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Formula for South's school reform: more work, fewer absences

At Spartanburg High School, in Spartanburg, S.C., one of the largest high schools in the state, the average number of student absences dropped by nearly 50 percent this fall, according to the school's records.

Athletic events and pep rallies have been rescheduled to avoid using class time. The number of school assemblies has been cut from eight to four. And the school day has been lengthened by 25 minutes.

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''We have students walking around with more books, doing more work,'' says principal Joe Delaney.

The changes, including fewer allowed absences, are all part of a major drive by South Carolina, along with a number of other states, to improve the quality of its public education.

The South, long behind the rest of the nation in many ways in the quality of its education, is now leading the charge for reforms, according to a recent report by a consultant for the Rand Corporation. Six states - Arkansas, California, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee - have enacted the broadest reforms, according to the report.

South Carolina's is ''the most comprehensive school reform package enacted at one time in the recent past,'' says the report's author, Lorraine M. McDonnell.

There has been some grumbling among students at Spartanburg High, says principal Delaney. But overall, they have accepted the changes.

''If you have a certain level of expectation for students, they're going to meet it,'' he says.

Educators from across the South gathered here recently to examine how two of the states with major reforms under way, South Carolina and Arkansas, won enough support to pass the laws and how they are being implemented.

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Among the reforms adopted by all or most of the six states cited in the Rand report are: more course work required to graduate, with an emphasis on more math and science; and competency tests for both students and teachers to determine which students are promoted and which teachers remain certified. Class days have been lengthened, and financial incentives have been made available for schools and teachers.

Speakers and those interviewed at the meeting here offered these assessments:

1. The main reason for the reforms in the first place is a growing recognition that better education means better - and more - jobs.

The reforms ''arise out of simple economic necessity,'' says Robert A. Kronley, senior consultant at the Southern Education Foundation, which sponsored the meeting. The SEF, founded in 1867, promotes educational improvements, particularly for blacks and the poor in the South.

2. The key to passage of major educational reforms is organizing broad public support in advance among relevant interest groups - business, teachers, parents, and lawmakers.

3. To make the reforms work, and work fairly, will require close monitoring not only by school officials, but by independent, private organizations.

But the reforms do little to change the old problem of relying mostly on local school taxes, which leaves economically poor areas with less school money, says Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta. And most of the reforms are financed by sales taxes, which hit the poor the hardest, he says. Officials say the sales tax is the only tax they can get approved.

There is no clear strategy to see that the students doing the poorest will get the most help, Mr. Suitts contends. But Mr. Kronley of the SEF says officials today agree that blacks and others doing poorly must get that help, although achieving that goal will be challenging.

Officials from both states explained their reform laws and how they came to be.

South Carolina. A poll showed two-thirds of the state's residents wanted reforms and were willing to pay higher taxes to get them. But legislative support was weak, at first, says Terry Petterson, director of education in the governor's office. So top business leaders were brought onto a reform committee, public forums were held, and educational groups and other lobbyists were encouraged to contact their legislators. Most of the reform proposals were adopted into law.

Among the reforms: requiring students to have two additional units in order to graduate; requiring high school exit exams; requiring students to have passing grades in order to participate in extracurricular activities. The allowed days of unapproved absences dropped from 20 to 10; cash bonuses were made available for individual schools excelling in teacher and student performance. Teachers are now to be fired if they fail two consecutive performance evaluations.

Arkansas. In an interview here, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (D) said that ''the state was aching to do something'' to improve education. ''We let the people have a say in developing the plan.'' His wife headed a committee that held hearings on the plan around the state.

But the Arkansas chapter of the National Education Association is suing in court to try to block implementation of teacher testing.

Reforms aside, ''caring is the main ingredient'' in good teaching, says Lydia Faye Cannon Kearney, who runs a day-care center in Pine Bluff, Ark. She recalls the help that Charles C. Knight, currently an Arkansas school superintendent, gave her in getting her into college - even driving her there to apply.

Mr. Knight replies: The way to get better performance is to ''expect more out of kids.''

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