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Education summit stresses every child has the ability to learn

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What is the cornerstone to improving education?

At the Education Alliance's education summit titled "Excellence in Education: It's Everyone's Business," the echoing answer by speakers and presenters was accountability and early literacy, along with the belief that every child has the ability to learn.

On Nov. 5 at the Charleston Civic Center, the Education Alliance, in collaboration with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, explored several present and future initiatives and endeavors undertaken in the areas of accountability and early literacy to improve the educational quality for those living in the Mountain State.

Importance of accountability

"I bet nobody in the room would disagree with the idea that we need to be accountable as a state and as individual participants for the outcomes of our education process," Ralph Baxter, chairman emeritus, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, said. "Almost everyone would agree that we need to set standards. We need to set goals. We need to measure how we're doing in pursuit of those goals."

To shed light on where the Mountain State is in regard to accountability and the roles of the different governing bodies was Lloyd G. Jackson II, member of West Virginia State Board of Education and a former state senator.

According to Jackson, it is the job of the legislature to create a "thorough and efficient" school system, generally put under the state's supervision, with the educational board operating in a state of "ebb and flow."

"Some boards are more active than others," he said. "Some want to be engaged more than others."

Due to a shifting educational philosophy toward a standards-based accountability model with an emphasis on performance and process standards and assessments, changes in educational presentation and new initiatives have emerged in the Mountain State.

The Office of Education Performance Audits reviews compliance with process standards. 

Capacity building, Common Core, assessments as an addition to student performance and the soon-to-come Smarter Balance Test are some of the changes Jackson highlighted. 

While success merits recognition and award, continued failure requires improvement, even to the point of intervention, Jackson said. 

"Schools are asked to improve," he said. "They are asked to provide improvement plans."

Jackson said schools are given classifications from approval to non-approval.  Not only are schools reviewed annually, but counties as well.

"Occasionally we've had to take over counties in West Virginia," he said. "We're not pleased that we have to do that and certainly don't want to see that continue."

With the passage of Senate Bill 359, accreditation now rests, in most part, with the board of education.

A public communications strategy, fairly assessing students, measuring their performance, identifying areas that need improvement, holding the appropriate person or entity accountable and teacher development are all part of the accountability system, Jackson said.

"West Virginia is on the cusp of dong a lot of things," he said. "The way in which we'll do them, we'll see. We hope West Virginia can move forward in these areas. 

"The thing is to hear what other people tell us, help educate us on what we can do better, do it the West Virginia way and improve student performance in West Virginia the way it needs to be done."

Key in moving forward

According to Gayle Manchin, president of West Virginia State Board of Education, early literacy is key in moving educational progress forward, and third grade is a critical marker of later school and life success.

Seven out of 10, or 70 percent of West Virginia students are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, and 58 percent are currently economically challenged, she said.

"We know if you're not reading well by the end of third grade, where you are supposed to be learning to read, as you progress through school where you are supposed to be reading to learn, you're not going to be able to," Manchin said. "We know that children start dropping out of school way before they turn 16. 

"It starts happening when they can't keep up, when they're not able to engage and be a part of what is going on in the classroom."

Tomblin made reading on grade level by third grade a key part of Senate Bill 359.

"I truly believe it is essential for our children to learn to read, then love to read, so they may read to learn," Tomblin said. "By focusing on reading early on, we provide our students the skills to excel at other subjects such as math and science, both of which are essential in our growing economy."

Promoting reading proficiency by third grade consists of three things, Manchin said.

"We have to start early," she said. "Language and literacy skills begin at birth."

Literacy means having the ability to use language proficiently, understanding vocabulary and acquiring concept development in order to use reading and speaking skills to solve problems, analyze and work as a team. 

"Maybe the most important tool of all, we have to empower others," Manchin said. "It is important that we help them to understand how they can best support the young learner's language and literacy development in addition to the teachers in the classroom."

Another key factor is empowering students and making them feel that they are part of the process.

Within the Department of Education is an advisory committee overseeing the comprehensive approach to early learning.

"The committee, in collaboration with state and national early childhood education leaders, is committed to closing the West Virginia literacy achievement gap," Manchin said.

To help close those gaps are transition plans that will follow students through their education.

"When that 4-year-old Pre-K student enters kindergarten, what goes with him is a transition plan for that kindergarten teacher, analyzing and saying exactly where that 4-year-old is," Manchin said. "So, that kindergarten student goes into the first grade with another transition plan. 

"That should continue through the student's education so that every teacher, upon receiving that student, knows exactly where that student is in terms of literacy and other things that we are monitoring and testing as the child goes through."

While it is critical children are reading proficiently by third grade, Manchin said reading into high school and beyond is just as important.

"Students have to learn to start reading textbooks and how to analyze and comprehend the information," she said.

Dissecting information, research and learning how to critique research is all part of literacy skills and evidence that reading never ends. 

Hope for changes

Important in moving education forward is adopting language and literacy standards and curricula that work; adopting successful research-based programs, working with national experts and engaging family, community and parents as partners.

"I'm a great believer in collectively, we can do so much more than we can individually," Manchin said.

Also important is continuing to offer professional support and creating a comprehensive professional development system to equip teachers with the skills and knowledge in the area of early learning.

"The accountability piece, the reading literacy by the end of third grade, they are so closely intersected because both of those have to happen if we truly are going to improve the literacy achievement of our children," Manchin said.

Jackson said peer on-site reviews are also a priority. While some schools have gone without for more than 10 years, Jackson said the upgraded ideal process would include a review every four years.

"Certainly we want to have a new grading system for our schools in West Virginia," he said. "We want a system that's much more transparent, easier for the public to understand and that accurately reflects the progress of our schools in West Virginia."

Where the future lies

Providing incentives and awards, with the ability to translate those into financial awards, is another goal in the transformational educational process.

"It is no secret our state's future lies in the hands of our children," Tomblin said. "If we are to prepare them to be successful, we must provide them with the knowledge and skills needed to enable them to compete. 

"We must make education our number one priority, ensuring our children have the opportunity to develop a strong foundation needed for life-time learning."

"Education is the foundation for building a secure life." 

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