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New education bill falls short of addressing major deficiencies

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Charles Mcelwee Charles Mcelwee
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McElwee is a Charleston lawyer with the firm Robinson & McElwee PLLC. The views expressed are his own. CMcElwee@outlook.com.

"The mountains were said to be in labor and uttered most dreadful groans. People came together far and near to see what birth would be produced; and, after they waited a great while in expectation, out crept a Mouse." Aesop's Fables.

Assume that the "expectation" was over a year's wait to see what "birth" the Education Audit might produce. "Out crept a Mouse" on March 22 when the Legislature adopted S.B. 359, the Education Bill — hardly a monumental deliverance or a turning point in the state's history, as some have described it.

The purpose of this article is to describe the long-awaited executive and legislative responses to the recommendations made in the Education Audit as revealed in S.B. 359. (In doing so, I do not express or imply a personal opinion on any of the recommendations or on whether more or less of them should have been addressed in the legislation.) 

First, a word of caution. Don't be misled into believing that because S.B. 359 consists of more than 200 pages, it must massively address deficiencies in the public school system that are holding back improved student achievement. If that were the goal of the Legislature — and I can think of no other that should merit so much of its attention — it deserves, in my opinion, no notable praise. 

S.B. 359 is best described as a hasty, typical patching of an antiquated student-learning model, as the Legislature is prone to do year after year without improvement in student achievement on global and national assessments. 

The Legislature in S.B. 359 ignored or rejected far, far more of the recommendations of the Education Audit than it addressed. These are only some of them.

The governor proposed, but as the result of collective bargaining both the governor and the Legislature gave up, authorizing a Teach for America program to recruit teachers of kids growing up in poverty. 

The Legislature ignored making student achievement at least 51 percent of a teacher's evaluation (currently 15 percent).

The Legislature failed to connect tenure decisions to teacher effectiveness. (Currently, a teacher automatically becomes tenured in the fourth year of employment, and, as such, secures a property interest in continued employment, of which interest the teacher can only be deprived in accordance with due process requirements — charges, hearings, appeals, etc. — that can take months to complete, as the Audit observed).

The Legislature did not tie compensation to teacher effectiveness, in contrast to advanced degrees and number of years of teaching experience as in the present law. (The Education Audit states that "research has shown ‘unequivocally' that advanced degrees do not impact teacher effectiveness," and that the best predictor of teacher effectiveness does not include a teacher's experience).

The Legislature did not support retention pay, such as significant boosts in salary after tenure is awarded, for effective teachers.

The Legislature failed to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the quality of their graduates.

The Legislature chose not to improve oversight and accountability of regional education service agencies, or RESAs. (According to the Education Audit, the eight RESAs have a total staff of 480, and an operating budget for FY 2011 of approximately $45.3 million for K-12 services).

The Legislature did not establish a teacher recruitment work group, with representatives from the counties, to develop innovative ways to identify and hire qualified teachers.

The Legislature failed to provide compensation for related prior subject-area work experience.

The Legislature failed to encourage counties to use differential pay to motivate principals.

The Legislature failed to consolidate the Center for Professional Development and West Virginia Department of Education which could, according to the Audit, eliminate some of the confusion and inefficiency that exists with separate operations.

S.B. 359 did not accept many, many more of the Audit's recommendations not here identified.

Some of the Audit's recommendations that were addressed or implemented as made or as modified in S.B. 359 include:

Providing for state-level leadership on professional development; reducing the number of positions in the Department of Education; mandating 180 days of instructional time and aligning teacher and support personnel work calendars, including the abolishment of the 43-week limit; diminishing the role of seniority in filling vacancies in professional positions of employment; and providing for loans and scholarships for classroom teachers. (Seniority remains the key factor in determining the order of dismissal when the number of teachers employed is reduced; in the filling of positions in a consolidation or merger of schools; and in inter-county transfer arrangements).

The Education Audit emphasizes what it says national research and best practice clearly show: that the best predictor of student achievement is effective teachers and that the best predictor of teacher effectiveness is not "a teacher's route to certification, advanced degrees or experience."

S.B. 359 addresses none of the important policy areas that impact the teaching profession for which the National Council on Teacher Quality gave the State a D — except perhaps in the longer term and only indirectly: deleting possible qualification barriers to attracting the best possible person, based on a nationwide search, to become the state superintendent of schools.

Filling the superintendent's position with an exemplary candidate who is knowledgeable and a critical thinker about school system innovations the world over offers, in my opinion, the state's best hope for providing much needed bold, comprehensive and informed leadership in reforming the public school system and for escaping our parochial, narrow-minded, largely uninformed mentality in public-school matters.

What should the state be willing to pay a really outstanding prospect for state superintendent of schools, him or her being the chief school officer of the state? I suggest $350,000 to $400,000 annually. Outrageous? Consider that the annual pay of the head basketball coach at WVU is $3 million, and that of the head football coach is $2.38 million, of which $250,000 is base pay for each. If we are willing to pay that much to be entertained, ought we not be willing to pay the person in charge of educating our children, the state superintendent of schools, at least more than the base pay of the coaches?