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MAP TO PROSPERITY: Off limits to cuts, public schools face scrutiny

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A common complaint in West Virginia is that West Virginia's public education system is just not that good.

The complaint can be heard in border counties, which must compete with other states for migrating families, and in interior counties.

As one person said in an off-the-record conversation with The State Journal, "The thing I don't think we're addressing is public education." 

"The bulk of your money is going to public education, and yet on national test scores, we're not competing well," that person said. "Somehow we've got to hold schools accountable on math and science and English skill sets.

"It's a struggle attracting people to relocate here because people say, ‘I have to relocate my family, and your education levels are not as good as … well, pick a state.'"

William Smith, superintendent of Cabell County Schools, the state's fourth-largest system by number of pupils, had heard it all before.

"Bashing education is the thing of the day," Smith said. "I don't care whether they bash us or not. We're going to do the right things for kids."

One thing people tend to forget, Smith said, is that West Virginia is a poor state when compared with the rest of the nation. Schools in high-poverty areas must spend a larger share of resources just getting children ready to learn than schools in higher-income areas, he said.

When the governor and the Legislature consider budgeting for the coming fiscal year or paring back appropriations in the current fiscal year because of revenue shortfalls, public education is almost always exempt from cuts. This year, the West Virginia Department of Education received about 48 percent of general revenue tax collections. Thus brings the question of what return the people of West Virginia get for their investment in the nearly half the state general revenue budget that is off limits to austerity. 

Perceptions and test scores

It's easy for people to think West Virginia schools are subpar. Some of the anecdotal evidence shows:

 

  • Some teachers tell students they're teaching to the WESTEST.
  • It's rare for a public high school in West Virginia to make national Top 50 or Top 100 lists.
  • Children go into eighth grade without being exposed to the text of the Gettysburg Address, or graduate from high school without being expected to memorize parts of it.
  • When presented with the problem of subtracting 18 from 52, instead of carrying one and subtracting eight from 12, students are told to build a tree diagram.

 

And look at what is not said. No one promotes West Virginia schools as being world-class or among the best in the nation or, for that matter, above average.

But are West Virginia's schools really as bad as their reputation?

The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that West Virginia students performed below the national average in reading and math in fourth and eighth grades, but the results for fourth grade math and science were not, statistically speaking, significantly different from the national average.

NAEP scores for 2011 found West Virginia students ranking 37th nationally in fourth grade vocabulary, 42nd in fourth grade reading comprehension, 45th in eighth grade vocabulary and 46th in eighth grade reading comprehension.

There's another measure: the number of students in college or community college who must take remedial classes to learn what they didn't learn in high school.

According to data compiled by the Higher Education Policy Commission, 9.7 percent of first-time freshmen enrolled in the state's college and university system in the fall semester of 2012 required remedial classes in English. About 18 percent required remedial math classes. Overall, 20.6 percent of first-time freshmen required remedial course work.

Numbers for the Community and Technical College System are worse. There, 38.5 percent of first-time freshman were in remedial English and 52.5 percent were in remedial math.

As many people are fond on pointing out, the quality or perceived quality of public schools correlates highly with the household income of an area. As West Virginia as a whole ranks low on the list of household income — along with many of its counties — perceptions are that quality will rank low, too.

A district's response

Smith said schools have tried to teach students using a business model, but that doesn't work because students are too different.

Overcoming poverty takes resources, but "once we get them, we can move them quickly."

Cabell County Schools once allocated resources equally among schools, but no more, Smith said. Resources go to where they are needed most.

"The more resources we put into a classroom or a teacher, the better education they get," he said.

Cabell County also uses different instructional strategies based on students' needs and backgrounds. Central City Elementary, which is in a low-income neighborhood of Huntington, uses a different strategy than an elementary in the more affluent area of Barboursville, he said.

Jeff Smith, assistant superintendent for school improvement, said it's easy to write-off children from low-income families, but it does a child no good to make excuses for him or her.

William Smith said Guyandotte Elementary is a high-poverty school, but teachers raised expectations and talked with parents about the importance of reading to children and how to do it.

As other schools in West Virginia and the nation are, Cabell County is moving to fully implement standards of the Common Core curriculum.

Common Core teaches collaboration and looking at multiple sources based on document-based questions, Jeff Smith said.

"It seems odd to us, but the idea is for students to solve problems not just one way but in a number of ways," he explained.

Rather than memorizing multiplication tables or the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Common Core aims at getting the student to work through the thought process of solving a problem, Jeff Smith said. The teacher sees the tangents students are going off on and brings them back to solving the problem, he said.

"Ideally in a Common Core classroom, the teacher is hardly ever going to be sitting down," Jeff Smith said. "The teacher is no longer the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side."

It sounds chaotic, but with the right professional development for teachers, it should work, he said.

Rather than memorize, understand the logic behind math, Jeff Smith said.

"It's more real-world," he said. "We want students to look at multiple sources of information to find what they need."

Students can't memorize everything they need to know, so they need to know where to find it, he said.

Bill Smith said some teachers may object to the new Common Core program, but those who do not follow it will be held accountable and could be disciplined for insubordination.

Is more change necessary?

Common Core is controversial enough on its own, but some people think the state's public education system has needs that go far beyond a particular curriculum or method of instruction.

And they admit that such change could be very slow in coming.

Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance, said it takes time for systemic change to work its way in big systems.

Cal Kent, who among his many other titles, is distinguished fellow in economics at the Marshall University College of Business and Economic Research. He said West Virginia should be open to many options for improving the public education system. Among them are charter schools and vouchers, he said. Public schools may not like vouchers, but "we should never be afraid of competition," Kent said.

Kent also said early childhood education is an unfilled need in West Virginia. The problem is that you don't see the results of early childhood education immediately, he said.

"When you're in the bind we're in right now, things that get distant payoffs don't get the attention that things that get immediate payoffs get," Kent said.