With promises of another 5 percent pay hike for teachers in the upcoming legislative session and a $100 million temporary plug to address health insurance benefits for public employees, with a veritable wrestling match playing out publicly between the Higher Education Policy Commission and Gov. Jim Justice’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education to determine the fate of state colleges, and with Senate President Mitch Carmichael planning once again to push free tuition for state residents to attend community college, we are impressed with the attention and interest in education if for no other reason than it seems to have become this state’s single most important concern — because it has been neglected for so long.
But, with all of the talk, we are concerned that we all might be missing the most important pathway to improving educational outcomes in West Virginia: Quality instruction, K-12.
With an estimated 700 classrooms in the state lacking qualified teachers, many in basic math, successive annual pay hikes totaling 10 percent over two years should help attract and retain highly qualified teachers.
What are other creative answers to filling the void? With the help of the state, can school districts — especially those in the rural reaches of our mountainous landscape where it is challenging to attract qualified teachers — offer housing or daycare, forgivable loans and service scholarships? How do school districts improve support for beginning teachers and career development?
Beyond the salary adjustments, our teachers could certainly use the help. In National Assessment of Educational Progress testing last year, 35 percent of the state’s fourth graders were proficient in mathematics and 32 percent proficient in reading. Eighth graders checked in at 28 percent proficient at reading and 24 percent proficient in math. Read another way, the great majority of children — up to three of every four students — is not grade-level proficient in reading and math. That is alarming.
Pay hikes — in and of themselves — do not guarantee better results. What they do is direct more of the state’s resources towards education and help teachers make ends meet without having to work a part-time job on weekends.
That is all well and good, but for the sake of our students, what’s to become of that worthy investment if there is no support for curriculum development across individual disciplines up and down the K-12 ladder? How are we preparing and positioning our students — through coursework — for the challenge of college whether it is of the 2- or 4-year variety?
What of intellectual rigor in our high schools?
We are concerned because we hear too many stories of poor classroom instruction, of too little time devoted to actual learning, of Advance Placement classes being dropped, of too much time spent on doing the next day’s homework in class, of missed opportunities to work one-on-one with students who may be struggling with a math concept or a writing assignment.
We are concerned because we hear stories of teachers who, routinely, flip the lights off and turn the movie projector on.
And we read reports that say — unequivocally — schools are struggling with chronic absenteeism. Last year, 54,000 students across the state missed more than 18 days of school. And there are teachers whose attendance is not much better.
We also hear stories of young, motivated teachers who do not get administrative support, of highly effective teachers who are not justly rewarded and of teachers who spend their own money to equip their classrooms.
We know there are too many principals who lack the credentials and experience to shape curriculum let alone plan an academic calendar.
We also know that about a quarter of West Virginia public and private high school students who graduated in 2017 and enrolled in the state’s public colleges were required to enroll in remedial education classes.
So, we wonder, with the legislative year just ahead and fresh revenue flowing into the treasury, why is no one talking about building a better model for the delivery of education in our schools, one designed by experts in pedagogy and curriculum, one that addresses the needs of each and every student, each and every district.
Certainly, we want reasonable incentives to keep our best teachers in the profession and to attract the next generation of instructors to the field. But we also need teachers who show up and teach the entire class period and administrators and legislators who provide them support — all to the advantage of students.
Kids will learn, they will achieve, but too many will fail — as the statistics prove — if we do not have everyone, including parents, in on this essential mission.
So why not? And why not now?
We hear kids talk and we can read the statistics. We would prefer a different ending to this story. Failure should not — cannot — be an option.
— The Register-Herald