CHARLESTON — In its final report from public forums on education, the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) found increasing teachers’ compensation, more wraparound services, incentives and addressing the math teacher shortage were among the top priorities.
The results came from numerous public forums conducted across the state over the last couple months, after Gov. Jim Justice called for a special session on education. The session is supposed to take place sometime this summer.
Eight forums were conducted, and WVDE officials reported 1,630 people attended. Approximately 90 legislators attended, and approximately 40 percent of attendees identified as parents and community members.
According to the WVDE report, due to a large response on certain topics, the top priorities for improving education include the following:
• Provide a pay raise to all school employees
According to the report, West Virginia teachers rank 49th in the nation in teacher pay, and 77 percent of family and community members indicated during the forums, “increased teachers’ salaries” as a worthwhile investment.
• Increase funding for social emotional supports with local flexibility
Nearly 100 percent of participants agreed with the need for additional student support personnel.
• Incentivize high-performing schools by providing additional flexibility
Eighty percent of participants support increased flexibility from certain rules, regulations and policies.
• Fund a supplement to strengthen teachers’ skills in shortage areas with an initial focus on math
Student math achievement has been a concern for several decades and research affirms content-focused professional learning is a powerful vehicle for promoting student learning.
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The report also took a deeper dive into other topics, including instructional quality, which is often defined as, “the key to increasing student achievement.”
Under instructional quality, those who attended the forums discussed topics of more teacher leaders, more teacher preparation programs, a need for math teachers/county-level salary supplements, reduction in force (RIF) decisions and class sizes.
“Teacher Leaders” were defined at the forums as creating positions with increased coaching responsibilities and higher pay, but lighter teaching loads. According to the report, nearly six in 10 (58 percent) principals surveyed on the Educator Voice Survey indicated a need for support in instructional coaching.
“While participants see potential benefits for this idea, they have concerns about how it would be implemented, especially considering the existing lack of teachers with specific endorsements,” the report stated. “While seven in 10 (69 percent) of 568 comment card respondents supported the idea of teacher leaders, only half of survey respondents viewed the proposal as a worthwhile investment of tax dollars.”
The WVDE recommended supporting districts and schools interested in creating teacher leader positions to obtain waivers and identify funding.
“Teacher Preparation Programs” were defined at the forums as reforming programs at colleges and universities to better prepare teachers to enter the classroom. Nine in 10 (89 percent) of the 574 comment card respondents supported changes to teacher preparation, and eight in 10 (79 percent) “Education Survey for Family and Community” respondents saw it as a good use of tax dollars, putting it fourth out of 20 proposals.
One recommendation for fulfilling this need was to fund service scholarships for teacher preparation students who fill program and content shortages and commit to work in West Virginia for three to five years.
“Math Teachers/County-Level Salary Supplements” were defined at the forums as providing support, both financial and otherwise, to teachers pursuing coursework to become certified in shortage areas and allowing counties to provide increased compensation to attract certified teachers into hard-to-fill positions.
According to the report, most participants viewed proposals for supplemental pay by subject to be divisive. Participants said this proposal would lead to resentment among teachers, and lead to a concern that it would create shortages in other subject areas if teachers transfer to earn the incentive.
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The report also highlighted school choice and innovation, exploring topics of innovation zone expansion, expanding preschool, open enrollment, public charter schools, and education savings accounts (ESAs).
“Innovation Zone Expansion” was defined at the forums as allowing schools and districts freedom from specific rules and regulations for increasing student achievement. The goal of this initiative was to foster testing grounds for innovative reform strategies to enhance student learning and increase accountability.
A large majority of forum participants were in favor of the expansion of Innovation Zones and most agreed that schools need to implement new practices to improve student outcomes. The 687 forum comment card respondents in this category also overwhelmingly supported the expansion of Innovation Zones, with 79 percent strongly or somewhat agreeing.
According to the final report, participants suggested existing restrictions in state code and state board policy limit such innovation. Results from the “West Virginia Educator Voice Survey” suggest county school districts have a key role to play in expanding innovation.
“While the vast majority of teachers (86 percent) feel they have autonomy over instructional decisions, half of principals do not feel actively involved in district-level decision making,” the report stated. “Furthermore, a majority (55 percent) do not think central offices have streamlined procedures to allow them to focus on instructional tasks.”
The WVDE recommended two points in regards to innovation zones — simplifying the statutory process for schools and districts to obtain flexibility under the Innovation Zone Act, and changing policy to reduce Innovation Zones application process, required documentation and reliance on grant funding.
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Nearly 88 percent of respondents were opposed to the formation of public charter schools.
The report stated, “The information collected surrounding the authorization of public charter schools in West Virginia was diverse and passionate. Most participants reported opposition to the creation of charter schools in West Virginia while simultaneously reporting a strong desire to be free from state and local rules and regulations.”
Specifically, there was concern West Virginia’s population density in rural areas of the state would struggle to support charter schools, particularly when some counties are struggling to support their current public schools.
If charter schools are authorized, the WVDE offered numerous recommendations on how to handle it:
• Place oversight/authorization responsibility with the West Virginia Board of Education and local boards of education.
• Prohibit for-profit schools and management companies, and virtual charter schools.
• Report Balanced Scorecard results for charter schools.
• Require use of random lottery for oversubscribed schools to ensure open access to all students.
• Require public charter schools to provide services to students with disabilities, English language learners and other high-needs students.
• Develop minimum level of qualifications for charter school educators.
• Evaluate successes of pilot charter schools for potential extension of the same flexibilities to traditional public schools.
“Education Savings Accounts” (ESAs) were defined at the forums as providing funding to parents to use to educate their students in a nonpublic school setting. ESAs are state-funded accounts that parents can use to pay for a variety of educational services outside the public-school system.
According to the report, 88 percent of 695 comment card respondents disagreed with this proposal. Only 1 percent of educators ranked it in their top three proposals.
“Participants voiced concerns that ESAs would divert money from public education. Some attendees echoed unease that such an option would be misused or abused, and there would be less accountability for those receiving funds through ESAs,” the report stated. “Many participants stated that irresponsible parents could spend money on things unrelated to education and enroll their student in public school mid-year.”
The WVDE’s recommendations for ESAs was, “Do not implement ESAs due to public concerns over fraud, lack of accountability and concentration of benefits to higher-income families.”
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Finally, social emotional support was the largest topic of discussion at the public forums, where more than four in 10 (44 percent) parents reported they see depression or other mental health problems as “somewhat of a problem” or “a big problem” in their children’s schools.
The perspective of students is even more grim, WVDE officials reported. Four in 10 (39 percent) student survey respondents witness these issues daily in their schools. Meanwhile, a majority of student respondents witness a lack of respect for teachers (52 percent) and classroom disruptions (59 percent) on a daily basis.
Those who attended the forums discussed Communities in Schools, increased student support personnel and trauma training for teachers.
WVDE officials recommended the following on the subject:
• Increase funding to districts for social emotional supports, but do not earmark funding for specific personnel or specific programs. Allow districts and schools to take responsibility for how they spend this funding to best fit their local needs.
• Continue to expand Communities In Schools throughout West Virginia and explore ways for cross-agency collaboration in providing social emotional and wraparound services to students and families.
• Provide requested social emotional training and support to professional and service personnel through the WVDE’s mental health initiative, ReClaim WV, and similar initiatives.
• Collaborate with higher education to incorporate additional training around social emotional learning and support into teacher preparation programs.
To read the full report, visit wvde.us/edvoices.