Ashton Marra Published

Accountability, early literacy key to education success


“Excellence in Education: It’s Everyone’s Business.” Those words served as the slogan for an education summit in Charleston focused on bringing educators, administrators, business leaders and even state lawmakers together to talk about the future in education for our state. To improve that future, those groups looked to Florida to learn how the state was able to take their education system from 49 to 6 in a just over a decade.

Accountability and early literacy. Those were the two major ways former educators and policy analysts from Florida say they were able to turn the public education system in their state around.

They joined Charleston-based non-profit The Education Alliance at their first annual education summit to share strategies that may help West Virginia do the same.

“Primarily, we choose to look at them because of their success,” said Dr. Amelia Courts, President and CEO of The Education Alliance.

Courts said Florida  was chosen as a focus this year not because West Virginia should mirror their efforts, but because they started in a similar place in terms of student achievement and were able to make a change.

“They have specific data that shows how they’ve moved student achievement over the last ten years from below the national average to above the national average,” she said, “and that’s absolutely where West Virginia wants to go.”

The morning started with a strategy session focused on accountability. Florida implemented a new grading system for schools, giving them a simple A through F rating based on student achievement and other variables.

Former Assistant Deputy Commissioner at the Florida Department of Education Dr. Christy Hovanetz said by putting the new system in place and making school’s scores available to everyone, they saw a change in instruction that lead to drastic results.

“That following year, instructional practices changed so much that we had more A and B schools than we had D or F schools,” she said, “and then the following year we had twice as many A and B schools as we did in that first year.”

The West Virginia Department of Education implemented a new accountability system earlier this year with the intent to be more transparent, but it’s too soon to tell if the new system will have similar results to Florida’s.

The second major focus of the day was early literacy.

Governor Tomblin’s education reform bill, passed during the 2013 legislative session, calls for West Virginia students to meet reading proficiency levels by the third grade, a benchmark state Board of Education President Gayle Manchin said 73 percent of students in the state aren’t meeting.

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

“It starts happening when they can’t keep up. They’re not able to engage and be involved in what’s going on in the classroom.”

Cari Miller served as the Deputy Director for Just Read, Florida!, Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative. She showed summit participants decade old statistics from the state.

“Twenty-nine percent of Florida’s third grade students scored at the lowest achievement level on Florida’s statewide assessment,” Miller said.

That means ten years ago, about a third of Florida’s third graders couldn’t read. Miller said that statistic combined with leadership that understood the value of reading led the state to implement a new measure.

“And that measure was requiring students in third grade that scored at the lowest achievement level on our statewide reading assessment to be retained.”

Retained, meaning held back to repeat the third grade.

There were, however, six exemptions to being retained, including a second test, additional coaching, and many that dealt with special education or English as second language students, but Miller admits that notion was still a hard sell for parents.

“I just want to share from a teacher perspective is that although the retention seems scary for adults, it’s not as scary for kids and actually many kids have benefited from a second year because some kids just need more time,” she said.

As someone who taught under the standards, Miller said she saw her retained students’ self-esteem improve, which, in turn, improved their level of achievement. Statewide, reading scores went up and in recent years they’ve been able to continue the increase while the number of students being held back has dropped off.

Courts said these policies are just examples of things West Virginia should begin to look at as we move forward trying to increase student achievement.