In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) affirmed what most Americans already knew: our nation’s educational system was failing. In its report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, the NCEE concluded that: “Our nation is at risk . . . if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
In response, state and local governments pursued the conventional strategy of “more-longer-harder.” During the 1980s, they made substantial increases in spending for public education. In addition, 47 states passed major reforms that required more courses, more tests and more time in school, but also accepted the old, 1930s model of education – top down command and control; children sentenced to schools closest to their homes; a focus on rules and regulations; keeping an agricultural calendar; and no consequences for success or failure.
By the end of the 1980s, many education leaders realized that the traditional approach wasn’t working. In 1989, President Bush and governors from across the nation convened an “Education Summit” where they endorsed the restructuring of public education based upon a number of principles that were characteristic of successful school systems: “greater choice for parents and students”; “a system of accountability that focused on results, rather than compliance with rules and regulations”; “decentralization of authority and decision-making responsibility to the school site”; a personnel system “that provides real rewards for success with students” and “real consequences for failure’; and “active, sustained parental and business community involvement.”
Since 1989, many states have focused on restructuring its education system to varying degrees. West Virginia has not. Instead, we continue to retreat to the comfort of a 1930s model and cry for “more-longer-harder” while we fail to prepare our students for a rapidly changing world.
In August, education officials in West Virginia released the test scores for our K-12 students. They were disastrous.
Our best performance was fifth graders taking the English/language arts test – where only 51% of our students were proficient – barely half.
Only 46% of our 3rd graders were proficient in English and language arts and 44% in math.
In math, only 30% of our fifth graders were proficient; 18% of 9th graders; 15% of 10th graders; and 20% of 11th graders. This means that 80% of our students who are one year from going to college or going out to get a job do not have the basic math skills they need to compete and succeed.
Perhaps we are all familiar with Einstein’s definition of “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It’s time to stop the insanity, get out of our comfort zone and create an education system that recognizes the following realities.
First, all students are not the same. Each student is a different combination of intellectual capacity and social and cultural experience. Students come from different geographic areas and different family structures. Some students are eager to learn, others aren’t.
As a result, the starting line for each student is at a different place. Yet, our current system standardizes our children by using standardized tests and standardized results to determine whether a student is a success or failure.
This should not be interpreted as a reflection of the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality. This is not about measuring students against each other. It’s about motivating students to do their very best. This is not about success, which is measured against the achievement of others. It’s about each individual student seeking and achieving the highest degree of excellence of which they are capable.
The county or state board of education, the state legislature or Congress cannot do this. This can only be done by the teacher in the classroom untethered from a highly centralized system that seeks to impose a one-size-fits-all approach to thousands of unique students.
Second, all schools are not the same. Some schools are in new buildings and some schools are in old buildings. Schools have a different mix of teachers – some good and some bad. Schools have varying amounts of equipment available – some new and some obsolete. Schools offer different courses and different extracurricular activities.
In 1982, the Recht decision sought to cure these inequities by determining that the state needed to spend an additional $4 billion for education at a time when the state’s entire general revenue budget – including current expenditures for education – was barely $3 billion. This was an interesting case. The plaintiffs in the case were parents who wanted more money spent on their child’s education suing a school system that wanted more money! The plaintiffs made their case for spending an additional $4 billion and the defendants responded by saying, “Yes, you’re right.”
In the end, reality prevailed and the decision was never implemented.
Thirdly, all counties are not the same. Relatively speaking, West Virginia has rich counties and poor counties. It has counties that are inclined to pass excess levies or bond levies and others that are not. It has counties where education is culturally important and others where it is less important.
This is not going to change. Fortunately, the formula used to distribute state education funds to each county is fair in attempting to equalize resources. However, some counties constantly go the extra mile in passing additional levies and some counties do not believe it is necessary.
No system is perfect. However, a system that embodies the principles recommended by the 1989 Education Summit would certainly be better by recognizing these differences.
What would such a system look like?
First, state government and both the state and county school boards would set minimum standards, measure performance, conduct research on best practices and maintain a financing structure to provide schools with state support. However, county boards of education would not operate the schools.
Instead, all schools would operate like charter schools. Different types of organizations that include teachers, parents, colleges, or community leaders would apply to the county board of education for approval to operate the school for a period of years. As a part of the approval, this organization would enter into a performance agreement with the county school board to produce specific results by the end of the term in exchange for public support.
This public support may include a base amount for all schools based upon a common formula. However, each parent would receive a voucher to be used to attend any school they wish – including private schools and schools in other counties. In essence, public funds would be strapped to the backs of our students and parents would use their feet to determine the best place for their child to receive an education.
Schools would be required to rely upon funds from these vouchers. As a result, the authority they are granted to run the school would be linked to a market-based accountability based upon the school’s performance. Schools would be required to compete for students since each school’s funding would be based upon the number of students it can attract.
Each school would be relatively free to define and pursue its mission. While those who operate the school would be required to meet some very basic state and school board standards such as course requirements, most authority would be at the school level and county and statewide rules would be kept to a minimum. School leaders would have far greater freedom to determine the kind of school that would best meet the needs of their demographic base. They would develop their own budget based upon the number of students attracted and retain any funds it did not spend. Each school – not the county - would employ teachers, administrators and staff. It would decide teacher pay, performance bonuses, whom to hire and whom to fire. Tenure would be optional.
Thus, while teachers would be free to address the needs of each individual student, they would also be required to police themselves in regard to other teachers who produce a less than acceptable performance in the classroom.
A well-known radio broadcaster and opinion leader in West Virginia once observed that you can walk into any school in this state and ask the first five people you meet – teacher, parent, administrator or student – “who is the worst teacher in this school” and they will all give you the same name. Under this proposal, schools would address this issue.
In cooperation with the county school boards, the state board of education would measure and publish different types of results, such as: test scores; teacher evaluations by parents and students; parent, student and teacher satisfaction surveys; academic and nonacademic honors won by students; dropout rates; college placement rates; and, observations and comments by business, community and educational leaders.
The parents could use this information to decide where their child should go to school. By measuring performance, but letting parents choose, school boards and the state department of education would avoid the need to rate schools. Schools would have a great deal of freedom, but would be directly accountable to parents.
Can the proposed system work? Private and, especially, parochial schools all across America operate this type of system with better results and for less money than our public school systems.
The problem with education is that we know what works, but we just won’t do it. We know how to educate our children. We know that it’s teachers who produce the greatest impact, not the school board. We know that incentives work. We know that authority and accountability have to be linked. We know that as John Maxwell has said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”
The time has come in West Virginia to not only change, but also grow.
 This would be especially important during a transition and use a special formula determined by the county. The state aid to education formula only determines the amount to be allocated to each county, not the manner in which it is spent.