Superintendent backs year-round school calendar

SOUTH CHARLESTON – How can the West Virginia Legislature and state Department of Education implement meaningful education reform in the Mountain State?

That question topped the list of issues discussed at the Associated Press’ Legislative Lookahead on Thursday. West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools James Phares, West Virginia Education Association Executive Director David Haney and Terry Wallace, a senior fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University, discussed how to improve learning outcomes during the first panel of the day: “New Directions for Public Education.”

Phares pointed to the balanced calendar model, or year-round learning, as one possible cure for the state’s ailing education system.

“The policymakers at the department level and at the legislative level need to understand that you can no longer say that learning starts in August and ends in June,” Phares said.

Phares also said he favors mastery learning, wherein students would advance grade levels based on their mastery of material.

Haney said the WVEA teachers’ union isn’t opposed to the balanced calendar model. But he said it would be “wrong” for the Legislature to mandate a year-round calendar for every school system in the state.

Phares said he wasn’t suggesting a state-mandated balanced calendar model. Instead, communities would be urged to consider the possibility.

Wallace said creating a culture of year-round learning, rather than instituting year-round school, is key.

“Adding days to the calendar in and of itself, if you don’t change anything else, is not a solution,” Wallace remarked. “We need to make sure that we are getting the most out of what we already have before we look at a balanced calendar and year-round school.”

Wallace called the state department of education’s curriculum “too broad and too shallow.”

“No student should be able to get out of the fourth grade without being able to read well enough to learn,” he said.

A couple hours later, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said one of the goals of his educational agenda is to ensure that every child masters reading by the end of third grade.

Wallace agreed with Phares on the concept of mastery learning, saying he disagreed with making “young Einsteins sit in high school until they’re 18 years old.” The state education system should move students based on competency and achievement, rather than age and “seat time,” he said.

“That means kids are going to be leaving high school at 15 or 16 years old, and we’ve got other kids who need to stay in the oven longer before they’re baked all the way through,” Wallace added.

All three panelists told moderator John McCabe, managing editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, they believe the stigma surrounding vocational education needs to be broken down – and that more collaboration between high school and college instructors could bolster the success of students who go on to earn four-year degrees.

McCabe said 40 percent of high school graduates in the state are required to take remedial math or English courses once they reach college.

“We need to look at education as an integrated entity,” Wallace said. “In West Virginia, we tend to see pre-K through 12th grade – then stop – college – then stop. One of the reasons that students aren’t prepared is because we don’t work hard at making sure everyone knows what’s expected at the next step, next step, next step.”

Phares agreed that college professors and high school instructors need to amp up their communication.

Haney said two problems stunting the state’s education system are a lack of respect for teachers and rampant absenteeism. He said the reason West Virginia is experiencing a shortage of certified teachers is because it’s ranked 49th in the nation when it comes to teachers’ salaries.

And Phares introduced a concept he dubbed “ABT-squared.”

“I call (the truancy problem) ‘ain’t been taught because they ain’t been there,'” the superintendent said. “You can apply it to truancy, and you can also apply it to calendars.”