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Monday, March 26, 2012

An Editorial on School Report Cards

The South Carolina Superintendent of Education, Mick Zais, had a column in the State Newspaper this weekend. I don't always agree with everything he says,  but I do believe, as the state's Education Superintendent, his rank gives him the right, and responsibility, to communicate his vision. There is no doubt he has confidence in what he writes about below, and he has reportedly told the local school district superintendents he didn't need their help. Never-the-less, I'm reminded of a conversation I was part of recently. A citizen was complaining to a judge about all the meth labs in their county, as evidence of the number of arrests the local sheriff has, and was making. The judge said he was pretty sure the county didn't have more meth labs than anywhere else, but because he knew all the sheriffs, he was  sure the local sheriff was doing a better job of shutting down meth operations.

So, what does this have to do with the comments from Dr. Zais below? It is true parents want easy to understand reports on how their children are doing, and it is true they want to know how their school stacks up to other schools. As the case with the number of meth lab arrests - what you are measuring might not be telling you what you want to know. With schools, it is not as clear cut as some would have you believe.

From The State Newspaper:
Zais: Modernize school, educator accountability
By MICK ZAIS - Guest Columnist

The core mission of any school focuses on student learning, and report cards provide parents with information in an easily understood format about their child’s learning. While parents hope for A’s, they expect report cards to accurately and clearly reflect actual performance.

Policymakers are no different than parents; the vast majority of them have, or have had, children in public schools. Like other parents, we want to know what skills our children have mastered, where they need improvement and what expectations exist for future performance. The time has come to take the same approach we use in reporting our children’s progress and apply it to schools and districts: report cards with letter grades.

The current system of grading schools mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act often misleads parents, confuses the public and demoralizes the hardworking professionals in our schools. A school that meets 30 of 31 performance objectives earns a failing label from the feds. That sounds like an A to me.
Prior to No Child Left Behind, South Carolina already required school report cards. The federal system just layered on another requirement, leaving us with imperfect, dual systems of federal and state accountability. South Carolina now has the opportunity to modernize and unify these two systems.

The U.S. Department of Education recently began to offer the flexibility I have supported from Day One. On Feb. 28, we submitted our state’s proposal for a waiver from certain provisions of the federal law.
First, we worked to make the state’s new evaluation plan easier to understand. It builds upon the strengths of the existing state system by using multiple measures, such as student performance in the four core subjects (math, science, social studies and English), high school graduation rates and student improvement. The plan also increases transparency by reporting the performance of various student subgroups. Both of the old systems lacked a clear description of school performance. Using letter grades (A through F) will make school performance easy for students, parents and the public to understand as opposed to the ambiguous terms of “Met” and “Not Met,” or “Good” and “At Risk.”

Nine states already use or have begun transitioning to letter grades for schools. We plan to recognize the success of high-performing schools and those closing achievement gaps. At the other end of the spectrum, we will identify and take appropriate steps to address problems at low-performing schools and those with growing achievement gaps.

The most important information about teachers isn’t the degrees they have or their years of seniority. Their effectiveness in the classroom matters much, much more.

The effectiveness of teachers and principals traditionally has been measured by test scores at a fixed point in time. This flawed approach assigns too much responsibility to the teacher and principal for what students bring to the classroom at the beginning of the year, and not enough responsibility for what students learn during the year. Our new system of evaluating teacher and principal effectiveness will include measures of growth during the year. This method adjusts for the substantial differences among students at the beginning of the year.

Fifty-nine schools already measure educator effectiveness using the S.C. Teacher Advancement Program. Similarly, a new statewide system will accurately, fairly and reliably measure educator effectiveness. Teachers and principals will know how much they have contributed to student learning and where they need to improve. In turn, students will benefit from more effective instruction in the classroom and more effective leadership in their schools.

When parents know how well their children do, they can more effectively help them. When teachers and principals know how well they perform, they can more efficiently improve classroom instruction.

Student learning is at the heart of accountability and educator evaluation. Our new evaluation system puts students first. It has the potential to transform education in South Carolina.

Dr. Zais is the state superintendent of education. Contact him at

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