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Lawmakers may be key to implementing audit's changes

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Nearly a year after it was released, West Virginia lawmakers this week finally reacted to an audit of the education system and subsequent response from the West Virginia Department of Education.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, described the "Education Efficiency Audit of West Virginia's Primary and Secondary Education System," which was released in January by Pennsylvania-based Public Works LLC, as a good starting point for rehabbing the state's education system.

"Folks have a tendency to get stuck in the status quo, and there's sort of a natural inertia; things don't like to change, so sometimes it's good to take a comprehensive view of things to see what we can do to improve our outcomes in the education system," he said. "Kids' testing scores are still waning; we're spending, per capita, the eighth most in the nation, and not getting the bang for our bucks, it doesn't appear; and if we're truly going to move our state forward, we've got to rely on improving our educational opportunities and attainment levels of our citizens."

Wade Linger, president of the West Virginia Board of Education, presented the board's long-awaited response to the Legislature's Education Subcommittee B during a Nov. 27 meeting. Linger said the response, titled "From Audit to Action," focuses on children, but it also keeps in mind the many adults in the state's education system.

"Throughout the process, that was the exact attitude that we had," he told the committee, referencing the audit's title. "There are an awful lot of adults in the system, and we want to make sure they're taken care of it, but when it comes down to it, the audit is about the kids."

Linger said some of the board's recommendations may take legislative action to implement. The audit said the Department of Education is top-heavy and among the most regulated state departments of education in the country. Linger said the department has been working to eliminate some redundant, outdated or unnecessary policies in an effort to curb bureaucracy, but more may be needed. He identified two ways to further downsize the department.

"There are too many bureaucrats in Building 6," Linger told the committee. "The other is you guys. There's too much in code."

Rather than cutting positions and putting people out of jobs, Linger said the department is looking to reorganize and restructure to allow employees to work out in the field in regional education service agencies, or RESAs, or in the counties where they are needed more.

"We need to get more of those people out in the field where the rubber meets the road," Linger said.

Linger told the committee the recommendations outlined in the response are in order of importance. Kessler disagreed with the department's rankings and said the audit shouldn't base educational outcomes solely on test scores, although those scores are a good way to gauge how students compare.

"I know teachers and others don't like to look solely at scores, but they are objective measures when you compete — kids from West Virginia to Virginia, Pennsylvania, nationwide, look at the scores," Kessler said. "Is it a perfect mechanism? No, but it's the only objective criteria you can look at to measure your improvement."

However, Linger told the committee the board would not agree to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. Instead, he suggested starting with school-based incentives to encourage improvement.

"We're recommending a new accreditation process, so we're going to be able to measure the performance from school to school pretty readily," he said. "So what we're recommending up front is that the best schools — however that is defined and shown — those schools are recognized and rewarded as a whole school. That will start the process of the system getting used to the idea that doing a better job and recognizing as such leads to better incentives and better pay and so froth."

Linger said a special committee would form to define standards by which teachers would be evaluated, but the answer to that question would not be found "in some standardized test."

Both the audit and the response suggested the state invest more in technology in the schools, both in terms of equipment and information technology specialists to help train teachers. According to the audit, the state would save millions of dollars if all recommendations are implemented, but Linger admitted technology can be expensive. To curb costs, he suggested students should be able to bring their own devices because most already have their own personal gadgets.

"For everyone that brings their own, that's one less we have to buy," he said. "They'd rather use their own anyway."

However, Delegate Brian Savilla, R-Putnam, questioned the feasibility of spending money on technology. He noted West Virginians spend more tax money per capita on education than 42 other states and don't see much of a return on that investment in terms of student success.

However, Linger noted the department wouldn't suggest spending money just to do it. Rather, he looks at it as an investment that can help students achieve success in the long run.

"If you look at how we're talking about spending the money, specifically as to how it relates to education, in every single instance in here where we talk about spending money … it's in response to rewarding excellence, not mediocrity," he said.

Legislators said they support downsizing the Department of Education because they think it will free up teachers to spend more time in the classroom. Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, is married to a teacher who often complains about time spent outside of the classroom in required workshops and continuing education sessions mandated by the Department of Education.

"How do we let them teach?" he asked Linger.

"The board is sensitive to that, and so far all we've come up with as far as what we can control is come off these erroneous policies and start backing down on meetings and reports and data that takes teachers away from what they do," Linger said.

Savilla, a teacher in Putnam and Mason counties, said he often feels the "strong hand" of board policies that affect his teaching and the time he spends in the classroom. The biggest hindrance to teaching, he said, is over-regulation from the department. He asked Linger if that's something he thinks the department should step back from.

"Absolutely, and I think you'll see that in here," Linger said, referencing the response and the 60 policies the board has eliminated this year.

Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, questioned the board's position in pulling teachers out of the classroom for mandated workshops.

"We're against it," Linger said.

"If you don't have a policy that says a teacher owes you a report … you're saving some of that time," he added. "Frankly it's an attitude change, it's a culture change."

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said he also has a problem with the amount of time teachers spend outside of the classroom. He said teachers spending more time in the classroom educating students would help ensure the state has a ready and prepared work force.

"What we're doing is not working," Plymale said. "If we don't make some changes — this is where I agree with you  … we're not going to be able to provide the work force for the 21st century. We're already in the 21st century, and we're behind. We're going to be recruiting people for jobs with technology backgrounds because we don't have those."

Lawmakers who spoke at the meeting said they were willing to work with the Department of Education in reviewing, refining and implementing audit recommendations. Linger said the department has already begun work.

"As far as the areas where the board has control of it through policy, we're jumping on them," he told the committee. "We already have. In December we're going to assign some committees and get going down that path."