State should let teachers do what they do best: teach

To their credit, West Virginia legislators have made improving public schools a top priority during their 60-day regular session. In addition to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s reform bill, lawmakers have advanced several other measures on the subject.

But even as many of them worry about too much top-down management of schools, they are poised to add to it.

A bill approved by the House of Delegates and pending in the state Senate is an excellent example of micro-management from Charleston.

Some legislators are concerned – rightly – about whether “at-risk” children are receiving enough help in public schools. Youngsters can fall into that category for many reasons, ranging from living in broken homes to subsisting in extreme poverty. At-risk students tend to perform worse academically than their more fortunate peers.

Work by school counselors can make a difference in the lives of at-risk students. But many counselors, like classroom teachers, say they simply do not have enough time to provide all the help they would like to students.

State law actually breaks down counselors’ work days, in a way. The statute calls for counselors to spend 75 percent of their time working with students and 25 percent on administrative tasks.

Members of the House of Delegates have approved a bill to change that. If enacted, the measure will call for counselors to spend 90 percent of their time working with students. The idea is that at-risk children will receive more help.

Meanwhile, how will the administrative work – much of it prescribed by other state or federal regulations – get done? Will counselors have to watch their clocks to ensure they dedicate the required number of minutes to counseling and to paperwork? Will some have to turn in required reports with notations like “Sorry. Unable to complete in 10 percent of workday allotted”?

In some ways it is no wonder many schools are academic disasters. Micro-management from the state Department of Education and the Legislature too often gets in the way of what many educators desperately want to do: teach.

Various models for school reform have emerged. One, the input model of pumping ever-higher amounts of taxpayer money into schools, has been a resounding failure. Another, what we will call the red-tape model, focuses on mandating virtually everything teachers and principals do. It, too, has failed – but some legislators apparently did not notice that.

Perhaps it is time to try the results model – demanding excellence and giving educators more flexibility to achieve it. Telling them what percentages of their time are to be devoted to specific tasks is not a step in that direction.