LEGISLATURE FLUNKS WV SCHOOL REFORM - More Visions, Goals And Objectives


With the Mountain State ranking near the bottom of student achievement in the USA, the state education system and the West Virginia legislature has failed to effect meaningful change.

The losers - students, teachers that teach and taxpayers that support a per student amount of money, among the largest in the USA.

"Insanity: Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results." Albert Einstein

By Charles McElwee

CHARLESTON If hundreds of pages of public-school legislation educated a young mind, West Virginia would long ago have surpassed Shanghai in student achievement.

To the contrary, legislative enactments every year for the past 23 years have not improved student performance in this state. It remains among the lowest in the United States on national and international assessments.

Yet, policymakers and some of the public continue to put faith in the legislative process that in the 24th consecutive year of trying, the public-school legislation now proposed is different and will this time increase student achievement.

We should discard the notion based on over two decades of experience that annually adding "bits and pieces" to an already cluttered education code will bring about the desired result, when, in fact, the yearly routine does little more than create a false impression of accomplishing something.

The state has a repairing-patching mentality about its public school system, the same thought process that would lead us to take the easier path of fixing an old house with a crumbling foundation instead of building a new one on a more solid foundation.

Public-school legislation, enacted over the past several decades, is found in chapters 18 and 18A of the State Code, consisting of hundreds of pages of irrational and in many instances outdated, minute and incomprehensible content.

These pages contain numerous archaic provisions that called for actions to be completed many years ago, such as in 1990, 1993, 1995 and 1996, or that set education goals based on a series of town meetings held 23 years ago, in the summer of 1990.

The Legislature has imposed some 70 mandates and restrictions upon the West Virginia Board of Education, which may account, at least in significant part, for the large volume of board policies and the size of the Department of Education, which have been criticized.

The Legislature has established or directed establishment of dozens of departments, boards, processes, councils, etc., to administer the public school system.

Among them are the Department of Education with a K-12 staff in excess of 300; a second Department of Education, known as the Department of Education and the Arts (as though one agency is not enough), with a staff of 14, and its claimed agency, the Center for Professional Development, with a staff of 16; and eight regional education service agencies (RESAs) with total staffs of 480, ranging from 17 in RESA 2 to 131 in RESA 8.

A state audit concluded that "one universal comment concerning RESAs is that they must work to 'follow the money' to pursue grants for their survival, rather than base services on an assessment of the most critical needs of districts in the region."

The Education Audit lists "a plethora of entities and organizations in (professional development) policymaking, planning and delivery in the state."

As a consequence, education officials say they "do not know who is in charge of professional development in West Virginia," and teachers often admit "having little confidence in the professional development opportunities that are available," the audit says.

While the audit recommends that at least 51 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on student advancement, H.B. 4236 enacted by the 2012 Legislature allows only 15 percent.

In contrast, 80 percent of a teacher's evaluation is to be based on his or her ability to perform critical elements of the professional teaching standards, among them the teacher's knowledge of students' gender and the organization of space and materials in a safe, highly efficient and well-designed learning environment.

The Legislature is fascinated with visions, setting goals and objectives, and laying out strategies. Thus, as part of its vision for the year 2020, the Legislature, in a moment of fantasy, said the first goal would be that student academic achievements will exceed national and international averages.

The Legislature also established performance objectives for high school graduation rates by 2020 (90 percent of ninth-graders) and college-going rates by the end of 2012, mandating that the gap between the county with the lowest college-going rate and the state average will decrease by 50 percent from what it was in mid-2008.

(The Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability would perform a valuable service by informing the public whether the state met the 2012 objective.)

Before any more school legislation is acted upon, the existing clutter in hundreds of pages of existing legislation should be swept into the trash bin.

- McElwee is a Charleston lawyer and long-time school reform advocate.

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