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Charles McElwee: Legislating learning failing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Over the past 25 years, the Legislature has enacted hundreds of pages of public-school law that overall is a jumbled, disordered mess. If produced for a grade in the public schools, these pages, considered in their entirety, and scored on their clarity and coherency, would deserve an F.

Starting about 1990, when the education "standards" movement became the craze among reformists, the governors of West Virginia and the Legislature succumbed to the notion that they know best how to educate our children: through additional levels of control, regulation and bureaucracy.

The Legislature keeps piling on more and more school control, regulation and bureaucracy, yet rarely looks back to see what a boring, confusing and disorganized collection of words in has assembled over the years or determine how effective its enactments have been or what staff and costs are associated with their implementation - a practice that when diligently performed is the hallmark of efficient governance.

Almost annually, proposed legislation to further mend the school system is introduced and passed, much of it at the behest of the Governor, and then publicly acclaimed by members of the Legislature and the Governor as constituting real accomplishments.

They have not been. The Legislature's first exclusive goal for the State's public-education system as declared some years ago is that academic achievement will exceed national and international averages (on PISA and NAEP assessments) by 2020, only six years hence.

This is an unrealistic expectation. Between the years 2003 and 2011:

  • West Virginia's average achievement gains on NAEP's 4th grade math was 3.9 percent compared to a national average of 6.2 percent (which gave West Virginia a rank of 40th among the states and D.C.).
  • On 8th-grade math it was +2.5 percent compared to a national average of +6.6 percent (ranking West Virginia 47th).
  • On 4th-grade reading West Virginia dropped 4.8 percent, compared to a national average gain of 3.6 percent (ranking West Virginia 51st).
  • On 8th-grade reading, West Virginia dropped 3.5 percent, compared to a national average increase of 2.3 percent (ranking West Virginia 51st).
  • The Legislature is oblivious to its own exclusive 2020 goal for the public schools, and the data that points to an utter failure to achieve it. In the words of the well-known adage, it keeps doing what it has been doing and expects different results.

    The intent in many of the legislative directives has been to dictate "standards, assessments and accountability," sometimes referred to as standards-based, back-end or top-down, accountability, upon classroom teachers and school administrative personnel to achieve unrealistic legislative expectations.

    To the Legislature, standards-based accountability is the primary way to improve public-school education. It is not.

     Standards-based accountability is more important to the Legislature in improving student performance than a front-end review, such as (1) determining why so many students are not learning as we want and expect them to do; (2) reviewing and reforming the state's aged, regimented, compartmentalized, student-learning model, which resembles a factory-assembly line, where kids are expected to learn in batches - in the same way and at the same pace as they have for more than a hundred years; (3) reviewing and determining how kids best learn and what they should learn even when competing with their distractions; (4) determining how to recruit leading academic talent to the teaching profession and how best to prepare them to be teachers in the state's public and private colleges and universities; (5) determining how best to use technology in the classroom for the delivery of content, eliciting of interactions among students, and challenging of kids to think critically and collaboratively in the solving of problems; and (6) determining the role of teachers in the future classroom and identifying the qualities that make them effective.

    These subjects and others like them, the fundamentals of a public-school system, have for too long been regarded by the Legislature as untouchable and insulated from serious review, presumably because they are complex, controversial, and have been unchanged for ages - attributes of avoidance, inertia and the despotism of custom. And yet, they are where the action should be.

    The school system has become to the Legislature like a decaying lemon that is having the last trickle of juice squeezed from it, and yet public officials continue to squeeze teachers and managers to perform like they tell them to do without any measurable success because the quality of the "lemon" (the fundamentals of the public-school system sketched above) is well past its prime.

    This coercive, "put-down" legislative mentality is not helped by parents, business leaders (including their organizations), and a public, who are apathetic, indifferent, undemanding and uninformed in how the school system functions and how academic performance of students can be improved.

    Because of being uninformed and disinterested, they prefer to remain servile to the governor and the Legislature and let them do it their way without assessing their performance and holding them accountable.

    We should be persistently asking how the policies of our public officials have significantly improved our public-school system, the academic achievement of its students, and the overall economy of the State - the last objective being the driver of the standards-based-accountability movement. An honest answer would not deserve our applause.

    The Legislature should retreat to its proper role in public-school matters - providing "for a thorough and efficient system of free schools," with "thorough" meaning schools located so as to conveniently accommodate all children of school age, and "efficient" meaning a "system" that does not waste taxpayers' money.

    Conversely, the West Virginia Board of Education should move to the forefront and exercise its constitutional mandate to generally supervise the legislatively-provided public schools by "determin[ing] [their] educational policies," with which "policies," the Legislature cannot "interfere" and the courts will "not control" unless "arbitrary or unreasonable." The quoted words in this paragraph are from opinions of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

     


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