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Business leaders aim to reinvent education

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By Mike Fitts
Published April 1, 2013

Business leaders have teamed up with New Carolina, South Carolina’s council on competitiveness, to spearhead a new effort to energize the future of South Carolina’s economy by taking on one of its biggest issues: reinventing public education.

BB&T state market President Mike Brenan
BB&T state market President Mike Brenan
AT&T state President Pamela Lackey
AT&T state President Pamela Lackey
Two business leaders see the mission as vital for its economic future: If South Carolina cannot provide a workforce that is prepared, with both the academic smarts and work habits for employment success, its economic growth will be crippled.

The two leaders, BB&T state market President Mike Brenan and AT&T state President Pamela Lackey, emphasize that the effort seeks a deep change affecting classrooms across the entire state. “Everything is on the table,” Brenan said. “The whole system needs to be transformed.”

The campaign’s goal is to unleash innovation, especially in the area of more individualized instruction for students. Where something is working, Brenan and Lackey say, take that success to more students. Where education is falling short, break down any barriers — including well-intentioned accountability measures — that are impeding progress.

To them, the vision is simple: Kids in South Carolina still are learning with pencils as they grow up in an iPad world.

“This is how dramatic of a change this needs to be,” Brenan said.

In fact, technology is a key facet of the changes that South Carolina students need, they said. Schools now have the tools to tailor lessons and classwork to a student’s particular needs, and that should be the goal. Those tools were not broadly available just a few years ago.

“The system of the future needs to have a great deal of flexibility,” Brenan said.

Beyond that, leaders emphasize that this effort is not following a road map; they have no pre-drafted remedy for what ails South Carolina’s education system. Instead, the goal is to empower innovation and improvement throughout the whole system, from pre-kindergarten to higher education. Giving the effort a home at New Carolina emphasizes how key this reinvention is to the state’s future prosperity, Brenan and Lackey said.

When a district is succeeding with something new, that innovation should be shared across all public schools, which educate more than 700,000 students in South Carolina. When a barrier is keeping an innovation for a modern, personalized approach to education from being tried, get all the stakeholders together to fix it.

Public ready for change
The two leaders believe that the public is more ready than ever to support a total reinvention of education. They point to a survey done at New Carolina’s request showing what they call a new unanimity of opinion that makes South Carolina open to an education revolution. The survey of 307 parents of children in public school from sixth to 12th grade found that a strong majority, 72%, want teachers to have more flexibility; 74% agreed that “public education needs to be completely rethought”; 68% believe that public school is preparing their child for life; while 50% fear that struggling students do not get enough attention.

What parents think

A survey of 307 parents of children in S.C. public schools from sixth to 12th grade found:

72% want teachers to have more flexibility.

74% believe “public education needs to be completely rethought.”

68% believe public schools prepare their child for life.

50% fear struggling students do not get enough attention.

78% perceive teachers feel pressure to “teach to the test.”

Lackey and Brenan said that consensus is reflected in every group of stakeholders they have talked to. They have met with top business groups and even Gov. Nikki Haley to solicit support. All have been supportive of their goals, they said.

“What we’re finding is everybody says … we really do need a new system of teaching our children in South Carolina,” Brenan said.

Students must graduate ready for colleges, careers and citizenship, Lackey said, and right now the state is failing far too many students. Current graduation standards mostly measure that a student showed up and had minimal academic success without being a major disciplinary problem, she said.

That’s not a good enough or detailed enough standard, Brenan and Lackey said. South Carolina’s dropout rate continues to be unacceptable and a drag on the state’s future, Lackey said. “We can’t afford to waste 26% of our population.”

This is far from the first effort to revamp South Carolina’s schools. Some of the major school-related changes include:

  • The Education Improvement Act of 1984, signed by Gov. Dick Riley, brought in new academic standards and new revenue, adding a penny per dollar statewide to sales taxes for education.
  • Gov. Jim Hodges made education the focus of both his election campaign and his push to add the state education lottery, which was approved by voters in 2002. The lottery funds both local school improvements and higher education scholarships.
  • The tax relief legislation of 2006 took school operating taxes out of the local property tax base, a move that many business groups including the S.C. Chamber of Commerce say unfairly shifted the burden onto businesses. The legislation, signed by Gov. Mark Sanford, sought to redeem this state revenue cut with an added penny on the sales tax.
  • Recent years in the General Assembly have seen numerous fights over offering tax credits for students to attend private schools. A pared-down bill, affecting low-income and disabled students, passed the House in 2012 but died in the Senate. Other education issues, including moves to establish statewide pre-kindergarten, often have taken a back seat to this debate.

Lackey and Brenan say that the state’s complicated financing structure is not off-limits for this educational reform effort. The plan, Brenan said, is to design an educational system that meets students’ needs in the 21st century, then look at how best to allocate the resources.

Brenan said there are enough resources in the system, and one goal will be to look at better uses for the money.

Revisiting accountability measures
Brenan wonders if accountability measures are more expensive than they are worth, as they tie the hands of teachers. Public school parents seem to think so; 78% of those surveyed perceive teachers feel pressure to “teach to the test.”

The idea, Brenan and Lackey said, is to start at the end, asking what skills students need to master to succeed in the jobs of tomorrow, then reimagine all of the education system to teach those skills.

Read more in-depth business news in the current issue of the Columbia Regional Business Report. Subscribe online.

Read more in-depth business news in the current issue of the Columbia Regional Business Report. Subscribe online.

Karen Woodward, superintendent in Lexington District 1 and a member of the Innovation Steering Committee, sees a lot of potential in the business effort to reinvent the curriculum.

“I think South Carolina could be a standout in this area, I really do,” Woodward said. “It will take a strong partnership with business.”

Woodward said she believes there are areas of exciting innovation in school districts around the state, noting that several education groups have been pushing forward with local projects already. This business effort could help spread innovative ideas around South Carolina.

Part of that new culture of innovation needs to be a broader acceptance of the risks inherent in any innovation. Being open to innovation means accepting at some level “the messiness” inherent in trying something new, she said.

Woodward sees the state’s current strong emphasis on high-stakes testing as presenting a hindrance to innovation. To many educators, the capital invested in student testing can make innovation too risky now, she said.

Some adults may be longing for the traditional “3 Rs” education as they knew it in the classroom, but Woodward believes that boat has sailed. Technology has changed what we expect children to know for the workforce and the tools public schools have to educate them, so going back in time is impossible, Woodward said.

“I don’t think we have a choice.”

The way forward
Laura McKinney, deputy director of New Carolina, said this initiative will move forward in several ways. The organization, led by Brenan and Lackey, will be reaching out to get all major stakeholders into the conversation, from educators and lawmakers to business leaders who want to see the schools improve.

The organization will assemble an inventory of innovative education efforts that are succeeding and could be shared elsewhere, looking especially for those programs that could show positive results in the span of a few years. The group also will seek to identify any barriers to those programs being replicated in other districts.

Another challenge New Carolina will be addressing: crafting a new set of assessments that correctly measure the progress being made by a more innovative and personal education system. That assessment system also will need to provide its results to the classroom much more quickly than the current one, so that teachers and students can take informed action to improve.

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