Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Education Reform in the Mountain State!

"A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad." 

- Theodore Roosevelt 

Recently, an educational audit was conducted of West Virginia's state educational system to find ways for the Mountain State to improve our schools.  The study, which Governor Earl Ray Tomblin commissioned, is available to the public. You can view a copy of the report here.  The audit examines practically every facet of the state's educational system, offering suggestions on ways to save money, and how to improve the overall quality of education for children.  Some of the recommendations are bold, and will require state officials and elected leaders to make serious changes.  Despite recognizing many of the weaknesses of our state's educational system, the audit omits other issues that hamper schools.  I want to address what the audit did well, and suggest some additional recommendations.

Some of the highlights, for your consideration ...

Modify code and policy to change hiring practices to allow for the filling of professional staff vacancies with the most qualified person regardless of seniority in the district.  

This may be one of the most significant changes the state of West Virginia can make in bettering our educational system.  In nearly all instances of hiring, the abilities of a teacher are not as important as how long they have served in a particular county.  The state's hiring practices should take seniority into consideration as one of many factors, but to suggest a teacher be hired solely because of seniority is ludicrous.  One of the reasons West Virginia has difficulty in keeping young teachers is because they find it frustrating to be repeatedly ignored for jobs even though they may be the most well qualified applicant.  If we want the best education system, we must hire the best teachers, regardless of age or years of service.

Hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the quality of their graduates.  

West Virginia has several colleges and universities which offer degrees in education.  However, the requirements for admission into education programs are often too low, and standards for graduation too lenient.  Becoming a teacher has become a 'fall back' plan for college students who are unable to survive in other majors.  This trend must stop.  Working in education requires intelligence, patience, dedication, and perseverance.  If a student does not excel in their field of study, why would we want them teaching our children?

Connect tenure decisions to teacher effectiveness.

Under the current system in West Virginia, teachers are on a probationary contract during the first three years of their employment.  After such time, they receive a 'continuing contract' (or tenure) regardless of job performance.  Why should our school system protect teachers who continually demonstrate ineffectiveness in their job?  

Prevent ineffective teachers from remaining in the classroom indefinitely.

This recommendation is inherently tied to the previous.  Schools within this state seek to actively assist teachers who are not considered effective.  They are not cast aside, as would be the case in the private sector.  Provide training and mentoring to teachers in need, but if they refuse to change or are unable to demonstrate the ability to educate students, they can no longer remain in their position.

Improve Teacher Compensation to Help Attract and Maintain the Best Teaching Corps Possible.

Teacher salary in West Virginia is among the lowest in the nation.  The state does not need to be first in the nation among salaries for teachers, but a vast improvement is needed in attracting and keeping the best teachers.  Many of the suggestions offered in the audit are not 'across the board' raises.  They recommend higher pay for teachers who willingly submit to merit based pay, additional salary for teachers who take on added responsibility (such as mentors, professional development leaders, etc.), and linking teacher pay with their overall effectiveness (along with degree and years of experience).

Give principals control over school staffing and scheduling ... Allow principals to have discretion to spend the school budget on the best programs and services for students.

Principals are hired to manage a school.  Let them have the authority to do so without micromanagement from the county or state levels.  As the leader of a school, the principal ought to be given wide latitude in determining what programs suit that school most appropriately.  The audit also recommends evaluating principals on an annual basis, providing a measure of accountability.  

Replace textbooks with digital content, including interactive and adaptive media.

Costs for new and rebound textbooks are high.  Money can be saved by switching to digital media.  Lost books will be no more.  Digital readers / tablets will be easier for students to transport and cheaper to replace.  Students no longer have to keep track of multiple books or lugging them to and from school.  They need only to remember one easily transported device that wouldn't even require a backpack.

Maximize West Virginia’s professional development funding by actively pursuing all available federal and private grant opportunities.

This recommendation didn't elaborate as much as I would have liked, but one would presume the state already is seeking all available federal funding to assist teachers in improving their craft.  If we aren't exploring all grant options, I would love to know why.  

Reduce the number of positions in the department.

The number of administrative positions within the statewide department of education can be reduced without a loss of quality of education.  Other states in the nation have demonstrated the ability to provide a high level of education, with a much lower ratio of students to state department personnel.  The report suggests phasing these positions out of the next few years when vacancies occur, whether via retirement or change in employment.

The audit also made numerous suggestions about busing, energy efficiency, and changes in budget priority that would (according to their estimate) save the state tens of millions of dollars over the next five years. 

Some recommendations not found in the audit ... 

Promote the importance and value of education.

West Virginia has a quirky way of looking at education. We want our children to have the best jobs, to have those opportunities within the state, and yet a large segment of our population has a disdain for being too intellectual.  The presumption exists that if someone has too much of a formal education, they must have somehow lost touch with the common man.  The situation has a very strange feel -- as if you become some sort of 'sellout' for attaining an education.  The significance of an education must be promoted by our state leaders and within the home.  If children see a combined effort from the state and their family, they too will understand why school matters.

Emphasize and restructure vocational training.

At some point in the last few decades, a terrible concept has become ingrained into American society that a four-year college suits everyone.  We all want our children to be doctors or lawyers.  However, society's needs are not met by pushing all children toward these types of jobs.  Our world needs electricians, plumbers, mechanics, construction workers, miners, factory workers, etc.  The training required for this type of work needs to be celebrated and valued along side a university education.  

Also, these vocational programs need to be relocated so facilities are on the campuses of existing schools.  Students travel to their school, only to be shuttled to a vocational school, wasting time and gasoline.  Many students also don't wish to leave their home school because they want other rigorous academic courses, and not solely the vocational training they seek.  We shouldn't force students to choose between an academic or vocational path.  Students can learn practical skills by taking elective courses such as wood shop, which seems to be offered in fewer schools.  

Reduce student class size.

When a teacher has a lower number of students per class, they can offer more individual attention to students.  Less students per class means less possible disruptions or behavior problems.  Teachers are able to form more meaningful relationships with students and provide the most meaningful content possible.  The ideal student to teacher ratio would be 20 to 1.  Yes, that would mean hiring more teachers, but the state already spends a large amount of money on policies that aren't working.  Moreover, with the additional savings the state could have from implementing the recommendations from the audit would be able to permit the hiring of new teachers.

Regardless of your thoughts on these proposed reforms to West Virginia's educational policies, you are invited to provide input.  During the summer, open forums will be held across the state seeking to hear what citizens of the state have to say about education.  Dates are: June 13, Elkins; June 14, Martinsburg; June 27, Parkersburg; June 28, Charleston; July 10, Wheeling; July 11, Morgantown; July 24, Welch; and July 25, Beckley.  Each meeting begins at 6 p.m., however locations have been yet to be determined.

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