The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 8, 2013

Education leaders: Calendar won’t fix student performance

SOUTH CHARLESTON — West Virginia already has the money and the time on its public schools calendar to improve student performance, and must first make the most out of both before it increases funding or adds days, education leaders told a Thursday forum of reporters and editors.

But restoring respect for teachers — including by improving their pay — must also be a goal as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and lawmakers tackle the education system this session, the audience at The Associated Press’ annual Legislative Lookahead heard.

Marshall University’s graduate campus hosted the daylong forum. The speakers touched on the recent audit of public schools that’s certain to influence Tomblin’s agenda for the 60-day session, which begins Wednesday. A number of legislators have embraced that wide-ranging study as well. It described a system rigid with policies limited by state law and a sprawling state-level department, and notes that West Virginia lags behind on student achievement benchmarks despite hefty annual spending. Much of the study proposes ways to save money so the system can invest more at the classroom level.

The state Board of Education has endorsed the bulk of the audit. Its response to the study touts a year-round or “balanced” calendar, now operating at just a handful of schools statewide, as an alternative to the traditional, August-to-June schedule.

State Schools Superintendent Jim Phares said the board isn’t mandating a year-round calendar statewide. A veteran of several county school systems, Phares instead called for recognizing the pace at which each child learns. Technology will increasingly aid this new approach, Phares said. He noted that officials have instead focused on requiring 180 days in the classroom each year.

“I think that discussion needs to start and it needs to happen,” Phares said. “All of it is in this whole idea of reimagining how we use our time.”

David Haney of the West Virginia Education Association welcomed Phares’ stance. Haney’s group represents both teachers and school administrators, and has been wrongly tagged as opposing year-round schooling, he said.

“We support a balanced calendar any place that a county wants to attempt to do it to achieve their goals,” said Haney, a vice president of WVEA.

Terry Wallace is a retired educator and administrator now with the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University. Wallace recounted turning around low-performing schools in several states first by measuring the time spent daily on actually teaching such core items as math and reading. Too often, high quality instruction amounts to just an hour or two, Wallace said. All manner of interruptions mar the school day, from intercom announcements to Christmas play rehearsals, he said.

“Our curriculum is too broad and too shallow,” Wallace said. He added, “What we need to look at before we add more days to the calendar, and before we look at mandating year-round learning, that we get the most out of what we have already. Once we’ve exhausted that, we need to look at extending it.”

But Haney said a smarter calendar must also provide teachers with more time to work together, particularly so they develop learning plans for each student. He also repeated his group’s longstanding call to boost teacher salaries. He and Phares exchanged anecdotes from within their own families, of quality teachers lured out-of-state or to other careers by better pay. But Phares also faulted state hiring policies, arguing that their inflexibility gives competing districts a leg up when recruiting new teachers.

Wallace suggested allowing nontraditional ways for training and certifying teachers, citing a program that aims to attract military veterans to classrooms. But Haney said that returning troopers have dropped out of such programs because of the rigors and low pay of teaching.

The speakers did appear to agree that public schools and higher education should communicate more. Collaboration would allow college-ready high school students to  graduate earlier, freeing up space and resources for needier students, Wallace said. Phares said higher education instructors could help high school seniors before they enter college and find they need remedial courses. Haney said the state much also do more to steer interested students toward vocational or two-year colleges when that path appears more appropriate.

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