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Sunday Sit Down: Terry Wallace

November 6, 2011
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

-- We're here today with Terry Wallace, who is a senior fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University. What we'd like to talk about today is some higher education, but mostly public education.

One complaint that some people have about higher education is that a lot of the people involved don't seem to have any real world experience. You've been there, done that. Give us some idea of how much involvement you've had in public education.

Wallace: Other than my misspent youth at Neffs Elementary School and Bellaire High School, I've been an educator for more than 40 years. ... My teaching career actually began in Ritchie County, W.Va., Harrisville, and it ended most recently when I retired from Woodland Hills School District in Pittsburgh. In between I've done just about everything in education - driving a bus, teaching, being an administrator, I was one of the first special education licensed administrators in the state of Ohio and in fact actually helped with formulating public law 4142 and with the Rehab Act of 1973. I've been around for awhile.

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-- So this is not something that you look at from an ivory tower, you know what some of the problems are firsthand.

Wallace: I've been eating, sleeping and drinking it my whole life. I put myself through college as an engineer in training, and with the first opportunity after finishing college took a teaching job and that's all I've ever really wanted to do since then.

-- The Institute for Innovation in Education is still relatively new. Can you tell us about the mission and what you think has been accomplished to date?

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Wallace: The Institute for Innovation in Education is an initiative of West Liberty University President Rob Capehart, and if you've watched West Liberty and President Capehart for the past five years or so, you've seen probably as much acceleration in the rate of positive change as has ever been in the well over 150 year history of the university. It is on a mission to become a great university and make that transition from always being a good college to a great university. And great universities are ones that not only teach well, they're ones that bring the benefits and the knowledge base of higher education to bear on the community, on the state and on the region that they serve. ... The Institute is meant to look at large issues to which we can make some positive contribution at the public policy level and at the implementation level.

Let me give you a couple of examples. One is the honors college. We've always had an honors college, and we want to expand that so that students coming in to the university who are high performers are able to sustain that with a specialized curriculum and specialization within the university. No. 2, we're looking at initiating a competency-based course program. Of the 843 programs that are offered this fall at West Liberty University, it's our intention that every one of those transitions into being competency-based. You won't just go in, sit and wait for a grade, you're going to have to demonstrate that you can do what you're supposed to be able to do when you finish that course and that you can do it under all conditions. It's like having to make a free throw with two seconds left in the game, when the game's on the line. That's what we're about in terms of competency.

We're already there with a significant number of the courses. Things like our dental hygiene program, nursing program lead the state, lead the region in the people who are able to pass their state licensing exams. Again, that's an external measure of competency, we want to measure both inside and outside, we want to make sure that if we say you can drive that car, then you can drive that car.

We're working too to extend university access and affordability to students. I believe the Board of Governors just acted to extend the metro scholarship rate and program (in Ohio and Pennsylvania). ... What we want to do is make a West Liberty education available to a wide variety of students. In addition to those kinds of things, we're also looking at ways in which the expert people we have on staff who are teaching and working at the university, and bring that expertise of the hill, bring it to bear in education, in business, in medical care - we have a new physician assistant program coming up. We think that we're a place where, through the innovative sector, we can do applied research, the ability to reach out and apply the leading edge sorts of things that come about through basic research, are ones that always lag behind, we want to speed up that process. We think in doing that, we can make higher education more readily available to West Virginians and other youngsters and feed what is a very strong shortage of highly qualified personnel in West Virginia right now. I was taken aback when I was at the state Chamber of Commerce meeting and we had Fortune 500-type CEOs telling us about the thousands of job openings they had right now, and the heartbreaking thing is they're going to have to go offshore, bring in foreign students and foreign workers, many of whom were trained here in the first place, to do jobs that we're not training enough West Virginians to do even in a time of 10-plus percent unemployment. We think we can contribute to that.

-- During a recent roundtable discussion on education that involved some talk about public schools and some about higher education, you made a comment that we know how to solve most, not all, the challenges that are facing schools. If we know how to solve the challenges, why aren't we doing it?

Wallace: It's the same reason that I'm not average weight for my height. It's a behavioral choice that we make. It's the same reason that we as Americans are not as healthy as we know how to be. It's the same reason we all don't drive the speed limit all the time. There are day-to-day choices we make in our society ... that militate against all students being as good as they choose to be. Right now, about one-third of our graduating high school students go on and do excellent work. The United States, in spite of what we have to say about public education, and it's been negative ever since "A Nation in Crisis," which by the way was founded on bogus research, about a third of our kids are high flyers and can perform with anybody in the world. We lead the world in Nobel Prize laureates, and it's not even close. Our big concern is that we need to get to everybody else because we're running out of people whose educational backgrounds match up to the 21st century.

The 21st century is a very different place. Culturally, in this region ... we were told that we had a future that consisted of us selling our labor, and not much else. And that tends to persist. For years, my mother-in-law would ask me, first time I see her, 'Are you working every day? You're not laid off, are you?' The notion was we had to have a job, it wasn't a career, it wasn't a driving influence in our lives, it was a job to put bread on the table. That's why until the last 30 years or so we saw such an emphasis on the recreation industry. Thirteen-week vacations, bowling leagues, motor homes, fishing, travel and hobbies. I can remember in the '70s the big question was how could Americans productively utilize their free and recreational time. Well, we've reached the stage now where the 21st century environment says you not only have to work, you have to be able to get along with other people, you have to handle your own information technology, you need to be literate and you need to be a life-long learner, a person who creates his own knowledge from the environment. And that's what we've got to get folks to do more of. We need to spend more time, appropriate time, teaching the important things in public schools and in all schools, and we need to make sure kids are year-round learners. Right now, with the old system of education that we have, we're on the same sort of calendar that we were 150 years ago. ... The schedules are the same, the buildings are the same, we don't bolt the desks to the floor anymore even though we should. We really haven't adjusted to an environment that demands that we do more in the same or less time. The kids who do the very best are the ones who learn year-round, although our schools only run 70-75 percent of the year.

The interesting part, if you look at the research, is that from September to June, almost all kids learn about the same amount of stuff. What happens is that some of the kids, between June and the time school starts in August or September, continue to learn, and every year they get farther and farther ahead, and those two groups are on divergent trajectories and even though they both slope upwards, they never, never cross. So we need more time on task on a year-round basis, that does not mean necessarily sitting in a school building for 12 months, but it means we need to learn all the time. ... What we've done here is produced such a safety net for so many people that we don't have the imperative anymore to cause our kids to do the hard to do stuff. We'd rather let them lose with an excuse than do what it takes to win. And that's not always been the case.

The United States was in a position of technological leadership and educational leadership clear up through the last century. When I look at the engineering leadership in the world, at one time it was Oberlin College, up in northern Ohio. First aluminum ever electrolyzed was up there. And aluminum was such a hot commodity at the time I can remember reading about the royal family in Great Britian getting rid of all their silver and replacing it with aluminum, because aluminum was that valuable, that rare. ... That was all done here. The Thomas Edisons, the Alexander Graham Bells, the Ketterings of the world, we've known how to do that and we did that, and what we've done is become prosperous, fat, lax, and have not pushed all of our selves to the level that other people around the world who are a little hungrier push themselves. That's why India has the equivalent of 13 MITs. ... China is not far behind. Again, these are people who understand you have to work hard, at a quality level, day in and day out, as youngsters and adults, if you're going to get ahead.

-- You said about one-third of students will take the accelerated path to learning. What percentage of the remaining two-thirds of students does our economy need help us have a productive society?

Wallace: In my estimation, we need about two-thirds of our kids to do well. Understand this: high performance is not about innate ability, it's about hard work. One of the things we've learned from Lauren Resnick at the University of Pittsburgh ... is that we architecturally develop. When I say architecturally the curriculum, the means of doing business, etc. We know that intelligence is ... teachable, you're not born with finite intelligence. ... The harder you work the smarter you get, literally. We need at least a third more - I'd like to see all our kids - but we need at least a third more of our kids who work hard enough to do the things that let them take on the high demand situations that we now ship out to people around the world. We also need more kids in career and technical education who are serious about learning it. ... Right now, one of the things I tell students all the time, is that two-thirds of the great jobs out there only require two years worth of education beyond high school, at most. And two, those jobs are hard to ship overseas. I can't ship my plumbing work to India. I can send my X-rays over there to be read, I can send them to Australia to be read, I can't send my clogged up P-trap over there. I can't send my welding work overseas. ... That applies to a wide range of things. Two-thirds of all health care jobs ... only require a two-year degree. So, if we have young people who are willing to work hard and learn the things they have to learn to do technically driven jobs, the careers are there. The beauty of it is you can start out ankle-deep, and if you want to get better and learn more you can get knee deep, then clear up to your chin so you're immersed. You can start out as an orderly at a hospital and end up as a doctor, if you so choose.

I think it's important to understand that the choices to be good are just that. My son, who's a coach, has shirts on his ... players all the time, and those things usually say something like, 'Every day is an opportunity to get better, what's your choice?' Or 'Everybody wants to win and be successful, do you have the skill, the drive and the commitment to practice every day.'

That's where we are educationally. Our schools have never been better. We spend four times the amount per pupil today that we did 60 years ago just after World War II, yet our literacy rate has dropped from the upper 90s to about 70 percent because, again, we choose within our culture to not want our kids to do the tough stuff, at least not on a broad basis.

-- If we understand you correctly, the education infrastructure that we need for students to succeed exists, it's a matter of society using it to its fullest. Is that correct?

Wallace: That's pretty close. I don't see very many teachers - and I've hired a lot of teachers, I've worked with a lot of teachers, I've trained a lot of teachers - I see very few teachers who aren't very good at teaching. I see some who are just unbelievably capable. But they're all pretty good at what they do. What I'm seeing is increasingly large numbers of students who are not coming to school prepared to learn, whose parents don't expect them to learn, who have no behavioral standards and, when disciplinary action has to be taken involving malbehavior among students, parents turn into jailhouse lawyers and suddenly the teacher's wrong, the school district is wrong, the school board is wrong, and the next conversation they want to have involves an attorney. I can't for the life of me fathom that although I see it beyond just the academic piece of what we do. When I see smaller and smaller turnouts for athletic teams, it's because again many students and their parents would rather have them play with video games, stay home, sleep late, walk the streets or whatever else they do rather than doing what it takes to have them become a successful member of an athletics team. The same thing happens academically and we need to do something about it. And it's time we stop blaming schools. It is not schools that are the major problem. Schools can get better, sure, they can get more efficient, certainly, they can develop more options, certainly, but none of that is going to help. ... We've got to get kids thirsty enough so that they go in and learn.

It's a little bit analogous to happy hour. If you go to happy hour ... the bartender doesn't say 'I need to sell you four or five drinks to break even,' he slides you a bowl and says 'Have some free popcorn,' and puts a little salt on that ... he makes you thirsty. Our youngsters are not thirsty, they're not hungry, they're not growing up in the levels of poverty we experienced as youngsters, they all have indoor plumbing, color televisions, cell phones, $150 shoes and on and on. That's poverty in the United States. ... Kids don't have that need to succeed and escape from that. I can remember when kids escaped athletically from that in this part of the world. They didn't want to go to the mill, they didn't want to go to the coal mine, and they hoped they could get an athletic scholarship. But let me tell you: college is cheaper than it's ever been, in fact it's free to a large extent and there is no excuse for anyone to not get a higher education experience unless they absolutely don't want it. ... What we have now is a situation where there is no imperative to go. We grew up climbing a rope ladder and it was burning behind us. Now, if you can't make it, or choose not to make it, or don't even want to get out of bed and attempt to make it, it doesn't matter. Somebody is going to feed you, somebody is going to give you a place to live, a cell phone, somebody is going to take care of you, give you your health care, why do you want to get off your butt and do anything?

-- Basically, what we're looking at is that if we want to improve schools, we have to improve our outlook on education first.

Wallace: There needs to be a cultural imperative to succeed. In the late 1950s when the Sputnik era kicked in, suddenly there was a national panic, these Godless communists in the Soviet Union suddenly have leapfrogged us, they've put a satellite in orbit, and if you don't believe it you can go out and look up at night. ... What we did was a national rethink and an overnight switch, we put in something called the National Defense Education Act. Half the teachers who taught after that got their master's degrees in the sciences and mathematics through that act. We were sending kids to college to do all sorts of things. We went to science fairs. ... We know how to do these things when they reach crisis proportions, and right now we're being overhauled by much of the rest of the world not because they're smarter or not because they're better people, we're being overhauled because we have chosen not to even get out of bed and compete. We'd rather sit and watch as spectators than get out on the field, play and win. You don't have to be special to do that, you just have to have some energy and commitment to do it.

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