Zais discusses his time as SC chief of schools

jself@thestate.com December 21, 2013 

— Mick Zais says he is leaving his post as head of schools in South Carolina having changed people’s perception about challenges facing public education and possible solutions.

An advocate of controversial plans to grade teachers based on student test scores and expand school choice, the Richland Republican sat down with The State newspaper of Columbia to review his tenure as the state’s 17th superintendent of education. Zais, who oversees a department that supports the state’s more than 1,200 public schools and 700,000 students, also addressed why he is not running again in 2014 and what he hopes to achieve before leaving office in January 2015.

Q: Now that your campaign schedule is clear, what will you focus on in 2014?

A: Expanding options for parents. It was one of my top priorities when I came into office. Our traditional system is a one-size-fits-all, factory-like, assembly-line, industrial-age model of education, which is why I say parents should be able to choose from a menu of options. ... My primary focus has been on public charter schools. ... We significantly increased funding for charter schools. Is it where it needs to be? No. Is it equitable? No. They’re still funded as second-class students scrambling to get by without many of the amenities that other public schools have.

The kids who really suffer the most are low-income kids who are stuck in perennially failing schools. High-income families have school choice; they choose to put their kids in private schools. Middle-income families have school choice; they move to highly ranked school districts, and every Realtor knows where those are. It’s only our low-income families that are stuck in failing schools, no escape, no option, where ZIP code is destiny. And those are the kids about which I am most concerned.

Q: You have faced much criticism in response to a plan to grade teachers based in part on student test scores. What will happen to it now that you are not running for another term?

A: The die is cast, and ... those who are opposed to educator accountability are fighting a losing battle. ... Will you ever get an absolutely perfect evaluation system? No, of course not, because human beings are involved. But at least the measures of student growth are objective. When you have a principal evaluate teachers, that’s subjective. We think a mixture of the two is most effective.

Q: Talk about your relationship with the state Board of Education and groups that contribute most to the debate about S.C. public education.? How have they affected your ability to be effective?

A: In the field with the (school) leadership, I have a measure of credibility that I do not have with the education lobby groups. ... What I hear from the superintendents and the principals is often very different than what I hear from these lobby groups. ... Our union-like, special-interest, education lobby groups ... pretend that what’s in the best interest of their members is also in the best interest of students. But let me tell you it is not. They worked as hard as they could to ensure I was not elected and, when I was elected, have done everything to thwart my agenda.

Q: Critics see you as a divisive, even antagonistic leader. Do you feel like there are battles you have fought and positions that have been overlooked?

A: I’ve asked for an increase in the education budget of $100 million. But, because this is so politicized, I get no credit from the education lobby groups for the positive things I do.

Q: Do your critics have anything to do at all with your not running for another term?

A: Not at all. It was all personal and family considerations. Actually, I found the conflict kind of invigorating.

Q: Do you think teachers should be paid more?

A: We don’t pay our best teachers nearly enough and we pay our worst teachers far too much. ... Our whole compensation system is dysfunctional, that right now we reward teachers for longevity and the numbers of degrees that they have. Let’s figure out a system to recognize and reward the best teachers.

Q: There seems to be a lot of disagreement about how Common Core was created. What do you think of that, having aligned yourself with the anti-Common Core movement?

A: The question is, is it good enough? My biggest problem with Common Core has to do with its application in high school, which again is a one-size-fits-all that expects every student to learn the same material on the same schedule. I think that’s unreasonable in elementary and middle school and makes no sense in high school, where every kid is required to pursue a four-year college preparatory degree. ...

I don’t think standards are that important, frankly. The kids in Jasper and Hampton and Allendale have the same standards as the kids in Lexington. But look at the outcomes. They’re enormously different. It’s not the standards that makes a difference. It’s do you have competent leadership in the school, and do they ensure that every teacher is effective? Am I opposed to Common Core? Yes. Is that my top issue? No.

Q: What about the low ranking globally of the United States’ education system? Some Common Core supporters have said the standards could help the nation compete on a global level.

A: We have an unemployment rate of about 7 percent in South Carolina, and we have huge shortages in our high-tech manufacturing. We tell children from the time they enter school that ... “you’re going to go to college.” And the implicit message is, “If you don’t go to college you’re an academic failure and a second-class citizen.” And not only is that unfair to the 70 percent of Americans who will never get a four-year degree, it’s cruel to start telling them at age 6 that if you don’t get a four-year degree, you’re a failure.

We should honor the God-given talents of every student who’s doing the best they can with the gifts they were given. And if that means you’re going to make $85,000 a year as a plumber, let’s celebrate those gifts. ... Far too often we do not respect people who work with their hands as well as their minds. High-tech manufacturing is not trivial. ... Those are great jobs and they’re high-paying jobs.

Q: So in 2015 what are you going to do?

A: I wish I knew. I tell my wife: “Susan, you know, if you know how it’s going to come out, it’s not an adventure.” Her response is, “I don’t like adventures.” ... I want to do something new. I don’t know what that is. One of the things I would consider is being a consultant of some sort.

Q: I heard that you’ve known for some time that you weren’t going to run again.

A: I was ambivalent. I really like being superintendent, and I feel we’re making progress. ... But there are some downsides. (Zais said three months ago he had decided to run and was “making the calls.”) Really it was over Thanksgiving, when I met with my family and we went through all the pros and cons, that I really had a change of heart and a change of mind. But, in that three-month period, it really was my full intention to run. I just changed my mind. ...

The hours are long. You get attacked and the pay is low, and it really pains my wife to read all that stuff in the newspaper. Doesn’t bother me, I’m pretty thick-skinned. And if you’re pleasing everybody you’re not making the hard decisions that you need to make. And I’m not trying to be popular, I’m trying to do what’s right.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: Four years ago, when I said things like, “The current system is broken and it doesn’t serve the needs of far too many of our students,” I was reviled by the education establishment. Now Transform SC (a group of business and education leaders working to improve public education) is saying, “The current system is broken ... and we need to transform education.” ... What used to be perceived as a hostile attack on the S.C. education system is now prevailing wisdom. ...

I can take a lot of credit for having changed public perception across the state about the state of education. ... The fact that the whole tone of the discussion has changed in four years, I’m really proud of that. It’s not the ideas that people are opposed to – this is all about politics and what party is in office.

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