South Carolina boasts some of the best schools in the nation, State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais told members of the Hilton Head Island Rotary Club on Thursday.
It also has some of the most troubled schools.
The difference, Zais said, is the quality of teachers. An average student with a great teacher will move to the highest levels of achievement, while an average student with a poor teacher will fall behind.
Zais spoke at Sea Pines Country Club during a Rotary program recognizing 16 outstanding students from Hilton Head's public and private schools, as well as one home-schooled student.
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He praised the students for their effort, saying success doesn't come without it.
"Talent plus hard work is what will produce the kind of success that will pay off for the rest of your life," he said.
Zais planned to remain in Beaufort County today to visit both Lady's Island Elementary School and Riverview Charter School in Beaufort, S.C. Education Department spokesmen Jim Foster said. Zais has visited schools in several regions of the state during the past three weeks.
Zais said his conversations with staff and students reinforced his belief in the importance of good teaching.
Students at an alternative school for at-risk students in the Midlands told him their school works because the students and staff care for each other like a family. The school, for students who didn't succeed in traditional high schools, has a 97 percent graduation rate, he said.
"My teacher listens to me," Zais said the students explained. "My teacher helps when I have problems, and my teacher is there to tutor me. The small classes are really helpful for me because I get the extra instruction I need."
Zais said school administration must respect teachers' professional judgment and give them the flexibility to teach in ways that will best help their students learn. He criticized restrictions put on teachers from bureaucracy in Washington and Columbia, as well as by individual districts.
"Different kids will learn effectively in different environments," he said. "Rather than standardizing education, we need to work on personalizing and customizing education."
Zais, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, served 31 years in the Army and retired as a brigadier general. He was president of Newberry College for 10 years before being elected state superintendent in November.