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Tomblin: Education reform bill expected

Feb. 08, 2013 @ 12:05 AM

SOUTH CHARLESTON -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Thursday a comprehensive education reform bill will be among those coming from his office for the upcoming legislative session.

Tomblin, speaking at the annual Associated Press Legislative Lookahead at Marshall University's South Charleston campus, said the final touches are being put on the bill now and more details will be spelled out during his State of the State Address on Wednesday, Feb. 13.

But he hinted the bill would strive for more control at the county level, more flexibility with calendars, children learning to read by the end of third grade, and ensuring high school graduates are ready for the workforce or higher education.

The bill is in response to the $750,000 education audit done in 2011 which found West Virginia's education system is one of the most bureaucratic in the country. In addition to being top-heavy with personnel, the auditors reported there were too many mandates from the legislature and from the state Department of Education.

The audit also found there were millions of dollars to be saved by reorganizing the administration in Charleston and improving efficiency in schools. It also discussed transportation, professional development, hiring practices, teacher recruiting and evaluation.

Education was the main topic during the Lookahead's morning session, but it also was discussed during the afternoon session on the state budget and during a roundtable discussion with House and Senate leaders.

"We spend 65 percent of the budget on K-12 and higher education, and we're not getting the bang for our buck," said Senate President Jeff Kessler. "We need more local control and less mandates from Charleston."

Improving education means doing things differently, said James Phares, the state education superintendent. Some of what he mentioned during his opening remarks focused on academic standards and how students meet those, although it's unclear how that might be incorporated into Tomblin's bill.

But Phares said any bill that comes out of the session, if taken seriously and implemented well, could change the landscape of the education system within two years. For him, that means changes to the calendar and how students move through the school system.

"We need to break out of the mold of moving kids along systematically," he said. "We need to look at mastery learning and understand when something is mastered, they need to get credit and move on to the next learning site.

"We've got to encompass and embrace mastery learning," Phares continued. "As students meet the standards, they need to be moved along. In two years, you will see a school system that is more responsive to those needs."

Terry Wallace, a senior fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University, said he was encouraged by the discussion. But he said in all the work he's done with school districts in four different states, one of the major issues has been a battle between the calendar and individualized instruction.

Not only did Wallace characterize the current curriculum as broad and shallow, but he said it's hypocritical to say teachers differentiate instruction for students and then graduate everyone on the same day in June.

"We move kids based on age and seat time and not competency," Wallace said.

David Haney, the executive director of the West Virginia Education Association -- one of two teacher organizations in the state -- didn't disagree with statements made by Phares or Wallace.

He said one of the major problems is a lack of respect for the profession and for education in general. And it doesn't help that too many children live in poverty. That means, in most cases, they are behind before they ever step into a classroom.

He said there is a "group of parents who live in poverty who don't have knowledge or parental skills to really work with their children to help them."

Haney also said the WVEA is supportive of a balanced calendar and applauded Cabell County for doing a thorough job to inform its parents, teachers and local organizations, and providing more than a year to adjust.

Phares also discussed calendar issues. He said the 180-day mandate in code may be outdated; instead saying the discussion needs to center around re-imagining how schools are using their time.

He cited the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy, a 22-week residential program provided through the National Guard to train, educate and mentor at-risk teenagers.

"It's 22 weeks, but the time is more than what we require in 180 days," Phares said. "The reason I mention it is we need to re-imagine the time."

Wallace also chimed in, saying the number of days isn't as important as how those days are being spent. In classes he's audited, he's found that real core instruction was taking place for a combined 120 minutes of the school day.

"Adding days, if you don't change anything else, is not a solution," Wallace said.

Though pay raises are almost certain to not be a part of the governor's budget, Haney said it is still important that people know teacher pay is an issue.

"Someone with a four-year degree can make more money in almost anything than being an educator," Haney said, noting that his son-in-law taught middle school science and recently went to work in the private sector making twice the money.

Even Phares didn't discount that salary and hiring practices are a real problem. His own son, who earned a teaching degree from Fairmont State University, attended a job fair and was handed several applications from county representatives.

But a representative of Roanoke City Schools in Roanoke, Va., handed him a contract.

"When I was in Virginia, and I had a teacher who was prepared in a West Virginia college, I always relished getting them there," Phares said of his own experience.