Today’s lesson: School reform

Published: February 6, 2012 7:53 AM
By Mike Myer, Parkersburg News and Sentinel
Today’s lesson: School reform
February 6, 2012
By MIKE MYER , Parkersburg News and Sentinel
West Virginia educators sick of "teaching to the test" soon may find themselves "teaching to the principal" and, perhaps, other teachers.
A recently completed "audit" of public schools in the Mountain State concludes quite a few changes need to be made to improve education. Not everyone likes the audit; the state Department of Education has objected to some parts of it.
But lawmakers and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin seem eager to make changes - though much of what is in the audit won't be acted upon during the current regular session of the Legislature. As Tomblin's chief of staff, Rob Alsop, explained it a few weeks ago, the "stakeholders" need to be brought together. That's government-speak for, "There's going to be some stiff opposition to some of this."
During a speech Thursday morning before members of the West Virginia Press Association and a number of legislators, Tomblin made it clear reforms are on the way. "We're still funding our education system at one of the highest per-capita rates in the country, but we're not getting the output we need," the governor emphasized.
One change on the drawing board involves how teachers are evaluated. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, students' standardized test performance had great weight in evaluating teachers, schools and school systems. But NCLB has been virtually abandoned. A replacement for it in federal law has not yet been proposed, but one probably is on the way.
A new evaluation system is being considered by West Virginia legislators, a member of the House of Delegates Education Committee told me after the governor's speech. It envisions using standardized tests as only about 5 percent of the formula for determining how well teachers are doing. It's possible the remaining 95 percent will come from observations of teachers by their principals and, perhaps, others.
Most educators object to quality judgments based on test results. One concern is that system encourages "teaching to the test" - that is, putting too much emphasis on material likely to be included in standardized examinations and not enough on other information.
There are concerns about evaluations based heavily on classroom observations, too. For one thing, what about good teachers who, for one reason or another, don't get along with their principals - or with the one or two other educators selected to observe them? What about innovative teachers whose methods may bring out the best in children with whom they work, but may be frowned upon by principals, central office administrators and even their peers?
Again, will some teachers alter their methods to please the evaluators - whether they feel that's best for students or not?
Don't get me wrong. I don't have a better way. Matter of fact, I don't envy anyone whose task it is to come up with a method of grading teachers. But legislators are working on it and, possibly within weeks, will be putting a new system in place.
Of course, there's always the possibility the U.S. Department of Education and Congress, who are considering a replacement for NCLB, will throw a monkey wrench into the works. Let's hope not. I'm on record as having suggested a decade ago, before NCLB was enacted, that West Virginia was doing a good job of school reform without federal intervention. I still think we'd be better off if the feds would stay the heck out of our classrooms.
In fact, some educators wouldn't be terribly upset if the entire U.S. Department of Education was eliminated. Look at it this way: During the coming year, the DOE has proposed about $41 billion in grants and special programs. States taking advantage would have to do things the DOE's way.
On a per-capita basis, West Virginia's share of that would be about $230 million. How much real reform could we accomplish if Congress simply did away with the DOE and wrote us a check?
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net