March 6, 2013
School reform: Actual results?
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To improve dismal learning levels by West Virginia students, Gov. Tomblin wants the Legislature to take several bold steps: Downplay seniority as the top criterion in teacher hiring. Let idealistic young Teach for America volunteers fill rural classroom vacancies. Provide statewide all-day preschool for 4-year-olds. Pressure counties to deliver a full 180 days of instruction yearly. Get more parents involved as "cheerleaders" for their children. Try to prevent one-fourth of teens from quitting high school. Beef up technology and digital learning efforts. Etc.

Teacher unions are fighting parts of the governor's reform plan -- and they wield enormous clout in the Legislature. Whether the 2013 session will produce any genuine changes or not remains to be seen.

Trying to upgrade learning in Appalachia can be maddeningly difficult because mountain regions generally focus less on education than urbanized flatlands do. But better schooling is crucial because successful careers in the new knowledge-based Information Age demand it.

Charleston lawyer and City Council leader Tom Lane cares strongly about the future of West Virginia children. He passed along a couple of insights:

• State schools Superintendent Jim Phares -- giving a breakfast lecture for members of Lane's Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love law firm -- said schools must guarantee that every child reads well by third grade. That's when tots begin "reading to learn," he said, and if they aren't proficient at that point, they are limited in their coming years of school.

This echoes a reading emphasis in Tomblin's State of the State address. He demanded that all teachers in early grades get special training in reading, and said:

"If a child cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade, bad things happen. They will remain poor readers in high school, and they will be more likely to become high school dropouts. Thirty-five percent of children in poverty who aren't strong readers by the end of third grade do not graduate on time."

• Lane also recounted a dinner chat with a University of Charleston official, who told of three U.C. graduates who became West Virginia teachers -- but they felt frustrated by petty rules and creativity obstacles, so they took better-paying jobs in other states.

The official noted: Out-of-state recruiters can come to West Virginia colleges and sign top-rated students long in advance for jobs in their states -- but county superintendents can't do likewise, because state rules say teachers cannot be hired until after vacancy notices are posted, shortly before a term begins.

Can the 2013 Legislature do anything that will raise West Virginia's pathetic learning scores? Keep reading the Gazette to see what emerges under the golden dome.

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