WHEELING - The state's education system appears to be headed for a major makeover this year, as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has signaled that education reform would be the key component during this year's legislative session.
During his State of the State speech earlier this month, Tomblin cited the Education Efficiency Audit that points out while West Virginia spends more on public education than many other states - nearly $2 billion annually, or 46 percent of the general revenues - student performance is at or near the bottom in every measure.
"Education in West Virginia must change, and that change begins now," the governor vowed.
Tomblin declared as unacceptable the state's 78 percent high school graduation rate, and the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress rankings that put West Virginia below average in 21 of 24 categories.
To reach his third-grader reading goal, Tomblin is enlisting the state Board of Education to make sure all elementary school teachers have that specific training, wants to require all 55 counties to offer full-day preschool within three years, and supports the nonprofit Benedum Foundation's efforts in this area.
The governor also is urging a look at the school calendar. The school calendar proposal aims to help counties meet the 180-day target for instruction by making better use of 12 days set aside for other purposes.
Tomblin said state students only averaged 170 days of instructional time last year. While praising the year-round calendar adopted by a handful of schools - including schools in Cameron - and advocated by the state board, Tomblin said he will not mandate any particular plan.
The education measures would also pay for the state's nearly 700 qualifying teachers to renew their National Board Certification every 10 years, require updated programing at all vocational schools and harness technology to improve individual student learning through such efforts as the national Project 24 campaign led by former Gov. Bob Wise.
Citing the audit's description of a top-heavy education bureaucracy and rigid rules, Tomblin wants teacher training shifted to counties, principals and teachers given a greater voice in hiring, and seniority given less weight.
But the governor also cited how the state's student population has dropped 26 percent over the last three decades.
"I believe the community, especially parents, should always have access to locally elected officials who oversee their schools," he said. "But that does not mean we can and should provide all the current administrative overhead to each of our 55 county school boards."
Earlier this month, James Phares, superintendent of West Virgina's schools, told a group of journalists that the calendar is a big concern for his office.
"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.
Local education expert Terry Wallace, senior fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University, 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.
Wallace agrees 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.
Phares also noted that college professors and high school instructors need to communicate better.