Political Will Key to Reform

There was good news and bad news during a Thursday panel discussion about public education reform in West Virginia.

Terry Wallace, senior fellow at West Liberty University’s Institute for Innovation in Education, summed up the situation.

The good news, as Wallace put it, is that “we know how to educate kids.”

But the bad news is that, “We simply need the political will to do that.”

Here in West Virginia, that could be a problem.

Wallace, state school Superintendent James Phares and David Haney of the West Virginia Education Association offered a variety of valuable observations during the panel discussion, sponsored by the Associated Press.

There seemed to be general agreement on one point, that competency – not age – needs to be the criteria used to determine how students are educated. Some may be able to go on to college courses or career training when they are 15-16 years old. Others may need to remain in high school after age 18. Some may need more intensive work on the basics, while others may, in effect, be finished with high school long before their senior years.

Again, other valuable suggestions were made by Phares, Haney and Wallace. They included finding ways for educators to spend more time actually teaching fundamentals such as reading and mathematics – certainly a key to school reform.

Other ideas included more emphasis on career education, better use of technology for purposes such as distance learning, better coordination between public schools and higher education, more use of alternative certification programs to provide more teachers, and more flexibility in how school calendars are determined.

Each and every one of those recommendations has enormous merit. Ensuring school curriculums are appropriate may be the most important of the suggestions.

But the challenge is in making what many West Virginians will view as earth-shattering changes. Awarding grades, class promotions and diplomas based on competency, not age or the number of years spent in school, will be applauded by parents of students ready for college courses at age 15.

But what about mothers and fathers who are told that yes, their children have reached their senior years in high school – but are not ready to graduate?

The challenge is not so much pedagogy as it is politics. Whether state government officials have the will to set the stage for real school reform remains to be seen.