Inez Tenenbaum: High Standards, Low Expectations

President-elect Obama has still not named his appointee to be the next US Secretary of Education.

This upcoming decision is of particular interest to South Carolinians, as former State Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum is considered to be in the running for the nation’s top education post.

In addition to the notoriety of overseeing the nation’s worst performing public education system for eight years, Tenenbaum is well-remembered for her constant pleading to “stay the course” no matter how bad things got in local public schools. Based on South Carolina’s massive $11,480.00 per student spending, it seemed to work.

What didn’t work were the schools themselves.

Despite claims of “huge” and “sustained” gains in educational quality, South Carolina public school SAT scores hovered around the mark for “50th” in the nation during all eight years of Tenenbaum’s administration.

In fact, the marginal gains in average South Carolina SAT scores can almost totally be accounted for by a national trend toward better scores during that period. When Tenenbaum took office in 1998, the average SAT score in South Carolina was 951, an unbelievable 66 points behind the national average. In 2005, the year Tenenbaum left office, the average SAT score was only 993; still 35 points below the national average. During that time, national averages also climbed from 1017 to 1028. Even today, the wealthy all-white upper middle class school districts in Upstate South Carolina earn average SAT scores more than 100 points behind their North Carolina peers.

Even more sobering is the shameful growth in racial and poverty-based achievement gaps during- and since- the Tenenbaum years.

Other states have managed to successfully diminish the achievement gap between black and white students, but gaps actually increased during Tenenbaum’s term in office. After Tenenbaum was sworn in (1998), gaps on NAEP reading scores between white and black 8th graders grew. These gaps are still growing. Similarly, between 2000 and 2005 (Tenenbaum’s last year in office) gaps in NAEP mathematics scores increased between black and white 8th graders.

Another unpleasant reminder of the Tenenbaum administration is the gross miscalculation of graduation rates among South Carolina public schools. In a New York Times article from earlier this year, South Carolina was pointed to as one of the nation’s worst offenders when it comes to having large gaps between the number of students who are reported as graduating, and the number who actually receive high school diplomas. The ploy to boost reported graduation rates was so embarrassingly transparent that current US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had to single out South Carolina in an effort to bring about a more “uniform” reporting standard. Despite the national media attention, it is estimated that up to 150 students drop out of South Carolina public schools each school day.

Tenenbaum created a loyal political following by constantly pointing to “high standards” and “rapid improvement.” However, Tenenbaum’s praise of South Carolina’s “high standards” rings false when put up against how schools actually performed. In fact, this year’s “Quality Counts” study by Education Week states that South Carolina may deserve an “A” for standards, but the state education system also deserves an “F” for K-12 achievement in meeting those standards!

If Tenenbaum’s cheery reminders about standards can be taken as fact, then objective performance is of no concern as long as the bar is set high.

Low graduation rates, low achievement test scores, and a widening racial achievement gap continue to flourish in South Carolina public schools. Are these problems that need to be reproduced on a national scale?  Hopefully not.

Tenenbaum’s legacy in South Carolina is one of platitudes, underperformance, and condescendingly low academic expectations. Based on real academic achievement during her terms as superintendent, and the failure of her much-vaunted “reforms,” Tenenbaum is the last person that needs to be put in charge of the nation’s most powerful education office. If her actual record is ignored, and she is appointed, the rest of the country can expect to be in the same position as South Carolina students: still reeling from the shock years later.


5 responses to “Inez Tenenbaum: High Standards, Low Expectations

  1. The premise of the post MUST be a joke. Obama is way too savy to have her as Sec of Ed. Can you imagine all the nation’s public schools striving to emulate ours!

  2. I promise – this so not about student achievement or improving education – this is about money (lots of it) given to Obama and all the PACS and other groups he used to get funded

  3. I’ve been amazed by how many are willing to praise her for her work as superintendent of education. There is just no objective reason for it. I also think that President Obama will have a hard time explaining a choice for Secretary of Education who had racial achievement gaps grow during her term in office. The achievement gap is a HUGE problem in this country. We need someone who has a record of fixing problems, not increasing them.

  4. Obama isn’t crazy. Why would he want to link his administration with South Carolina’s bad name when it comes to education?

  5. Pingback: Forrest Gumption | The Palmetto Scoop

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