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New Arrangements: Now Free, S.C. Schools Start To Spread Wings

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This article is the 11th in an occasional series.

By Robert Rothman

GREENVILLE, S.C.--To educators from around the state who have visited here in droves, the Pelham Road Elementary School is a showcase of the latest educational innovations.

The 830-pupil K-5 school has scrapped basal readers in favor of a whole-language program that emphasizes real books and extensive writing. Mathematics lessons involve the use of manipulatives, and science is predominantly hands-on.

A few teachers are experimenting with mixed-age classes in the primary grades, and the staff is considering using portfolios and videotapes as assessment tools.

Nearly all of these changes have come about since 1990, when Pelham Road became one of the first schools to take part in an unusual statewide program that grants a wide degree of regulatory relief to high-performing schools.

The program, one of the most sweeping efforts of its kind yet undertaken by a state, exempts eligible schools from prescriptive state rules governing such topics as the number of minutes that must be devoted to each subject each day and the qualifications of professional staff.

The program is aimed at freeing schools that have already proved themselves successful to undertake innovations, explained Pelham Road's principal, Patricia Borenstein.

"If you're doing that kind of thing, you don't need to be watched so closely,'' she said. "You're already accountable.''

Ms. Borenstein concedes that many of the changes her school has adopted might have been possible under the existing state rules. But not having to cross every "t'' and dot every "i'' made it easier to try new things, she said.

Currently, 230 of the state's 1,100 public schools qualify for deregulatory status. A study by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a national research center, found that the majority of them have undertaken reforms.

But despite such positive signs, the deregulation program so far has not dramatically transformed South Carolina's schools, educators here acknowledge.

Most of the changes have been "baby steps,'' said State Superintendent of Education Barbara S. Nielsen, and the reforms over all have yet to show dramatic effects.

Ms. Nielsen and others suggest that the slow pace of reform partly reflects the fact that, although the state has loosened its rules, schools continue to be hampered by federal and district regulations. Another factor is a state basic-skills testing program, which many say drives instruction throughout South Carolina.

But perhaps more importantly, they note, many teachers and administrators lack the knowledge and training that would allow them to take risks and try new practices. Although the state education department and local districts have attempted to address this problem through workshops and other programs, their efforts have been limited by budget problems.

But over time, Ms. Nielsen predicts, an increasing number of schools will be willing to undertake more substantial reforms as the existing ones prove themselves.

"We're becoming bolder,'' she said. "It's not that we're from Missouri, but people still want to say, 'Show me.'''

Trading Regulation for Results

The idea of relaxing state regulations has spread rapidly since 1986, when the National Governors' Association proposed "some old-fashioned horse trading'' to schools.

"We'll regulate less,'' the N.G.A.'s report, "Time for Results,'' states, "if schools and school districts will produce better results.''

Moving ahead with that deal, South Carolina and 19 other states agreed to provide schools flexibility by allowing them to request waivers from state rules, according to the Education Commission of the States.

But the waiver programs have attracted few takers. More recently, several states have moved to give schools even greater freedom by exempting them from the rules altogether.

Among the states pursuing that strategy are:

  • New Hampshire, where the state board of education last year voted to eliminate most school-approval standards, which had outlined the number of teachers that schools must have and set minimum requirements for library books and other items. In response to criticism from teachers' unions and other education groups, however, the board scaled back its proposal and retained guidelines on class size.
  • Florida, which in 1991 passed a "Blueprint 2000'' law that holds schools accountable for meeting statewide standards for student performance. As part of the legislation, lawmakers agreed to place more than four dozen statutes in abeyance and to waive another 15.
  • Minnesota, where the legislature last month voted to eliminate about 80 percent of the state's education mandates by 1996, when state standards for student outcomes become effective.

A Sweeping Experiment

The South Carolina deregulatory legislation stands out, however, as one of the first and most sweeping of these attempts.

Enacted in 1989 as part of a broad-based package of school reforms known as "Target 2000,'' the statute granted deregulatory status to schools that, over a three-year period, had twice won state incentive grants, which are awarded to schools demonstrating high performance relative to schools with similar student populations. In addition, deregulated schools were required to have shown gains in reading and math test scores and to have not had any accreditation difficulties.

To maintain deregulatory status, schools must annually exhibit performance gains at or above the state average.

Schools that receive such status, the law states, "are released from those regulations and statutory provisions ... including, but not limited to, regulations and statutory provisions on class scheduling, class structure, and staffing.''

The rules include the Defined Minimum Program, which specifies such requirements as the number of minutes per week that must be devoted to particular subjects, and on-site monitoring and record-keeping requirements under the state's basic-skills testing program.

Rules governing health, safety, and civil rights remain in force.

In 1990, the first year of the program's implementation, 125 schools were granted deregulatory status. An additional 39 earned it in 1991, while 56 did so in 1992 and 26 in 1993. Fifteen schools lost their status in 1992 and another 34 are expected to lose their status this August.

In all, 230 schools currently are deregulated, according to the education department.

'What's Best for Children'

The CPRE study suggests that most of the eligible schools took advantage of this freedom. (See Education Week, June 19, 1991.)

"As many as two-thirds [of principals surveyed] were embarked on activities that principals view as related to deregulation,'' the study states.

The activities included developing ungraded primary classes in grades K-3, keeping students with the same teacher for several years, and adding subjects such as art and foreign languages.

At the Pelham Road school, the new-found flexibility enabled teachers to explore changes in curricula and class structure, according to Principal Borenstein.

No longer bound by the rules to teach every subject for a specified number of minutes each week, she said, teachers began to work together to create interdisciplinary lessons using common themes. They also tried more instruction using hands-on materials and literature, as well as topics that stretch for a week or two--an impossible schedule under the old rules.

The flexibility even extended to more mundane practices, such as allowing pupils to release their pent-up energy by going outside at the teacher's discretion throughout the school day. Under the D.M.P. rules, elementary pupils are permitted only one period a day for recess.

"The teachers wanted to let them run outside, but the state says you can't do it,'' said Ms. Borenstein. "I said, 'Hey, we're deregulated. We can do it.'''

Caroline Reece, a 1st-grade teacher, said the flexibility allows teachers to act like professionals.

"We should be given the opportunity to be professionals, to decide what's best for children,'' she said. "That's what we went to school for.''

Major Improvements Lacking

But while such changes appear promising, they have failed to produce major improvements in the state's education system, according to educators.

"I see things being done differently, but whether the things selected are correlated with achievement, that's a question we all have [yet] to answer,'' said Superintendent Nielsen.

She noted that test scores have not shown much improvement since deregulation began. But she also pointed out that those of the schools in the program--with the exception of the few that have lost deregulatory status--have not declined, even though changes often lead to a dip in performance at first.

Indeed, skeptics maintain that some of the reforms under the program may actually be counterproductive. James A. Gilstrap Jr., the president of the South Carolina Education Association, pointed out that some schools eliminated separate programs for children with special needs, instead mainstreaming them in regular classes.

"The teacher has to spend more time with that particular individual,'' at the expense of time with other students, Mr. Gilstrap said.

The teachers' union president also noted that principals are free under the deregulation program to hire teachers not certified in the subject they teach, although few have done so thus far.

"At this moment, we are still holding our breath,'' he said.

Constraints Remain

But while educators like Mr. Gilstrap fear that schools may do too much under deregulation, Ms. Nielsen and others contend that they have done too little, at least so far.

"I think you've seen baby steps,'' she said. "We haven't changed the whole system.''

One factor that is constraining schools, the superintendent added, is the state's basic-skills testing program. Because the test determines whether schools are eligible for incentives like deregulation, and because the test results are published in newspapers, schools frequently tailor their instruction to the test material rather than use their flexibility to design their own curriculum.

"If I had my way,'' Ms. Borenstein said, "I would rewrite the math curriculum so that long division is given scant attention and things like statistics are given more.''

Similarly, federal and district regulations and the expectations of colleges and other institutions continue to restrict schools' flexibility, educators note.

This is particularly true, they point out, for high schools, which feel less free to abandon practices like Carnegie units for fear that their graduates would not be accepted at colleges.

But although it may restrict schools' flexibility, the oversight role of superintendents and school boards is appropriate, said Donald E. Beers, the executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators.

"Many times, the boards and superintendents do not get in the way,'' he said. "They ask questions, expect explanations, expect a long-term vision, a goal, a well-thought-out plan.''

Time To 'Spread Wings'

In addition to the continued constraints, schools are also limited by a lack of knowledge of how to change or of what to change to.

The CPRE report, for example, notes that most of the schools that changed under deregulation would have changed even without it.

"We still got a sense that entrepreneurship and local leadership has a lot to do with it,'' said Susan H. Fuhrman, the director of the consortium. "People who want to take advantage of deregulation are the entrepreneurial principals who would do things anyway.''

Mr. Beers observed that many educators in the state are accustomed to living in a heavily regulated environment and are unsure of their new freedom. He used the analogy of a chicken held in the hands, which will not move for several minutes after the hands are removed.

"It takes a long time for people regulated so heavily to really spread their wings,'' Mr. Beers said.

In addition, he noted, principals and teachers who are willing to change lack the knowledge of promising practices and the training needed to implement them. And, he suggested, such training has been hard to come by because of tight budgets in recent years.

"We've barely got enough to keep operating--and by operating I mean paying the light bill,'' he said. "Money for training, for travel, for bringing people in, for networking, is drying up terribly.''

The state department has taken a number of steps to make it easier for schools to learn about reforms and to change their practices, Ms. Nielsen said. For example, she noted, the agency has prepared a "resource guide to innovative practices,'' which will soon be available electronically, that describes reforms under way in the state and provides contact names and telephone numbers.

The department also runs the South Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching and School Leadership, created under the Target 2000 law, to provide reform-oriented staff development for teachers and administrators. All deregulated schools are associated with the center.

Eventually, Ms. Nielsen predicted, the state will free all schools from regulation and instead hold them accountable for meeting standards for student performance.

"Deregulation must come,'' she said. "We can't be their security blanket anymore.''

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