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Difficult: Improving schools

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every study finds that American students lag behind youths in most other advanced democracies -- and West Virginia students fall below U.S. averages.

One report puts the Mountain State equal to Bulgaria in 15-year-old math proficiency. The American Institute of Physics rates West Virginia 49th in "science and engineering readiness."

Elevating this state's youths to the high-tech level needed for the new Information Age is a monumental challenge -- but Gov. Tomblin asked the 2013 Legislature to tackle it. In his State of the State address Wednesday night, he warned:

"Our student achievement is falling behind . . .  . Many of our scores have slipped lower over the past decade . . .  . Our graduation rate is only 78 percent, which means almost one in four school students do not graduate on time . . .  . We have the highest percentage of young people ages 16 to 19 not engaged in school or the work force."

All those conditions are "not acceptable," he declared. He urged lawmakers to adopt these proposed reforms:

• Expand the state's preschool classes for 4-year-olds -- now utilized by two-thirds of eligible tots -- until all kids are covered.

• Upgrade vocational training in all schools to prepare youths for expanding technology jobs.

• Incorporate more digital learning into classrooms.

• Focus on reading skills in the first three grades, which is crucial for coming years of learning.

• Help county school boards lengthen the school year, which averaged only 170 days last term. Absurdly, he said, "a snow day counts as an instruction day."

• Reduce bureaucratic administrative overhead in 55 county school systems, because student population has dropped one-fourth during the past 30 years.

The governor didn't mention Teach for America volunteers, who want an opportunity to fill vacancies in rural West Virginia classrooms -- but he said the state Board of Education is developing a new system of teacher accreditation. We hope the new method overcomes teacher union objections and lets the idealistic young volunteers work in this state.

During his mandate to the Legislature, Tomblin seemed to call for more responsibility to be shifted onto local school boards -- but that's unwise, because several county boards already perform so badly that they have been seized by the state board. We doubt that much improvement can be gained at county level.

These are heavy challenges for the coming 60-day session. We hope legislators face them without becoming distracted by shallow emotional issues that waste time, energy and taxpayer dollars.


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