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Zais is looking to transform education system

By Jim Fair, Editor
Published on Friday, November 4, 2011

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A line forms for an opportunity to speak with S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais.

A line forms for an opportunity to speak with S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais.

S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais today painted an ominous picture of education in the classroom. “I’ve got a little insight for you. Nobody is in charge of education in Columbia,” Zais told a packed room at the Greer Chamber of Commerce’s First Friday luncheon at City Hall.

As the House and Senate committees tussle over spending, the myriad agencies seeking government aid to fund educational programs are overwhelmed with the spending and aggressiveness of lobbyists and special interest groups, according to Zais.

Zais zeroed in on reading being a fundamental prerequisite for children through third grade, paying for quality teachers and dismissing the worst, and the malfunction of an education system that he emphasizes classrooms that “one size fits all.”

The results of the National Assessment of Education Program released Tuesday, took the state’s education system to task with its rank of 39th in the country and below average scores of students reading on the fourth-grade level. Fourth-graders’ average score was 215 in reading, one point less than 2009 and below the national average of 220.

 “In our system we teach K to 3 to learn to read. Grades 4 to 12, you read to learn. Thirty-eight percent of South Carolina fourth-graders are functionally illiterate,” Zais said. “We’ve got to fix the reading program. The key to employment and success in school is the ability to read.”

According to Zais, $14,000 is being spent on each student this year. “Yet we face a generation that will be less literate than their parents,” he said. “The perspective on funding that I bring to education is, given the dollars available how do we maximize student learning? The advantage is the focus on the outcome of learning, not inputs of spending, facilities and curriculum. It invites opportunities for innovation.”

Zais attended 10 public schools in 12 years. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and retired from the U.S. Army as a Brigadier General. There was wide agreement with guests nodding their heads when he made the point,  “Pay our great teachers more, and frankly, get rid of the worst.

“Quit requiring teachers to be all things to all students. We have one opportunity to teach students before the third grade and can’t afford to miss that opportunity,” Zais said.

“Every child is special and every child is different. Because every child is different, one sizes doesn’t fit all,” Zais said. “It’s a system based on mass production and standardization. We must provide a menu of educational options.” Those, according to Zais, include public, private, magnet, charter, college prep or vocational.

Teachers’ pay grade in South Carolina, said Zais, is based on seniority, degrees (masters or doctorate) and less on rewarding them for competence. 

“Teachers must be able to maintain discipline in the classroom,” Zais said. He said teachers should also be charged with awarding grades that reflect students’ performance. That will be part of Zais’ Teacher Protection Act he will bring to the General Assembly in January.

Zais said the transformation of the state’s education system would include principals building their team of teachers through the superintendent instead of having to get board approval for all moves. It’s a business model based on “accountability, competition and incentive,” Zais said.

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