“Three Amigos” column

Reform backers disappointed,
but not discouraged

Editorial Page Editor
THEY WERE called the “Three Amigos,” even though there were up to five of them. They were business leaders who were instrumental in pushing the Legislature to pass the Education Accountability Act of 1998. Later, they served on the Education Oversight Committee that was created by that legislation.
    They were Bill Barnet, Larry Wilson, Joel Smith, Bob Staton and James Bennett (scroll down on the link to bio). But the old “Amigos” gag led me to ask three of them for reaction to last week’s news that, for the first time since the standards they pushed went into effect, schools across the state failed to advance.
Far more (354) got a lower grade than received a higher one (55), compared with 2004, while most (668) held steady.
    Messrs. Wilson, Barnet and Staton were all “disappointed” by the results, but none would own up to being “discouraged.”
    They were not surprised by what they saw as a temporary setback on a long “journey.”
After all, this is what the Accountability Act was supposed to do — use tough standardized tests to show objectively where the challenges are, so that they can be addressed.
    “I’m not all that upset about it,” Larry Wilson (whose latest ideas on education and economic development were the subject of last week’s column) called to tell me.
    “You have to look at long-term trends,” he said. One year’s setback isn’t enough to worry about. If schools lose ground next year, too, “Then I’ll begin to be concerned about a trend.”
    He noted that those who have spent their whole school careers under the law’s regimen are showing remarkable progress. For instance, our fourth-graders exceeded the national average in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, the “nation’s report card.”
    “As these students progress, we’ll see better results,” he said.
    He said the state has four big areas to work on:

  • Appropriate, early remediation for kids who need it.
  • Consolidating school districts to eliminate the “inefficiency and high cost of small districts.”
  • Early childhood education, getting children ready for the increased rigor they’ll face in K-12.
  • Raising expectations of students, parents and communities.

    As one trained in systems engineering, he says “education’s no different from any other complex system.” The key is finding the right buttons to push and dials to turn.
    Bill Barnet left the Oversight Committee to become mayor of Spartanburg, but his interest in the mission hasn’t waned.
    He said it’ll take time to overcome the “generational abuse” that led to the conditions the Accountability Act sought to address.
    He illustrated this with a story: For years, he ignored a herniated disc — until the pain in his leg became excruciating, and he consented to surgery. When his leg still hurt weeks later, he complained to the doctor. The doctor told him he couldn’t just assume the pain would go away overnight when he had allowed the damage to continue for 10 years.
    Similarly, the challenges to educational achievement in South Carolina “cannot be solved in any one- or five-year period.”
    He bristles at any suggestion that the struggle should be abandoned for, say, tax credits that encourage parents to abandon the schools.
    “The governor says, ‘How can you be comfortable and pleased with where you are?’.æ.æ.æ. I look him in the eye and say I’m not comfortable and I’m not happy,” he said. And then, he says, he tells Gov. Mark Sanford that while he, Bill Barnet, believes in “choice” (such as charter and magnet schools) where it works, the “Put Parents in Charge Act” is “all about your constituents, and maybe your run for president.” Ultimately, it’s a “huge distraction” from the real issues, such as the inequality between rich and poor districts.
    He keeps an eye on efforts to address that through comprehensive tax reform, but wonders if it is politically possible: “Greenville has to be willing to accept the premise that they’re going to take their money and send it to Dillon.”
    The message, he insists, shouldn’t be “stay the course.” It should be “stay the course, with thoughtful adjustments.”
    The only one of the three still on the Oversight Committee, Bob Staton takes heart from the knowledge that “Our kids are still being better educated than they were seven or eight years ago.”
In fact, he expected a setback such as this one last year — the first time the bar was raised on what schools had to accomplish.
    But he knows not everyone sees it his way: “People will use this information to validate their point of view that we’re awful, we’ve always been awful and we’ll always be awful,” he said.
    “My frustration is, people just look at a piece of it,” such as graduation rates. But today’s dropouts started school before the Accountability Act. “The kids that are beginning to come through it are doing better,” he said. “The graduation rate is the culmination of 18 years of that kid’s life and what goes on in it.”
    He cited “three things to look at” going forward:

  • Where a child is in the third grade. Remediate if necessary.
  • The transition from middle to high school, when reading proficiency is essential to mastering critical thinking skills.
  • Moving out of high school and into career preparation.

    “We’ve got to get them through each of those stages,” he said.
    And my reaction? The questions to be asked today are: What are the conditions that led to 55 schools doing better, and how do we go about replicating them in the 354 that slipped?

12 thoughts on ““Three Amigos” column

  1. Lee

    As long as we can remember, good principals have taken over mediocre schools and turned them around. Good teachers have walked into the same class of pupils abandoned by mediocre teachers and gotten the students to achieve.
    The educational system fails at the administrative level by not learning from those few who excel, and not learning from the mistakes of the many who just get by, or fail. Principals who fail continue to get high-paying jobs at the district or state level.
    Every year, there is are new gimics, expensive initiatives, improved testing, that cost more money and produce no improvement. It’s a game, and the promoters know its a game, but it’s their game. They can’t play with fundamentals that work, so they invent razzle dazzle starring themselves.

  2. Dave

    Since the EAA was enacted in 98, public schools have had 7 years to prove their point. The argument that the dropouts are coming from the pre-EAA group is incredulous. I saw a piece on the tube this week about a guy in LA who wants to take the worst school in the city and make it a charter school. Thomas Jefferson high school in East LA. The parents would be REQUIRED to put in a set number of participation hours to attend a charter school with discipline and strict performance requirements. Guess who is fighting it, yes, the teacher unions and the educators. Real big surprise that. In SC, I really don’t blame the teachers as most are out there trying in the face of bad odds every day. Recognizing that the public education problem begins in broken homes, some single or non-parent, and that the vast majority of those are black, cannot be done by the politically correct. Until that problem is directly confronted, very little will change but the administrators don’t want any change that diminishes their hold on the power, positions, and dollars. Also, the only way that parents in Greenville, or educators for that matter, will agree to give up their education dollars to Dillon County will be a court order. It will never happen voluntarily.

  3. David

    As the husband of a former public school (middle school in Columbia) I do agree there are a LOT OF POLITICS involved in the way schools are run.
    There is also quite a bit of politics on who gets assigned to be principals.

  4. David

    Sorry to blog off-topic, but any thoughts on Time magazine naming Sanford one of the nation’s 3 worst governors?

  5. Nathan

    To continue David’s off topic mention, it is almost a good thing when a magazine like Time doesn’t like you. It means that you are right of Ted Kennedy. Anyone left of him is swell. In that article, the only govenors that they praise are ones that are “centrist” types that make thier conservative supporters mad with wasteful big government spending.
    But, back on point. I found Arial’s cartoon on the new scores humorous. Imagine though if it were flipped to another point of view. For years, Inez and crowd, including our happy host Brad, have pointed to rising scores as proof that what they were doing was working.
    “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.”
    -Brad Warthen
    “Any fair observer would think such progress was remarkable.”
    -Brad Warthen
    “One of the things that frustrates her (and me) about the whole PPIC affair is the way it has bled energy and attention from the ongoing work of implementing the Education Accountability Act. The irony here, as I’ve often mentioned before, is that this was a reform pushed through by a Republican governor and lawmakers before she entered office in 1999. It was an enormous undertaking that fell into her lap the day she started the job, and one she never asked for. Nevertheless, she took it one and made it her priority — and more importantly, made it WORK. Schools have been getting steadily, measurably better.”
    -Brad Warthen
    I guess that I needn’t go on, since everyone on here can read what you have written, Brad, but how can your side claim credit every time there is a blip up on the radar screen and then say that it means nothing when there is a blip down.
    I have felt all along that this system hasn’t had time to work, yet Inez was eager to campaign about its success.
    Either the Act is affecting the quality of education in this state, or it isn’t. Pick one. Don’t waver back in forth and cherry-pick the stats that support your opinion while disclaiming all that don’t.

  6. Brad Warthen

    1. I don’t have a side. That’s what makes it so hard to communicate with partisans. I’m on South Carolina’s side, and on the larger stage, I’m on the side of the United States of America and principles that it stands for. I’m against people who would divide our state or our nation along ideological lines.
    2. The Act most certainly is affecting the quality of education in the state — for the better. It’s not the only factor affecting schools, but it’s a big one.

  7. Lee

    Nathan’s point is that it is easy to assert that some new spending program “is definitely helping education”, but much harder to describe exactly how, and how you know.
    It is ironic that the so-called “Education Accountability Act” has the same lack of quantifiable goals for itself. In other words, it has no way to be held accountable, because there are no metrics for its success or failure. Like most legislation, it is a vague spending bill, leaving the details to the discretion of the same education professionals who produced the situation the law was supposed to cure.
    That is no way to fix a problem.

  8. Dave

    Brad, I get the impression from you that a partisan is defined as someone who disagrees with your positions on education improvements. Your positions happen to line up nearly identically with Inez Tenenbaum so I assume she is NOT a partisan. Please don’t try to sell that fluff, even if it is your own website. I honestly believe you have the best intentions on this subject and want to see the situation improved. That is worthy of praise even if some of us don’t think your solutions will cause significant progress. But lets skip the partisan nonsense, please.

  9. Nathan

    Sorry Brad, I wasn’t aware that it made me a partisan to question how those in favor of a program can say it is working when the times are good, but then say it hasn’t had time to work when times are bad. First, I am NOT a partisan. I am a conservative, and you might define me as an idealogue. I would argue that I am principled.
    Perhaps the Act is making education better. I haven’t studied education enough to know for sure, though I do know that the main driver in education success has nothing to do with schools, it is parents. Good parents make good students. The school can’t change that for the vast majority of kids with irresponsible parents. No new big spending bill will change that.
    I think that you want the best for the kids, and I respect that. However, I think that you are sometimes misguided on education.
    Lastly, I don’t want to split the country on partisan lines. Now you sound like Harry Reid. The country is made up of many people with different ideas of how the country should be run. I happen to be a conservative who wants limited government, like our founders, by the way. Splitting the country sounds pretty pernicious, but the fact is that we will never be a homogenous group with one point of view. We don’t even have that in Lexington. We can’t bring the country together, but if we stick to our principles, compromise when needed, and stay honest, this country will be a better place.

  10. Brad Warthen

    I may sound like Harry Reid, but the difference between us is that he DOES want to split the country along partisan lines — with the majority on his side, of course. You don’t get to be a party leader in Congress unless you want that.

  11. Lee

    As of yesterday, Harry Reid’s web site still had his pages from 2002 declaring that Saddam Hussein was harboring WMD.
    That speaks volumes about his lack of honesty and ability to keep up with things.

  12. Lee

    We learn on the Opinion page of the Sunday STATE (11/27/2005) that one of Larry Wilson’s so-called “investment” firms has been receiving over $300,000 in subsidies from Mayor Bob Coble’s discretionary funds.

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