More Questions Than Answers at TransformSC Conference

October 1, 2013

Inside Insight

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transformSC initiative

Nearly five months after the TransformSC initiative was unveiled by New Carolina (“South Carolina’s Council on Competitiveness”), few details are known about it to the public, apart from a few generalities on its website and three or four pieces in the news media. Hoping to get a better understanding of the initiative, I attended TransformSC’s Fall Education Summit on September 25, 2013. The audience at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center heard from the TransformSC co-chairs – the presidents of BB&T and AT&T, Mike Brenan and Pamela Lackey respectively, keynote speaker Sir Ken Robinson, and from teachers, school officials, and students from participating TransformSC schools.

Am I any wiser for having attended? A little, perhaps – although not in the ways conference planners likely intended.

What We Heard

Much of what we heard aligns with the “About Us” section of the event hand-out: “Our goal is to create a new system of learning that will produce graduates ready to compete in a global knowledge economy. We view education and economic development as a continuum, not separate and distinct endeavors.” Beyond these basic generalizations, we heard many references to “our new 21st century economy” and how our education system needs to change from its current outdated “one size fits all” system in order to meet new demands in technology, the workforce, and the economy as a whole.

TransformSC, I heard many times, is a “business-led initiative.” Its partners include some of the biggest companies, organizations, and government groups in the state, including AT&T, BB&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield , the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, the S.C. State Board of Education, the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, the Riley Institute at Furman, Michelin, and a number of other corporate recipients of taxpayer resources. Speakers repeatedly made the point that if South Carolina doesn’t graduate more high school with new college, career, and “citizenship” ready tools, then jobs – and graduates – will leave the state.

The use of new and “innovative” teaching and classroom styles were discussed as well, including varied schedules, project-based learning, and using different ways to assess student knowledge. Many of these ideas sound like initiatives that magnet and private schools have long since been using; TransformSC would implement them at the public school level.

A few points from various prsentations:

  • 35 schools in 19 districts are signed on as TransformSC schools.
  • Dorchester 2 is currently seeking an exemption from the state and federal governments to use assessments based on the ACT instead of our normal standardized tests. The district is still awaiting federal approval.
  • Some lines from Lexington 1: “Standard based learning program,” “Global Citizens,” “Citizen of our democracy.”
  • Anita Zucker, CEO of the InterTech Group, discussed her collaborative effort, weirdly called Cradle to Career.
  • Based on the points emphasized again and again, TransformSC would seem to have three goals: (1) to provide a framework/hands-on support, (2) to provide networking opportunities, and (3) to provide advocacy for policies that give schools the “flexibility” to transition to new classroom strategies.
  • In regards to the “advocacy” function, they mentioned that TransformSC would advocate changes to our current assessment system and work with state legislators to help make any legislative changes that would need to be made in order for TransformSC to be fully functional.

What We Didn’t Hear

Common Core. Representatives from the Dorchester 2 district made a passing reference to Common Core. Apart from that, it wasn’t mentioned once. That’s surprising, given that the state is currently implementing this entirely new set of standards and the assessments and curriculum aligned with them. If TransformSC is meant to “transform” our state’s education system, one would think that the new system we’re currently implementing would have to at least be addressed.

School Choice. There was no discussion of implementing any facets of school choice. Neither open enrollment nor vouchers nor weighted student funding were addressed in any way. The topic of funding education was generally not brought up.

Excellence: While most discussions emphasized the need for this new system to graduate students that were ready for today’s modern workforce and economy, there wasn’t much emphasis on encouraging students to achieve academic excellence, in terms of gaining more knowledge and having the best overall education. In other words: the emphasis was on creating workers rather than producing more intelligent students.

Funding. A look at the state budget shows a $650,000 earmark for the S.C. Council on Competitiveness and a $100,000 earmark for TransformSC. But no specifics were given regarding how much state funding TransformSC will get in the future, how much money its different business partners are putting into it, or how much money, if any, participating schools will receive.

Questions that Remain

Is this transformation in education that TransformSC is proposing aligned with Common Core standards? And if so, how? TransformSC seems, at least, to be Common Core-aligned: there was no mention of making changes to our current set of standards. If it isn’t Common Core-aligned, however, how will TransformSC pass through this roadblock. The issue of Common Core can’t be sidestepped.

How will this be funded? We already know TransformSC is getting tax dollars ($750,000), but how much do they intend to get in the future? How much money will “partnering” companies provide for the program? Will schools get money for participating in this program? If so, how much?

Will partnering companies get state benefits? Partnering businesses say they are supporting the program because they believe it would produce students who either after high school or college have the skills to work in their industries in South Carolina. Are there any other incentives for companies to participate in the initiative besides it ultimately producing students who are ready to work at their companies: for example, tax credits, grants, or other financial incentives?

Is TransformSC somehow different from a workforce development program? So far, the two sound indistinguishable.

We should want more for our children than a “job.” We want our children to have an entrepreneurial spirit, excellence, drive for achievement, and passion for learning. If education in South Carolina is really going to be transformed, it shouldn’t be done by playing on the fears of a weak economy (look at all the “jobs” this program would create!) and limiting the mindset of creative, innovative students.

Dillon Jones is a policy analyst at the S.C. Policy Council