Editor's note: This is the first in a series of periodic articles about reforms in public education.

  During a conference for more than 200 Aiken County School District administrators and teachers this week, a national consultant showed them some math questions a student might find on a test.

• Express probabilities as fractions, percents or decimals.

• Classify triangles according to angle size and/or length of sides.

Then the consultant, Dr. Bill Daggett, produced other questions: Calculate percentages of advertising in a newspaper. Tour the school building and identify examples of parallel and perpendicular lines, planes and angles.

The last two questions are asking essentially for the same answers, but students are far more likely to respond positively to them, Daggett said.

“That's a framework that's interesting and relevant to students,” said Dr. Beth Everitt, the district superintendent. “It's important to put their work into a context that they can understand.”

She invited Daggett to Aiken to meet with educators and discuss reforms on reaching children most effectively in the classroom. A study of 75 high-achieving schools highlights their focus on rigor and relationships along with the skills and knowledge they have to learn.

“It goes beyond academics and includes the need for personal skills, which employers tell us,” Everitt said. “They want to know how people get along and where they're going in their careers. The world is changing and will continue to change. Education has to change with it.”

She readily acknowledges that the Aiken County School District still must continue to search for effective strategies in conjunction with principals and teachers. But good things in classrooms are already under way, she said.

Dr. King Laurence, the associate superintendent for instruction, had attended other events that featured Daggett, along with other district educators. The biggest part of the message, Laurence said, is that schools have to change the way they've operated. The tests given to students primarily assess knowledge.

“What we need to be teaching and assessing is how knowledge can be applied to the real world,” Laurence said.

Where are the most demanding reading requirements in a school environment? It's not advanced courses in traditional classrooms, Daggett said. Rather, the most challenging reading can be found in career courses, such as those found at the Aiken County Career and Technology Center and in the county high schools. Automotive technology and computer-aided design and drafting would be two examples of that.

“It makes sense when you think about the readability of manuals that the students there read,” said Laurence. “Any kid in career or technology programs or the military who has read an instructional manual knows how complicated that is.”

Those approaches need to be provided in other classrooms, as well. Laurence believes that can be accomplished over time as the new Common Core standards are introduced in preparation for new standardized tests.

Common Core is not a federal mandate. States in recent years produced a new unified set of standards that South Carolina is implementing in math and English/language arts. Instead of rote answers, Common Core and new curricula are intended to teach students the processes they use in math. English must be taught in all disciplines to help children learn to read proficiently.

“We want education to be relevant and take students to higher levels that are more rigorous,” said Laurence.

The culture of a school is crucial, where the entire faculty has an attitude that all its kids can learn, Everitt said.

“If a school is doing really great things with continuous improvement, that culture becomes a norm,” she said.