Misleading the State of Education: Zais Plays Partisan with School Praise

Superintendents of education in states across the U.S. are necessarily political positions, either political appointments or elected offices.

Should, then, a superintendent of education visit public school districts to praise excellence—especially in districts and schools struggling under the weight of poverty? Of course.

But in the current accountability era that persists in pursuing education policy not supported by research and in the wake of Tony Bennett’s school grade manipulation scandal (and concurrent evidence from Florida that school grades are yet another failed education policy), public praise for district and school success is often a cover for promoting partisan political agendas.

For example, Superintendent of Education Mick Zais (South Carolina) has identified Laurens District 56 (SC) as evidence of his central ideological commitment:

South Carolina public schools located in “pockets of poverty” still can provide a top-notch education, if they follow a formula of selecting and rewarding dedicated teachers, the State Superintendent of Education said Friday.

Zais represents the political argument central to most education reform across the U.S. embracing two claims: a “no excuses” approach to high-poverty schools and claiming that teacher quality is the most important element in education reform and outcomes.

Along with these ideological claims, Zais also embraces the school grading policy also popular (but failing) across the U.S. Since Zais is fond of grades, let’s grade his use of Laurens District 56 as proof of his educational policy.

Using a straw man argument: F

Running throughout Zais’s points is a refrain found among many so-called reformers:

“Poor kids can learn,” Zais said. “Poverty is a factor, but it is not an excuse. District 56 demonstrates that better than another other district in the state.”

The problem with this argument is no one in education is calling for using poverty as an excuse. In fact, everyone who is currently rejecting the accountability reform movement is calling for direct action to end poverty.

Misleading claims about the “great teacher” myth: F

The “no excuses” argument shifts the focus from addressing poverty to focusing almost exclusively on teacher quality. Zais offers a “great teacher” mantra through his comments, although he fails to offer a single nod to evidence that any of his claims are reflected in the research base (just as other political reformers receive free passes in the media, such as Jeb Bush):

Great teachers impart to their students 18 months of knowledge in one academic year, Zais said. Poor teachers spent an academic year imparting six months of knowledge, he said….

Zais said the state will not get to this merit pay system while he is in charge of the State Department of Education. “Maybe some day,” he said….

“The single most important factor (in beating poverty) is the effectiveness of the individual teacher in the classroom,” Zais said. “Your child is far better off having an effective teacher in a poor school, than an ineffective teacher in a rich school.”

The string of misleading claims here are many, but first, “x months of learning” is essentially a “phony metric.” Matthew DiCarlo directly discredits the claim made by Zais:

One claim that gets tossed around a lot in education circles is that “the most effective teachers produce a year and a half of learning per year, while the least effective produce a half of a year of learning.”…

As with most prepackaged talking points circulated in education debates, the “year and a half of learning” argument, when used without qualification, is both somewhat valid and somewhat misleading….

So, here’s the deal (and this is strictly my opinion): There is a research consensus that estimated test-based teacher effects vary widely between the top and bottom of the distribution, but the “year and a half” assertion should probably be put out to pasture, at least when it’s used without elaboration or qualification.

A second misleading claim by Zais is that merit pay is effective. Again, simply put, merit pay has been revealed as ineffective and even harmful in both the business world and education.

And finally, teacher quality is obviously very important, especially in each classroom and as an in-school variable related to student learning. But Zais’s emphasis on teacher quality is again extremely misleading. Teacher quality impacts about 10-15% of measurable student outcomes:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998Rockoff 2003Goldhaber et al. 1999Rowan et al. 2002Nye et al. 2004).

Suggesting outliers prove generalizations: F

The “miracle” school argument that supports the “no excuses” ideology has several problems (although it tends to be used for charter schools and not public schools among education reformers). First, nearly all “miracle” school claims have been discredited—some high-profile examples include the Texas “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” the Harlem “miracle,” and the New Orleans “miracle. But even isolated schools held up as evidence of schools overcoming high-poverty populations of students have been revealed as less than claimed upon closer inspection of the data.

Another point of logic that “miracle” school claims fail is that by their nature outliers do not prove generalizations. Even if some high-poverty schools are “high flyers,” that does not prove that all high-poverty schools can or should do the same. Yet, that remains the essence of Zais’s arguments:

Finally, while Zais’s praise of Laurens District 56 and two of its elementary schools is justified as recognition of admirable work done, it is ultimately misleading:

Two District 56 schools – Clinton Elementary and Eastside Elementary – are “A” rated schools on the State Department of Education’s most recent rankings.

Clinton High School rated a “D”. “Am I proud? Yes, I am,” O’Shields said. “Last year, they were an ‘F’, and a low ‘F’ – now they are a high ‘D’,” he said touting the improvement.

O’Shields stressed that the district’s “flagship” will benefit in terms of students’ quality from the work being done by elementary and middle school teachers.

Zais touted District 56’s “B” overall rating. While South Carolina has “A” public school districts, he said, just two other districts have poverty indices higher than District 56.

Part of the problem with using the district and two schools as proof of Zais’s policies is that he is depending on his new A-F school grading system (as noted above, we already have evidence of such systems being manipulated for political gain). Zais’s praise, however, is greatly tempered when framed against the second accountability system used in SC, the school report cards that include comparisons of districts and schools with “students like ours.”

In the 2012 data, Laurens District 56 is typical of districts with students like theirs: the district’s absolute rating of “average” is among 13 of 21 districts with comparable student populations. Clinton Elementary is also typical by that comparison: an “average” absolute rating among 50 of 123 elementary schools with students like theirs. Eastside Elementary does have an “excellent” absolute rating, which is among the elite schools with students like theirs, among 8 of 128 schools; however, that accomplishment clearly is an outlier, and again, does not prove that all schools can or should achieve such results.

An additional complication to Zais’s focusing on high-poverty schools is that comparing high-poverty schools and their student outcomes is more complicated than simply identifying poverty, such as the Poverty Index (PI). Populations of special needs students and English language learners vary dramatically among high-poverty schools and greatly impact measurable outcomes. For example, Eastside Elementary (PI 88.67) and Clinton Elementary (PI 79.65) have no limited English proficiency scores, but high-poverty elementary schools in Greenville school district do: Berea Elementary (PI 95.62), Brook Glenn Elementary (PI 83.90), and Duncan Chapel Elementary (PI 82.90). Eastside Elementary’s success certainly offers little of a fair comparison with the three elementary schools in Greenville that struggle also with English language learners, despite all facing the burden of poverty.

Laurens District 56 is near my hometown, where I also taught public high school for 18 years in nearby Spartanburg District 4. The administrators, teachers, students, families of District 56 deserve recognition, and more importantly, support. To them, I say congratulation.

But to Zais, I say, shame on you, Superintendent Zais, shame on you for misleading the state of education once again.



  1. […] Superintendent of Education Mick Zais can’t help himself. He is so enamored with his misinformation-as-talking-points that he is willing to visit and shame a high-poverty elementary school. This is the other side of the coin for Zais who has previous visited a so-called high-flying school in order to shame all the other schools. […]

  2. […] Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), and even the SC League of Women Voters all cannot stop themselves from promoting the worst possible education reform policy they can find—charter schools, teacher evaluations linked to test scores, merit pay, Teach for America, and grade retention for third graders based on state test scores. […]

  3. […] Thomas here describes how Mick Zais, state superintendent of South Carolina, misleads the public about the condition of education in […]

  4. […] via Misleading the State of Education: Zais Plays Partisan with School Praise – SCHOOLS MATTER @ THE C…. […]

  5. […] via Misleading the State of Education: Zais Plays Partisan with School Praise. […]

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