August 28 column, w/ links

Must one be out of office
to lead on public education?


Editorial Page Editor

Editorial Page Editor

We have enormous challenges
in South Carolina still, but we need to celebrate our successes. One of the
things that I have learned from Dick Riley is he said you need to motivate
people. A leader motivates people, and celebrates the good things… Success
breeds success, and if you keep working and people get excited — like, “We are making progress, let’s keep
going!”… And that’s what I hope my role has been as the bully pulpit for
education and change.

— Inez Tenenbaum, Aug. 25

INEZ TENENBAUM’s visit to our editorial board last week was an
occasion for her to tout her accomplishments and brush away questions about
political plans.

But I wasn’t interested in that stuff. I knew she had done a good
— I had written that myself plenty of times — and I knew she wasn’t
planning to run for governor next year.

What I wanted to know was: Who is going to provide leadership
keep public education in South Carolina moving forward? Who is going to inspire
South Carolina to shoulder the burden of making sure our kids have futures as
bright as those of kids across the rest of the country?

The challenge before us is one that I sometimes compare to our
situation in Iraq: The odds are enormous. The likelihood of failure is high
unless we are willing to sacrifice and keep trying, no matter how hard the
slogging gets. There are no acceptable alternatives to success; we simply have
to do what it takes to win. Political leadership must rise to heights we have
not yet seen in order to inspire us to keep going in the face of daunting
circumstances. Giving up is not a rational option — and yet there are
burgeoning political movements that demand ever more loudly that we do just
that. With Iraq, it’s “Bring the troops home.” With S.C. public education, it’s
give people tax credits to abandon the schools.”

In the case of S.C. education, the daunting circumstances mostly
have to do with rural poverty, which pulls down the averages so that it’s all
too easy to ignore the excellence in our suburban schools — or for that matter,
the gradual progress in even the most challenging areas.

Someone has to be a cheerleader for the successes South Carolina
has already had as it has implemented the Education Accountability Act of 1998,
and a goad to make us tackle the greatest unmet challenge, the one we have to
lick if we’re ever to catch up to the rest of the country — the gap between
rich districts and poor ones.

Mrs. Tenenbaum has been a good cheerleader for the successes —
although she can’t be heard easily over a governor who leads the faction that
scoffs at our accomplishments. She has also been a good administrator as the
system has adapted to the strict new regime of accountability. But her ability
to change the education conversation to what we ought to be talking about has been hampered by two things:

First, superintendent of education has never been a sufficiently
bully pulpit to get South Carolina to undertake something as difficult as going
beyond incremental improvement to dramatic change. It takes a governor — and a
governor of singular vision and charisma. That’s one reason the superintendent
job should be appointed rather than elected. (Make a list of major strategic
education initiatives — on the order of the Accountability Act, or the
Education Finance Act — that was conceived and led by anyone in that post. Short list, huh?)

Second, Mrs. Tenenbaum was the biggest vote-getter in the state
in the past two elections, and she is a Democrat. That made her a threat to the
Republican majority in the State House, and those Republicans who care more
about party advantage than the good of the state (and there are plenty such
knaves in both parties) had no hesitation about trashing public schools as a
way of getting at her. (Yet another reason why this position shouldn’t be

Still, her eloquence in behalf of South Carolina’s most urgent
cause will certainly be missed in the halls of government. And what will
replace that?

For her part, Mrs. Tenenbaum promises to keep fighting for the
cause from the private sector. She hinted that she might start her own
foundation to add its voice to those already out there advocating continued
momentum on education reform.

Which brings me to the most disturbing point in our discussion
Thursday. Someone raised the question of what happens if the court rejects the
arguments of the poor districts that claim the state isn’t providing them with
adequate resources.

Her answer? “(I)f the court does not decide in favor of the
districts, it will have to be done by the private sector.” She said business
leaders — who were, after all, instrumental in making the Education Accountability Act happen — and other private actors will have to start a
grass-roots movement along the lines of, “so what, it didn’t meet the legal
standard, but we’re going to do something about it anyway.”

What disturbed me was her assumption — and it is unfortunately
well-founded — that the political branches won’t do what’s right. It’s either
the courts or an uprising of private citizens that will provide the leadership
— not the governor or lawmakers.

She’s not the only one who thinks so. Bill Barnet, one of the
business leaders who made the Accountability Act happen and now is mayor of
Spartanburg, agrees that the impetus for progress will have to come from
outside the ranks of the elected: “Until the people in the Legislature hear the
voices of the people who elect them, they are not going to change.”

OK, fine. This is not the way representative democracy is
supposed to work, of course. We’re supposed to be able to elect leaders with
the vision and intestinal fortitude to do the right thing, however difficult it
might be, without constant prodding. But fine. If we’ve all got to organize and
hoot and holler and focus the attention of those in the State House in order to
do right by our schools, then that’s what we’ve got to do. I’m ready. Are you?

11 thoughts on “August 28 column, w/ links

  1. David

    Brad, the mantra of the education insiders club is always “give us more money and we will fix the public school system”. Don’t we have enough examples of the fallacy of that premise, e.g. the Washington, DC schools, where the per pupil spending is the highest in the country? Perpetuating more of what we have now isnt going to effectively alter the education landscape. New models have to be considered. I think its the Swedes who end mandatory public education at the eighth grade (I could be off on this a tad). So, what happens to everyone after mandatory school attendance ends? Those who aspire and are motivated intellectually continue on to advanced education but voluntarily. Others go into vocational apprenticeships. Is this all that bad? What we have here is a ritual of forcing those who don’t have any intention of cooperating and learning into the same school systems where those who want to learn try to better themselves. So the unmotivated, the disruptors, and even criminals come to the schools each day to inhibit the ones who actually want to be there. School beyond the eighth grade should be an honor and privelege, not a mandated right. Drop out rates are near 50% at some of the SC schools and good tax money is being spent to bring these kids back into schools where they don’t want to be. Is this a form of insanity by definition? Let’s fix the public school system but it is time to modernize our thinking and change the process, not tweak it. This is where the governor, I think, is on the right track. You know much more about the inside information and policies that most state residents ever will, but to me, just a taxpaying citizen out here, I think most of the establishment has no intention of radically changing the approach, rather, they prefer a safe, incremental approach that will give us what we have today ten years from now.

  2. Mark Whittington

    We disagree on many issues, but we are in agreement on some ideas. For example, I think that we both agree that it’s going to take the people to put pressure on our representatives to get anything useful done on funding for education.

    I have an inactive website called Boycott The State (which stands of course for Boycott The State newspaper). I put the website up before the last presidential election because I thought The State was far too biased on its editorial page. Once the editorials became more balanced, I quit updating the website.
    Currently, I do not encourage anyone to boycott The State newspaper. However, I do encourage readers of this blog to visit this link: Wealth Program Document

    I want you to view this document because it shows an approximated US wealth distribution and why this particular distribution of wealth has to develop. The percentages at the bottom of the graph are very close to the real US economy. For any randomly selected large group of people, you’ll get a distribution shaped like the one shown on the web page.
    I wish that I could point you to research that backed up what my own stochastic computer programs generate, but it is virtually non-existent, with two possible exceptions:

    This document page 22 on the pdf. These gentlemen have found the correct distribution by creating an artificial stock market. If you take my graph of wealth in the before mentioned document, and re-arrange it (going instead on the x axis from richest to poorest), and take the log of both the wealth and number axes, then my graph and their graph matches.

    And this document David Meyers is really close. He was just proving that the entire wealth distribution is not a Pareto distribution. I was struck by his return rate of (.5) and by equation 6.3. The program that I used in my link above works much like this one.

    The point of all of this is, assuming that I’m right and that wealth has to be distributed in such a skewed manner, even among statistically equal people, then why on earth would we use sales taxes or middle class property taxes to fund education? Why not use a wealth tax instead? Why tax on a state level when obviously it would be better to tax on the federal level. Keep in mind that SC as a whole makes up the lower end of the distribution nationally.

  3. John Warner

    The following is from a speech Bill Gates gave to the National Education Summit on High Schools.
    “America’s high schools are obsolete.
    By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded – though a case could be made for every one of those points.
    By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they’re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.
    Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times.
    Our high schools were designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every year.
    Today, only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship.
    The other two-thirds, most of them low-income and minority students, are tracked into courses that won’t ever get them ready for college or prepare them for a family-wage job – no matter how well the students learn or the teachers teach.
    This isn’t an accident or a flaw in the system; it is the system.”

  4. Brad Warthen

    Yes, everyone’s heard or read what Bill Gates said. What I haven’t heard is an understandable explanation of what he would replace it with. That might be unfair to Mr. Gates, as what I’ve read over and over is that same passage that you quote. No doubt he went on with a prescription of some sort, and I just haven’t seen that. Without that prescription, his observations read sort of like a Trudy Rubin column — all gloom and doom diagnosis, with no hope of a cure offered. (I often joke with Mike Fitts, who edits our op-ed page, that every Rubin column could have the same headline: “We’re all gonna die!”)
    But everyone seems very impressed with Mr. Gates’ profundity on this issue. That includes Inez Tenenbaum, who brought up Mr. Gates as an example of someone who’s doing what she proposes to do when she gets out of office — lobbying for reform from the private sector.

  5. David

    Free market forces are the one thing that can have a very positive impact on improvement in public education. That is one of the reasons I like vouchers and school choice efforts. Gates was pretty direct, even brutal, in his talk to the Education Summit. But, he did get applause. I would guess that if he gave that same speech to all the SC School Superintendents and principals, the result would be the opposite. It’s a complex set of problems and deep rooted ones at that. Inez was right on when she said things won’t change until the public demands it. I for one think that someday the public will demand real change, and may get it.

  6. Mark Whittington

    Hello All,
    I probably will not be able to participate on this blog until later this week when I return from a business trip. I’m curious though, in your opinion (in your best possible world) what would your particular brand of education reform accomplish if it worked perfectly? What’s the goal that we need to achieve to make the society better?

  7. John Warner

    The mistake you and others make is thinking about this as replacing one type of school with another. What we need to do is replace the existing system with a different culture – the kind of highly entrepreneurial culture that created a Bill Gates to begin with. Not a system where all decisions are made at the top, but a system where thousands of talented and innovative educators are experimenting with new ways of reaching students not well served by the system today. Today we’re making incremental improvements, and that is good but not sufficient to make the progress we need. There is no way an educational Bill Gates could emerge because there is no vehicle for them to pursue truely innovative ideas.

  8. Brad Warthen

    John, the entrepreneurial culture you envision is politically impossible. You know why? Because politicians and their constituents are extremely jealous of every tax dollar, and they absolutely refuse to TRUST educators. Therefore we get rigid standards, tests, measurements and controls that force everyone to follow certain patterns. This is true on the state and the federal level. Both the Education Accountability Act and No Child Left Behind are ways of insisting that everyone meet certain uniform standards (although NCLB leaves each state to choose its own standards, which hurts SC because through the EAA, we adopted tougher standards than most states, so when we are judged by how well all students — and that includes special ed and children who don’t yet speak English — in the state do by the state’s standards, we look worse than other states).
    Everything I’ve seen in my career about the politics of public education indicates that the state will never hire teachers, give them resources, and say, “Go to town; be creative!”
    Everything about our political culture pushes — and pushes hard — in the opposite direction. And all because of a lack of TRUST.

  9. John Warner

    I have been talking to people about this for a long time too. I absolutely agree with you that, “Everything about our political culture pushes — and pushes hard — in the opposite direction. And all because of a lack of TRUST.”
    There is the trust factor you mentioned, not trusting educators. There is a lack of trust of parents to make the right decisions. There is also a serious lack of trust among minorities, especially older minorities, who have historical experience that honed their instincts to be wary. There are a large segment of people who are cynical in general and don’t trust anyone else, especially those in government. Some of our leading politicians in the state have made an art form out of tapping into this latent cynicism.
    In a flat world, only innovation can keep us globally competitive. Public education needs to be a part of that culture. Somehow, we need to find a leader in this state who can empower people to begin to create a culture of innovation.
    Dick Riley brought enlightened leadership to public education 25 years ago. And Carroll Campbell brought it to economic development 15 years ago. Without the next strong leader, it will be difficult for us to make significant progress.

  10. John Warner

    By the way, you don’t get Bill Gates by hiring him, giving him resources, and saying, “Go to town; be creative!”
    When customers have resources, then Bill Gates is creative and customers hire him.
    The sequence is critical to innovation. That’s how outstanding entrepreneurs are born.

  11. Emily and Wiley Cooper

    Yes, we’re ready. In fact, we’ve already started. We showed “Corridor of Shame” at College Place UMC, e-mailed our legislators, and meet this week in Dillon County to select a small work project.
    We don’t expect to make a dent with a weekend workteam, but we do hope the work will be noticed so that legislators have some small embarrassment for not bringing our schools up to standard.

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