West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, recently wrote a piece in the Gazette-Mail which discussed the educational results from the National Assessment for Education Progress exams. Carmichael lamented over the educational data of West Virginia, claiming our low ranking on NAEP scores justifies educational reform.
Teachers do not make excuses, but we do offer explanations for the current NAEP scores. Sen. Carmichael correctly identified that West Virginia’s students scored lower than almost all other states. The data cited, however, does not tell the entire story.
The states which scored in comparison to West Virginia include Kentucky, New Mexico, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. These states share another significant statistic — they all rank in the top 10 states for poverty. No responsible public official can claim that educational achievement and poverty rates are not correlated. A large body of research exists which backs this assertion. Studies also suggest that the longer a student lives in poverty, their achievement levels continually decline.
Sen. Carmichael also failed to mention that while NAEP scores did decrease, the poverty level in West Virginia continues to rise, currently at a staggering 19.1 percent. The level of poverty in our state has translated into more than 10,000 homeless children in our schools. How can any child focus on learning in these circumstances? Can any of us claim we could do our jobs when we have no place to call home or face uncertainty about if we would eat that night?
Moreover, the number of children who are being raised by their grandparents shocks the conscience. More than 22,000 of our students live in a home with no parent present. Many of the grandparents raising their children are retired and do so on a fixed income. Our children and our senior citizens cannot cope.
West Virginia’s test scores are a symptom of a much larger problem. While the lowest NAEP scores trended with the highest poverty rates, the opposite is also true. States with lower rates of poverty saw their students score much higher on these standardized tests. This correlation does not mean our students cannot achieve, or that we should not continue to work diligently to improve levels of achievement for our students.
Unfortunately, the GOP leadership in West Virginia would prefer to paint public education as a problem rather than an agent of change which daily educates, protects and provides for the children of this state.
Sen. Carmichael does not wish to hear excuses about education, and ironically, when confronted with the increasing level of poverty, he and the GOP desperately cling to the same tired trope of blaming Democrats. They attempt to use repetition of phrases and buzz words, with the hopes that the state will buy into their rhetoric.
While the Senate GOP leaders politicize education, I am baffled by the senator’s implication that teachers do not engage in soul-searching on a daily basis. Does he or anyone in the state Legislature think we do not internalize the problems and struggles of our students?
Public school employees remain open to reform which will help our students, but we reject the idea of changing for the sake of changing. We welcome productive discussion from any government official, but Sen. Carmichael nor any of his Senate GOP colleagues have sought us out. They did, however, seek out-of-state groups who dumped a piece of “model” legislation on the state when most of our citizens expressed they had no desire for this bill.
The senator noted that he believed West Virginia’s students and teachers are as gifted as they are anywhere else. If Carmichael really believes this, then what does he think is to blame for low NAEP scores? What educational practice can he specifically point to which would move the needle in terms of student achievement?
The first step in crafting a better education system must be to reduce poverty. This is not an excuse. It is a reality which impedes the academic growth of children.