Legislators Tackle the Basics in Public Ed

One of the reasons why West Virginia public school test scores are so dismal is that too many children do not read well. Reading with understanding is critical to achievement in all subjects, and if children are not able to read to learn by the 4th grade, they will fall behind. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized test scores released last October found that only one in five West Virginia fourth graders (22 percent) are proficient readers. One test is not the sole measurement of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, but it is a significant indicator.

The test results and first-hand reports from classroom teachers are motivating state lawmakers to tackle the problem during this legislative session. So far, the education committees of both the House and Senate have passed similar bills. Here are some of the key provisions:

—The hiring and training of hundreds of teaching assistants who will be assigned to early grade classrooms. Bill supporters believe the extra hands will allow teachers to give more specialized help to students who need it.

—Improved systems for identifying students struggling to read, and implementation of literacy programs that have worked in other states.

—Intensive summer literacy programs for third grade students who have reading deficiencies to help prepare them for the fourth grade.

—A requirement, with certain exceptions, that students who are not meeting standards by the third grade repeat the grade.

This won’t be cheap. The House version would cost nearly $100-million annually. The Senate version would spread out the cost because the teaching assistants would be phased in over three years.

The price tag will give some lawmakers pause, since many Republicans pride themselves on holding the line on state spending. If the bill passes, another challenge will be finding enough individuals interested in the assistant teacher positions. The House bill calls for hiring 2,500 individuals.

These bills are no magic bullet. West Virginia’s socioeconomic condition means many children come from homes where education is not considered important. One teacher told me recently that when she contacted a parent of a struggling student, the parent told the teacher, “That’s your problem.”

Frankly, it’s everyone’s problem. In the broadest sense, the failure of a student to master the basics virtually guarantees that individual will struggle throughout their life. The opportunity cost to the individual and to the state is enormous.

The House and Senate bills represent a necessary investment to begin to bend the curve toward better outcomes. 

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