “minimally adequate” education. What the House task force described as “schools and entire school districts that cannot provide the education their students deserve and need to be successful in the 21st century.”

Understanding the vital role of teachers isn’t rocket science, but that doesn’t mean there’s an obvious or easy way to fill the poorest schools with good teachers. Of course, it’s not clear we would have done that even if there were, because we’ve never really made that our goal. Instead, we’ve focused on reducing class sizes — as if having just five students in a class would make much difference if they have a lousy teacher. We’ve focused on telling schools which reading programs to buy and how to prepare students for the tests that tell us where we need to intervene — and then not intervening. We’ve focused on figuring out how to pay parents to abandon the public schools.

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Now, though, the first entity to roll out a comprehensive response to the Supreme Court’s order in Abbeville v South Carolina has said we need to focus on getting good teachers into poor schools and helping them teach. It said we need to do a lot more than that — improve school buildings and shorten school bus rides and help kids focus on careers and require various state agencies to provide all sorts of “support” — but good teachers were paramount.

Nurturing, attracting and retaining good teachers in poor districts almost certainly means paying them more — at least making sure they can make as much money in Allendale as in Lexington 1. And since poor districts can’t afford the salary supplements that more desirable districts pay, that means the state needs to make up the difference.

The task force is fuzzy on the numbers. While it recommends numerous ways the state should get good teachers into poor schools — from paying for background checks and funding teacher-training programs to providing salary supplements and reexamining and “probably” increasing teacher salaries overall — the closest it comes to pinning down a number is implying that we should spend an additional $1,200 per poor student in our poorest districts. And that’s just to provide “quality after-school programs, summer programs, extended school years, and overall increases in the amount of time spent learning.”

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Money, as Republicans correctly remind us, is not a solution in and of itself. Nor is its shortage a guarantee of failure. The report notes that some of the poorest districts do a more-than-adequate job, and many failing districts spend significantly more per student than successful districts. The difference, it concludes, must have to do with leadership.

Nurturing, attracting and retaining good teachers depends not just on money but also on good principals, which depends on good superintendents, which depends on good school boards, which depends on the state intervening if those school boards don’t get the job done. So the task force says “it is imperative that the state insert itself more directly into local issues,” providing “intensive and immediate assistance” when districts don’t improve student learning.

The report is squishy on what that intervention would look like, but it does recommend that school boards “be subject to intervention by the State Superintendent” if they don’t implement recommended changes.

Read the task force’s report

Perhaps it’s enough to put that idea out there as a principle, and let the Legislature flesh it out. After all, focusing on teachers is essential, and the report has dozens of recommendations on what our state should do to nurture, attract and retain teachers, principals and superintendents who are trained in the task of teaching children in poverty, and good at their jobs.

But the Legislature will need to flesh out the accountability. We won’t keep those good teachers in the schools where they are needed most unless there are consequences for principals, superintendents and especially school boards who show no interest in doing that.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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