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McElwee: Real change in education require engaged citizens

Only 18.5 percent of West Virginia's 15-year olds in 2009 were proficient in math, according to the Program for international Student Assessment. That put the Mountain State on a par with Bulgaria. Only Alabama, New Mexico and Mississippi had worse standings.

Just 18 percent of this state's 8th-graders in 2009 were proficient in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only Alabama and Mississippi ranked worse. And just 3 percent of West Virginia eighth-graders were advanced in math. No state had a lesser percentage.

As for student academic readiness for college through the ACT exam, state students tested 13 percentage points below the national average in math, and 6 points below in science.

In 2008, the Legislature had a "vision" that by 2020, student achievements in West Virginia would exceed international and national averages on these three tests, PISA, NAEP, and ACT. The Legislature's "vision" was more akin to fantasy and utopianism.

National appraisals of the state's public school system are no better than our student test scores. The appraisals (1) ranked our students 49th in science and engineering readiness, ahead of only Mississippi; (2) gave the state an F in K-12 achievement with only one state ranked lower; and (3) graded the state as D in teacher quality.

The state's science standards were described as "a confusing and unsatisfactory hodgepodge" by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

West Virginia's obstacles to significant improvement in student achievement and national appraisals are formidable, and we should not delude ourselves by believing otherwise. There are far more bases for pessimism than optimism when we consider our public school predicament forthrightly without political gloss.

The state's public school system is gigantic, intricate, intimidating, controversial, intractable, and is perceived by many as unalterable.

The school system is like quicksand giving a sinking sensation to those who try to understand it, much less reform it, and repels reform initiators and drains the spirit of those who would try.

Accordingly, we procrastinate and console ourselves that somehow the school system will be improved by our endless talking, talking and more talking -- by conducting public forums -- by establishing "visions" (amounting to avoidance and escapism) -- by having "dreams" -- and by establishing "goals" that have no realistic expectations of being met, in part, because there is no real push, especially by the Legislature, to achieve them.

The Legislature is directed by the state Constitution to "provide for [an] efficient system of free schools." It has failed. Rather than providing for efficient management and administration of our school system, it has provided inefficient micromanagement.

The much-discussed Education Audit describes the state's education system as being "detailed to the extreme in statutory language that results in an education system that has little flexibility to modify policy and operations without changes to code."

The Legislature has been counterproductive. Almost yearly it adds bits and pieces (morsels to those who advocate them) to already cluttered and overreaching laws. many of which are antiquated, inconsistent or redundant, confusing and of dubious value -- or by creating a second Department of Education (the Department of Education and the Arts) after having apparently concluded that one Department of Education is not enough.

In the meantime, our student achievement scores in science and math languish at or near the bottom when compared to other national and international school systems.

There exists no easy fix. Make no mistake about it. Any real commitment to address deficiencies in our existing school system will involve hard work and much critical thinking over an extended period of time. It will be complex to execute; it will involve controversy; it will call for tough decisions; and its success cannot be assured. But is there an alternative to facing up to these challenges? I think not.

The real commitment of which I write should originate with an aroused citizenry (with emphasis on young adults, politically unbeholden) who have been stirred out of their apathy and indifference to school affairs to become passionate about improving the achievement of our public school students.

The time to start a commitment is now, with a carefully designed, rationally sequenced, comprehensive identification of essential components of the public school system for citizen in-depth analysis, evaluation and recommendations.

This story aptly states my point: The great French Marshal Lyautey asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener said the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The marshal replied, "In that case, there is no time to lose -- plant it this afternoon."

McElwee is a Charleston lawyer.


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