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home : opinions : opinions June 29, 2015

5/28/2014 8:52:00 AM
SC Education's dirty little secret
By Phil Noble

First, let’s be honest with ourselves. For most of us – especially us white, urban, middle-class folks – when we hear people talking about the overall poor quality of education in our state, we conjure up images of the Corridor of Shame, i.e. black, rural and poor. We think of it as a problem of them, not of us. But it just ain’t so. The dirty little secret of South Carolina education is that when comparing children in our state to their peers in other states and countries (i.e. the same family education and income levels) for the more affluent among us (i.e. usually white, urban, middle class) our children are, relatively-speaking, no better off than the Corridor of Shame kids.

In short, across the board our children are not doing well compared to their peers in other states and countries, the people they will have to compete with in the global digital economy of the 21st Century. Education in the Palmetto State is not a poor problem, it’s not a black problem, it’s not a rural problem – it’s a South Carolina problem. This dirty little secret first came to light a few years ago in a major study commissioned by Mack Whittle, one of the state’s leading businessmen who has long been a passionate and effective advocate for public education.

At the time, it caused a mild ripple on the placid sea that is our state’s ocean of educational mediocrity / failure, but it was soon forgotten. Now, a recently released study comparing the states in the US with the performance of other countries around the world tells roughly the same story. The report was part of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment. There is an international grouping of the leading industrialized countries of the world called the OECD countries (Organization of Economic Development and Co-operation) and it is generally accepted as the global standard for comparing countries for this type of statistical analysis. The study compared all 50 US states and the 34 OECD countries.

There are two big findings of the report, one for us as a nation and the second for us here in South Carolina. First, the national part. The study concluded that our nation as a whole is falling behind the rest of the industrialized world. While 20 years ago, we were at or near the top of the OECD list on most every measure, for the last generation or so we have stagnated and remained about the same, while the other industrialized countries have zoomed ahead. Our education performance ranking is now in the 28th position of the 34 OECD countries of the world.

And for South Carolina, the news is that at virtually all income/education levels, the performance of our children is poor. The study compares how our state ranks as compared to the other 34 OECD countries and groups test results into four categories. The first category is all students, and the next three are based on the education and income levels of the child’s family, i.e. low, medium and high. Among all students, SC ranked 31st out of 34 OECD countries – putting us between Hungary and Greece. For the low education group, SC ranked 29th, the middle group 31st and the high group we ranked 30th. Regardless of the education level and income of the SC families, there was virtually no difference among SC students and their peers in the rest of the world.

Again, the problem is not them (poor, black and rural SC), it’s us – all of us in South Carolina. In trying to solve the problems of education in this state, we must look beyond the stereotypes and blind ideologies that have so crippled us and stymied intelligent, constructive discussions. President George W. Bush once used the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Translated into plain English: we don’t expect much of them because they are black.

Too often, we hear this kind of thing in our state among the well-meaning (white) apologists for failure. And from some African Americans, we hear equally false reasoning when they dismiss individual responsibility and accountability in the name of egregious historic wrongs. The dirty little secret of South Carolina education is that for the more affluent among us (i.e. usually white, urban, middle class), our children are further behind their peers in the rest of the country and the world than the Corridor of Shame kids are behind their socioeconomic peers.

Unless and until all of us, parents, politicians, business people – both black and white – are willing to rise above our biases and comfortable stereotypes, we will never solve this problem. Education is a South Carolina problem, and it must be fixed by – and for – all of South Carolina’s children. Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform to our state.

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