Monday, February 1, 2016

Charter Schools aren't the answer ...

West Virginia's state legislature continues to waste time on policies that will not benefit the state, but the most recent incarnation of an attempt to allow for charter schools might be one of the most ridiculous.  Everyone wants quality education for the children in West Virginia, but the problems faced by the education system in this state will not be changed by charter schools. 

The foremost reason for not adopting charter schools is that children of West Virginia will not benefit from them.  A recent op-ed piece in the Charleston Gazette-Mail cited a 2013 study from Stanford University as grounds for implementing charter schools.  While this study revealed that students at charter schools did perform better than traditional public schools, there are several more conclusions from that study worth mentioning.

The Stanford study also revealed that the modest gains charter schools had in student achievement were due to the fact that charter schools typically have an academic year longer than 180 instructional days.  If West Virginia's state legislature would like to expand the school year to see improvement in students, they would have the support of many teachers.  However, they will never expand the school year because it would expanding teachers' contracts and paying them more.  Does anyone really believe that would happen?  Would students attending the charter schools in West Virginia go to school for more than 180 days? 

Another benefit of charter schools touted by proponents is that teachers would be permitted to use different approaches to teaching.  As a teacher, let me respond to that by saying that I have been given wide latitude in how I teach my content.  While certain goals and objectives exist for coursework, a teacher in West Virginia is free to meet those standards in a variety of ways, employing any number of methods.

Individual counties in West Virginia can develop their own programs and initiatives under state law, and individual schools have the ability to apply for "innovation zone" status.  This program allows schools to adopt various policies outside of state law (excluding personnel decisions) to experiment with educational ideas to increase student achievement and overall development.  Essentially, this program already permits public schools to become like charter schools in certain capacities. 

The ability for schools and teachers to educate already exists, as does teacher accountability.  Teachers have to account for what they do in their classrooms on a daily basis, evaluate the learning of students, and undergo annual evaluations of their work.  Additionally, schools receive periodic visits from the state's Office of Education Performance Audits (OEPA).  These audits provide feedback on what a school does well and where improvement must occur.  Schools are then given time to implement necessary changes before a follow-up visit from the OEPA.

Accountability in schools cannot be measured in the same manner as the business world.  Charter school advocates want to judge a school and its teachers solely by data, and that does not accurately reflect education or the progress of children.

Schools are attempting to educate a wide variety of children who show up daily with more physical and emotional baggage than I can describe in this space.  Somehow, a large number of children learn in spite of everything that works against them.  And we want to measure their growth and education by test scores and graduation rates?  No way exists to measure the impact that good teachers have on their students' lives beyond teaching content. 

The development of charter schools in West Virginia would only further divide a severely strained budget and create redundancy, while stripping away due process rights of teachers with respect to their job status.

Before we drink the Kool-Aid of charter schools, consider a few other options.  In 2012, the State Department of Education underwent an audit to provide suggestions as to how West Virginia could improve its public schools.  Maybe the state legislature should consider some of those options first.  The report recommended many changes, including increased teacher pay to help attract quality teachers. 

Instead of raising teacher pay to incentivize teachers, we have done the exact opposite.  No raises and a severe cut to the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) means that teachers have become more financially burdened.  The audit called for a comprehensive plan to recruit teachers, and to my knowledge, no such plan exists.

The audit recommended numerous ways to save money that amounted to millions of dollars, including the reduction of administrators at the state Department of Education.  This wouldn't even include the numerous administration positions that exist in all 55 counties.  The number of these positions grows despite most counties seeing decreases in student enrollment.

The one change that would help the education system the most is the one our society fears:  change the disciplinary measures and policies within schools to allow principals and teachers to maintain order.  Many children have no fear or respect for adults in schools.  Some students have become increasingly emboldened by relaxed policies that coddle them.  Others are the products of poor parenting.  Either way, children (generally speaking) in modern America believe they are entitled to the point where they do not respect authority figures. 

The issue of school discipline is so important, I would gladly forego a pay raise to maintain an orderly school.  Students can be punished for their actions, they remain undeterred.  While it's natural for children to question authority to some extent, this generation and the ones that follow will ask 'why' for all the wrong reasons.  When these children question, it's related to their desire to behave as they see fit.  The level of intellectual curiosity about the world around them has diminished and our appeasement of them is a terrible disservice.

If the legislature wants to make changes to existing law and policy in education, then work through those changes with teachers providing input.  Loosen curricular requirements at the state and county levels.  Add more options to the innovation zone program.  Provide quality training for teachers.  Put more resources into vocational training.  Many options exist for making a better school system, and creating charter schools is not one of them.


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