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Charles McElwee: Will BOE do the right thing?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Given the influence of teachers' unions, one member of the State Board of Education said she "wouldn't touch" the recommendation of the Education Audit that "seniority" no longer be a factor in a county board of education's decision to fill a classroom teaching position, as it is now by law.

Another member is reported to have said that removing seniority as a factor in a county board's employment decision would make the teachers unions go crazy and that fighting the unions would not accomplish anything.

A front-page story in the Sept. 30 Sunday Gazette-Mail ("BOE wary of teacher unions in reform talks") reported that "foremost in the board members' minds on some of the audit's most controversial recommendations ... was how the West Virginia's powerful teachers' unions and politicians would react to their proposals."

What are likely to be some of the audit's most controversial recommendations? Certainly these:

* Establish a Teach for America program to recruit teachers for hard-to-serve areas.

* Tie teacher compensation to teacher effectiveness, not just advanced degrees and years of experience in that past performance rather than advanced degrees and experience is the best predictor of teacher effectiveness.

* Set minimum standard performance levels for teacher preparation programs in that teacher preparation is an area in critical need for attention in West Virginia.

* Connect tenure to teacher effectiveness rather than automatically granting tenure at the end of a three-year probationary period.

* Support differential pay for teachers "in shortage subject areas and high-needs schools."

* Prevent ineffective teachers from remaining in the classroom indefinitely by allowing only one appeal of a dismissal at the county level, not two as currently provided.

* Authorize school principals, rather than county boards of education, to hire and release teachers in their schools to best serve their students' needs.

* Require that at least 51 percent of teachers' evaluations be based on "student growth."

(The 2012 Legislature at the request of the governor, and, as I am informed, with the approval of the Board of Education, enacted legislation that student learning be limited to only 15 percent of teachers' evaluations, well below the national trend. The legislation allows teachers to determine (1) the learning of their students based on how well they achieve two goals set by the teacher for a particular class, and (2) the evidence they will provide to document progress on both goals. No testing is required.)

The focus of the audit's seniority-elimination recommendation and the eight other identified recommendations is on improving teacher effectiveness, which it says is "the most important factor to keep in mind during policy making" and is at "the top of every study as the most important factor in determining student success."

The audit aptly observes that the state's public school system has historically developed into a structure that satisfies the needs of various constituencies, comprised entirely of adults.

Conversely, the audit set out to design a better system: one that is "based on a different perspective and direction: that of the student." States across America, according to the audit, "are reforming and modernizing their systems of education. It is time for West Virginia to do so, as well."

Removing from consideration the student-focused recommendations identified above because they may be offensive to some adults would strip the audit of its core reforms to improve student performance on national testing, which was the "impetus" for commissioning the audit in the first place.

Surely, the Board of Education, after all of these months, will not in effect declare the key recommendations of the audit "dead on arrival," because it is beholden to powerful adult interests that oppose them, or what would be nearly as bad, "kick them down the road."

The state Constitution vests in the Board of Education "the general supervision of free schools of the State." Board members, ostensibly at least, "possess expertise in the educational area," as our highest state court put it; accordingly, they should face up to and either reject or accept each of the audit's recommendations, especially those identified above, for they are critical to the progress of schools in this state as foreseen by the audit.

That is what the Board of Education led the public to believe it would do many months ago, but now it seems to be backtracking with a "don't touch them" attitude with respect to many of the audit's student-focused recommendations because they are deemed to be anathema to powerful adult interests.

The public, the governor and the Legislature await the board's report, which, according to newspaper accounts, is being delayed to make it "a flowing document."

The following expression, attributed to then Sen. Harry S. Truman, is pertinent: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Since that is not likely, we have no alternative but to be patient. When and if the Board of Education's report is released after these many months, we will then review it most carefully. Casting aside the "flow" of the report as being irrelevant, we will want to know whether the report accepts or rejects each of audit's nine recommendations identified above.

If not, why not and what explanations are given for not doing so? If it either accepts or rejects them, how much in-depth analysis has the Board of Education given to its decisions on the audit's recommendations? Has the Board of Education explained in detail the bases of its decisions to accept or reject them? Has the board used "weasel words" or equivocal language to avoid a direct commitment of either being for or against a particular recommendation? The answers to these and perhaps other questions will determine the credibility of the board's report.

McElwee is a Charleston lawyer with the firm Robinson & McElwee, PLLC.  

 


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