Attacking public education is not productive

By Dave Perry

Jun 8, 2019

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A thriving school system, inclusive of a free public education, provides students with the tools needed to not only overcome the obstacles facing our state, but also to be positioned for success as responsible citizens.

Horace Mann famously said, “Education is the great equalizer.” Education can break the cycle of poverty and transform the lives of children whose economic and social conditions are inadequate. West Virginia has the third-lowest median income in the country, the fifth-highest childhood poverty rate and the highest poverty rate for children under 6.

Together, we must do more to meet the needs of students who live in poverty and face many other challenges outside of school.

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As the president of the West Virginia Board of Education, I have high expectations for our schools, and our work will not stop until we improve student achievement and guarantee a quality education for all students. At the same time, our state has an obligation to produce a robust economy, rich with job opportunities resulting in a positive quality of life for our citizens.

With the special legislative session on education at top of mind, many have chosen to cherry-pick educational outcomes to paint an unnecessarily dismal view of education in West Virginia. I am dumbfounded why business leaders within our state think it is productive to attack public education in order to push a political agenda that benefits the private sector and is fueled by outside interest groups.

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Presenting misleading facts and misrepresenting data do nothing but promote division, damage the morale of public educators and push politically motivated education policy.

Specifically, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce published a “comprehensive” report on public education that focuses almost entirely on education spending and standardized test scores. The report misleads readers in several areas. It falsely claims that education spending has been “roughly maintained” when, in inflation-adjusted terms, it has declined by 6.5 percent over the course of nine years. In fact, for every dollar spent on public education in 2009, there was 93 cents spent in 2018. Education spending would have been $84.6 million higher in 2018 if it had decreased at the same rate as student enrollment.

This suggests that, contrary to the chamber’s finding, spending is not comparable. Instead, we have been disinvesting in our students over the past decade.

Additionally, the report provides a misleading comparison of Balanced Scorecard results for West Virginia high schools in mathematics and English Language Arts. The chamber creates the perception that performance in the two subjects is comparable when it compares 88 percent of high schools that do not meet the standard in mathematics to the 90 percent of schools that do not meet or partially meet the standard in ELA. In fact, four-fifths of high schools partially meet, meet or exceed the standard in ELA.

The chamber focuses heavily on the performance of West Virginia’s highest-ranked high school — Charleston’s George Washington, ranked 585th. A deeper look at the rankings reveals bright spots for West Virginia. George Washington’s ranking places it in the top 3.4 percent of all high schools in America. Only 16 of our high schools (14 percent) are in the bottom 25 percent of schools nationally.

While I agree with the need to strive for greater success, it is important to recognize that West Virginia schools rank more equitably than the national average.

The report is overly reliant on standardized test scores and fails to consider other student outcomes that West Virginians value. Instead of measuring success solely on a college entrance exam ranking, shouldn’t we also consider students’ performance on the national technical assessment (NOCTI)?

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West Virginia career technical education students scored above the national average on technical assessments in areas such as electrical, manufacturing and hospitality — indicating workforce readiness. As the passage of Senate Bill 1 suggests, technical education is just as important as higher education to ensuring post-graduate success.

The recent WVDE-commissioned Survey of Employer Skills Needs highlights the importance of focusing on measures beyond test scores.

The survey of more than 200 West Virginia employers revealed a strong and consistent demand for employable skills such as team work, oral and written communication, problem solving and critical thinking, initiative, self-management and interpersonal skills.

In fact, these skills were more highly rated than cognitive skills when ranked on a priority list, supporting what we all know — these are critical for strong academic performance.

Finally, an evaluation of public education in West Virginia should not be determined mainly from assessment data that are not intended to be used for broad, sweeping generalizations regarding the quality of the entire K-12 education system.

The endless sparring over education only weaponizes the debate and does nothing to promote or enhance outcomes among our schools, educators and students. We should be focused on providing the best policy solutions and adequate resources to improve outcomes.

Let’s use the opportunity of this special session (which resumes June 17) to truly advance education through strategic and forward-thinking action. Let’s consider how we can fuel continuous improvement by untying the hands of our teachers and encouraging our schools to be innovative.

While all agree there is work to be done, West Virginia has much to celebrate. I hope you’ll join me in doing so.

                                     JOIN THE MOVEMENT #iBELIEVE

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