Wednesday, March 16, 2005

More on Innovation in Education

An African-American leader recently objected to a current school choice proposal because, "I'm bothered that the present initiative sounds chillingly like something from the sixties when South Carolina made it's last ditch effort to block school desegregation"

Clearly the concern about returning to an era of segregation in education is valid, and we must all work to prevent that. Diversity, in all its many dimensions, is a major strength we have on which we can build the states' future. High quality, universal education is an essential foundation for South Carolina to be globally competitive.

Per capita income in South Carolina is approximately 80 percent of the national average. At the Moore Business School Economic Summit in December 2003, Michael Porter emphatically made the point that this is not because South Carolina is more black or more rural than the national average, but it is true primarily because major industries in the most affluent metropolitan areas in this state are not as productive as their peers in other parts of the country. We can not hide behind demographics to explain why we are falling behind the rest of the country. In fact, the per capita income gap between South Carolina versus North Carolina and Georgia, which have similar demographics and histories, has actually grown over the last twenty years.

In a recent study, Andrew Coulsen makes an observation about education in South Carolina, which is similar to Michael Porter's observation about the rest of our economy.

While South Carolina blacks score 15 points below blacks nationwide on the SAT, South Carolina whites score 27 points behind whites nationally. South Carolina students from lower-middle-income families score 20 points behind their national counterparts. Students from the wealthiest families score 39 points behind their economic peers in other states. The better educated a South Carolina student's parents happen to be, the further that student scores behind students in other states whose parents are similarly educated.

These results are not due to a higher percentage of young people taking the SAT in South Carolina. After adjusting for South Carolina's unusually high dropout rate, it becomes apparent that SAT-takers in this state make up about the same share of their age cohort as they do in other states. (A higher percentage of South Carolina high school seniors do take the test, but a smaller percentage of South Carolina children make it to the end of high school. Averaged together, these two factors cancel each other out).

Though the black/white achievement gap is somewhat smaller in South Carolina than in other states, it is still large in absolute terms. What's more, the gap is generally smaller because whites in South Carolina perform worse, not because African Americans in South Carolina perform better.

The current way we are delivering public education in South Carolina is not producing acceptable results. Accountability alone is not the answer. Measuring a broken process only highlights that the system is broken and produces frustration and anger in those charged with delivering results who have little or no flexibility to change the process. Ask any principal or teacher, who are as much victims of our current system of delivering education in South Carolina as students and parents.

If we are going to substantially improve the quality of education delivered to all children in South Carolina, we have to fundamentally change the way education is delivered. The problems we face in the state are overwhelming for any one of us to address. We have to have a system where passionate principals and teachers can create innovative educational alternatives for focused groups of students, especially those not well served by the status quo, and parents have the ability and the capacity to choose among the best educational opportunities for their children.

There are many underprivileged children whose parents are unwilling or unable to help them succeed. I went to the Aspen Institute last week as a part of the Liberty Fellowship. There I met Jack Markel, who is Treasurer of the State of Delaware and a Democrat. He was telling me of schools in Delaware where underprivileged children go to school at 7:30 am, begin class at 8:00, get out at 3:00 pm, participate in organized athletics until 5:00, go home for dinner, return to school at 6:30 to do their home work until 8:00. Basically these kids are immersed in a culture of excellence with a high work ethic and high expectations. It reminded me of the immersion in a culture of excellence that you hear the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities and the Governor's School for Math and Science talk about here.

Many children in successful families already live with drill sergeants like these - they're called Moms and Dads. The Delaware model will not be appropriate for all children and families in South Carolina. But it may be a great solution for many children not well served by the current system. It is one of many creative alternatives to the current way of delivering education that we must allow to be tested, and if successful to thrive, if we are going to deliver universal, high-quality education to all children in the state.

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