SC Superintendent of schools calls for curriculum flexibility

Associated Press March 8, 2014 

Zais Education

State Education Superintendent Mick Zais wants to spend his final year in office promoting ideas such as giving high school students more choices of the courses they take to graduate.

JEFFREY COLLINS — AP

— South Carolina high school students who don’t plan to go to college should be able to choose courses that are more practical than algebra II or English literature, the state’s superintendent of schools says.

Superintendent Mick Zais says priorities for his remaining year in office include advocating for greater flexibility in the high school curriculum, with a focus on critical writing, statistics and personal finance, he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

The Republican schools chief, who announced in December he won’t seek a second term, wants the state to revamp what he calls a one-size-fits-all curriculum that expects students to take four years of English literature and a math sequence of algebra I, geometry, algebra II and pre-calculus.

“I don’t know the last time you’ve been called on to factor a polynomial, compute sine or cosine or solve a quadratic equation, and you probably don’t have much occasion to analyze plot development in an 18th century British novel or understand what iambic pentameter means in poetry,” Zais said.

“But we force kids to take those courses, so should we be surprised that many of them are disinterested, disengaged and far too often discipline problems because in their minds, what they’re being forced to learn is not relevant to their future.”

In English language arts, he said, the focus needs to shift from appreciation of classic literature to teaching students to synthesize, analyze and apply what they read in a coherent, organized way – what he sums up as business writing.

“Because we focus on literature appreciation, not writing and speaking, we have a lot of kids who graduate high school who can do neither,” he said.

As for math, statistics should be the third-year default course rather than algebra II, he said, since “most people are called upon in their daily lives to analyze data.”

And he said personal finance should be the core course instead of pre-calculus, saying every graduate needs to know how to manage a checking account and credit cards, and calculate their taxes, mortgage payments and when it make sense to refinance.

“Right now we’ve got it reversed. Personal finance is the elective. I think we ought to have it the other way around,” Zais said. “Let’s give high school students more control over their curriculum and stop the pretense that every child can and should pursue a four-year college preparatory curriculum.”

Other educators counter that South Carolina’s problem is that not enough students are pursuing a four-year degree. According to the U.S. Census, just one in four South Carolinians ages 25 and older hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

A report by economists at the University of South Carolina concluded the state faces a major deficit of skilled, college-educated workers needed to fuel economic growth.

At current graduation rates, the state will need an additional 44,000 workers with two-year degrees as well as an additional 70,000 with four-year degrees by 2030, according to the report released Thursday by the group Competing Through Knowledge, a business-driven effort.

Zais’ ideas would need approval from the state Board of Education or state Legislature.

Board Chairman Barry Bolen of West Columbia said he doesn’t agree with Zais on the details. However, he said, “I do think we need to look at tailoring curriculum more to the aspiration of the student.”

Melanie Barton, executive director of the Education Oversight Committee, said she agrees it’s time to review the high school curriculum, but the goal needs to be enrolling more students in college and better preparing them to be successful when they get there. She disagrees with shifting focus from advanced math, saying that’s important for science- and technology-based jobs.

“Right now we don’t have enough for those jobs, and they’re there,” Barton said. “Most jobs going forward require post-secondary education.”

Her board, of which Zais is a nonvoting member, advocates expanding “dual-enrollment” offerings – courses offered by local colleges that allow high school students to earn college credit. Access has been largely limited to students who can afford to pay tuition or who attend school in districts that fund it locally, Barton said.

“We need to raise the bar for all kids. A high school diploma is not enough,” she said, adding she understands Zais’ point about high school students disengaging. “Maybe we need to make it more relevant. We want it raised and more applicable.”

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