Education reform in South Carolina—just like the rest of the U.S.—suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: SC has changed the standards and high-stakes tests during thirty years of accountability about seven times, but the outcomes continue to be disappointing.
This proves that even in the South we are immune to our own cleverness: You can weigh a pig, but it won’t make the pig fatter.
The education reform version of that is that you can keep changing the tests, but the scores are going to tell you the same thing.
Deanna Pan, as a consequence, offers this “sky is falling” of the moment about public schools in SC, Only 14 percent of S.C. graduates are ready for college, according to ACT :
Results on the ACT college entrance exam show recent South Carolina high school graduates are woefully unprepared for college, despite their ambitions for postsecondary education.
Only 14 percent of 51,000 students tested statewide who graduated this year met the ACT’s “college readiness” benchmarks in all four of the exam’s subject areas — English, math, science and reading — yet 83 percent of test takers indicated they wanted to go on to college.
Even more staggering, just 2 percent of black students met the ACT’s benchmarks in all four sub-tests, compared with 9 percent of Latinos, 21 percent of whites and 33 percent of Asians.
After I talked with Pan by phone for 15-20 minutes, here is what made it to her article:
Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University, said these results should be “taken with a grain of salt.” Without multiple years of testing data to compare with this year’s batch of scores, he said it’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions, particularly about the performance of the state’s black students who disproportionately attend high-poverty schools with less access to advanced curriculum and veteran teachers.
“All standardized testing is still extremely biased by race, social class and gender,” Thomas said. “(These results) are more of a reflection of systemic problems, not with students.”
Just for clarities sake—since several charter school advocates took to Twitter to attack me by misrepresenting the above in order to promote charter schools, which annually prove to be no better than traditional public schools in SC—my caution focuses on interpreting ACT scores from one year of data after SC has over the past few years adopted Common Core and the related tests, dropped Common Core, renamed what are essentially Common Core standards to look as if we have our own state standards, and then adopted ACT as our annual testing.
In other words, my concern about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores includes the following:
- The data are certainly depressed due to the curricular/standards shuffling across the state over the past 3-4 years.
- ACT tests, like all standardized tests, remain more strongly correlated with race, social class, and gender than the quality of the schools or teachers.
- Virtually all shifts to new high-states standardized tests necessarily begin with a drop in scores; and thus, my point about the need to wait for several years of data.
However, my key point of emphasis, regretfully, during my interview with Pan was omitted: The ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, tests scores in the U.S. (notably our demoralizing residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the single most important lesson from this data is that SC has yet to address the equity gap in the lives and education of vulnerable children.
To persist with misnomers such as the “achievement gap” is to keep our eyes on the outcomes while ignoring the root causes of those outcomes.
SC has spent three decades changing standards, tests, and accountability mandates, but refuses to address directly the race and class inequities facing our state and those same inequities reflected in our schools (both traditional and charter).
Ultimately, then, I am not trivializing that these current ACT scores paint a grim picture about SC education—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I am emphasizing that we did not need yet more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity is cheating those black, brown, and poor students, and our obsession with changing standards and tests fails to address the root equity problems reflected in low test scores.
The real failure in education reform lies in the ideology of the education reformers, including those committed to accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses the root causes directly and all of which increase the actual problems.
It also is why as a teacher educator I attend to ideology. No set of curricular or pedagogical strategies can turn a classroom led by a teacher with a deficit view of families experiencing poverty into an equitable learning space for those families (Gorski 2013; Robinson 2007)….
Just as importantly, what realities does deficit ideology obscure and to what are we not responding when we respond through deficit ideology? Can we expect to eradicate outcome disparities most closely related to the barriers and challenges experienced by people experiencing poverty by ignoring those barriers and challenges – the symptoms of economic injustice?
The lamented results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation, but the callous responses by some who say poverty is an excuse are predictable and remain inexcusable.
The implication of weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. That implication is about the need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.
While problematic, recent research suggests that even when some schools can raise test scores, those higher scores do not translate into benefits once students enter the real world. In other words, if education is to have real life-long positive consequences, we must address a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.
In short, instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impacts negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need social reform that erases food, health, and work insecurity, and we need education reform that addresses equity of opportunity (for vulnerable students that includes access to experienced and certified teachers as well as access to challenging courses and then affordable college)—and not more accountability driven by ever-new standards and ever-new tests.
If anyone needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students, that is news and cringe worthy.
Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity?
 Let’s take a glance at what may be meant by taking this data with a grain of salt.
First, while poverty correlates strongly with standardized test scores, no one claims it is a perfect correlation. If you want to suggest that Tennessee calls into question SC’s low scores, you have to acknowledge that Nevada makes SC scores look quite differently. So only highlighting the TN/SC comparison is the discredited practice of cherry-picking (don’t trust people who cherry pick).
Next, among these 20 states we have no clarification on (1) how many years has the state been using this ACT test (the more years, the higher the scores, typically [reliability]), and (2) how well does this test correlate with what teachers have taught the students over 10-11 years of schooling [validity] (most of which could not have been correlated with this test).
Therefore, ACT test scores tell us about socioeconomic status, race, gender, and test validity/reliability—all of which are not about student learning, teacher quality, or school quality.
Ultimately, however, low ACT scores in SC this year are well within the historical data from every single different standardized test we have ever implemented. That is the lesson—one that I detail above we have no urge to address.
Minnesota 21.1 || 7/ 11.4%
Illinois 20.8 || 24/14.3%
[National Composite Score 20.8]
Colorado 20.6 || 13/12.1%
Wisconsin 20.5 || 18/13.2%
Michigan 20.3 || 33/16.2%
Montana 20.3 || 27/15.2%
North Dakota 20.3 || 5/11.1%
Missouri 20.2 || 30/15.5%
Utah 20.2 12/11.8%
Arkansas 20.2 || 46/18.7%
Kentucky 20.0 || 47/19%
Wyoming 20.0 || 3/10.6%
Tennessee 19.9 || 41/18.2%
Louisiana 19.5 || 49/19.9%
Alabama 19.1 || 48/19.2%
North Carolina 19.1 || 39/17.2%
Hawaii 18.7 || 9/11.5%
South Carolina 18.5 || 40/17.9%
Mississippi 18.4 || 51/21.9%
Nevada 17.7 || 29/15.4%
[See original submission with hyperlinks included below]
Reforming School Discipline Policies Must Recognize Racial Inequity
A recent Post and Courier editorial argues: “[school] is…not a place where children should be labeled criminals on a regular basis. And that’s what seems to have been happening in Charleston County schools.”
Just as Richland 2 (Columbia) addressed in 2014, Charleston is now committed to reforming discipline policies in schools that have resulted in significant imbalances in how students are treated, worst of which is that often those practices criminalize students of color disproportionately.
Education reform has been prominent in South Carolina and across the U.S. since the late 1970s and early 1980s, notably with the accountability movement based on academic standards and high-stakes testing. Along with a “get-tough” attitude about academics—such as instituting exit exams—public schools have also increasingly embraced “get-tough” approaches to student behavior—“no excuses” philosophies and zero tolerance policies, for example.
Over the past thirty or so years, however, doubling down again and again on accountability as well as discipline has not created the outcomes promised, but has resulted in many unintended negative consequences.
Exit exams as gatekeepers in school and student accountability as well as popular policies such as grade retention based on test scores have proven to be extremely harmful, especially for vulnerable populations of students (poor, black/brown, and special needs students and English language learners).
While Charleston continues to struggle with education reform targeting academics, the city has also been the epicenter of the larger national challenge to recognize concerns about policing and racial tensions—with the shooting of Walter Scott and the heinous massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
To reform school discipline, we must admit, is to confront a subset of the wider race problem with mass incarceration and police shootings. If our public schools are to be change agents for our society, they must be unlike the culture and communities they serve.
Charleston, then, is making a wise and important decision to reform discipline policies in the district, but additionally, this move requires that political leaders and the public are well educated about the realities of racial inequities in school discipline.
Those lessons must include the following:
- In 2012 the Office of Civil Rights released disturbing data about racial imbalances in school suspensions and expulsions: “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC [Civil Rights Data Collection] sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.”
- Racial inequities in school discipline begin in prekindergarten, and have lingering negative consequences for students, including contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and higher drop-out rates.
- Researchalso shows that black children are targeted more often and treated differently than white children for the same behaviors. In fact, Kenrya Rankin Naasel reports: “When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor.”
- Black children are viewed as being much older than their biological ages, and thus, Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues, “Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive—in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.”
- Police in the hallways of schools has proven to be more likely to criminalize students than to create safer learning environments.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has forced the U.S. to confront some hard truths about lingering racial inequity, and addressing discipline policies in Charleston along with continuing to reform academic opportunities for students is yet another set of hard racial truths for us to examine and overcome.
Charleston educational leaders should be commended for this needed move, but the way forward has to be informed by the available research and then grounded in a firm commitment to create the sorts of equitable and rich school experiences that South Carolina has for too long neglected to provide for poor and black/brown students.
In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin offers a powerful guiding principle for all education reform: “It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”
Our “get-tough” approaches to academics and discipline are damaging our students, and we must find better ways to serve all our students.
UPDATE: And then I receive a racist (incoherent) email as a response:
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken an editorial stand in favor of closing a high-poverty, majority-minority school and a private takeover of public schools in Charleston (see a history of the debate here).
Now, a P&C editorial asks more questions:
How many classes of children should come up through the school’s failing system before the district makes some big changes?
Another question: Don’t those children deserve to try an educational approach that has proven to be far more successful?
Since turn about is fair play, let’s investigate those questions and ask a few in return.
At the very least, these questions are loaded, and as a result, misleading.
Burns Elementary (to be closed) is framed again as “failing,” and the Meeting Street Academy, “successful.”
As I have documented, many problems exist with the “good”/”bad” school labeling.
But in this case, we must be extra skeptical because all of the praise for the “successful” and the promises of even more success in “closing the achievement gap” for poor and mostly black students rest on the claims of the private entities invested in this process.
So there are actually some very important questions that the editors at the P&C are failing to ask:
- Why have some students been allowed ever to languish in school conditions that are subpar when compared to vibrant schools and opportunities for other students in the same city? Burns Elementary with a poverty index of 96 is but one school that represents a long history in SC of how negligent we have been as a state in terms of providing anything close to equity in the opportunities poor and racial minority children are afforded.
- Why does any public school board need a private partnership to do what is needed to offer these students the sort of school all children deserve? If what is needed is so obvious, and so easy to do (which is a subtext of the editorial), the truth is that the school board simply does not have the political will to do what is right for some children.
- And this is very important: What third party, not invested in the Meeting Street Academy, has examined the claims of academic success in the so-called “successful” schools that are being promised as fixes for Burns? I cannot find any data on test scores (setting aside that test scores aren’t even that good for making these claims), but I have analyzed claims of “miracle” charter schools in SC—finding that these claims are always false. Always. I do not trust that Meeting Street is going to prove to be the first actual miracle school in a long line of those that have been unmasked before.
This last question cannot be overemphasized because the political process has proven time and again that political leadership can be easily bamboozled by glitzy claims but routinely fail to examine the evidence that would guide well our educational policy, as Christopher Lubienski, Elizabeth Debray, and Janelle Scott have revealed:
But what was perhaps most interesting was the degree to which research played virtually no part in decision making for policymakers, despite their frequent rhetorical embrace of the value of research. While many interviewees spoke of the importance of research evidence, nearly all were unable to point to an instance where research evidence shaped their position on an instrumentalist issue.
SC political leaders have pushed for school choice, charter schools, VAM evaluations of teachers, ever-new standards and high-stakes testing, exit exams, third-grade retention, and now takeover policies for so-called “failing schools”—yet all of these have no basis for policy in the body of research refuting the effectiveness of each one.
For the editors of the P&C, as well as our political leaders and the public, the real questions are why do we persist in ignoring the stark realities of our inequitable society, why do we then continue to play politics with our schools that are just as inequitable as our society, and then why do we refuse to consider the evidence about addressing social and educational inequity directly in our policies?
Again, as I have stated many times, the answer is that the people with the power to change things simply do not really care about change because any change can threaten their perches of power.
Closing schools, renaming schools, shuffling students—these are the practices of those who are invested in the status quo regardless of the consequences for “other people’s children.”
The film introduces students to many of the key patterns of educational reform over the last thirty-plus years, including how we talk politically and publicly about good schools and bad schools as well as how we have chosen to address inequitable opportunities and outcomes among identifiable populations of students by race and social class.
Crenshaw specifically addresses the political strategies of closing so-called bad schools—often including takeover policies and cosmetic renamings of historically important schools for communities.
The morning of the second class, I read Why the board is closing Lincoln about the same dynamic in Charleston, SC, my home state.
Beyond the disturbing pattern of trying the same approaches over and over while expecting different results (the most blatant failure of the accountability era in education reform), this editorial support for closing a school exposes the problems inherent in how we talk politically and publicly about schools.
The editorial describes the school being closed, Lincoln Middle-High School, with “inadequate,” “shortcomings,” and “under performing.”
As a rhetorical and policy strategy, the editorial frames Lincoln against nearby Wando High, characterized as “academically one of the top high schools in the state.”
So we have Lincoln as “bad school” and Wando as “good school”—making this seem more than credible: “Why shouldn’t students from the McClellanville area get an education as good as students 25 miles down the road in Mount Pleasant?”
Let’s examine that more carefully.
As the editorial notes, “Lincoln’s students are predominantly black, and some people who have felt the brunt of very real racism over the years see shuttering Lincoln as motivated by a lack of regard for a minority school and its students.”
However, a key element of how these schools are characterized is omitted—the poverty index for each school:
The editorial is mostly wrong-minded throughout—except for its concession that race and racism lie at the foundation of why SC has refused to address adequately our investment as a state in “other people’s children.”
“Bad” and “good” contribute to our coded political and public discourse that reflects our collective unwillingness to do what is required: reform directly education so that all students have the sorts of opportunities that we do guarantee to the most fortunate children among us.
Lincoln as a school, the students it serves, and the community within which it sits—these are not “failing” but overburdened and under-resourced.
Wando as a school, the students it serves, and the community within which it sits—these are not academically “top” because of the school, but because this context is far less burdened, gifted a tremendous amount of slack within which students and by proxy schools can succeed.
Of course, students at Lincoln deserve the same opportunities as the students at Wando—but to act as if this somehow has something to do with the physical plants, the school buildings, is inexcusable.
If we truly believe “Why shouldn’t students from the McClellanville area get an education as good as students 25 miles down the road in Mount Pleasant?” (and I am pretty sure we do not believe that), then we simply need the political and public will to make that happen right there in Lincoln—and there is nothing hard or magical about that.
Closing schools, renaming schools, taking over schools, changing standards and tests—these, and nearly every education reform policy we embrace, is so much foolishness, the indirect but fake change that reveals beneath the codes that we simply don’t give a damn about some children and some communities.
“Bad school” and “good school” keep the accusatory gaze on buildings, educators, and even children. What we need is to spend some time in front of a mirror—where the real problems lie.
South Carolina remains a disturbing subset of the larger education reform movement effectively dismantling but not improving pubic schools, institutions that have historically and are currently failing vulnerable student populations who need public opportunities more than anyone.
Charleston is now the battle ground over expanding charter schools and embracing the already failed turnaround or takeover models that many early adopters in other states are ending.
The public version of the debate has included the following:
- Beware of ‘turnaround’ school districts (see compilation of research at the end)
- Beware of privatizing public education, Millicent Brown and Jon Hale
- Momentum grows for Charleston education, Anita Zucker and Ted Legasey
- Brentwood and Burns make public schools work for kids
- Don’t trust ‘free market’ reforms for public schools, The Rev. Joseph A. Darby
Beyond the specifics of the issues of this debate about takeover policies and charter school expansion (and the implications of privatizing public schools therein), this debate highlights a very important issue for SC and the nation: Don’t trust invested advocates of education reform.
The current charter school debate, we must acknowledge, is just the latest version of the much older school choice debate. Notable about the school choice debate is that choice advocates have constantly shifted their promises, ignored when they fail to come through, and then moved on to the next carnival scam.
The debate over charter schools and takeovers in Charleston, then, is another time we must heed Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform.
Advocates for Meeting Street Schools are driving with vested interest expanding their model, and making dramatic claims without providing the data and evidence for disinterested parties to analyze.
Part of school choice advocacy, including the current charter push, includes making grand claims before the data are available for unmasking those claims.
SC has a large pro-charter movement that routinely falls ways short of any sort of competition model: 4 or 5 charters out of over 50 producing data better than comparable public schools, and most charters are no better and many are worse (see analysis of two years here).
These “miracle” school narratives fail on logic (outliers are irrelevant for determining typical), but as Harris has show, disinterested analysis of “miracle” schools has shown that “only 1.1 percent of high-poverty schools were identified as ‘high flyers.'”
School choice is a shell game, one resting its promises on indirect action that is necessarily no positive action at all.
The only direct action is investing fully in public education that starts with the interests of our most vulnerable students and not the promises of adults invested in their own interests.
More often than not, mainstream media and think tanks produce claims about education that are without credibility.
Sometimes the source is also lacking credibility, but many times, the source has good intentions.
Today in “Don’t Believe It,” let’s consider both types.
Don’t believe it because NCTQ bases the claims on one weak study about what every teacher should know, and then did a review of textbooks and syllabi that wouldn’t be allowed in undergraduate research courses.
See the full review here.
Next, despite genuinely good intentions, Kecio Greenho, regional executive director of Reading Partners Charleston, claims in an Op-Ed for The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) that South Carolina’s Read to Succeed, which includes provision for third-grade retention based on high-stakes test scores, “is a strong piece of legislation that gives support to struggling readers by identifying them as early as possible.”
Don’t believe it because Read to Succeed is a copy-cat of similar policies across the U.S. that remain trapped in high-stakes testing and grade retention, although decades of research have shown retention to be very harmful to children.
When you are confronted with claims about education, too often the source and the claim are without merit, but you have to be aware that those with good intentions can make false claims as well.
The Post and Courier: Beware of ‘turnaround’ school districts
[see original submission with hyperlinks embedded below]
South Carolina has a shameful history regarding vulnerable populations of students being served in our high-poverty, racial minority areas of the state, notably our Corridor of Shame along I-95.
That neglect eventually prompted a court battle in SC over adequately funding high-poverty schools. That case has finally been settled, and now SC political leaders are faced with how to address school funding; low achievement among impoverished students, racial minorities, English language learners, and special needs students; and teacher recruitment and retention in those high-needs schools.
In the Post and Courier, Paul Bowers has reported that some are advocating for charter takeover of these struggling districts, strategies made politically appealing from New Orleans to Tennessee to Michigan. Nearby Georgia and North Carolina are also considering takeover plans.
However, these so-called “opportunity” or “achievement” districts have two serious problems that warrant SC not making such commitments. First, advocacy for takeovers is mostly political cheerleading, and second, a growing body of research has revealed that takeovers have not achieved what advocates claim and often have replicated or even increased the exact problems they were designed to solve, such as race and class segregation and inequitable educational opportunities.
Three important reports on takeovers include the following:
- Investing In What Works, Leigh Dingerson, et al. (Southern Education Foundation)
- State Takeovers of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement & Student Harm (The Center for Popular Democracy)
- Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace, Frank Adamson, Channa Cook-Harvey, and Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education)
- Out of Control: The Systemic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through School Takeovers (The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools)
Although media and political claims about the recovery of education in New Orleans post-Katrina have promoted success, Adamson, Cook-Harvey, and Darling-Hammond have concluded:
Based on respondents’ experiences and district data, as well as a review of existing research, policies, and documents, we find that the New Orleans reforms have created a set of schools that are highly stratified by race, class, and educational advantage, operating in a hierarchy that provides very different types of schools serving different “types” of children.
In other words, the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans created by firing the entire public school teacher workforce and forming an all-charter school system has continued to suffer low test scores, while the new school system remains deeply segregated and inequitable.
Further, in Education Week, Kent McGuire, Katherine Dunn, Kate Shaw, and Adam Schott argue:
Imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but it’s not an appropriate prescription for the challenging work of providing individualized support to schools that need it.
[B]oth Georgia and Pennsylvania are poised to implement sweeping school turnaround plans in the form of state takeovers. These plans draw inspiration from systems operating in very different contexts elsewhere in the country and are based on a fundamental misreading of the evidence on effectiveness of these models. Just as concerning, the proposals double down on unproven governance strategies that reduce community voice in education and apply a cookie-cutter approach to the specific challenges confronting individual schools.
Takeovers in several states—similar to embracing charter schools and Teach For America—have simply shuffled funding, wasted time, and failed to address the root causes of struggling schools: concentrated poverty and social inequity.
Yes, SC must reform our public schools, and we should shift gears to address our vulnerable populations of students first. But charter takeover approaches are yet more political faddism that our state and children cannot afford.
Continuing to double-down on accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing as well as rushing to join the political reform-of-the-moment with clever names is inexcusable since we have decades of evidence about what works, and what hasn’t.
SC must embrace a new way—one committed to social policies addressing food security for the poor, stable work throughout the state, and healthcare for all, and then a new vision for education reform built on equity.
All SC students deserve experienced and certified teachers, access to challenging courses, low class sizes, fully funded schools, safe school buildings and cultures, and equitable disciplinary policies and practices. These are reforms that must be guarantees for every public school student regardless of zip code, and they need not be part of complex but cleverly named programs.
It is well past time for SC to reject falling prey to political advocacy disguised as education reform. Adopting the takeover experiment already discredited across the U.S. would be a calloused choice to continue to neglect our vulnerable students and the schools that serve them.
See this reader of research and analyses of that advocacy and evidence:
- NEW from NEPC: The “Portfolio” Approach to School District Governance, William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner
- Investing In What Works, Leigh Dingerson, et al. (Southern Education Foundation)
- State Takeovers of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement & Student Harm
- Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace, Frank Adamson, Channa Cook-Harvey, and Linda Darling-Hammond
- Out of Control: The Systemic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through School Takeovers (The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools)
- Just the Facts: A Longitudinal Analysis of ASD Schools Before and After Takeover, Ezra Howard
- Review of Two Presentations on the Portfolio School Model (NEPC)
- The Sad History of State Takeovers of Schools and School Districts, Jan Resseger
- Another Disaster of the Accountability Era? State Takeovers of High-Poverty, Majority-Minority Schools
- Connecting Dots of ASD Advocacy: Don’t Buy It
- A Failing Grade for K-12 State Takeovers, Kent McGuire, Katherine Dunn, Kate Shaw, and Adam Schott
See also the Quality Education Project.