I have taught in South Carolina since 1983, 18 years as an English teacher and coach followed by 17 years as a teacher educator and first-year writing professor. Over that career, I have felt exasperated by education reform that has proven to be déjà vu all over again.
A few years ago, I advocated against the misguided Read to Succeed Act, a policy as flawed as I predicted since it failed to identify the evidence-based problems with reading in S.C. and then promoted new policy that does not address those problems while creating new and even worse consequences.
Read to Succeed also foreshadowed this newest round of wholesale education reform facing the state.
Since the 1980s, politicians in S.C. have insisted that our public schools are failing. Their responses, however, have meant that the only consistency in our schools is we are in a constant state of education reform repackaged over and over again.
Instead of misguided education reform beneath misleading political rhetoric, S.C. should take a different path, one shifting not only policies but also ideologies.
First, S.C. must clearly identify what problems exist in our schools and then carefully distinguish between which of those problems are caused by out-of-school factors and which are the consequences of in-school practices and policies.
For example, S.C.’s struggles with literacy are driven by generational inequities such as poverty and racism magnified by decades of misguided commitments to ever-changing standards, tests and reading programs. Literacy outcomes in our state reflect how children suffer when families have low-paying work, endure transient lives, and are denied affordable insurance and health care.
Next, S.C. must recognize that policies and practices based on accountability and market forces have failed our students and our schools. Instead, we need educational policy grounded in equity. Policies and practices grounded in equity and not accountability would ensure that all children have access to experienced and certified teachers, low class sizes and challenging classes.
Further, S.C. must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Teacher pay, teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy, facilities and materials funding and quality, student/teacher ratios — all of these are conditions that indirectly and directly impact whether or not teaching and learning can thrive in our schools. Yet, S.C. politicians remain determined not to make these choices while remaining committed to expensive and ineffective approaches such as standards, testing and choice options, notably charter schools.
As a broad guide, then, S.C. must set aside inspirational rhetoric and partisan commitments and seek instead a wealth of educational expertise on both the need for social policy addressing inequity and reforming schools in ways that serve both teachers’ ability to teach and students’ equitable access to learning.
The problem in S.C. schools has never been about the presence or quality of our standards, what tests students have to navigate in order to survive schooling, or parental choice.
The harsh reality of our state includes poverty, racism and disadvantages such as the scarcity of high-quality and stable work as well as affordable health care and housing. The harsh reality of our schools is that teaching and learning conditions are hostile to some students having equitable access to learning.
S.C. political leaders refuse to address those realities because they are too enamored with partisan politics as usual in a state tragically embracing the worst aspects of conservative ideology; once again as those myopic political leaders claim bold education reform, it’s déjà vu all over again.
P.L. Thomas is a professor of education at Furman University. He taught high school English for 18 years in South Carolina before moving to teacher education and teaching first-year writing. He is author of “Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What ‘Teaching Writing’ Means.”