JP Grace: Much about education needs to be fixed
Education in West Virginia, K through 12, will apparently be a major focus of the current session of the legislature in Charleston, spurred on by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's insistence in his State of the State that something substantial "must change."
The legislative focus is overdue given that our state spends more per pupil than the national average, has droves of excellent teachers, and yet is ranked 49th in student achievement by Education Week magazine.
This newspaper has already laid out the parameters in the news columns and on the editorial page, highlighting Tomblin's call for improved teacher training, more decentralized curriculum planning and, within three years, full-day preschools across the state.
What else can be said?
Plenty, if insights from interviews I conducted with two veteran educators have merit. My interview subjects were: Brian Cordle, retired after 20 years of teaching music at public schools in both West Virginia and Ohio, and Tod Faller, retired principal of both public and private schools in state and now a consultant and workshop leader for teacher training nationally.
Both concurred that West Virginia's bureaucracy is top heavy, and too much time and energy are spent filling out forms in triplicate to prove to "the palace" -- as the State Department of Education is called by educators in the field -- that "we did something."
"We now spend so much time on paperwork that we've forgotten the students," Faller remarked.
He placed some of the blame on "No Child Left Behind," the George W. Bush-era mandate that tied federal funding to successful test scores. While a number of states have gotten waivers to get out from under the federal mandate, West Virginia is still somewhat hamstrung by it.
Strong criticism of the mandate from teachers and educational journals often cited "teaching to the test" as a major problem. In especially abusive cases, students were virtually given answers to the tests, in ways subtle or not so subtle, to assure they would pass and then the school system would collect the federal bucks.
"In some ways we did a better job teaching in the old one-room schoolhouse than we do now," Faller said, "and that despite the fact that we have many very skilled teachers." He indicated that more local autonomy over curriculum and more leaning on the creativity of good teachers would be a huge plus.
Cordle agreed that teachers need to be unshackled from so many mandates and thus freed up to use their best creative skills to get their subject matter across.
He also, however, went on to indict parents -- not all but a growing minority of them -- for not valuing education enough to contribute to the process. Because, according to Cordle, too many parents shirk their responsibility for training their children in honesty, manners and right moral judgments, that burden has fallen heavily upon the schools.
That then takes away time from the schools being able to teach "readin', writin' and 'rithmetic" and other core subjects of K-12 curricula.
My own particular bias, as might be expected from a journalist and editor, is that schools critically need to bring current events into the classroom. In a nutshell, students must be brought to an awareness of the great issues in the news: the political process in Charleston and Washington, the debate swirling around abortion, gun control, crime fighting, healthcare reform, climate change and much else.
Education should be about creating citizens and voters, not just job seekers. There too we have much lost ground to make up.
John Patrick Grace holds a bachelor's degree in history and graduate degrees in journalism and romance languages and has taught English, journalism and French and Italian at universities in the U.S. and in Europe. He is currently a book editor and publisher based in Huntington.