Looking back — and forward — on improving S.C. schools

Dr. Mick Zais shows off one of 342 new school buses that were distributed to school districts statewide in 2012. (Provided)

It’s been my honor over the past four years to serve the students, parents, and taxpayers of South Carolina as the state superintendent of education. As I leave the office, I reflect upon many advances.

Throughout my tenure I made it a priority to get out of the office. I’ve been to 266 schools and 82 districts where I listened to our education leaders and classroom teachers. I also met with many parents and concerned citizens. We’ve worked hard to consider all perspectives in developing policies and advocating change.

From the beginning, one of my top priorities was to expand options available to parents, so they could choose a school that was a good fit for their child. Subsequently, the number of public charter schools has increased from 37 to 66, per pupil funding increased from $2,734 to over $5,720, while enrollment expanded from around 11,000 to 28,000. Now home-school and charter school students may participate in athletics and extracurricular activities at the traditional school for which they are zoned. And South Carolina has risen to No. 5 in the nation in our support of charter schools.

We’ve also seen an expansion of public magnet schools, and more emphasis on career centers where high school students prepare for careers in high-paying fields such as technology, advanced manufacturing, and health care. And online courses have grown from 64 to 95. Enrollment increased from 10,000 to 23,000.

During my tenure, the state’s four-year graduation rate increased every year from 72 percent to an all-time high of 80 percent. On the state report card, the number of districts rated “excellent” increased from 7 percent to 51 percent, while the number rated “at risk,” the lowest rating, fell from 7 percent to 3.7 percent.

Four years ago, I questioned how 97 percent of teachers could be “meeting standards” according to our state’s evaluation system, when only 28 percent of our 4th graders were proficient readers, and in some high schools over 10 percent of 9th graders read at only the 1st or 2nd grade level. I pledged that reading and teacher accountability would be key components of my administration. Subsequently, the General Assembly passed and funded the Read to Succeed Act that promises to profoundly improve reading instruction, particularly for our most needy students.

We know that there are enormous differences in teacher effectiveness. Unfortunately, our current system rewards teachers for seniority and degrees rather than effectiveness. To remedy this broken system, a plan has been put in place to evaluate teachers based, in part, on whether or not the children in their classroom actually learn anything. This plan, is being phased in over the next four years. As I’ve consistently said, “We don’t pay our best teachers nearly enough, and we pay our worst teachers far too much.”

We also developed a federal accountability system that assigns every school and district a letter grade, A-F. This system is easily understood by the public, parents, the press, and policy makers. It replaces purposefully ambiguous terms such as “met,” “not met,” and “at risk.” Letter grades are based strictly on measures of student academic success: test scores and graduation rates.

Five years ago, I stated that the one-size-fits-all high school curriculum designed to prepare every student for a four-year college does not meet the needs of many students. Today, there’s growing recognition that personal finance and business math may be a better choice for some students than algebra II and statistics may be more relevant than pre-calculus. Likewise, many parents now understand that business writing may be more important for some than British literature, and public speaking more useful than world literature.

I also condemned the system that forces every student to attend the local traditional school for which he is zoned, regardless of whether it is a good fit. The current one-size-fits-all model ignores enormous individual differences in students.

Now, the many options model is now widely accepted as the prevailing wisdom. This is exemplified in TransformSC, a group of prominent educators and business leaders working to develop innovative ways to personalize and customize education rather than to standardize it.

These accomplishments are the product of hard work by our teachers, school leaders, and members of our General Assembly. I’m especially grateful to the superb staff at the Department of Education for their dedicated work on behalf of our students. These advancements have occurred while reducing the number of state-funded administrative positions in the department from 302 to 262, producing an annual savings of $2.7 million in salary. We also reduced the annual operational budget, saving another $2.2 million.

Finally, integrity and ethical conduct have been central to my administration. Within the Department, there has not been a hint of impropriety. It’s my fervent hope that our next superintendent will continue these trends. I wish Molly Spearman the best of luck continuing to transform South Carolina’s public school system.

Mick Zais served as S.C. superintendent of education from 2011 until Wednesday.