By Gregory Prudich
A call to conscience. That's what the opportunity for public education reform is about in West Virginia; a call to all in power and to their conscience to act with purpose for the children of West Virginia.
The call needs to focus on ideas and solutions that give our children the best opportunity to succeed and achieve. Everyone at the table needs to examine their conscience and ask their purpose at the table. It should be for our children.
How do we heed this call?
We must begin by acknowledging that every idea should be on the table and discussed. We should all be willing to listen to any idea that can improve student achievement and student outcome. If the idea doesn't meet these criteria, then discard it and move on. What we don't need is anymore tinkering around the edges. We need to be bold. Changes need to be directed toward student achievement and outcomes, to be thoughtful and done with careful consideration. We do not have to do this all in one session. It is a mistake to rush headlong into change for change's sake. Getting it right is more important than doing it quickly.
The process needs to include all affected parties; each needs to be heard. Educators, local boards, superintendents, the State Board, and State Superintendent are the experts; we all need to be heard. Parents need to come forward and tell us what they think; they need to be heard. The audit provides some unbiased direction; we need to consider it. Children want to succeed; we need to listen to them.
So what do we do? Begin by returning power to the local level. Local county boards know best what their children need. The state should be setting the curriculum, the standards, the objectives and the expectations that public schools are to meet. Then they need to stand back and let counties be incubators and innovators. We can meet high expectations if given the freedom to do so.
We need to free educators to teach and stop strangling them with regulations. We have killed the art of teaching and replaced it with a mechanical, one size fits all rote approach in the classroom. Teach this like this, in this much time and then move on. We must return the classroom to our experts. Give classrooms back to our teachers, and let them teach.
We need to inspect what we expect. The state needs to monitor outcomes and move toward an accountability model (for educators, administrators, county boards and superintendents) that considers a host of factors that matter: outcomes, graduation, test scores, expectations, dropout rate, student improvement, parental involvement, extracurricular and co-curricular participation, and other factors directly associated with achievement and outcomes.
Accountability needs to be fair and consider what the public school system has done to improve a student's chances at success. Accountability needs to provide opportunity to improve deficiencies. And accountability needs to be impactful; poor results must have consequences. No one in public schools fear fair accountability.
We must demand that students and parents come to the school system motivated, prepared and that they show up and work. Willful and negligent truancy must be eliminated; potential drop outs need to be identified early and given every opportunity to achieve; students must be disciplined, respectful, in school and on task; parents must be accountable for getting their children to school, prepared. Finally, students need to have some "skin" in the standardized test game. The score needs to matter to them in some way; the results need to impact them personally.
The devil, of course, is in the details. How we address these issues will determine their success. If we use this opportunity for reform as a moment to gain power, accolades, to undermine others, or for ideological purposes, instead of keeping our eye on achievement and outcomes, then we will fail our children. But if we focus reform on our children and their success, then we can expect better from public schools.
Education is the most important task for state government. It really matters to West Virginia and its future. Education is an economic development issue. A better educated workforce will draw companies here. It will create more home grown entrepreneurs.
Education is a social issue. The better educated our children, the greater their chance for success. If they succeed, then their children will likely succeed and we break the chains of poverty. Education is a state budget issue. If we educate our children and they succeed, they work and pay taxes, they stay out of jail, and they can be free of welfare in its many forms. That in turn helps the bottom line on our state budget.
Education is our key to a prosperous future. It is the key to our children's success. What can possibly matter more than that? So, I repeat, this opportunity to reform our public schools is a call to conscience. To those involved in this effort, please proceed with our children in mind. They should be our sole concern. We cannot afford to fail them. So let us succeed together.
Prudich, of Princeton, is president of the Mercer County Board of Education.