COLUMN: Boilerplate, innocuous rhetoric

  • Thursday, February 27, 2014


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In the 2014 election, the post of S.C. Superintendent of Education is open. The incumbent Mick Zais is not running again. By my count, to date there are 12 people that are announced candidates – 10 Republicans and two Democrats.

Given the state of education in our state, the Superintendent of Education position should be about the most important position in our state, second only to the governor. Unfortunately, there are far more candidates in this race than there are constructive ideas to improve education.

You would think this many candidates would produce a lively and substantive discussion and debate. It’s not happening.

First, the candidates. Let me begin by stipulating that they are all good and decent people who are running for this job because they truly want to improve education in our state. They all have different experiences and qualifications, and I’m sure they will do the very best job they can in office. We should applaud all of them for volunteering for this tough and thankless job of enduing a campaign with all its big and small pains and humiliations to them and their families.

There are some highly qualified candidates running, and this being South Carolina, there are also some borderline wackos. I will leave it to the votes to sort out which is which.

For many years, I’ve been involved with a variety of education issues; I really care about this stuff, and I try and follow education developments in our state very closely. I have visited the websites of all the candidates that have one. I’ve read about their backgrounds and what they say they want to do to fix education.

Visiting all these websites is a bit depressing. First, they seem to all care most about asking us to donate to their campaign. Second, they all have a bio section that tells who they are and a little about their involvement with schools. And a distant third is a few paragraphs that could very loosely be called “policy” – what they say they want to do in office. In reality, most of it is just boilerplate, innocuous rhetoric about quality education, teacher accountability and often strong words of praise for school vouchers for private schools as the silver bullet to improve education.

What was missing were interesting ideas for change; lots of rhetoric and little substance.

So, I’d like to humbly offer 12 ideas for the candidates to consider – these are serious ideas that have been tried and tested in other states and have produced positive results. I’m not saying that all these ideas ought to automatically be adopted for our state, but I am saying they are all serious and substantive ideas that are worth discussing and considering by candidates for state Superintendent of Education.

Year-round schools – adjust the vacation periods of students to reduce the amount of summer down time. Studies show that students lose much of what they have learned over the summer.

Flipped classrooms – where students learn the material in the evenings with homework and the class room time is reserved for individual teacher-based help and instruction.

International baccalaureate degrees – an international learning curriculum that is comparable to other students worldwide in what they need to know to be globally competitive in the 21st century.

An individual leaning device for every student – whether it is a computer, iPad or something else, these are the leaning tools of the future and every student should have one and know how to use them – and have access to high speed Internet connections.

Copy Finland – their schools are generally considered the best in the world. A few short years ago they were just average and they prove what can be done in a short time.

Radical freedom – give some number of teachers and schools radical freedom by essentially exempting them from most of the normal rules and regulations so they can experiment with new models and modes of learning.

Move to project-based leaning – where students lean by working collaboratively on projects instead of following rote course textbooks and fixed lesson plans.

Bring in non-traditional teachers – because Bill Gates was a college dropout, he would not be considered “qualified” to teach computer science in S.C. schools.

Global online classroom exchanges – students in classrooms all over the world have access to computers and the Internet. Use them to connect students in real time to lean together.

Try P-Tech schools – that extend high school by two years that includes highly focused job training coordinated with business that guarantee jobs to graduates.

Universal community service – so that students learn the value of “giving back” to their local community that has provided them with their education.

Extend child support from 18 to 21 years – for kids that are going on to college so their child support payments won’t be cut off when they need the extra cash the most.

Will these ideas change the poor quality of education overnight? Of course not. Are these interesting and compelling ideas that are improving education in other states? Absolutely yes.

And we should expect our candidates of Superintendent of Education to be talking about such things and not simply spouting empty rhetoric and telling us to “donate now.”

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley.

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