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Jorea Marple: WV has one long-term economic solution – education

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Jorea Marple: WV has one long-term economic solution – education
By Jorea Marple

What leaders like most to do is whip up a smoke screen or diversion that negates their responsibility of dealing with the real causes that need to be addressed in public education in West Virginia.

A great recent example is the hullabaloo around the Next Generation Standards (Common Core aligned) in West Virginia.

The question is should we be spending unnecessary money on new standards and assessments?

Only individuals who have no idea of the actual dollars lost and spent in standard and assessment development and administration would answer yes.

It is important to know that limited revision of assessments to address necessary changes in standards is always part of the on-going technical review process. Rigorous standards and assessments for our children are now a political football with the conversation even including the recommendation of a specific vendor (ACT) for the new assessment without even considering purchasing requirements in the state procurement processes.

One should understand why West Virginia developed the Next Generation Standards. They were developed by hundreds of knowledgeable, hardworking West Virginia teachers, higher educators and community representatives. Simply said, the Next Generation Standards were developed to address a real problem: Previous standards for what was expected to be taught in our classroom were not sufficiently rigorous to ensure students success in post-secondary education. Assessments were aligned to weak standards and not national and international expectations for performance.

The result was student performance reports that did not accurately inform the student, parent, teacher and community of student achievement. One only has to consider the contradiction between student performance on the prior state assessment measures and assessments such as NAEP, ACT & SAT to illustrate the weak standards and assessments that were in West Virginia schools.

Unfortunately, it is politically more expedient not to focus on the cause of poor test reports but to create a “red herring;” that is, “there must be something wrong with the Next Generation Standards and Assessments not our own commitment to addressing the causes of poor student performance.”

An often touted West Virginia slogan, “Open for Business,” has been the calling card for attracting new businesses and development. However, it is tough to be “open for business” if you are not first “open for education.” We can never be open for business until we are first Open for Equity of Education; i.e. open for equity of access to quality education opportunities for all students.

Courageous leaders understand that you just can’t address the current problems and/or issues, but you must commit to analyzing the underlying cause and then take action to remedy. It definitely takes courage to focus on the cause of a problem when that cause is not easily remediated and requires prioritizing and allocating limited resources.

Naysayers will quickly offer that West Virginia is spending a large percent of its budget on public education. That is certainly true, but many of those per pupil expenditure dollars never get to the classroom or address costs that are local or population-specific. The amount of funding is not the complete issue; the issue is whether the current level of funding provides for equity of educational opportunity for all students.

The percent of state budget for pre-k through 12th grade education has actually declined over the past decades.

The demographics of the population served by public education in West Virginia require higher levels of funding because of the impact of generational poverty and geographic remoteness.

The per-pupil funding level has long included the states unfunded liability debt that was caused by an earlier Legislature when they chose not to fund the teacher retirement system for many years. (It has only been through the result of the tobacco litigation that a degree of solvency has occurred in the teacher retirement system.)

The current teacher salary scale in West Virginia will not attract and maintain a quality workforce. Our aging teacher workforce is ready to retire, and we face a crisis of access to a high quality workforce that will exacerbate issues within our classrooms.

The point here is not to engage in the perennial argument about whether there is sufficient funding, but to begin to discuss whether there exists in schools essential programs and services for all children to achieve the purposeful benefit of public education: Creating Good Kids Who Do Great Work.

West Virginia continues to lead the nation in so many things that are simply not good: poverty, obesity, health maladies, unemployment, business and economic stagnation or regression, youthful out migration, education completion level and an aging population. The great irony is that these issues can be addressed through proper investment in public education. Our framers of the West Virginia Constitution understood the importance of education when they gave education a priority.

However the intent of this wisdom has been lost on recent cohorts of decision makers. Unfortunately, policy makers and elected officials all too often choose to relegate their accountability and responsibility to properly fund essential resources and services for public education. They prefer to create a “red herring” or to lead the charge to bash educators for test scores and hold educators hostage for what the political leadership have chosen not to do; that is, to provide equity of access to quality education opportunities for all students.

The level of funding must provide for a broad curriculum and support services essential to student wellness and productivity for all students in all schools. Improving public education needs to include evidence of progress from our policy makers and elected officials which is quantified annually in certain fundamental areas if educators are expected to quantify academic progress of each student:

•  Equal access to quality health and dental care.

•  Equal access to quality mental health services including psychological and counseling services.

•  Equal access to proper nourishment without discrimination based on income.

•  Equal access to technology for each child to utilize 24/7.

•  Equal access to the best and brightest teachers who are attracted and maintained in the profession through nationally competitive salaries, sufficient resources and planning time to develop personalized learning opportunities for all students.

•  Equal access to a broad rich curriculum for all children, pre-k through 12 in all schools.

That curriculum includes:

•  Arts — theatre, dance, music, art.

•  World Language beginning in Pre-k that enables all children to become bi-lingual by graduation.

•  Health/wellness support including but not limited to courses that provide essential counseling, psychological and health services.

•  Language arts/reading, social sciences, science and math.

•  Career and technical education.

We must seize the day and have the courage and serious commitment, as must our elected and appointed officials, to meet the needs of our children who live in this complex society that we have created. We must not be distracted by “red herrings” but focus on making the real commitments necessary to provide equity of opportunity for our children to achieve their full potential.

Jorea Marple is a former West Virginia superintendent of schools.