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Schools must shed industrial model

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Charles McElwee Charles McElwee

Charles McElwee is a Charleston lawyer with the firm Robinson & McElwee PLLC. The views expressed are his own. His email is  

In previous writings, I have expressed the views:

  • That despite hundreds of pages of public-school "reform" legislation enacted over many years by the West Virginia Legislature ("so much reform"), student academic performances in the state remain among the lowest when compared with other school systems ("so little change"); 
  • That it is unrealistic to expect different results by repeatedly adding fragmentary, ad hoc "education-reform" legislation, as the Legislature did again in its 2013 regular session; and
  • That the Legislature and the chief executive of the state have evidenced no political will to undertake a much-needed, bold, comprehensive and in-depth review of the long-neglected basics of the state's public school system.

In this column, I suggest the following: The basics' review should focus in the first instance on the students — how they best learn, what they should learn, and how to enhance their opportunity to learn; on teachers — their role in today's classroom, their effectiveness, their recruitment, their professional education, their evaluation, and their retention; and on the management and administration of the statewide public school system.

The West Virginia Board of Education (state board) should give precedence to a nationwide search for an exemplary candidate for state superintendent of Schools, "the chief school officer of the state." 

The state board, with the assistance of a newly selected "chief school officer," should expand its role as the determiner "of the educational policies of the public schools of the State," quoting from an opinion of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

The State should develop an informed and involved citizenry throughout the state, who will become an aggressive citizen constituency for a nationally recognized quality public-school system.

Following the state board's selection of a new superintendent of Schools, I propose that the State Board, with the advice and assistance of the superintendent, develop a Public Education Redesign Blueprint, a rationally sequenced, comprehensive identification of the student/teacher/management elements of the public school system for subsequent in-depth analysis, evaluation and recommendations.

By rationally sequenced, I mean that the order of succession be methodical, systematic or logical and not randomly selected, based on whim or individual interest.

In this article, I suggest three basic student elements: how students best learn (how to learn), what they should learn (what to learn), and enhancing the opportunity of disadvantaged kids to learn (opportunity to learn).

Two subsequent articles will suggest fundamental teacher elements and set forth management/administrative elements of the public school system that should be reviewed in great depth.

How students best learn and what they should learn beyond subject matter content in our technological age are the bedrock, the fundamental principles, upon, and in accordance with, which the state's K-12 education system should be redesigned and built.

The focus on what students should learn is not so much in terms of subjects, such as algebra I but in terms of their thinking, their ability to communicate and collaborate, their character (ability and willingness to help others) and the development of curiosity and creativity. All of these are qualities that enhance quality of life and better enable a person to compete in a global economy.

"How to learn" embraces many lines of inquiry, far more than I know about or could even comprehend.

However, there is one how-to-learn component of the state's historical and current K-12 learning model that all of us who have been through the public-school system know. 

The model is an aged one, having originated in Prussia in the early 1800s and may be characterized as rigidly structured and highly compartmentalized. It has these features:

  • A prescribed number of instructional days in a school year with an agrarian-based summer vacation, when much of what was learned is unlearned; 
  • A set number of class periods within an instructional day; 
  • The chopping of human thought into chunks called "subjects" or "content"; 
  • Class periods marked by one-pace-fits-all, passive, in-class lectures;
  • one classroom, one teacher; 
  • Widely different classroom-teacher effectiveness in teaching subject matter, in interacting with students, in challenging students and in helping students; 
  • The grouping of kids for instruction by birth date; 
  • The advancement of kids together grade by grade; 
  • Learning in increments of time, or as one commentator put it, the scheduling of learning "by bells"; and
  • Letter and numerical grades.

One the most egregious negative traits of the traditional classroom is one-pace-fits-all, fixed-time learning, as thus described to me by a respected Kanawha County school teacher:

"I think all teachers that I know at the high school level try to honor the CSOs (State Board required Content Standards and Objectives for various subjects). We often have students so weak that is not possible — too many would fail since high school (naming the subject) requires knowing the previous level of (naming the subject). By the high school level, many are several grade levels behind yet have been advanced. No teacher could teach the previous material and all of the current CSOs.

"Because of the group of students I have, I go at a pace to achieve the CSOs, so the pace is too brisk for some and not brisk enough for others. I usually end up with 16-20 percent Ds or Fs by the end of the year, which is too high — but probably half of those are due to lack of effort on the part of the students (many do no homework) and the rest due to serious gaps in background."

As one commentator put it in describing one-pace-fits all, fixed-time learning, "the time allotted to learn something is fixed while the comprehension of the concept is variable. … What should be fixed is a high level of comprehension and what would be variable is the amount of time students have to understand it a concept."

The alternative to one-pace-fits-all, fixed-time learning is Internet-based, self-paced, mastery learning, which is based on a self-evident proposition that students should adequately comprehend a given concept before being expected to understand a more advanced one.