The politics of school reform

In some of the most important aspects of public school reform in West Virginia, baby steps may have to be the way we proceed. Frankly, I’m not certain some Mountain State residents are ready for what needs to happen.

During his State of the State speech, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin dropped some hints about what may happen in the not-too-distant future.

Kids who can’t read well can’t learn much, obviously. “If a child cannot read at grade level by the end of the third grade, bad things happen,” the governor noted. It shows as they grow older: “Thirty-five percent of children in poverty who aren’t strong readers by the end of third grade do not graduate on time,” Tomblin explained.

What do we do about that? Tomblin’s prescription will help. He wants to ensure every new elementary school teacher has good training in how to teach reading.

Tomblin also wants to get more children involved in early childhood education – beginning as early as birth. For the first few years, clearly, education is up to parents or guardians. But so-called “pre-K” programs exist in West Virginia – and have been very effective in some Northern Panhandle counties.

Within three years, Tomblin wants every school district to be required to offer full-day preschool programs for 4-year-olds. That will be a giant step forward.

But there’s still the matter of accountability, and I don’t mean just from teachers. Parents – all of them, not just those already inclined to take education seriously – need to be gotten on board.

Tomblin is right to stress the third grade as a cut-off for reading skills. But Ohio takes an important additional step, the so-called third-grade reading guarantee. We need to think about it in West Virginia.

In Ohio, if a third-grader is not reading at an appropriate level, he or she can be held back a year so those skills can be developed. If Johnny can’t read, Johnny doesn’t go on to fourth grade with the rest of his class.

No one has suggested that be done here, probably because of the outcry from thousands of moms and dads if their children are held back a year. Perhaps it needs to happen, though.

For a few years, Ohio did something else Mountain State legislators should consider. It was the Ohio Graduation Test, sometimes referred to as the proficiency test. Beginning in their sophomore years, high school students took the test (actually five examinations in important subjects). With some exceptions, students had to pass the OGT before they could receive high school diplomas.

Virtually no one seemed to like the OGT and, as a result, it is being scrapped. State Department of Education officials are trying to come up with a replacement.

But some form of competency-based criterion for high school graduation is needed. Otherwise, we’re going to continue handing meaningless diplomas to too many youngsters.

No doubt West Virginia education leaders saw what happened to the OGT. Again, political pressure killed it. Perhaps that’s why Tomblin is suggesting baby steps on reading, rather than a system like Ohio’s “guarantee.” It’s still new. Will Buckeye State officials stick with it after several thousand parents raise the roof because their children didn’t get promoted to the fourth grade?

We say we want education reform in West Virginia. But do we, really?

Ask a few teachers and principals who have had to take abuse from moms and dads whose sons and daughters have been given Fs. Almost invariably in such cases, it must be the school’s fault, the educators are told. The possibility that little Johnny isn’t really trying – or even more unacceptable, that mom and dad aren’t helping – isn’t even considered.

So do state legislators have the intestinal fortitude to match increased quality from schools with accountability from students and parents?

We’ll see. If not, we may improve schools – but we won’t be doing real education reform.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at