Schools chief looks to address WV education audit

Published: February 20, 2012 8:33 AM
By Associated Press
Schools chief looks to address WV education audit
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — As Jorea Marple's first year of leading West Virginia's public schools winds down, she's faced with perhaps her biggest challenge: working with key stakeholders to sort through a massive audit of the education system.
Commissioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the top-to-bottom audit released last month includes recommendations to trim and reorganize the state Department of Education's high-level positions. It also targets teachers, principals and school coursework.
The recommendations range from a voluntary merit pay system for teachers, to reduced workloads for new educators, using distance-learning technology, and penalizing counties that fail to provide at least 180 days of instruction annually.
"The premise that we can be more efficient is a sound one," Marple said in an interview with The Associated Press to discuss her first year, which began March 1. "There are many recommendations in that report that support the direction that we're moving."
Immediate action can be taken on several recommendations that fall within the state Board of Education's authority, Marple said. Many others will need some sorting out.
"Our suggestion is that we put it through a filter to make sure that the recommendations are always in the best interests of the children and support high-quality teachers in our classrooms," she said.
According to a draft response presented to the state board for its review, the department would form an advisory group to address a recommendation to reorganize the Department of Education, including the operation of the eight Regional Education Services Agencies.
Several audit recommendations call on the state to become a leader in education-related technology and distance learning, and Marple said technology is one of her department's main funding goals in the Legislature.
The department is seeking $23 million annually over the next four years to provide computers for students in six grade levels, giving them access to online resources and assessment tests. The goal is to outfit every grade level by 2020.
It would enable students "to access the whole virtual world and will be able to learn 24-7," Marple said. "(They) can stop carrying 50-pound book bags because they can have PDF files on their computers to access textbooks."
Marple said school districts across the country are moving toward so-called one-on-one technology. While Mingo Central and Wirt County high schools have done that, they're in the minority.
"More and more lack of access to technology is existing out there," Marple said. "What we have to have is a plan and a funding source."
The department's main legislative priorities also include pay raises for educators and service personnel, funding for regional education service agencies, reducing the debt in post-employment benefits, and encouraging the mentoring of new teachers.
West Virginia teachers received across-the-board raises of $1,488 last year, their first since 2008. The National Education Association says the average teacher in West Virginia was paid $44,701 in the 2009-10 school year, ranking it 48th among the states.
Although Tomblin's proposed budget does not include pay increases for teachers beyond the automatic raises tied to years of service, Marple stressed the state needs to act now to study ways to attract young teachers. New teachers currently are paid about $31,000 a year.
Marple said many schools have staffing problems. And according to her department, 44 percent of public school teachers and 59 percent of principals will have reached retirement age within the next five years.
"I go to school, I walk down the hall and there'll be class after class that has a substitute in it, or I listen to students tell me they've had three or four subs this year for algebra 1," Marple said. "Having high-quality teachers in our classrooms is essential to student achievement."
Bills now under consideration in the Legislature would provide college graduates who did not earn a teaching degree with support and mentoring as they work toward a teaching certificate. Among the intent is to help generate more teachers in critical areas such as math, science and special education.
Senate Education Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, has called the Department of Education's budget priorities disappointing and told Marple they had one major omission: Improving the lives of students.
Marple disagrees with that notion. Her background indicates students are her priority.
A Sutton native, Marple followed her mother in becoming a teacher. Marple first worked in Greenbrier County in 1969. She had several roles in Kanawha County, including as schools superintendent from 1993 to 1998. She was the deputy state schools superintendent before taking over as superintendent.
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee singled out Marple's efforts to spend time in classrooms and hear teachers' concerns.
Based on that, Marple got the state Board of Education to change requirements that students have 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading and 60 minutes of uninterrupted math. Attention to the two subjects is still required, but there are no time constraints and teachers are now allowed to use their own judgment, Lee said.
"She is very teacher friendly, very student friendly and seeks input from everyone, including classroom teachers, on the best ways to improve an already good education system," Lee said.