Depressing statistics that put West Virginia’s education system in a bad light call for reforms in the coming session, and two veteran legislators well experienced in teaching certainly have no dearth of ideas how to make progress.
One driving force is the recent audit Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered to find just where the state’s education community stands.
Tomblin ordered the audit several months ago, and one of its chief recommendations is that more authority must be shifted from the state Board of Education to the local level.
On that point, Delegates Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, and Dave Perry, D-Fayette, are in full accord.
“The Constitution says we have to provide an education for everyone in this state, but everything, it seems, is controlled at the state level,” says Sumner, a retired civics/history teacher at Park Middle School in Beckley.
“We did those innovation zones to give schools an opportunity to legally do something outside of the box to see if it works for them. By that, it means it wouldn’t have to conform necessarily to a code or a policy that was passed by the state. We reviewed those to see what was working. Who knows better than the people who are involved in education — the teachers, principals, the parents? Communities know what their children need, what’s lacking. That’s why the Parent Teacher Association formed years ago, so everybody in the community could work together for a better education for their children.”
Perry agrees that far too much power in running the education train is vested in the central office.
“One size doesn’t fit all and we’ve tried to put all 55 counties’ boards of education in the state BOE to comply with a one size fits all program, when, in reality, every county is different and has its own personality,” says Perry.
A retired principal at Collins Middle School in Oak Hill, the delegate says one means of putting more power into local hands is by increasing resources available to the eight Regional Education Service Agencies (RESA) governed by the state board in Charleston.
“We need to lower class sizes, first of all,” Perry said, noting as many as 40 students nowadays are crowded into a classroom.
“One time, back in the 1960s, we started putting size limits on classes.”
Ideally, a class would seat no more than 25 students, and this would mean more time a teacher could devote to the pupils — an argument advanced by many an instructor.
“I hear this quite often from teachers,” Perry said.
“Back in the 1960s, we brought it through the fifth grade (class limit), and it was supposed to continue, but dollars and cents prohibited it from occurring. The process was supposed to continue through the 12th grade.”
Sumner says the Legislature must give full attention to the audit Tomblin ordered.
“One concern was that the bureaucracy at the state level, the DOE, was one of the highest that there is,” she said.
“We see what ways we can correct that, reduce it, and then the money you save from there, and where we can use it to improve education. We’re looking at millions, if not billions, of dollars there.”
Perry says the constant disruption of the classroom by removing teachers for continuing education is another issue that begs a resolution.
“I think it needs to be stopped,” he said.
“And that’s one of the simple things that don’t cost us. You have situations, sometimes three or four times a week, when we do training education. We also need to put a stronger emphasis on our vocational educational programs, particularly at a younger level. Research shows that children who have an identification with vocational education have a stronger graduation rate.”
Many students simply aren’t college material, or merely have no desire to earn a degree on a campus, Perry pointed out.
“And, we’re told about 60 to 70 percent of the work force in the future has to be technically oriented,” the retired principal said.
One controversy that seems to resurface in every session is the 180-day school calendar.
Perry and Sumner agree that it is futile to impose a set number of days on every county with regard to classroom instruction.
“I’ve always been an advocate for instructional minutes, period,” Perry said.
“If instructional minutes are met, then you’ve met the time, or opportunity, for education. I think quality over quantity will win every time. So, we have to address the quality rather than the quantity of time. You have to come to one standard or the other. Right now, we’re operating under two standards — 180 days standard and instructional minutes. Like, 7,200 minutes equal a semester in college. You might meet three days a week and meet the 7,200. We may be meeting the instructional minutes and not meeting the per day. I’d rather see us focus on a system that recognizes the mastery level achievements and instructional minutes.”
Sumner points to disparities in the various regions of the state and the difficulty some face in meeting a standard 180 days, given the differences in topography and climate.
“If you talk about the calendar, for example, you can’t compare Pocahontas County to Kanawha County in setting the school calendar,” she said.
“You may have some school areas that want to do year-round school. You may have other areas where that wouldn’t be suitable at all.”
A recent article that caught her attention spoke of increasing the actual educational minutes as opposed to setting a fixed number of days.
“It didn’t say anything about increasing days,” the delegate said.
“It said increasing time. Do you add time to the list of each day? Some schools suggest going on Saturday in some counties, or Sundays. I don’t see that being feasible for us, because, No. 1, you have to have family time, and No. 2, the cost of transportation. We’ve already extended time on to the daily schedule several years ago. If you looked at the minutes we are spending, we probably would come up with more days than what’s required.”
Sumner and Perry agree on another point — that discipline remains a problem to be resolved.
For Sumner, the question is just what constitutes an appropriate punishment?
“I personally like in-school suspension, where they are in school and that’s usually covered by grants,” she said.
“One of the biggest things we have to look at when we talk about reforms in education which I now think would be anything we would take up in this legislative session would be truancy. Truancy seems to be one of our biggest problems.”
So huge, in fact, that state Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis devoted much of her time this year traversing the state to address the issue.
“It doesn’t matter what the teachers do, or the communities do,” Sumner said.
“If we can’t keep the students in school, then our test scores are going to be low. Our graduation rate is going to be low. We’re going to have less students taking college-level training.”
Is jailing parents of truant children an answer?
Sumner dismisses this notion, asking, “What if they’re living with their grandparents? Here’s the problem. You and I both know not every child has the same advantage when they get up in the morning.
“We used to address truancy where if you missed so many days, then you would get a reduction in your grade. They don’t do that any more. If you can do the work and you’re not there, should that apply to you? If you’re smart enough and you can do it and turn it in, should you get a reduction in your grade? There’s a lot to look at.”
Sumner has taught students who spent the night on a sofa, sometimes with a relative, or a friend.
“They were hungry,” she said.
“They weren’t clothed properly. They didn’t have heavy coats in the middle of winter. What do you do if you can’t make it to school?”
In her school days, Sumner said landing a certificate for perfect attendance was a source of individual pride. That no longer holds, and besides, society itself has undergone dramatic changes.
“When we were home, we weren’t allowed to roam the streets,” she recalled.
“Our parents were at home. We had chores to do. Homework to do. And my parents would go over the math or give out spelling words, my Mom would, while she cooked. There were also things to do when you were at home. I feel sometimes children have too much time on their hands.”
Perry says discipline remains a problem with all the teachers discussing education issues.
“The solution to that would be stronger alternative education programs, separate facilities and so forth,” the delegate said.
“I’ve always felt you could use the same instructional staff. But just offer the instruction at a different time. For example, the instruction might occur 3 to 9 at night, instead of 8 to 4. You wouldn’t have additional people. Those same people would be able to do the alternative education in the afternoon or evening sessions.”
Special education students present another group that demands attention, Perry said.
“A lot of them need services,” he said.
“They should have services. But I’m not sure integrating them with the regular classroom is the proper way to proceed. It used to be we had special education schools that provided all the wrap-around services on a daily basis, rather than have them in regular classroom settings.”
Disruptive students tend to pose negative attitudes toward teachers and their peers alike, he said.
“I think the reason being is they have fallen behind in the early grade levels,” he said.
“About the 3rd grade, we need more intervention with alternative education programs to bring those kids up to speed to cause them to be on the grade level in reading and math skills. As they get farther and farther behind, they become more disruptive and more disassociated with the system.”
Perry and Sumner feel Tomblin must take the lead in the 2013 session.
“I think the short-term goals are very achievable,” Perry said.
“It will take the support from the governor, the teacher organizations, the Board of Education, and the Legislature to get action on these things. We have to get everybody on the same page and sometimes that’s a tall order.”
Sumner expects to hear Tomblin outline his goals for education reforms in the State of the State address.
“He ordered the audit and I think education is going to be his major concern,” she said.
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