Imagine for a moment that in the 1970s when Philip John Landrigan, an epidemiologist and pediatrician, conducted research on the negative consequences of lead in paint, political leaders chose to ignore the source of the problem, lead in paint, and had initiated policies aimed at children instead.
Now imagine that children continued to suffer from lead paint poisoning every decade since that decision, and every few years, political leaders offered passionate rhetoric confronting the tragedy of lead poisoning in children, followed by yet new policies once again aimed at children, while ignoring entirely the presence of lead in paint.
If this sounds ridiculous, please consider that beginning in the early 1980s, this exact scenario is how South Carolina political leaders have handled public education.
I have a unique perspective on SC education since I have taught here over four decades since 1983, 18 years as a public high school English teacher and coach followed by an on-going 17 years in higher education as a teacher educator and first-year writing professor. I also bring to this conversation a doctoral program grounded significantly in the history of public education in the U.S. as I wrote an educational biography of Lou LaBrant, who taught from 1906 until 1971.
Over my career in education, I have felt a great deal of compassion for LaBrant as she lamented in her memoir having lived and worked through three back-to-basics movements. As I have, she found herself exasperated by political education reform that proved to be déjà vu all over again.
A few years ago, I advocated strongly against yet more misguided education reform in SC—the Read to Succeed Act which has proven to be as flawed as I predicted since it, as my hypothetical scenario above highlights, failed to identify the evidence-based problems with literacy and reading in SC and then promoted new policy and solutions that not only do not address the problems, but create new and even worse problems.
Read to Succeed represents how SC education policy and reform is almost entirely partisan politics, but it also foreshadowed this newest round of wholesale education reform facing the state now.
Since the early 1980s, political leaders in SC have beaten a steady drum that our public schools are failing, resulting in that the only consistency in our schools has been the same solutions repackaged over and over again.
State standards, state high-stakes testing, school choice proposals, and charter schools—these templates for policies have been reframed over and over, and all we have to show for that today is the same political complaints—failing schools—and decades of research that all of these approaches have failed.
Instead of yet another misguided series of education reform policies beneath misleading political rhetoric, SC could take a different path, one that shifts not only policies and practices but ideologies.
First, again returning to the opening hypothetical response to lead paint, SC must start with clearly identifying what problems exist in our schools and then carefully distinguish between which of those problems are a reflection of social forces and which are the consequences of actual school and teaching practices.
For example, SC’s problems with literacy are a reflection of generational inequities such as poverty and racism magnified by decades of misguided commitments to ever-different standards, tests, and reading programs.
Literacy in our state is a harbinger of how children suffer when parents have low-paying work, face transient lives, and are shut out of robust healthcare and adequate insurance.
Literacy also reflects in our state that once all children enter schools, they receive distinctly different access to education—poor, black, and brown children along with English language learners and students with special needs are significantly cheated by schooling while white and affluent students have access to low class sizes, advanced courses, and the most experienced certified teachers.
Next, SC 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.
For example, all children should have access to experienced and certified teachers, low class sizes, and challenging classes. Historically and currently, those assurances are for privileged children only.
Further, SC 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 policies that indirectly and directly impact whether or not teaching and learning can thrive in our schools. Yet, SC politicians remain determined not to make these choices while remaining committed to expensive and ineffective policies such as standards, testing, and choice models such as charter schools.
As a broad guide, then, SC must set aside political rhetoric and partisan commitments in order to turn instead to a wealth of educational research 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 SC schools has never been about the presence or quality of our standards or what tests students have to navigate in order to survive schooling.
The lead in the paint of our state includes poverty, racism, and a whole host of disadvantages such as the scarcity of high-quality and stable work, healthcare, and affordable housing.
The lead in the paint of our schools is that teaching and learning conditions are hostile to students having equitable access to learning.
SC political leaders refuse none the less to address those problems 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.