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Caperton talks education at Rotary meeting

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By Mackenzie Mays 
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Former governor and national education leader Gaston Caperton broke his silence on the state of West Virginia's education system on Monday - pushing for teacher pay raises and voicing concerns about Common Core.

Caperton, who, after his stint as West Virginia governor ended in 1997 went on to teach at Harvard and Columbia and, until recently, served as president of the College Board, which administers the SAT test, spoke at Charleston's Rotary Club meeting Monday about his own learning challenges with dyslexia and what the state needs to do to improve its education system.

When asked about his stance on Common Core - controversial new national standards that change the way students are taught basic skills, Caperton was doubtful about a successful implementation in West Virginia.

"Certainly nobody can be against the Common Core, but I think it's a very difficult execute," Caperton said. "It's very, very difficult to execute a national program because our education systems are basically either local or, certainly, state systems, and to get everybody to fall in line and do exactly the same thing, I think is very, very hard. It's not that it's the wrong thing to do, but I think it's an effort that will not be successful.

"But I think it's fine for any state that can get it done to get it done," he said. "But I just think it's pretty tough."

Caperton said the state's leaders and parents need to raise their expectations in order to see better results from students, and teachers need to be reminded of how important they are to creating a better state.

"It's really about high expectations. ... We have a lot of kids who come from families without expectations and then [the students] think they're dumb, and it takes a teacher to pull them up," he said.

As governor, Caperton focused heavily on education, putting a slew of innovative computer programs in West Virginia classrooms, increasing teacher salaries and modernizing facilities.

During his governorship, West Virginia teachers went from the 49th lowest paid in the country to 31st. The state is now 48th in average teacher compensation.

Caperton said Monday "politicians are not willing to raise taxes so that we can pay teachers."

"This state can't get anywhere if we don't focus on education. At the time of my inauguration, West Virginia was in terrible shape. This deteriorating state of affairs affected no aspect of public life more than our schools. West Virginia teachers were some of the lowest paid in the country, school buildings were run down and morale was horrible. Needless to say, there wasn't much learning going on," he said. "I threw myself into the education debates because I knew education was the way out, even back then. The entire time, my focus was on the students and on the state's future economy."

Caperton teared up more than once during his speech on Monday - a speech he said he practiced reading three times.

Caperton talked about his personal struggles growing up with dyslexia and the extra burdens it caused him in school.

Those struggles are responsible for his success, he said, recalling "the wounding words left early by those who made me feel unintelligent."

"I know my struggles were relatively minor, but they taught me the value of hard work. I learned to maintain self-confidence in difficult times," Caperton said.