October 29, 2009
Big changes in K-12 education needed, speakers at UC say
By Davin White
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Savannah Coffman, a senior at Huntington High School, believes a lot of her classmates just don't care about school.
It's easy, she said, for a student to hide in the back of the classroom and just stay invisible all year -- but she thinks students might care more about learning, if given a little more one-on-one involvement with teachers.
Capital High School teacher Cynthia Phillips said teachers need the time and resources to adapt to state school officials' push for "21st-century skills."
For instance, Phillips said one day's worth of training to learn how to use an interactive "smart board" just doesn't cut it. Give her a week's worth of training in the summer, and she said she'll be ready.
"As fast as this thing is moving," she said, "we need to move much faster."
Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers, agreed that state teachers need the time and resources to get the staff training -- or professional development -- needed to keep up, but that state lawmakers have not devoted the money to make it happen.
These were a few of the ideas offered at Thursday's daylong summit on global competitiveness at the University of Charleston. The 21st Century Jobs Cabinet and the state Board of Education co-sponsored the seminar, which featured hundreds of people and nationally known speakers.
Jane Hannaway, director of the Education Policy Center for the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit economic and social-policy research center, has studied the quality of teachers at low- and high-poverty schools.
"You have [some] teachers in those high-poverty schools that are hitting it out of the ballpark," she said.
Still, high-poverty schools have a much greater variation between their best and worst teachers, while there is a much more slight variation in low-poverty schools.
She explained that parents of children at low-poverty schools often are more involved in their child's schooling, and less likely to settle for ineffective teachers.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said teachers aren't solely to blame. Parents and children also bear responsibility.
"The child has to be willing to be motivated and the parent has to be willing to push," he said.
Coffman agreed, and said she had a great experience in a parenting class at Huntington High School.
Lee also said that the United States will have a difficult time competing with countries who pick and choose who gets an education - such as China and India - if class sizes are not scaled back.
"[American students] can easily get lost in a class of 38," he said.
Bill Brock, a former U.S. senator and the co-chairman of Tough Choices or Tough Times, an initiative that grew out of a book by the same name, said the nation's education system might need changed, and teachers deserve higher salaries but must meet tougher standards.
At some universities across the country, teacher preparation programs are "cash cows" that don't produce the best and brightest, Brock said.
The state's push for innovation zones, he believes, could be one step to much-needed changes.
While limited in scope, innovation zones would allow teachers to apply new strategies in the classroom, attend school longer in the day and receive waivers from restrictive state laws. Public schools can apply to become an innovation zone, but only $500,000 is available to help get them off the ground.
"Classrooms haven't changed," Brock said. "Well, maybe they should."
Joe Graba, co-founder of the Minnesota think-tank Education Evolving, said the 19th-century agrarian system on which schools still operate is outdated, and some charter schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota operate as though they were a professional practice, which gives teachers a stake in the school's wellbeing.
"It literally changes the culture of the school," he said.
In West Virginia, John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, believes that innovation zones might be a fitting substitute to charter schools in West Virginia.
Nobody in the room Thursday had the "Rosetta Stone" to solve all the problems in education, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, but she added that, given the trust, tools and time to make things better, they will.