UNION — Effective teachers and principals are the key to children from even most impoverished of backgrounds succeeding academically, the State Superintendent of Education told the Union Rotary Club this week.
Dr. Mick Zais, who was guest speaker during the club’s weekly meeting at Covenant Baptist Church, told the Rotarians that the goal of public education in South Carolina is that every student “acquires an education that provides the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in careers or college as contributing members of society.”
Zais said his vision for public education is that of system “that puts the interests of parents and students first by providing every parent and child the opportunity to choose a school with the environment and curriculum that best fits the needs, abilities, and aspirations of the student, and where every school is led by an effective principal with effective teachers.”
The impact of poverty on education was also discussed by Zais who rejected the idea that children from impoverished backgrounds cannot get excel academically.
“Poor kids can learn,” Zais said. “Students of poverty and from difficult home environments can learn and achieve their potential.”
Zais pointed out that students in China and India, countries with higher rates of poverty than American, outperform American students academically. He also pointed out that many schools in South Carolina with high poverty rates are also excelling academically.
Prior to addressing the Rotary Club, Zais visited two of those schools — Monarch Elementary and Foster Park Elementary — and presented the staffs of those schools with charts rating the academic success of schools with high poverty levels in 2011-2012. Both Monarch and Foster Park received As as did Buffalo Elementary School and Lockhart School. The Union County School District, which has a poverty rate of 80.4 percent, received a B.
Zais praised the district’s elementary schools for their performance, pointing out that not only was it proof of his contention that children can overcome poverty to excel academically, but that their performance is especially impressive compared to schools with similar levels of poverty.
“I’m very encouraged by what I saw here,” Zais said. “It is not characteristic of what I’ve seen elsewhere.”
During his visit to Foster Park, Zais asked Principle Barbara Palmer the school’s efforts to educate its students. Palmer said the school’s teachers and staff work together to create a family atmosphere at the school that enables teachers to nurture students and encourages students to learn. She that despite its high poverty level, the school’s policy is that every child can learn despite their economic status.
Zais, Palmer and the rest of those attending the meeting agreed that academic success begins in elementary school and the key to that success is talented teachers who are committed to educating their students. In his address to Rotary, Zais emphasized the importance of teachers in the educational process, pointing out that a child who does poorly with one teacher may do well with another.
“After the home environment, teachers are the single most important component of a child’s education,” Zais said. “Yet teacher vary enormously in their effectiveness.
“A teacher in the top 20 percent of effectiveness will impart 18 months of learning in one academic year,” he said. “A teacher in the bottom 20 percent will impart six months of learning. That is a one year difference in learning between an excellent and a poor teacher.”
Zais said the effectiveness of their teacher has a greater impact on a child’s education than the quality of their school.
“Differences in teacher effectiveness are far greater than differences in schools,” Zais said. “Students are far better off with an effective teacher in a poor school that an ineffective teacher in a good school. The sad fact is a student with an ineffective teacher two or three years in a row is unlikely to ever catch up unless there are extraordinary circumstances.”
Zais said effective principals are also needed.
“The most effective principals, those in the top 20 percent, will raise achievement test scores school wide by 15 percent points,” Zais said. “The most ineffective principals, those in the bottom 20 percent, will lower school wide achievement test scores by 15 percentage points. This is an enormous difference.”
During his meeting at Foster Park Elementary, Zais said the most important job a principal has is to recruit, encourage and retain talented, committed teachers. He reiterated this in his address to Rotary.
“The primary role of principals is to recruit, develop, motivate and retain excellent teachers,” Zais said. “Other jobs are important, but secondary.”
Zais said that teachers and principals “must be fairly evaluated and appropriately rewarded based on student learning” and that those determined to be ineffective given the opportunity to improve. Those who fail to improve would then face termination.
“Ineffective teachers and principals must be given an appropriate, but not excessive, amount of time and support to improve,” Zais said. “Continued failure to meet standards means they must be removed.”
While teachers and principals must be held accountable, Zais they must also have the authority to do their jobs.
“If you hold people accountable, you must give them the authority to influence outcomes,” Zais said. “Superintendents must have the authority to hire, evaluate, and fire principals. Principals must have authority over budgets, hiring, firing, and other programs in their schools. Teachers must have the authority to maintain discipline in the classroom and award grades in accordance with student learning.”
Zais said the classroom discipline is vital for learning and that teachers must be supported in their efforts to maintain discipline in order to teach.
“For learning to occur in the classroom, the teacher must have control and discipline,” Zais said. “This will not happen unless the teacher is supported by the principal, the district superintendent, and the school board.”
Editor Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com.