CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Children in Finland remain among the top-scoring students in the world, particularly in science but also in reading and math.
Why? One reason is Finnish teachers are highly respected and valued. The teaching profession in the Scandinavian country is on par with physicians in the United States in respect and pay.
But Finland also enjoys a very low child poverty rate of about 4 percent. Meanwhile, the KIDS COUNT Data Center reported that nearly one in four U.S. children (23 percent) lived in poverty in 2012.
Poverty is most pervasive in the South. Thirteen of 15 southern states, including West Virginia, had a child poverty rate of 25 percent or higher in 2012.
U.S. students in low-poverty areas tend to perform better than their peers both nationally and internationally.
Last month, the results of the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, were released. The data, which measured student learning across 65 countries in 2012, revealed that Massachusetts and Connecticut scored significantly higher in math, science and reading than the average U.S. student and also placed among the top 10 provinces, states and countries in reading and the top 15 in science.
The child poverty rate in both Massachusetts and Connecticut was just 15 percent in 2012.
Poverty persists in Appalachia and its solution is everyone's responsibility, but there are ways to tackle these problems.
One way is ensuring teachers are highly qualified and well trained. Research indicates that a highly skilled teacher can help students overcome the academic impact of poverty.
Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more difficult to recruit and retain those highly skilled teachers.
This year, state lawmakers have an opportunity to help level the playing field with a multiyear salary increase for teachers and school employees. That will make the teaching profession more competitive with our surrounding states and to other professions within our state.
While the average teacher earns about $17,000 more in Pennsylvania and nearly $19,000 more in Maryland, West Virginia is losing ground in competitiveness for high-quality teachers.
Right now, a teacher pay ranking of 48th in the country doesn't cut it, and is a standing most people in West Virginia -- as well as many county board of education officials -- recognize as unacceptable.
By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, West Virginians said in a 2013 survey that educators should receive a salary increase.
And the vast majority of the 55 county boards of education have signed resolutions calling for multiyear salary increases for both professional and service personnel. These resolutions recognize the fact that more than 50 percent of current educators are ready to retire, and the average teacher salaries in West Virginia are nearly $10,000 less than the national average.
The resolutions also recognize that teachers are the best resource a school can offer students, and the key to providing a top-notch education.
Teaching isn't easy, and the dedicated professionals who are the single most important component to successful schools deserve to be treated like professionals.
While teachers are paid for 10 months of work, the extra unpaid duties they often take on extend throughout the summer months. Many teachers take college courses or earn continuing education credits during the summer. They'll outline lesson plans and search for classroom resources that aid instruction. Teachers also work ahead on textbook adoptions and spend extra time preparing their classroom to make it student friendly for the coming school year.
So even when their students aren't in school, great teachers remain focused on improving children's academic performance.
An interesting piece of research from the University of Virginia about the effects of teachers on student achievement found that years of teaching at grade level was tied significantly to a child's achievement. The research showed that it took 21 years of teaching at the same grade level to reach maximum effectiveness. Even more significant is that that once teacher effectiveness began to decline, the 30-year veteran teacher was still more effective on student achievement than a 10-year teacher.
In 2012, more than 1,540 college graduates in West Virginia earned education degrees, according to the state Department of Education. But less than one-third of those graduates -- 438 in all -- were employed in our schools. Upon graduation, most of those 1,100 other graduates left the state to teach elsewhere or stayed in state and chose professions that pay better.
At the same time, school systems throughout our state struggle to find highly trained professionals to fill classroom vacancies.
Let's reverse these trends, and begin the process of reinvesting in education by reinvesting in our teachers and students.
Lee, a special education teacher at Princeton Senior High School in Mercer County with 22 years of classroom experience, is president of the West Virginia Education Association.