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West Virginians are 'hardly working'

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Too many West Virginia residents who could be working are not, a retired West Virginia University economics professor said Thursday.

About 53.7 percent of West Virginians of working age are actually working, said Tom Witt, who taught business and economics at WVU.

"Those saying we have hard-working West Virginians have it wrong," Witt said. "Hardly working is more like it."

Witt's comments came at an education forum hosted by the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce at its annual Business Summit at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs.

If West Virginia had a work-force participation rate closer to the national rate, the state would have at least 50,000 more people in the labor market and a per capita income that ranked closer to 40th in the nation, instead of 48th, Witt said.

While education is the key to higher work participation rates, the state's education continues to lag behind other states, he said.

Over the past 20 years, West Virginia has increased the ratio of college graduates compared with those who have not earned a high school degree, Witt said. Other states, though, have increased their number of college graduates even more than West Virginia has, he said.

"So if we think we're running hard, other states are running much further ahead of us, and they're widening their lead over us," Witt said.

West Virginia also faces a challenge of "brain drain" -- educated workers leaving the state for better opportunities, Witt said. That means that companies lack qualified job candidates to hire and that's a disincentive to companies who might consider locating in the state, Witt said.

"That slows economic growth," Witt said.

Also at the forum, Education Alliance president Pat Kusimo said only 36 percent of third-graders in West Virginia are reading at a mastery level or above.

"Third-grade reading level is a benchmark . . . that needs to be met so that children have the skills they need," she said. "At the end of third grade, they stop learning to read and start reading to learn."

To increase the number of students who can read well by third grade, Kusimo said, students need more instructional days in their school year.

Summer learning loss in reading and math is a reality for all students, she said.

"One hundred and 80 days of instruction is not sufficient," Kusimo said. "Teachers have a 200-day contract and they have 180-day instructional terms, which actually equates to 175 of actual instruction."

Kusimo said students need not only more time, but better instructional time in the classroom.

"The real teacher shortage and the real teacher crisis we're going to have is keeping highly effective teachers in the classrooms working with our children," Kusimo said.

A study by TNTP, formerly The New Teacher Project, found that when a highly effective teacher leaves a classroom, it takes 11 hires to find another teacher that is as effective as that teacher, she said.

Kusimo said the education field recently has moved from relying on credentials as an assessment of how well teachers do and relying more on what impact those teachers have on students.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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