The State Of W.Va. Schools According To State Superintendent

Oct 16, 2019

Steven Paine, Ed.D., West Virginia's State Superintendent of Schools.
Credit West Virginia Department of Education

Steven Paine, Ed.D., currently serves as West Virginia’s state superintendent for the second time in his career. He was the 25th state superintendent of schools from 2005 – 2011 and took up the post again in March of 2017 to become the 31st superintendent. He’s now also considered the longest serving state superintendent of schools in the country.

He recently sat down with West Virginia Public Broadcasting to discuss the state of education in the Mountain State.

Three Things to Celebrate: Student Achievement, Career and Technical Education, and Graduation Rates

Paine said he’s pleased with an increased focus on student achievement and that there are promising indications in state testing that achievement is improving in English language skills, including reading, and in math.

He’s also pleased with the state of career and technical education in public schools these days. 

“We are creating pathways for our students,” Paine said, “sometimes as early as elementary school -- that kids can emerge prepared for some kind of an occupation. I think that the economy not only in West Virginia but our region and throughout our country is dictating that a different level and type of preparation needs to occur in order to be successful in today’s world.”

Paine also said ongoing efforts focused on improving graduation rates are paying off, citing that West Virginia is in the top five states in the nation in terms of numbers of students who are able to graduate. 

“There are those that want to say that, ‘Well, that’s because they’re lowering their requirements for college remediation.’ That’s not the case. In fact, in the past two or three years our number of kids who have required remediation have gone down. So, we feel good about the fact that we’re keeping kids in school, and giving them purpose, and doing everything that we can.”

Three Concerns: Student Well-being, Student and Teacher Absenteeism

Paine said a stark lack of student well-being today is highest on his list of concerns. He said he didn’t see the distress in classrooms he sees today when he was first superintendent of school in 2005 – 2011.

“Just really troublesome when we have homeless kids,” he said, “or when we have foster kids who are running away from their foster care environments, when we see an exponential spike of kids born with [Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome]. Those are real issues for us right now.”

Paine said he’s never seen so many students coming to school without a single, caring adult in their life. 

“How is it now that the schools need to assume that role -- to align adult, caring mentors to each and every kid who needs help.”

Paine pointed to a program called Community in Schools which seeks to do just that. The program was piloted in Greenbrier County and received funding through the state legislature to expand to 11 more counties in the state this year. 

“100 percent of the kids that enter that program… graduate. We’ve very optimistic that it can be expanded. But nevertheless, the well-being of children really does keep me up at night.”

Paine is also disturbed by rates of absent students and teachers.

“We have a lot of kids who are missing a lot of school. We have a lot of teachers that are missing a lot of school as well. I understand that teaching is hard, but it appears that the absence rates are reflecting more than that and that bothers me a whole lot.”

Paine added that fewer and fewer kids want to become teachers. That growing void, he said, is exacerbating existing shortages across the state and is compounded by harsh health and well-being realities in classrooms that not many people are willing to tackle.

“It’s difficult. It’s a very stressful job. And I deeply appreciate those that enter the teaching profession. They should be paid more than anybody in the country. It’s the most noble of all professions. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens even though the governor has secured a 10 percent increase, and the legislature -- which I’m strongly in support of.”

Paine also added that he believes a barrage of negative associations about the state’s public education system over the last several years made in political arenas has made the profession even less appealing to would-be teachers. 

“I think it’s time for us to say, ‘Okay, we all agree we can improve. Let’s figure out how to do this together in tandem and in cooperation and collaboration with one another so that we can reach a turning point and start bolstering and improving the public education system.”

Board: Each year, it seems like test scores indicate that the education system in West Virginia is not as effective as other states. But some educators say if you compare West Virginia to other rural poor state, we're actually doing pretty well, despite challenges we face. How do you look at test scores? Which scores are you looking at? And what did they tell you that you about our overall system?

Paine: At the end of my tenure as superintendent, the first go around, I served on the governing board of the National Assessment Governing Board for the NAEP assessment, which captures a lot of attention when scores come out. It is not intended to be a test where you do state rankings -- that's not at all a valid use of the test -- yet many groups do that. 

So, if you do subscribe to state rankings on the NAEP test, in elementary school and grades for in reading and mathematics, we're approximately ranked 36th through 38th in the country. As one of our department staff likes to say, we're out punching our weight class, so to speak, because when you consider the strongest determinant external to the school that affects student achievement, it's mother's education level, closely followed by the father's, closely followed by poverty. 

And when you look at those numbers, our adults are unfortunately the most poorly educated general population of any state in the country. We have fewer adults with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees than any state in the country. 

So, if you if you follow the logic, you would assume that we'd be ranked 49th or 50th in student achievement, and we’re not. So, it indicates that we're outperforming our mean per capita income level, our educational levels of adults, but it's still not good enough. 

And then the other interesting discussion is that the U.S. Department of Education does in fact require us to have a statewide, what we call Summative Assessments. It typically is the course or the assessment at the end of the year that we give to all students in grades three through eight, and then in West Virginia in grade 11. And that's the assessment that I indicated we've seen some slight improvement. We have a long way to go. But we're really homing in and working hard on mathematics and we expect to see some improvement over the next couple of years. It's a five-year initiative, and we're excited to see what kind of progress we might realize there. 

I'm not a real subscriber of standardized tests to judge the quality of a system -- at all. And I formally worked with a national organization that consisted of major companies. They don't really subscribe to standardized test score results to dictate and be predictive of the kinds of skills that they need in employees. 

They want kids that can critically think, and problem solve. They want kids that are creative that can communicate in oral and written form, and who most importantly -- and this is really interesting to me -- who are collaborators, who know how to work with others, and know how to work well and productively. 

In addition, they need some academic skill level to be attained. But 92 percent of our businesses say that skill level in mathematics only consists of a good solid understanding of what we would term Algebra I.

Now the minute that we start referring to reducing the level of mathematics attainment by course in West Virginia, critics come forward and say, ‘You're not teaching trig anymore?! You're not requiring kids to go through statistics?!’ And statistics might be a very important course today in terms of data analysis and application of big data, but some of that content today appears to not be nearly as important to business and industry as it once was.

Board: Last year, it was reported that there were some 700 teacher vacancies throughout the state -- although finding the actual number is tricky. Where are we this year with teacher shortages and how does the State cope with those?

Paine: I think a lot of the issue with teacher shortage is creating a common language. Those 700 vacancies aren't true vacancies. They aren't empty classrooms. They're vacancies where we don't have certified teachers in those classrooms. In most cases, we're actually to the point of looking for mature adults who will man those classrooms and then obtain certification once they get there.

I am deeply appreciative of adults that man those classrooms that may not have been trained professionally to be math teachers. But the fact of the matter is, they're teaching a content area that they have not had the opportunity, in most cases to be fully trained in. So, we have created some online courses for teachers -- not only in secondary schools, we have about approximately 60 teachers who have signed up for the courses. And they’re basically crash courses and Algebra I and Geometry where they can obtain content as quickly and as responsibly as we can possibly provide it so that they can go back and offer higher quality instruction to our kids.

Board: Regarding absenteeism, it’s been reported that 38 percent of schools aren't meeting attendance standards. And what do we know about how teacher absenteeism? 

Paine: Starting with students -- it was extremely troubling when the data came in for what we call our Balanced Scorecard. It's the accountability mechanism that were required to report out by the federal government. And whereas we went up in almost all the other indicators, that was an area where we declined. And why it's troubling is that we made that a priority in our districts and our schools. I thought we made that a priority. And yet performance levels went down. 

We're analyzing as to why that occurred. But nevertheless, the numbers are deplorable. And there's no other way to say it. And is the school responsible for that? You could say yes, in part, but the problem is that parents or guardians or somebody needs to get up in the morning to get their kids prepared for school, and to get them to school and make sure that they go to school.  Period.

Board: We know that parents need to get their kids in to school, but doesn't it also reflect that school environments aren't a place that kids want to be? If kids wanted to be there, wouldn't that help?

Paine: It's a fair point. 

If we make school an attractive and inviting place, if instruction in every classroom engages kids actively... Let's face it, our kids grow up in a very digital world right now. The stimuli that affects our kids today requires almost a song and dance by a classroom teacher who is well trained, who can compete with the with the kind of stimuli that kids go through with their iPhones or their smartphones or computers or their digital worlds today. 

So, it's a challenge. It's a tremendous challenge. 

And yes, I think there's an obligation on behalf of all of our teachers, our administrators, myself, our Department of Ed, local boards of education to make sure that we're delivering the kind of education that is enticing and attracts kids. 

Having said that, I can't tell you how proud I am of the numerous classrooms and schools that do in fact make school a very warm and inviting place. We have teachers that can deeply about their kids. And so if we could just figure out a way for the successful 80 percent of our schools, for all of that secret formula, if you will, over are their strategies to be captured by those that aren't doing so right now, we would be very well served. 

We've called on district administrators and local boards of education to step up their role. We don't educate these kids; we don't manage their schools from Charleston. We do a lot of policy; we provide support. And we've been challenged by the governor and the legislature to allow for much more local flexibility. 

My mantra is clearly this: local flexibility brings robust accountability. So, if they have the flexibility, now it's time to step up and show the responsibility and the accountability for performance in the schools. 

And so that means that [the Department of Education] going to have to step up be very, very supportive. We may have to alter the way that we monitor the situation and deal with the consequences for those that are chronic offenders that can't meet any kind of a responsible standard with attendance. 

And that that goes for teachers, too. A 93 percent attendance rate for teachers to me is abysmal.

Board: How have you made absenteeism a priority? What policies have been implemented?

Paine: We thought we'd take the approach to encourage and point out the problem through exposing the data and trusting our local administrators, our principals, our local boards of education, and our teachers to really step up the effort to get kids to come to school, working with their parents and their communities. It hasn't worked. And so, we are not going to go through this school year without addressing some mechanism and policy for enforcement of attendance laws and attendance performance.

Board: What are your biggest concerns or interests going forward since the lawmakers passed education reform legislation this summer?

Paine: I want to applaud the legislature for providing $30.5 million to address what we call the social, emotional, mental health needs of our children. And we've identified some of that already in terms of kids that come from opioid addiction backgrounds or or perhaps addictions themselves. Recently, DHHR has talked about the number of runaway foster care children -- it's a major problem -- and the exponential rise with the neonatal abstinence syndrome children, and the implications that they're growing up and entering our school systems. 

This money can be spent by our districts in a very flexible manner. We provided them with guidelines to say, take that money and spend it very wisely by analyzing your data in your school districts and in your schools, and figuring out how to best utilize that money to support the needs of those kids.

Board: Have you heard from county boards of education, or superintendents who are considering charter school options at this point?

Paine: We've done some work in discussing with broad representation from stakeholders, both pro-charter and against. We spent a lot of time asking -- because the state board needs to develop a policy around charter schools -- what their thoughts and their ideas are around the issue. We invited some superintendents and boards where we suspected there could be a request for charter schools to come forward from local boards of education and I have not heard one yet that is really interested in moving forward with a charter school concept. 

It's a little bit still early and there may be those that wait for the state board policy to be developed – and we will be fast-tracking that within the next six months to get out there. I've talked to one district superintendent where there had been some interest, but they basically have said that they're interested in the innovation that sometimes is used as a reason to do a charter school, but they're not interested in starting a charter school. 

That was a very, very divisive issue. And if I thought that charter schools were the absolute solution to improving student achievement in our state for all of our students, I would have jumped behind it, but I've just simply read too much research and too much behind the whole notion of charter schools. There are some that work, there are some that don't work. They reflect basically what happens in every one of our schools.

Board: Are there goals or legislation that you would like to see going forward into our next legislative session?

Paine: I'm looking forward to no legislation right now, quite frankly. We've had enough. We need to get our feet underneath us. We need to implement in good faith and with good fidelity of implementation, and maybe give us a chance to do that implementation without distraction, where we don't have to go through proposed walkouts or controversial issues such as charter schools or savings accounts or whatever it might be right. And let us just get about the business of educating our children to the best of our ability.