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Commentary: State school board ignores facts

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By Bobbi Nicholson 
The Sunday Gazette-Mail

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” That seems an uncharitable assessment, and perhaps an insulting one (at least to the genuine idiots among us).

On the other hand, recent decisions by some esteemed members of the West Virginia Board of Education do call into question their judgment and the intellectual caliber that underlies it. That would be simple enough to remedy if they were, like county school board members, accountable to the people who elect them.

That, alas, is not the case with the politically appointed members of the state school board. They are unaccountable and their decisions are largely unreviewable. Moreover, their allegiance to business and industry rather than to the children whose education they oversee borders on the unethical.

You needn’t take my word for that, by the way. These are the people who took three years to respond to a $750,000 audit that reached this conclusion: “We have encountered no other state that insulates its education system so much from gubernatorial – or voter – control; restricts local initiative so much on the part of districts, building principals, and teachers; and vests so much authority for education at the state level.”

Among the board’s recent market-oriented solutions in search of a problem is “redesigning the role of principal from building manager to instructional leader.” No lesser lights than new state superintendent Michael Martirano, chairman of Imagine WV Tom Heywood, state board president Gayle Manchin, the Commission on School District Governance and Administration (appointed by the WVBE), the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education, and various other fine, upstanding and equally powerful citizens all agree that this should be done.

That they all read from the same script is no surprise. After all, quite a lot of money was spent to hire a consulting firm from Fairfax, Virginia (ICF International) to tell them how to improve public education in West Virginia.

Unfortunately, as the mindless parroting of the consultant’s advice makes painfully clear, neither the highly-paid consultants nor the people who hired them have the foggiest notion how principals are actually prepared by the state’s universities.

If they knew how preparation programs operate and are evaluated, they’d know they’re recommending the implementation of practices that the state’s nationally accredited graduate programs have already been following for more than a decade.

“Redesign the role of the principal from building manager to instructional leader?” Check. Require “practice-oriented clinical preparation”? Check. Align programs with “new professional expanded standards that are recognized across the country?” Check.

A simple phone call to the South Charleston campus that prepares the vast majority of principals in the state would’ve confirmed those practices, saving the fees paid to the out-of-state consultants and a lot of time devoted to sharing their recommendations with other political and civic entities. Failure to do so was not merely intellectually lazy, but fiscally irresponsible.

The state Board of Education has also made public its intent to wrest control from elected county board of education members and transfer it to other politically appointed individuals in Regional Educational Service Agencies. The only development that has temporarily halted that initiative is some confusion regarding what exactly the RESAs’ responsibilities are.

Is there any evidence that local boards of education are incapable of managing their own finances or legal affairs? None has been offered thus far, so what county board of education would want to hand over its fiduciary and legal obligations to agencies whose purpose isn’t understood by even the people who are intent on elevating their responsibilities?

Were this combustible combination of power and willful ignorance limited to what adults on local school boards or in principal preparation classes do, that would be problematic enough – but it’s about to blow up in the faces of school children, and that is intolerable.

At the most recent state Board of Education meeting, members Wade Linger and Tom Campbell decided an overhaul of the science standards is required on the grounds that the facts on climate change do not comport with their view on the use of fossil fuels. Mr. Campbell helpfully explained their rationale to a Gazette reporter, pointing out that “West Virginia coal in particular has been taking on unfair negativity from certain groups.”

Mangled syntax aside, thoughtful science students could likely ask several questions about Mr. Campbell’s assertion, such as what the source of the perceived criticism is, whether the source is legitimate, why that criticism is viewed to be negative, and what is unfair about it.

Regrettably, West Virginia’s students may have no such opportunity to sharpen their questioning skills on the subject since the idea that the overuse of fossil fuels is a contributing factor to climate change is the kind of “unproven theory” Mr. Campbell wants eradicated from science classrooms. Arguing that an inconvenient fact is merely an “unproven theory” is a common tactic used by those who need to give a semblance of respectability to what would otherwise be exposed as the self-serving notion it is.

The fact is that all science is theory-based and is always subject to new evidence to the contrary. Gravity is such a theory, so if tomorrow Mr. Campbell drops his keys and they fall up, science will cheerfully reconsider the whole theory for him. That’s how it works.

The science of climate change works the same way. It is subject to evidence and proof, and withholding that proof from students is tantamount to intellectual malpractice. One may not like the results of scientific studies, but if the aim is to teach children how to think critically, it’s counterproductive – and wrong – to withhold the facts from them.

Good-faith questioning of proposals for dealing with common environmental problems – or economic, educational, social or healthcare problems – is necessary to developing sound public policy. Attempting to censor the science that underlies those problems, however, is not good-faith questioning of scientific research. It’s simply anti-intellectual: irrational, illogical, and irresponsible.

Even worse, it is political – a calculated and contemptible exercise in currying favor with business and industry at the expense of children whose education is being hijacked.

Is it possible that Messrs. Linger and Campbell actually believe the pseudo-science of climate-change deniers? Believing what is in one’s best interest is, after all, a common phenomenon, even if what is believed is quite plainly nonsense to everyone else – like the 97 percent of climate scientists who agree that human behavior has contributed to climate change.

The issue, however, isn’t that believing nonsense is bad. The issue is that believing nonsense has consequences – and in this instance, those consequences are being borne not by the men who, as Lewis Carroll wrote, “can believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” but by children who shouldn’t have to.

We cannot solve the challenges that face us in the 21st century by marching resolutely back to the 19th. When a National Geographic poll tells us that a fifth of Americans still believe the sun revolves around the earth and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities reports that the country ranks 19th in the percentage of citizens aged 25-34 with an associate or high school diploma – which means that for the first time, the educational attainment of young people is lower than that of their parents – we simply cannot afford to place education in service to industry or politics.

The aphorism says that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. Certainly much power has been given to the state Board of Education. While we had no part in hiring them, we certainly have the right to require much of them since their whims govern the money that the state spends on education, how teachers and principals are trained, and what children learn. The least they could do is make an attempt to discern what is going on before they proceed to change it and show some respect to the professional educators who write curriculum standards. Instead they act arbitrarily, relying on their assumptions rather than consulting the evidence.

Twain would be appalled.

Bobbi Nicholson is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Professional Development at Marshall University’s South Charleston campus.