Special Report

Firm But Friendly Pressure

By Robert C. Johnston — January 11, 1999 4 min read

Firm yet friendly. That seems to sum up South Carolina’s approach these days to improving its public schools.

Starting this school year, students in grades 3-8 will be placed on academic probation if they fail to demonstrate grade-level skills based on state exams, schoolwork, and teacher reviews. Students who don’t bring up their work to grade level after a year will be held back.

Those provisions are part of the South Carolina Student Accountability Act of 1998. Students now know, in the clearest of terms, that they’d better get serious about school or face sure consequences.

Most of a $36 million program in South Carolina will go to seven of the state’s lowest-performing school districts.

“It’s going to shed light on some dark corners,” outgoing Gov. David Beasley told teachers last year in a speech on the changes. “It’s going to push us out of our comfort zones. And yes, it lowest-performing will make your jobs harder.”

But the Palmetto State is also providing money for new programs designed to bolster the chances for academically wayward students to improve.

Among the law’s highlights is a $36 million appropriation that targets troubled districts for smaller class sizes, teaching and administrative specialists, and professional development. Districts statewide can also compete for funds to create alternative schools to help meet students’ special academic or disciplinary needs.

That attempt to balance the stick and carrot makes South Carolina a good model for other states, says John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a think tank in Washington. “Frequently, state accountability measures are put on the books without programs to complement accountability,” he says. “It’s only fair that if you have consequences for kids, that you give them some help.”

Most of South Carolina’s aid this year will reach seven school districts that were among the lowest performers on state assessments. For starters, the districts will share $19.6 million to lower K-3 class sizes to a maximum of 15 pupils. The money has been approved for the 1998-99 school year only. But no one expects lawmakers to scrap the popular program during their 1999 session.

Perhaps the most innovative piece of the state’s aid package is the provision to send exemplary teachers and principals to needy schools.

The state will pay the salary and an annual bonus of about $17,000 for three years for “teacher on-site specialists” to work in troubled schools. Each “impaired district” can have up to five such teachers. In 2001, schools elsewhere that are rated below average and unsatisfactory by the state can qualify as well.

In addition, the state will pay the salaries and a 25 percent bonus for replacement principals in each school in the impaired districts and other low-performing schools. The offer is good for two years per principal.

Some $1.4 million is available for the on-site specialists this year.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of the state saying we’ll supplement these salaries,” says Jim Petrie, the executive director of the South Carolina Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. “It will help attract teachers to some of these areas.”

While the provisions for reducing class sizes were in place last fall, the on-site specialists were not immediately ready.

“The money was there, but what do you do in a place where the best teachers are coming from?” asks Karen E. Horne, a special assistant for policy with the state education department. “You can’t just take them away from their students.”

It’s too early to judge the success of the accountability law and its support net. But the early signs are encouraging.

Everette M. Dean Jr. is the superintendent of one of the seven impaired districts, the 700-student Marion District 3 school system in Rains. He says parents and teachers there like the individual learning plans that must be drafted for every student who is on academic probation.

“Our reaction has been very positive,” he adds. “Parents have been appreciative. Good things can come if we sustain this.” On the other hand, he says, convening lengthy sessions with parents to draw up the plans can be time-consuming and costly. Dean is especially thankful to have been able to lower K-3 class sizes, which had averaged around 20 students, to 15 last fall.

He is less enthusiastic about the on-site specialists. “We’re talking about coming to a remote, academically disadvantaged area,” he says. “If they wanted to be teaching in an area like this, they’d be here already.”

The new accountability effort has also drawn support from South Carolina’s business sector. At the behest of the state chamber of commerce, seven businesses are each adopting one of the impaired districts. The businesses are expected to provide mentors, training, equipment, and other support.

The Marion school system has paired up with Policy Management Systems Corp., a 3,000-employee international software company with headquarters in Columbia, the state capital. Bob Gresham, the company’s community-affairs director, expects some 700 employees to be mentors. They’ll visit students several times a year.

The company also hopes to establish two-way video communication with the district. “At first, we thought we’d work with [the district] till they’re no longer impaired, but now the goal is to make them the pride of the region,” Gresham says. “The biggest challenge now will be managing our enthusiasm so we don’t overrun the school.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1999 edition of Education Week