It’s the Monday afternoon before South Carolina releases its first report cards for every school in the state, and high school Principal Jeanne Stiglbauer has her faculty sitting at lunchroom tables, trying to figure out what all this means. “The stakes are very high,” Stiglbauer says, as cheerily as she’s able, her arms folded, the sun shining off the lacquered hardwood floor.
The teachers at Dreher High School here work with some of this state’s richest and poorest families, and they’re already listing their goals for the coming year: higher SAT scores, more students passing state graduation exams, and a higher number who qualify for state-sponsored scholarships—all things that determine the school’s report card grade.
Starting tomorrow, schools will be graded “excellent,” “good,” “average,” “below average,” or “unsatisfactory.” The results will be carried by the South Carolina news media from city to hamlet, and will be talked about in grocery stores and teachers’ lounges. The outcomes could make, or break, some reputations. When the dust settles, teachers and principals in the high-ranked schools will receive salary bonuses of up to $1,000 each. And while the lower-rated schools are supposed to get help from the state, many of them probably will not, no matter what the law says. Troubled schools can face state takeovers, or their staffs could be reorganized.
There are no protests in the streets over the report cards, which have been in the works for several years. There are lots of conversations about how schools can improve themselves, and how the state might help. South Carolina’s public schools have much work to do, if the state’s SAT averages and graduation rates—which are among the nation’s lowest—are any indication. Some schools realized it years ago. Some know it now and are trying. Some don’t even know where to start, and they don’t have history or the economy on their sides.
As for the report cards themselves, some South Carolinians say they are merely a distraction, and won’t really help. State leaders believe otherwise, and hope the public airing of school performance data translates into action.
Most other states now provide school report cards to the public. Some report cards carry a lot of weight. In Florida, every school gets a letter grade, and parents in schools with the lowest mark can receive vouchers to send their children to private schools if the public schools don’t improve over time. Many other states have report cards that get little attention.
And in President Bush’s education plan, which Congress approved just last month, one of the many new requirements for states is a detailed report card for every school in the nation.
So this week, South Carolina teachers and principals aren’t by themselves. They just feel like it.
The next morning, on Tuesday, Dec. 4, people in business suits and media operatives in colorful TV news vans are gathering at Carver-Lyon Elementary School, a few miles across town from Dreher High, situated in the same 26,000-student Richland County School District 1, as it’s called.
They are coming for the official unveiling of the state’s report cards. This school was chosen because it will be rated “excellent"—quite an accomplishment for a school where almost every child comes from a low-income family, but most test scores are high. As the visitors arrive, they mill about the school’s library. Many of the dignitaries have never been here before.
In walks Inez Tenenbaum, a sweet, tiny woman who acts as if she’s friends with everyone. In her third year as the state’s elected superintendent of education, Tenenbaum has the job of guiding the implementation of South Carolina’s 1998 education accountability law. She lost sleep the night before, she admits, and not just from the excitement of today’s unveiling.
Dreher High School has a reputation for excellence that can blur the line between its academic and financial have and have-nots.
Like many other states, Tenenbaum’s faces serious budget troubles. The state superintendent has already cut millions of dollars from her own agency in the current budget year, and handed some cuts down to school districts. More may be on the way, which means the prospects for additional help for today’s lowest-rated schools don’t look good.
Trying to stay upbeat, Tenenbaum faces the TV cameras.
“It’s simply amazing how far we’ve come in such a short period of time,” she says. The Democrat points out that dozens of once-troubled schools escaped the lowest categories. One of the reasons, she says, is that teachers and principals are focusing on state standards—what children should learn, and how they should be taught. Those standards are put to the test each spring when the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests, or PACT, are given. Then Tenenbaum addresses the state budget crunch, brought on partly by a drop in tourism on the South Carolina coast since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, combined with the general economic slump. As cameras catch every word, she calls the situation “grim,” noting that hundreds of master-teachers who were to have been assigned to low-performing schools won’t be hired.
“The money is not there,” she says.
For Diane James, the principal at Carver-Lyon Elementary, the presence of these officials is a welcome change for her staff and 370 students in pre-K-5th grade.
Not a naysayer, James likes the report cards. But didn’t people in her neighborhood and beyond know about the hard work and higher test scores at Carver-Lyon? “No, they did not know,” James says. Now, the word is out.
1,250 students, grades 9-12
Overall rating: Excellent
Improvement rating: Good
Across Columbia the same day, school is getting started at Dreher High.
Here at Dreher (those words rhyme), the staff is pleased with school’s “excellent” rating. But, given the school’s strong reputation, the faculty isn’t happy with another part of the report card: the improvement rating. It’s “good,” not “excellent,” and that wrinkles some noses.
For Stiglbauer, the disappointing improvement rating fits right into her plans as Dreher’s principal. A down-to-earth woman with a relaxed drawl, she knows the report card has its flaws.
She returned to Dreher this year, where she had previously been an administrator, after eight years as the principal of highly respected Hand Middle School, which feeds into Dreher.
Last year, Time magazine named Hand its national middle school of the year. The school won the National Blue Ribbon, and Stiglbauer won a prestigious Milken Educator Award.
It stands to reason that Hand would be one of the best middle schools anywhere. But it sure doesn’t look that way on South Carolina’s new school report cards. The school’s rating was “good,” lower than that of several neighboring schools.
There is a reason for that rating, Stiglbauer says.
High school grades are based on the results of graduation exams given to 10th graders the previous spring. But those tests only cover basic skills, such as reading and math. Middle and elementary schools are graded using scores from the newer, far tougher PACT. That difference explains why one-third of South Carolina’s high schools scored near the top on the report cards, while two-thirds of this state’s middle schools received the two lowest ratings.
Even as Stiglbauer’s current school celebrates its “excellent” rating, however, the principal knows that if Dreher High doesn’t show marked improvement, next year might not look so pretty.
“What I hope that [the report card system] will evolve into is a measure of whether we serve every child,” she says.
Chief among her challenges is bringing more students, especially minority students, into the ranks of the academically successful, and, in particular, curbing a high 9th grade failure rate.
Stiglbauer knows that Dreher ranks high, in part, thanks to its best students, who often get accepted to Ivy League or top-notch Southern colleges. Some come from the most educated families in the state and live in the big post- Reconstruction homes in this mostly white neighborhood called Shandon. The sidewalks here are clean, and the parents work at the University of South Carolina, or as doctors, lawyers, or state government officials. The copper- domed State House three miles away peeks over the trees.
A mile from Dreher High School in the other direction from Shandon stand some of Columbia’s toughest neighborhoods, and many students come from there, too. There’s a church on House Street not built from stone or brick, but from white clapboard and homemade stained glass checkered red and blue. Men stand in the street near Ray’s soul-food place, and people show up at a labor office before dawn to get work.
It’s not hard to see how those economic gaps, which often are indistinguishable from racial differences, play out in the school.
Parked along the curb today is a work truck from the district office. The side of the truck shows a photograph of Dreher High’s SAT-taking team, runners-up in a state competition. The picture shows 18 young faces, all of them white. In a school where about half the students are black, the school’s success sometimes lacks the same color.
And Stiglbauer says Dreher can’t consider itself “excellent” forever if one-third of the freshman class keeps failing. She says more students could benefit from the school’s respected faculty if they made it past the 9th grade.
She has started after-school and Saturday programs to help those struggling students, about half of whom are black. “Here we see if the real ideas that came forth from public education will work,” Stiglbauer says. “There’s not one child we want to walk out of here empty- handed.”
Outside the school, the report cards are front-page news for the day, but will fade away by week’s end, in part because locals already have their minds made up about their schools.
The Rev. Susannah A. Cook has seen how impressive the 940-student Hand Middle School is. The associate pastor of Shandon Presbyterian Church, she doesn’t wear a clerical collar. Instead, her trendy orange sweater helps her fit right in with the young people and families she works with at her church. “I could spend hours just walking up and down their halls,” she boasts of the school.
She saw something about the report cards on the news the night before. But, knowing what she already knows about the schools, “I just kind of flipped a channel and turned it off and went to bed.”
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
750 students, grades K-5
Overall rating: Excellent
Improvement rating: Good
Five miles from the hotels that flank the resort city of Myrtle Beach sits a plain, beige-brick suburban school called Forestbrook Elementary. Some 150 miles northeast of Dreher High, it doesn’t look like anything special.
But Forestbrook’s principal, Johnny Calder, decided years ago that he wanted to create the best school anyone around Myrtle Beach had ever seen, better than the ones he attended. Calder believes he has done that. Forestbrook rates “excellent,” according to the state, with an improvement rating of “good.”
Calder can talk for an hour straight about his school of about 750 students in the 28,000-student Horry County school district. But, when it’s time to talk about the report card that came out yesterday, he turns quiet and stares at his bookshelf, where University of South Carolina Gamecocks football coach Lou Holtz’s book on success stands.
It’s hard to say how a great school keeps getting better—a crucial question for high-scoring schools that want good report cards.
Calder doesn’t mind the “excellent” rating, but to him, the whole thing feels incomplete.
The report cards seem to say so little about what his school has done, he says. Even though nearly half of Forestbrook Elementary’s students get help paying for their lunches, the school’s test scores are among the very best in the state. Fewer than 10 percent of its students score “below basic” on the state tests, more than 40 percentage points better than the state average in most grades.
Test scores are fine, says one principal, but the new state tests offer no diagnoses of students' strengths and weaknesses.
“Our parents are not the ones who own the restaurants and hotels, or are the doctors and lawyers or architects. Our parents work for those people,” Calder says of the families Forestbrook serves.
Many parents also work for the school, but never get paid. Outside every classroom are little desks, which are put to good use. Parents sit outside each 1st grade class, trained to work one-on-one with children in reading and math.
The school also offers an enviable menu of activities. There’s a school store, with a cash register and inventory, run by students. There’s a science museum, murals used for classroom instruction, twice-annual trips to Florida to study manatees, before- and after-school programs for struggling students, middle school-age tutors who come weekly, community circles every day for children to talk about issues concerning them, and teacher training so good that people come from other states and pay $300 to get it. The proceeds are one way Forestbrook provides its own teachers money for training. When Forestbrook students correctly answer sample test questions or accomplish more interesting tasks, teachers send them to Calder’s office for prizes. When the children arrive, Calder gives them a pencil or a Tootsie Roll. He speaks to every one. “I want them to see I’m looking at them, looking at their work. I make comments about it,” he says.
His main concern with the state report cards is the information they’re based on: the PACT scores. Test scores are fine, Calder says, but the new state tests offer no diagnoses of students’ strengths and weaknesses. The school does its own testing for those purposes.
Still, Calder says he wants his students to score even higher. Even 10 percent of students scoring “below basic” is a problem, he says. He could do more, but “that’s going to take time and resources I don’t have right now.”
Just then, a man walks by Calder’s office door. “Hey, Rick,” the principal yells.
Rick Sorenson, a hardware-store owner whose two children attended Forestbrook, is one of the legions of parents the principal can tap for help. Sorenson sits down in Calder’s office, and throws in his 2 cents’ worth. To him, Forestbrook’s report card rating doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, because he already knows this school inside and out.
“I’ve been here, and I know Johnny and I’ve seen what he’ll do for a kid. That report card don’t tell you that,” Sorenson says. “You won’t find a better school than this one.”
Some people will care, though, about Forestbrook’s report card. Kay Mullins, a Realtor, sells houses just down the road from the school, in the gigantic neighborhood called Hunters Ridge Plantation. She plans to use the report cards as a handout to entice homebuyers. “I meant to clip that out of the paper,” she says, sitting in a model home that’s already been sold.
St. George, S.C.
664 students, grades pre-K-5
Overall rating: Average
Improvement rating: Average
Well before the report cards came out, Mary Rice-Crenshaw, the superintendent of Dorchester County School District 4 stood before a majority-white County Council preparing the members on what to expect on the report cards: a rating of below average. Not an easy confession before the group of men who control the budget in her rural school district of 2,500 students.
Some people in education want to allow school districts to make their own decisions about budgets and taxes, but Rice-Crenshaw says thus far, her county board has treated her right. The fourth superintendent here in the past four years, Rice-Crenshaw says there is no absence of hope in the district. The promise of the schools shows in one school in particular: Williams Memorial Elementary, in the little town of St. George, an hour’s country drive outside Charleston and a million miles from any sort of economic boom. People who live here often travel for work, unless they staff the handful of shops, or work the local farms or the fast-food places and motels along Interstate 95. The local bus station doubles as a used-car lot.
“The vast majority of our kids are not scoring where they need to be scoring,” Rice-Crenshaw says the Friday morning of report card week, as she sits in a conference room at school, eating a piece of chocolate cake baked by a teacher.
“I also think we’re improving,” she says.
Local politicians might be doing what they can, but Rice-Crenshaw says her schools need more help from the state. As the superintendent, she has focused carefully on instruction, making sure what’s taught adheres to state standards and the PACT system. She hired a curriculum coordinator, or master teacher, in every school, to help guide teachers, a step that she hopes will improve the report card results. She also wants to improve adult education and the alternative education program to get a handle on dropouts, since in recent years about half the 9th graders haven’t gone on to graduate from high school.
“Still, we don’t have the resources to address the needs of all the dropouts,” Rice-Crenshaw says.
At one school, educators think people will see the report cards and conclude that the teachers aren't doing enough.
Even though three of the four schools in Dorchester 4 rank in the lowest two groups on the report cards, there’s no extra help from the state this year. The accountability law says there will be, but while educators in high-rated schools may get bonuses, no additional money will flow to many sites that struggle, like some of the schools here. “I would like to have funding for staff development to work with teachers on best practices,” Rice-Crenshaw says.
And it’s hard persuading young teachers to come here. The district can’t offer the same salary supplements as wealthier districts, and there’s little to draw people to the area. Rice-Crenshaw wants more teachers and smaller classes. She dreams of an orchestra program. “The high school didn’t even have a chorus,” the superintendent says. “Isn’t that something?”
Fortunately, at Williams Memorial Elementary and the other schools in St. George, there’s reason to believe, thanks to the general and his troops. Some of the staff at Williams Memorial refer to their principal, Jerry Montjoy, as “the general.” A Vietnam veteran, he talks a fierce game, but every word comes across kindly as well.
His school’s report card shows a rating of “average,” and an improvement rating, too, of “average.” What might sound like a low rating to parents at Dreher High or Forestbrook is worth bragging about at Williams Memorial, although some of the teachers think none of their hard work shows up in such a nondescript rating.
Williams Memorial, standing across a single-lane road from a cotton field, is the only elementary school in the area to score even this high. Its neighboring school in Dorchester County School District 4 is rated “below average.” The local middle school rates “unsatisfactory,” the lowest rating, and will qualify for some state help.
The reason Williams Memorial may be on its way to meeting the state academic standards might be found in the staff, which has been willing to work on how it teaches. But to be far better, the task at hand may require more resources than the community can muster. It can be done, surely, but people are asking: Will it ever?
It must, says General Montjoy.
“I told my teachers yesterday we can’t be satisfied where we are,” he says, kicked back in a conference room chair, inside the old African-American high school that’s home to Williams Memorial.
Teachers’ frustration with the report cards shows in how quickly they answer any question about the things. They think people will see the report cards and conclude that the teachers aren’t doing enough at Williams Memorial, when the truth is, they say they can’t work any harder. “When [the children] come in that door, you’re a momma,” says Vicki Connelly, a 1st grade teacher and mother of two.
Meanwhile, Celestine and Gregory Jones are at the school today for a birthday party for their 3rd grader, Kennietha. Ms. Jones is a substitute teacher and college student, and Mr. Jones moves mobile homes for a living.
“They’re not, I’d say, top-A schools, but they get the job done,” Gregory Jones says. “These overrated schools—it’s probably because of more teachers or more equipment or something. For what this area has, this school does very well. I would grade it as good, myself.”
“We just pray to God for help,” he adds.
In the days to follow, the fallout from the state report cards begins.
Gary Burgess’ disdain for the report cards might not have surfaced—except that the results for his school, he says, were just plain unfair.
Pendleton High School, in a little historic Upstate town within sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains, rated “average,” with an improvement rating of “below average.” That not-so-flattering grade just about sent Burgess to the moon.
To make his case, he compares Pendleton with schools that are similar in racial makeup and wealth; such schools are listed alongside his own on the report card so that parents and others can make those comparisons. One school shows worse results on the graduation exam, and a rate of students who qualify for state scholarships that’s only one-tenth of a point higher, yet still ranks as “excellent.” And his school’s report card shows 100 percent of the Hispanic students passed the graduation exam, when none took it. An African-American principal in a largely white community, Burgess is seeking to speak before the state’s Education Oversight Committee—the group of business leaders that monitors the state accountability law—and tell them how unfair the report cards seem to him.
“The public perceives one thing when, really, something else is going on,” says Burgess, a former state principal of the year, Milken educator, and former National Blue Ribbon principal. “If you’re going to play around with students and teachers and communities, it needs to be absolutely accurate.”
The week after the release of the report cards, Burgess took his complaints by letter and telephone call to the oversight committee’s headquarters in Columbia, where veteran educator Jo Anne Anderson is the executive director. She says the committee is willing to examine any part of the report cards that might need tweaking. Burgess’ specific problems with the data used in the report card need to be taken up with the state education department, which provides the data, she says.
For the very first time, South Carolina has said every child is important.
The kind of data errors Burgess says are listed on his school’s report card can be addressed as well, if he will ask the education department to investigate, Anderson says.
Burgess also argues that South Carolina’s newest efforts at a turnaround will fail as long as the state avoids what he says are its real problems: those of wealth, race, and class. Other places have such issues, but in the South, leaders still dance around those topics, Burgess says, as they did when they created report cards rather than find ways to focus more help where schools need it.
“It bothers me that we aren’t helping children produce,” Burgess says
Bill Barnet, the personable businessman and Spartanburg mayor who chairs the oversight committee, is pushing state lawmakers to provide the money prescribed in the 1998 law that ordered the report cards and new state tests. The week after the report cards were released, his committee endorsed a $23 million plan to provide more help to lower-rated schools for legislators to consider.
“I want them to keep the promise,” Barnet says. “I do not believe it’s all money. Some very wealthy districts are throwing a lot of money at their schools, and they’re not succeeding.”
Anderson agrees that matters of race, class, and family are the ones to address if South Carolina really wants to lift itself. But she sees the report cards as a chance for the state to make its schools better for the little citizens they serve.
“I have probably talked to 20 or 30 legislators in the past few weeks,” she says, answering their questions about what the data mean and how the lawmakers can compare their own local schools. That’s a promising signal, she says.
“For the very first time, South Carolina has said every child is important. The system has not always done that in the past,” Anderson adds. “What is the alternative, if South Carolina turned away and said this isn’t important to us? Where will we be 25 years from now?”
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Report Card Days