Upgrade education accountability
Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement highlighting a federal report showing South Carolina had lowered proficiency standards in English and mathematics faster than any other state in the nation between 2005 and 2009. While I disagree with many policies of the current administration, on this point they are absolutely correct. Setting low expectations for students does not yield high levels of student learning.
The core mission of any school focuses on student learning, and report cards provide parents with information in an easily understood format about their child’s learning. While parents hope for “A”s, they expect report cards to accurately and clearly reflect actual performance. Policy makers are no different than parents, the vast majority of whom have, or have had, children in public schools. Like other parents, we want to know what skills our children have mastered, where they need improvement, and what expectations exist for future performance. The time has come to take the same approach we use in reporting our children’s progress and apply it to schools and districts: report cards with letter grades.
The current system of grading schools mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act often misleads parents, confuses the public, and demoralizes the hard-working professionals in our schools. A school that meets 30 of 31 performance objectives earns a failing label. That sounds like an “A” to me. Prior to No Child Left Behind, South Carolina already required school report cards. The federal system just layered on another requirement, leaving us with imperfect, dual systems of federal and state accountability. South Carolina now can modernize and unify these two systems. The U.S. Department of Education recently began to offer the flexibility I have supported from Day One. In October, I notified the U.S. secretary of education of South Carolina’s intent to seek a waiver from certain provisions of the federal law. On Feb. 28, we submitted our waiver proposal.
First, we worked to make the state’s new evaluation plan easier to understand. It builds upon the strengths of the existing state system by using multiple measures, such as student performance in the four core subjects (math, science, social studies, and English), high school graduation rates, and student improvement. The plan also increases transparency by reporting the performance of various student subgroups. Both of the old systems lacked a clear description of school performance. Using letter grades (A through F) will make school performance easy for students, parents, and the public to understand as opposed to the ambiguous terms of “Met” and “Not Met,” or “Good” and “At Risk.” Nine other states already use or have begun transitioning to letter grades for schools. We will recognize high-performing schools and those closing achievement for their success. At the other end of the spectrum, we will also identify and take appropriate steps to address issues at low-performing schools and those with growing achievement gaps.
The effectiveness of teachers and principals has traditionally been measured by the status of their students — test scores at a fixed point in time. This flawed approach assigns too much responsibility to the teacher and principal for what students bring to the classroom at the beginning of the year, and not enough responsibility for what students learn during the year. Our new system will include measures of growth during the year in evaluating teacher and principal effectiveness. This method adjusts for the substantial differences among students at the beginning of the year.
Today, the most important information about teachers does not include the type of degree they have or their years of seniority. Their effectiveness in the classroom matters much, much more. Fifty-nine schools in South Carolina already measure educator effectiveness using a system called SC-TAP (Teacher Advancement Program). Similarly, a new statewide system will accurately, fairly, and reliably measure educator effectiveness. When parents know how well their child does, they can more effectively help their student. When teachers and principals know how well they perform, they can more efficiently improve classroom instruction.
Student learning is at the heart of accountability and educator evaluation. Our new evaluation system puts students first. It has the potential to transform education in South Carolina.
Mick Zais is South Carolina’s superintendent of education.