Struggling to enact meaningful reforms in public school policies is nothing new for the S.C. General Assembly. Neither is the public’s hope that legislators will finally get it right.
In 1984, the Legislature passed the Education Improvement Act. This promised improved teacher skills, longer school days, higher teacher salaries and better accountability metrics for schools. The immediate result was that teacher pay in S.C. was ranked the highest in the Southeast, and South Carolina became the model for school reform. The newly formed Education Oversight Committee ensured the implementation of grade-level standards and end-of-year testing determined how well schools performed in meeting those standards.
And yet, as The Post Courier’s extensive review of education in South Carolina concludes, too many schools still struggle to meet those goals.
So what went wrong?
Throughout South Carolina, children come to school with ranges of perspectives. Some have no experiences with books, or anything remotely related to learning, totally dependent on their teachers to provide those vital experiences. Others come hungry, dependent on the breakfasts and lunches provided by the school. In some schools, children may go home on the weekends with little to eat until they return to school on Monday. And some children come to school having witnessed violence in their neighborhoods, or even domestic unrest in their homes. For them, schools are a shelter for safety and security.
Still others may attend several schools within one school year as their parents or guardians move from one attendance area to another. Some children have parents who either don’t support their education, or struggle to provide that support as they work multiple jobs. Time off for a parent–teacher conference is too often a risk of job loss.
These differences and disparities have evolved in plain sight yet we provide a one-size-fits-all educational setting.
Children for whom the “size” is too big receive limited support services from teachers outside of the classroom. For most of their school day, these children sit in crowded classrooms, struggling to comprehend and to complete tasks designed to meet grade-level standards. Their personal circumstances and those crowded classrooms very often add up to a school experience that doesn’t fit at all.
One well-proven strategy is to reduce class size in under-performing schools. In 1985, Tennessee conducted an exhaustive and definitive study (Project STAR) on class size and its effect on student success in grades 1-3. Stanford Achievement Tests and the state’s basic skills tests documented very different performances: Students in the smaller classrooms outperformed those in the larger classrooms.
Smaller classrooms were the mandate for Tennessee’s 1989 Project Challenge. This program provided supplemental funding to the state’s 16 poorest counties to assure reduced class sizes in grades K-3. Those counties in 1980 had student achievement rates well below the state’s average. But by 1995, those rates ranked near or above the state average. And in 1997, an analysis of test scores in grades 4, 6 and 8 showed that all students who had benefited from small class size had better long-term outcomes than students who had not. Tennessee’s Project STAR and Project Challenge documented what South Carolina’s teachers and professional educators know in real-time: Smaller classrooms make a difference, especially in the lower grades.
Yes, funding such programs in South Carolina obviously is a challenge. But it would be a wise investment. The long-term costs of not addressing the needs of children who come to school academically or emotionally unprepared are far more expensive.
The reform bill passed by the House this week did not include smaller class sizes for grades in which students need the most help. And opponents of providing a teacher assistant in each of those classrooms worry that this would lead to an unfunded mandate for schools.
The realities of our performance-challenged public school system are clear and present. Commitments to meaningful reforms seem far less clear and seemingly caught by the tension between “costs” and “investments.” The proposition of every student’s and every teacher’s success should guide the Legislature’s determination to modernize our schools and assure that every child, regardless of what they “bring” when they come to school, will succeed.
Let’s hope we won’t struggle another 35 years against the reality that one size will never fit all.
Cheryl Boan retired from Charleston County School District in 2003. Her 34-year career included serving as an elementary school principal and as a Title I Language Arts consultant.