Reform backers disappointed,
but not discouraged
By BRAD WARTHEN
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?