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‘Flexibility,’ or throwing the baby out with the bath water?

Posted: November 15, 2013 11:02 a.m.
Updated: November 18, 2013 5:00 a.m.

I’ve been doing this work for a long time, almost 39 years. I’ve seen probably every educational fad, movement, silver bullet, innovation, reform, program and change you can think of, and then some. The flavor of the month in South Carolina is elimination of minimum standards and quality control in the name of “flexibility.” This “reform” comes up every so often as the grand solution to solve all of our problems. On the surface, it’s not a bad concept. But because it’s rarely done with some level of measure or common sense, it usually falls on its face.

Case in point is a proposal made by State Superintendent of Education Dr. Mick Zais to the South Carolina State Board of Education to eliminate minimum staffing standards for public schools. Under this proposal, minimum standards for librarians, full-time principals, guidance counselors, class sizes and teacher workloads would be removed from regulation and statute. Dr. Zais has explained that he is trying to provide increased “flexibility” to school districts. Fair enough. But while his proposal may seem reasonable at a superficial level, Dr. Zais seems not to understand the challenges involved for those who work out here in the real world.

The minimum standards that Dr. Zais proposes to eliminate are not all that wonderful. Having a maximum class size of 35, a full-time principal in schools above 250 students, maximum student loads of 240 students in PE and 150 students in other subjects, and a full-time guidance counselor in schools of over 500 students are hardly standards to write home about.

What Dr. Zais and his advisors fail to grasp is that in many communities, fortunately not Kershaw County, having no standards means that school district budgets will be cut because there is no basic quality expectation. The conversation usually goes something like, “Why do we need to fund it if it’s not required?” No kidding. I’ve certainly experienced this kind of situation in other places I’ve worked. It’s a reality that folks in Columbia -- especially ones who have never worked in an honest-to-goodness school district -- have a hard time grasping.

That being said, what about “flexibility?” It would seem to me that throwing the baby out with the bath water, which this proposal does, is going to create more problems than it solves. A reasonable, user-friendly waiver process that allows school districts to seek relief from standards for a bona fide educational reason or innovative program would address the flexibility problem without hanging already cash-strapped school districts out to dry.

I also think the standards that Dr. Zais chose for elimination aren’t the ones that have the most meaningful impact on school districts. I was puzzled as to why teacher certification standards weren’t addressed. As I mentioned in last month’s column, Kershaw County could theoretically take an accreditation gig for hiring Albert Einstein to teach physics. Why no flexibility on school calendars? If we could start school a little earlier in Kershaw County, we could finish first semester by Christmas, which makes a great deal of sense instructionally and logistically. I’ve always wondered why a student who can master a course in nine weeks has to put in 18 weeks of seat time. In this day of virtual learning, seat time is becoming irrelevant. For whatever reason, Dr. Zais shied away from these areas.

I guess my other problem is that the proposal was made in a vacuum. The State Board of Education had no idea the proposal was coming. There was no discussion with local school boards or people in the field. There was certainly no discussion with teachers or parents. While Dr. Zais has the absolute right in his role to make such a proposal, some collaboration would have helped. The cynic in me wonders what political motivation might be involved given the upcoming election. Is the goal here to create a sound bite for the campaign or to make an educational improvement? Hard to tell.

Although the proposal got no traction with the State Board, I feel pretty certain that the issue will also come before the General Assembly in January. For those who might want to express an opinion to our legislators, their contact information is located on our district Web site.

I’m not trying to make Dr. Zais out to be some kind of villain here. He’s visited our district on a couple of occasions and been most gracious. With all due respect, I just think he’s just wrong on this one.

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district Website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at on our award-winning website, www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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