It's been one of the most popular topics across the board and across the Mountain State — the educational efficiency audit.
Popular in the sense that it comes up in many conversations — from dinner tables to news conferences at the statehouse. But just because stakeholders have a lot to say about the subject doesn't mean they know how they want to act in regards to the audit.
What comes first?
The 143-page audit is a massive document, and while the recommendations are divided among topics, they're not ranked or weighted to show what might be the easiest or cheapest or fastest changes to make.
The West Virginia Board of Education was openly criticized for taking its time to craft a response to the 50-some recommendations for change. The board released its formal response Nov. 21 — eleven months after the audit's findings were announced —and since then the West Virginia Department of Education has been firing out frequent news releases about the topic.
"The board is really proud of this document because it sets the stage for meaningful change in our education culture and environment which has remained stagnant for years," Board of Education President Wade Linger said in a news release. "This response is not about excuses why we can't but instead defines a clear path for student success."
The board presented its response to lawmakers Nov. 27, laying out its priorities for following the audit. Those included developing, rewarding and retaining "great" teachers; raising the quality of education; aligning with work force needs; improving learning through technology; and maximizing operational efficiencies. Linger described those bullet points as the "big rocks."
"If we're going to actually use teacher effectiveness in any kind of a meaningful way, we have to define what that is — what an effective teacher is, and how to measure it," Linger told lawmakers. "We're going to define that, and June of '13 is our self-imposed deadline to do that."
Linger also said the board wants to reward higher student achievement with whole-school incentives and also to allow more flexibility for principals to hire and fire school employees.
"Highlights featured in the audit response include re-examining seniority to place the most qualified teachers in classrooms, raising the enrollment of secondary students in career and technical programs through a middle school pipeline, supporting whole-school incentives for student achievement and conducting meaningful conversations about the sustainability of small county school systems," Linger said in a Nov. 28 news release.
Linger also said the board supports county decisions to adopt balanced, year-round school calendars.
Singing a familiar tune
West Virginia School Building Authority Executive Director Mark Manchin has seen his share of educational reforms. Not only is the SBA named frequently mentioned throughout the audit, but Manchin served in the Legislature at another time when education reform was in vogue.
"In 1988, Senate Bill 14, that was the year of education, and we created faculty senates, local school improvement councils," Manchin said. "Invariably, you talk to superintendents at the local level, and what you're hearing right now is disgust.
"There is no movement, and sometimes it takes an outside agency. The issues we're facing today, we were facing them 20, 50 years ago."
Manchin, who also spent time as superintendent in McDowell and Webster counties, said he spent several hours on the phone with Public Works LLC when it performed the audit, and he recognizes the direct correlation between the quality of facilities and the quality of instruction.
"I did question, in some instances, the number of assumptions that had to be included to find the savings," Manchin said. "But I had no grievance as it relates, generally, to the SBA an facilities in West Virginia, how we could be a little more responsive or a little more uniform in our services."
Manchin said it's become obvious to him that the size and scope of the WVDE is purely bureaucratic.
"The top-down approach is simply not going to work," he said. "You've often heard the saying that all politics is local. Well, let me tell you what else is local — education.
"Delivery has to take place at the local level."
Manchin also pointed out that the oft-cited goal of 180 days of instruction should be clearly defined, because he's seen winter days in West Virginia with a two-hour morning delay and a two-hour early dismissal with minimal instruction happening, but the day still marked as a quality day of education that counts toward the 180 requirement.
"I think you could summarize the entire audit with reducing bureaucracy at the state level, mandate 180 days of instruction and clearly define the minutes … teacher evaluation and teacher training because they're the ones who have to deliver, principal leadership — that's critical — and technology," Manchin said.
Kym Randolph, communications director for the West Virginia Education Association, said members select an agenda of things to ask at the West Virginia Legislature each year, including things to try to prevent, but constantly changing the game won't work.
"To just keep changing paths every year or two to try this path or this path or this path, quite honestly, our members believe is one of the things that have hurt education," Randolph said. "We don't stick with something long enough to see if it will work. We adopt these standards then another set of standards, and it's kind of like turning the Titanic, in a way."
Randolph said the WVEA thinks some things in the audit are "quite good," but others are "not productive."
"The one thing we've all been concerned about, and probably every group has been concerned about, has been recruitment and retention of quality teachers," she said. "The bottom line is if you pay math and science teachers more, in three years you'll have a shortage of English teachers.
"To rob Peter to pay Paul isn't the way to go about keeping quality in the classroom."
Randolph said despite the high expectations for this Legislative session to be "the year of education," it doesn't take 20 new laws to be a good or bad year for education.
"There have been years, especially as recently as Gov. (Joe) Manchin's administration, he tried to have two or three special sessions for education and couldn't get consensus on his ideas," Randolph said. "That's why I go back to proven things that work -- a consensus on whether you want charter schools or year-round schools. Those aren't something that's going to make all the students in West Virginia's test scores improve."
Randolph said it will be interesting to see what direction the state board takes, especially since she said nothing in the audit is new.
"As a matter of fact, most of the ideas have been brought up in Gov. Manchin's special session and didn't pass," she said. "There's not a whole lot of things the audit brings up that haven't been discussed in the past."
Randolph said the state should focus on the things that will draw broad support from several different groups, such as increasing the graduation rate, increasing attendance and decreasing the dropout rates.
"There are some contentious things in it that will have difficulty gaining support," she said. "Merit pay is one of the ideas that came across in there, and no place in the nation that has tried merit pay will tell you that it's worked."
Public Works President Eric Schnurer said performing the audit wasn't any more difficult than most of the work Public Works usually does, and everyone it worked with in West Virginia was "pretty enthusiastic."
"I think we'll have to see how the issue plays out now that it's really moving forward," Schnurer said. "I expect we'll be asked for our views and help further going forward."
Schnurer said Public Works has "pretty close to a 100 percent record of savings and efficiencies being implemented," but he couldn't make a guess as to how much of the audit would be adopted by the Legislature or embraced by the state Board of Education.
"I think there's a widespread recognition in the state the things that we talked about, particularly the need to invest in the state's teaching force, improving teaching, empowering principals, bringing West Virginia to the cutting edge of technology … and hopefully they will be implemented," he said.