FEATURE ‌ What's the big idea 

Reformers search for the next innovative solution to our education woes

Everyone's got their own idea on how to fix our nation's struggling education system -- start educating kids earlier, keep them in school longer, recruit better teachers, let parents and private industry determine the best direction for curriculum, get the community invested in its schools. But what's the next bright idea?

Five years ago, an odd couple of President George W. Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy touted their own bright idea -- No Child Left Behind, a national initiative to hold every public school accountable for educating every student. The analogy that public schools were a mostly solid path with cracks that students could fall into had morphed into the honest assessment that public schools were a giant hole that students could only climb out of through talent or wealth.

Five years later, Congress is expected to take a long, hard look at No Child Left Behind, hoping to address consistent gripes like unfunded mandates and spotty implementation, as well as look for ways to fix those schools that continue down the road to failure, accountability be damned. The focus of the debate in Washington will likely circle around some of the key things that Charleston and South Carolina are already pursuing to replace failing programs and repair struggling schools, including early childhood learning, more time in the classroom, teacher incentives, and private partnerships.

As Congress begins looking at these new bright ideas to improve No Child Left Behind, Charleston County can take some solace that many of these suggestions are already in use here in the Lowcountry.

click to enlarge District Superintendent Maria goodloe-johnson says attacking poverty is the key to progress
  • District Superintendent Maria goodloe-johnson says attacking poverty is the key to progress

While a lack of money is one of her main concerns with NCLB, Charleston County School District Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson says she'd also like more local autonomy in developing services for students who are falling behind.

"There needs to be flexibility in providing supplemental services to students in need," she says.

NCLB also fails to address the varying state standards used to assess students. Sure, schools across South Carolina are struggling compared to other states, but it's because South Carolina has one of the strictest sets of standards.

"We could put our kids in Texas or some other states and they could perform higher," Goodloe-Johnson says. "They won't be smarter, and that's why I don't support it, but they would perform higher."

Stepping out in front of this winter's debate, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) released a report before Christmas titled "Tough Choices or Tough Times," one of a slew of nonprofit or private groups offering its two cents. The center laid out the obvious hurdles that seem insurmountable and what will be necessary to prepare our students for the workforce.

The most interesting recommendation, nearly bankrupting the center's entire proposal by its sheer enormity, is the suggestion that some students graduate at 16 and head off to technical college for two years. If you've ever spoken with an average 10th grader, you, too, would question the young person's ability to enter into the job market, let alone the college atmosphere. An opening salvo like that should make almost anything seem reasonable, but what the center provided was a jumping-off point to look at the various suggestions floating out there and the one direction each is aiming: up.

While the federal government may have delayed a review of NCLB until now, South Carolina and Charleston County have spent the past few years implementing some of the ideas that are just starting to get national attention. For example, the state's planned career cluster program, where students select a field of study (business, arts, science, etc.) and have a curriculum designed around that field, carries some similarities to the NCEE's early college proposal. And national calls for science accountability tests trail South Carolina's established standards.

"What we have found out in schools that have been successful is that they have a high-quality teacher in the classroom, the student gets strategic tutoring to target whatever their deficits are, and they need three hours a day of additional after-school tutoring," says Goodloe-Johnson.

Start early

If educators were gamblers betting on the "permanent fix," it'd be early childhood education.

"For decades, researchers have almost universally concluded that high-quality early childhood education is one of the best investments a nation can make in its young people," the NCEE report states. "But this country has never committed the funds necessary to provide high-quality early childhood education to its 3- and 4-year-olds."

In 2006, South Carolina was forced to provide it after nine impoverished school districts sued the state for not providing them the adequate resources for their students. The court ruled in favor of the districts, but tailored its demands to focus on early childhood education. The S.C. Education Department developed a program for at-risk 4-year-olds in those communities and will likely expand the program statewide this year for all at-risk students. Some legislators have expressed interest in taking the program even further and including all 4-year-olds.

Charleston already has a program for some of its at-risk 4-year-olds to hone their basic developmental skills, and Goodloe-Johnson says she wants to expand the program to include more children, "so when they come to kindergarten, they're ready to learn."

While some might assume that it will take years to see the positive results of an early-childhood program, Goodloe-Johnson notes that the progress has been evident in just one year. Out of about 970 students who were below the national development line at the beginning of the year, 735 were in the top half for the 4-year-old category after only one year of early childhood education.

"We'll still take time to fix middle school, high school, and all the other issues in the system, but if you fix it on the front end, then kids who start coming through the system are not going to have the significant gaps," she says, "because we've leveled the playing field from the beginning."

Stay late

Suggestions for reforms aren't going to win over every demographic, and certainly students (and likely a few teachers) aren't going to warm to the idea of a longer school day or -- gasp -- a longer school year. But if early childhood education will help the next generation of students, more school time will help the bunch sitting in the school desks now.

As Congress delves into No Child Left Behind, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is expected to introduce legislation that would provide $150 million to help schools coordinate a longer school day. A study released last week by Education Sector Reports supported additional hours, but noted it would be a tough sell.

"Additional days and hours are expensive, and changing the school schedule affects not only students and teachers, but parents, employers, and a wide range of industries that are dependent on the traditional school day and year," says author Elena Silva in the report. "It is critical that policy makers understand the educational and political complexities of time reform before they attempt to extend the school year or take up other time-reform initiatives."

Goodloe-Johnson is pressing for more instruction time for at-risk students, including after-school classes and summer instruction, suggesting mandatory summer school for at-risk 5th and 8th graders.

"Students who have a significant gap need summer school," she says. "They need intensive support in transitioning over the summer so we don't set them up to fail."

The Education Sector report notes that these students may benefit more from additional course time because there are fewer educational opportunities outside of the classroom and cites a 1982 study that found lower-income students fall behind other students because of "summer learning loss."

"School provides a steady flow of learning opportunity for all children during the school year; the flow stops for low-income children when school is out, but continues for higher-income students who are provided learning opportunities elsewhere," Silva states in the report. "Differences in family background will inevitably lead to unequal gains for students unless other sources of learning are provided to make up for the summer deficit."

Selling the program to taxpayers may be difficult, but selling the program to parents, students, and teachers will likely be a more daunting task. Studies of summer programs in other districts have found problems with attendance, teacher motivation, and preparation. Charleston County School Board Chairwoman Nancy Cook says the county's existing program is underutilized.

"When I hear the district talk about mandatory programs, I laugh," Cook says, noting that home life for some students prevents them from staying after school.

While some schools around the country are looking to extend not just the school day but the school year, such a move would have tall hurdles in South Carolina. Just last year, the legislature approved a bill to prohibit schools on a traditional calendar from opening before the third Monday in August. The move was seen as an effort to protect tourism and other industries that need teens working during the summer.

Head of the class

If reforms start in the classroom, they'll likely have to start at the front of the class. One of the platforms that State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex ran on was bringing a renewed respect for teachers; anyone who's had a job knows that you really don't feel like you're respected until you've got the pay stub to prove it.

click to enlarge Park Dougherty and Leroy Connors are two of the local residents developing the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science on the peninsula
  • Park Dougherty and Leroy Connors are two of the local residents developing the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science on the peninsula

The NCEE study recommends a base salary for teachers at $45,000, with many reaching about $100,000 through their career. Now, they aren't recommending this type of salary for those C-student Art History grads who need something to do after college. The Center recommends seeking out high school seniors graduating in the top third of their classes and shepherding them through college programs that prepare them for the job.

The pay's not that grand in Charleston County, but the district provides hiring bonuses, mortgage assistance, and other incentives to lure high-quality teachers, Goodloe-Johnson says. And they're looking for other lures as well, including incentives for teachers driving long distances to rural schools. The county has also hired the national nonprofit New Teacher Project to recruit teachers and to impart their best practices to county staff to add a fresh polish to internal recruitment efforts.

Do it yourself

Charter schools are nothing new, but the call for unique, parent-driven schools is taking off. Newly elected school board member Arthur Ravenel Jr. has been a strong proponent for charter schools, touting the successes on James Island and elsewhere and pushing for district support for the proposed Charleston Charter School for Math and Science. Charter schools are managed by a board of parents, with unique programs not typical of standard public schools.

"The charter school element provides the school with the autonomy and flexibility to innovate," says Park Dougherty, one of the parents organizing the charter school.

Dougherty and the other parents and teachers organizing the school are awaiting word on a planning grant. The group has already received support from the Medical University of South Carolina, potentially including use of university labs and job-shadowing opportunities. The charter school is hoping to open by the fall of 2008 for grades 6-9, building to grade 12 over the next three years. While it may be assumed that charter schools are the bane of the public school system, Goodloe-Johnson says she supports charter schools that provide something unique for the district's students, but she has a problem with the money that she sees charter schools pulling from other public school programs.

"My issue is the need to fund all schools equitably," she says, noting the charter schools have more money than some of the district's failing schools. "I'm a firm believer that funding is not the answer, but it's necessary to close the gap."

Proving that it's not leaving innovation strictly to the private sector, the school district is looking to partner with colleges and businesses on two magnet programs that will be opened downtown, but available to students districtwide. The district is looking to develop Preservation High at the former Rivers Middle School. The curriculum would provide high school students with skills in preservation modeled after a successful New York program. The district has already received grant funding from the World Monument Fund to develop the program and pull in partners. Meanwhile, the district is also looking to establish a similar program called High Tech High, where students interested in technology, math, and science would have a state-of-the-art facility.

"We're fooling ourselves if we believe that we are connecting with all of our kids," Goodloe-Johnson says. "We need to have some kind of option for kids who really have that interest in technology."

The parental push for charter schools and the district push for magnet programs could butt heads later this year, with both the Math and Science Charter School and the county's preservation and technology programs eyeing the same building: the former Rivers Middle School. Dougherty says that he supports Preservation High, but he thinks the High Tech High is an effort to block the charter school proposal.

"That is a fight that I'll take any day," he says.

The NCEE report doesn't specifically refer to charter schools, but it recommends that districts get out of the classrooms, leaving curriculum and school-level administration to contracted groups (including locally-developed programs like charter schools) and making these schools open to all students.

The schools would have complete discretion over the way their funds are spent, the staffing schedule, their organization and management, their schedule, and their program, provided the curriculum meets state standards. The district in these cases would serve as an oversight agency, monitoring the schools and cutting ties and funding when a school doesn't provide the right results for students.

State officials are also looking beyond typical public schools for solutions. In its policy and budget recommendations at the end of 2006, the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, responsible for enacting the state Education Accountability Act, called for the legislature to add $2 million to the education budget to invest in public-private partnerships that target underperforming schools.

Do it together

While many thought that the debate had been settled over school vouchers (or tuition tax credits), the White House floated a proposal last month to include a federal voucher program in the No Child Left Behind reforms, providing a contentious issue to what was expected to be a bipartisan effort to fix the system, not bog it down.

Goodloe-Johnson says public involvement is the answer, not private schools.

"The answer really is broader than education. It's about poverty. And poverty is connected to government, neighborhoods, health care, the faith community, and education. So let's think of something that connects all of those things so we can break the generational cycle of poverty."

The district has developed a variety of partnerships throughout the region, including a successful partnership with the College of Charleston at Burke High and Memminger. Other area colleges and universities are being approached to partner with high-need schools, Goodloe-Johnson says, and the district is developing a partnership with YMCA for fitness-oriented after-school programs.

Sen. Kennedy, who chairs the committee that will oversee the NCLB review, also says the parental and community involvement will be key to fixing low-performing schools.

"This effort will require a broad partnership with parents, school leaders, local communities, states, and the federal government, and we'll insist that Uncle Sam do more to fulfill his commitment to that partnership," Kennedy said recently at the National School Boards Association Conference.

The Charleston County School Board is debating whether to hold some board meetings in the community to encourage more parental involvement and to help in promoting the district's programs.

"One thing the district has not done a good job with is public engagement," says Nancy Cook.

So what's the next big idea? It's probably a mesh of all of these things. The focus for state and local groups will likely be the opportunity for discretion when it comes to implementing national recommendations, while the nation's attention will be on a set of national standards every state should adhere to.

Now that it's no longer corrupted by the concept of vouchers or tuition tax credits, "choice" has become the buzzword for just about any education reform, whether it's choices among schools or choices among programs. One bill introduced in the state House of Representatives earlier this year would allow parents to choose the best school for their children, regardless of attendance lines and district boundaries.

For educators, the buzzword is innovation. Innovative schools and innovative programs. What they're saying is, our schools worked for us, but they're not going to work for our kids.

The most encouraging part of the conversation is that everyone is opening their eyes. We might disagree on what the next bright idea is, but at least we're all looking for it. And that's a start.


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