By MICK ZAIS
State Superintendent of Education
In the coming days, more than 750,000 public, independent and home school students will begin their new school years. Across the state, excited students will share summer stories with friends. Those attending new schools will be apprehensive, and kindergarteners will shed a few tears. Similar scenes have played out for more than a century at the start of each new school year.
The education system of my generation placed a high priority on classroom discipline and a standardized classroom: Teach every student the same material on the same schedule. Unfortunately, we have let one tradition go and held too closely to the other. Today more than ever, classroom discipline is sorely needed. This requires parents who instill good behavior at home and administrators who are unafraid to demand good behavior in schools.
Our education system is based on America’s late 19th and early 20th Century agricultural and manufacturing roots. For proof, witness our harvest-friendly school calendars and highly regulated classrooms. While innovation has dramatically altered our economy and the world we live in, the way we teach our children remains virtually unchanged.
A personalized, customized education for every student is the future of education. A student-centered approach will transform education from a system that treats students as identical units, teachers as assembly line workers, and administrators as managers who work to meet production quotas of dubious quality. It’s not the people in the system who are stifling progress. It’s the system itself that must be replaced.
Fundamental to transforming our education system is shifting the focus from “inputs” to “outputs.” Take, for example, the requirement of “seat time” to earn high school course credits. Like most states, South Carolina requires high school students to attend a certain number of classroom hours to receive credit for a course. This places the emphasis on an input – the time a student sits in class – rather than an output, mastery of the subject matter. We need to move away from how long students study a subject and how it’s taught, and focus instead on how well they know the material.
To accomplish this goal, we need to open up the classroom beyond the four walls we all remember. In Florida, every student is required to take at least one online course. In 2006, our state’s General Assembly established the South Carolina Virtual School Program. Last year, 10,207 students took at least one class through this program. This year, the program will offer an even greater menu of classes for students around the state. It’s no secret that geography is one of the key factors in determining access to a quality education. We have the tools to make a giant leap forward. We just need the will.
Rather than focusing on standardization and uniformity, we need to build a system that delivers a personalized and customized education to every student. To do so, we must accept that centralized decision-making in Washington or Columbia no longer works. Policymakers must be willing to demand excellence and then give districts the means to achieve it. Teachers and principals need greater flexibility in the classroom. Parents need a menu of learning environments to select the best fit for their children. And students need the challenge of the subject – not the passage of time – to determine mastery.
As students begin this new school year, it’s time for the adults in education to begin a new chapter. We must transition to a student-centered, proficiency-based system that provides every student in South Carolina with a personalized and customized education.