Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was a true visionary who said, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”
While Franklin said those words more than two centuries ago, the wisdom in them still applies today. It is a desire for the continual growth and progress of West Virginia’s public school students that drives the state Board of Education. We want, as Franklin expressed, for our children to improve, achieve and succeed. This vision for public school students guides our report “From Audit to Action: Students First,” our recently released response to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s “Education Efficiency Audit of West Virginia’s Primary and Secondary Education System.”
The board has developed a sincere response to the audit after taking time to collect input from all board members, students, teachers, parents, the West Virginia Department of Education, higher education and several other educational leaders. Ultimately, we are proud of our work. By placing students first, we are setting the stage for meaningful change in our education culture and environment, which has remained stagnant for years.
Public education has reached a pivotal point where change must occur. We do not believe West Virginia students are destined to low performance and failure. Instead, we as a board want to support an optimistic environment where our students, teachers and principals set lofty goals and achieve high expectations. Our work pivots away from why we can’t, to focus on how we can achieve.
Highlights featured in the audit response include re-examining seniority to place the most qualified teachers in classrooms, raising the enrollment of secondary students in career and technical programs through a middle school pipeline, supporting whole-school incentives for student achievement, and conducting meaningful conversations about the sustainability of small county school systems.
Another significant board recommendation is to transfer more authority to the local level. While such a move frees counties from some burdensome state oversight, it marks a significant change and is dependent upon the state board and the Legislature working collaboratively to revise state code.
For example, we believe principals should have flexibility with hiring and firing. Current law regarding seniority can make it difficult for principals to hire the best candidate. While seniority is important, other qualities also must be considered. In addition, the West Virginia Teacher Effectiveness Measure should be established to identify West Virginia’s own set of teacher effectiveness measures.
The board has begun to release policy bonds that perpetuate building-delivered, teacher-focused, time-bound learning. Already, we are reviewing all state board policies to identify those in need of repeal or revision.
It also is time that we rethink our school calendar. The board supports a county’s decision to adopt a balanced calendar to allow sufficient time for quality instruction leading to mastery for every student. In addition, we believe West Virginia must streamline the delivery of professional development for our teachers and principals.
All of these changes are not easy, especially in a state like West Virginia, where the economic, social and education challenges are many and the list of obstacles we face continues to grow daily. When our students lag behind their counterparts in other states and nations; when too many of our students fail to graduate from high school; when too few of our graduates go on to post-secondary education, we must act. That’s why having forward-thinking decision makers who are willing to take risks as described in our report for the betterment of children is paramount.
We have about 282,000 students in 728 public schools in West Virginia. The students are why we believe much of the money saved by making positive changes noted in the audit, should be reallocated to education. Doing so will offset the cost of implementing the audit recommendations. Examples of cost savings can be found in examining the school transportation system and transferring Cedar Lakes Conference Center to another agency.
As board members, it is our duty to provide ideas, direction, inspiration and supervision to make certain West Virginia students receive their constitutional right to a thorough and efficient education. While this audit is not a blueprint for the future, it has provided an independent review that has helped us uncover areas where we can improve to better serve students and increase their levels of performance and progress.
The board has three goals for public schools. First, we want students to learn 21st-century skills while meeting or exceeding state, national and international standards. Secondly, we want students to develop wellness, responsibility, cultural awareness, self-direction, ethical character and good citizenship skills. Lastly, we want to ensure students graduate from high school prepared for post-secondary education and career success.
Implementing our goals with a can-do attitude will help us move beyond the “this is the way it has always been done” mentality to develop an environment that embraces innovative ideas and allows our schools to provide students with the best teachers, best curriculum and best chance for future success.
The state board is dedicated to serious education reform to provide our schools and teachers with the tools, training and flexibility necessary for students to succeed in work and in life. The challenge for all of us is to be a positive force in children’s lives by always making decisions that put students first.
— L. Wade Linger is the president of the West Virginia Board of Education.