Phares pushes school reform

SOUTH?CHARLESTON – How can the West Virginia Legislature and state Department of Education implement meaningful education reform in the Mountain State?

That question topped the list of issues discussed at the Associated Press Legislative Lookahead, which took place Thursday on Marshall University’s South Charleston campus ahead of the 2013 regular legislative session, which starts Wednesday.

West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Phares, West Virginia Education Association Executive Director David Haney and Dr. Terry Wallace, a senior fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University, hashed out how to go about improving learning outcomes during the first panel of the day – “New Directions for Public Education.”

Phares pointed to the balanced calendar model, or year-round learning, as one possible cure for the state’s ailing education system.

“The policymakers at the department level and at the legislative level need to understand that you can no longer say that learning starts in August and ends in June,” Phares said. “The technology that is around and the world that we live in dictates that children are learning 24/7.

“That’s not to say that we’re going to have year-round school in every school in the state in two years,” he added, “but it’s about how can we maximize learning opportunities? How do we push technology resources so that students can access them 24/7?”

Phares also said he’s in favor of mastery learning, wherein students would advance grade levels based on their mastery of material.

“We don’t go and do mountain biking until we learn to ride a bike in the first place, and you don’t learn to ride a bike on the side of a mountain,” Phares remarked. “We need to embrace that mastery learning; as students meet standards, they need to move along.”

Haney, the executive director of the WVEA, said that despite what many people think, the WVEA, one of the state’s largest teachers’ unions, isn’t opposed to the balanced calendar model.

However, he said, it would be “wrong” for the Legislature to take a top-down approach by mandating a balanced calendar schedule for every school system in the state.

“I think it has to be a community decision,” Haney said, referencing Cabell County, which is currently conducting talks on the topic. “The community has to agree that this is what we want to do and this is the best thing for our community.”

Phares said he wasn’t suggesting a state-mandated balanced calendar model.

“I think the only thing we would do is to suggest that (county school systems) go through that same type of planning process (as Cabell County),” the superintendent said.

Wallace said creating a culture of year-round learning rather than instituting year-round school is key. He noted that students from an upper socioeconomic background usually tend to continue learning through the summer and as a result, are more likely to succeed in school than their poorer peers, who might not be afforded the same advantage.

“Adding days to the calendar in and of itself, if you don’t change anything else, is not a solution,” Wallace remarked. “We need to make sure that we are getting the most out of what we already have before we look at a balanced calendar and year-round school.” Wallace called the state department of education’s curriculum “too broad and too shallow.”

“No student should be able to get out of the fourth grade without being able to read well enough to learn,” he said.

(A couple hours later, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who took questions from reporters during lunch, said one of the goals of his educational agenda was to ensure that every child masters reading by the end of third grade.)

Wallace whole-heartedly agreed with Phares on the concept of mastery learning, saying he disagreed with making “young Einsteins sit in high school until they’re 18 years old.”

The state education system should move kids based on competency and achievement, rather than age and “seat time,” he said.

“That means kids are going to be leaving high school at 15 or 16 years old, and we’ve got other kids who need to stay in the oven longer before they’re baked all the way through,” Wallace added.

All three panelists told moderator John McCabe, the managing editor of The Intelligencer in Wheeling, that they believed the stigma surrounding vocational education needed to be broken down and that more collaboration between high school and college instructors could bolster the success of students who do continue on to earn four-year degrees.

Currently, McCabe said, 40 percent of high school graduates in the state are required to take remedial math or English courses once they reach college.

“We need to look at education as an integrated entity,” Wallace said. “In West Virginia, we tend to see pre-K through 12th grade then stop college then stop. One of the reasons that students aren’t prepared is because we don’t work hard at making sure everyone knows what’s expected at the next step, next step, next step.”

Phares agreed that college professors and high school instructors needed to amp up their communication.

“They’ve got to start talking to each other if we’re going to make mathematics seamless and make it count at both our level and the high school level,” Phares said.

Haney said two problems stunting the state’s education system are a lack of respect for teachers and rampant absenteeism. He said the reason West Virginia is experiencing a shortage of certified teachers is because it’s ranked 49th in the nation when it comes to the rates at which teachers are compensated.

“An educator in West Virginia can make more doing almost another other than being a teacher,” Haney said. “I would hope that over the next couple years that rather than everyone bashing our public education system and the people who labor in it everyday we find ourselves lifting up the profession so there’s a respect.

“We’ve lost the respect my parents instilled in me to go to school everyday, and to respect my teachers and do the best I can,” he added.

Phares introduced the concept of what he’s dubbed “ABT-squared.”

“I call (the truancy problem) ‘ain’t been taught because they ain’t been there,'” the superintendent said. “You can apply it to truancy and you can also apply it to calendars.” Phares said the 180 days of instruction mandated by the state Legislature was really “an oxymoron,” since five of those days are used for other purposes, such as faculty planning. Phares said he would petition the Legislature to eliminate loopholes in the state code that excuse students from attending school for 180 days.

“We need to tell it like it is and get rid of things in the code that say you can’t use attendance to calculate students’ grades,” Phares said. “What kind of work ethic are you teaching students if you’re not requiring them to be at school every day?”

Panelists were asked whether they believed the Legislature needed to address school safety in light of the mass shooting in December in Newtown, Conn.

Phares said that he’s been having “informal conversations” with Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, the head of the West Virginia Army National Guard, about the Guard potentially conducting “vulnerability assessments” in schools throughout the state to see which ones might be most at risk for mass violence.

He’s opposed to arming teachers, he said.

“I think we really have to take a look at what message we’re sending if we start putting armed teachers in classrooms,” he said. “I don’t want to send a message that violence is winning. I think we would be better served if we can cultivate relationships between schools and mental health providers.”

Wallace said it was critical that a community effort to prevent violence be made in public schools, saying that most of the school shootings he was familiar with involved bullying.

“Knowing students at that almost intimate level helps with up-front threat assessment,” he said.

Haney suggested the state Department of Education look into adding more guidance counselors to their roster.

“We need a better ratio of counselors to students,” Haney said. “Of course, it’s going to cost some money to get that done.”

Wallace said repeatedly during Thursday’s panel that money or a lack thereof was not a roadblock to building a better public education system.

“(Education reform) is a question of ‘do we have the political will within the Legislature to apply what we know will work?'” he said. “We’re not short on answers, we’re short on application. We need to be obsessive about high performance and compulsive every day to make that happen.

“In my view, this is not about a shortage of money,” he continued. “We have enough resources across the educational spectrum to be as good as we need to be.”

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