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Patricia S. Kusimo: Education audit inspires W.Va. to tackle challenges

Dec. 30, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

The Education Alliance commends the West Virginia Board of Education (WVBOE) for prioritizing student learning in its "From Audit to Action" response to the Education Efficiency Audit presented earlier this year.

While the WVBOE's comments are detailed and thoughtful, we believe the response should also include how students will measurably benefit from recommendations and how the WVBOE will prioritize and work with others (agencies, local school boards and school improvement councils, faith communities, the business community, etc.) to improve factors that profoundly impact student learning in West Virginia. Those include teen pregnancy; gaps in students' pre-school readiness associated with income, gender or ethnicity; truancy; children living in dysfunctional home environments; and children living in poverty. Addressing these real challenges will benefit current students and future generations of students.

While the Education Efficiency Audit aimed to "produce the best outcomes for West Virginia students and ensure West Virginia receives the highest return on the educational dollars it spends," the WVBOE's response can add the additional dimensions of measurable accountability and advocacy for addressing community and family challenges that impede student learning. The following details The Education Alliance's position.

Measurable student benefits. The Efficiency Audit addresses student benefits in a general manner, but the WVBOE has an opportunity to articulate the improved student outcomes it expects from its recommendations. Currently, the WVBOE focuses on what educators will do and receive without identifying for the public and itself the measurable student benefits. The Education Alliance believes the Call to Action must articulate the relationship between the Call to Action responses and measurable benefits to students.

We encourage the WVBOE to state how its audit responses will measurably improve or increase the following student outcomes: test scores on state or national assessments; grade-level retentions; enrollment in rigorous mathematics and science courses; the percentage of third-grade students achieving mastery or above in reading/language arts by the end of third grade; high school completion rates; etc.

Community and family challenges. We believe the Call to Action should acknowledge specific challenges that many West Virginia students endure daily. While these challenges were not mentioned in the Efficiency Audit, they are realities that profoundly affect a student's ability to learn. They are the teen pregnancy rate; student achievement gaps based on income, gender or ethnicity that students bring to their pre-school experience; truancy; children living in dysfunctional home environments; and children living in poverty.

Regarding poverty and dysfunction, research shows children growing up in poverty lag behind their middle-class peers or peers from stable homes in terms of vocabulary skills; comprehension skills; social skills; and self-regulation skills even as they begin the schooling process before kindergarten. In West Virginia, 56 percent of students receive a free or reduced-priced lunch. One in five West Virginia children is born with significant exposure to drugs or alcohol. Many children live with "toxic stress" that is severe, sustained and not buffered by supportive relationships.

Regarding teen pregnancy, West Virginia's birth rate for females between the ages of 15 and 19 increased by 17 percent between 2007 and 2009. Nationally, the teen birth rate fell 8 percent. A child's chances of growing up in poverty are nine times greater if the child is born to an unmarried teen without a high school diploma.

The Importance of third grade. The implications of not addressing family and community challenges are far reaching, making it virtually impossible for students to reach critical academic benchmarks early in their school careers. One such benchmark is third-grade reading proficiency. Many states have recently enacted policies that retain students in third grade if they do not meet or exceed the reading benchmark. However, the WVBOE's Call to Action does not include any recognition of the third-grade reading benchmark or current achievement gaps in third grade WESTEST2 reading/language arts scores that are associated with ethnicity, income, or gender.

Courageous conversations. The Education Alliance believes the community and family challenges we've noted must be systematically addressed. However, this will happen only if the WVBOE assigns a high priority to working on these issues collaboratively and ceaselessly. As uncomfortable as these realities are, the WVBOE's Call to Action must acknowledge and reflect what we know to be true about West Virginia's student population even if the Efficiency Audit did not. Compelling evidence shows family and community impediments to academic success can be minimized if tackled early and comprehensively.

At-risk students exist in every county and need at least 180 days of high quality instruction. Expanded learning opportunities -- after school and/or summer programs -- can help minimize academic disparities and help break the cycles of poverty and teen parenthood.

Incorporating information about the daily family and community-related challenges facing many West Virginia children informs public dialogue about education and creates an environment for meaningful collaboration among students, educators, community and business leaders, policymakers and citizens. An example of how powerful these collaborations can be is the work currently under way at local and state levels to improve student attendance rates and reduce dropout rates.

Children depend on thoughtful, informed adults to create pathways to success. If the adults are successful, current student achievement patterns will be a memory instead of our current and tragic reality.

Patricia S. Kusimo is president and CEO of The Education Alliance, a nonprofit research and K-12 public education fund based in Charleston.

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