The strike by teachers and school service workers in West Virginia will end at some point. There will likely be some resolution on additional funding for the Public Employee Insurance Agency and perhaps a pledge by lawmakers or Governor Jim Justice to have a special session on education issues.
That will all be helpful, but whatever changes are made will be mostly tinkering around the margins of public education. Many of the fundamental problems plaguing how we prepare our children to reach their potential and enjoy healthy and productive lives will remain.
At some point West Virginia should get back to the core mission of public education, which is specified in the State Constitution: “The Legislature shall provide, by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools.”
Can we honestly say that the education our children receive is thorough? Our low test scores and teacher vacancies are compelling evidence that we are falling short.
Is our school system really efficient? A state with only 1.8 million people divides public education into 55 separate county districts. According to the Census Bureau, we spend $11,359 dollars per student annually—more than 20 other states.
Is it reasonable to expect that children will receive a professional grade thorough and efficient education if our teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation?
If we took seriously our constitutional requirement we would start over. Policy makers would sit down with educators, take out their legal pads and start making lists of what works and what doesn’t. They would look at other states to see what has been tried, but failed, and what changes have led to better outcomes.
Our educators and leaders would be brave enough to set aside preconceived notions, anecdotal evidence and, most importantly, their simmering differences, while relying on fact-based evidence to produce the best education possible for our children.
Imagine the image of a pyramid on the wall and at the top of that pyramid are the words “student achievement.” Everything else would fall into the categories below and each would be ranked in importance depending upon how they contribute to student achievement.
Those discussions would create a consensus on how to produce better outcomes. Those outcomes would be accompanied by methods to measure success and failure; from that would come accountability. The outcomes and accountability would be the basis for flexibility so schools could adapt as needed.
This sounds like a fantasy and perhaps it is, but it is worth remembering that the state’s Founders’ words are not an accident of history; they are purposeful and clear. The dictionary defines “thorough” as “executed without negligence or omissions, complete, perfect.” “Efficient” is defined as “performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort.”
Can we say that we are meeting those standards? If so, then a little touchup around the edges will do. However, if we are not, and the evidence is compelling that we are falling short, then we should roll up our sleeves and get to work.