Teachers in West Virginia, who a year ago started a wave of strikes by educators in mostly Republican-led states, just voted to authorize a new strike if a bill in the state legislature that they say is retaliatory becomes law.
On Feb. 22, 2018, more than 22,000 teachers in the state walked off the job, closing schools in every county for the first time in nearly 30 years. That launched what became known as the #RedForEd movement that spread to states including Oklahoma and Arizona.
Tired of low pay — West Virginia ranked near the bottom of the states in teacher salary — and working in underfunded schools, the teachers stayed out for nearly two weeks, ultimately winning a 5 percent pay raise (less than they had sought) but no relief on health-care costs.
In recent weeks, the state legislature has been working on a bill that teachers believe is retaliatory. An early version would, among other things, link teacher raises and funding for the health-care system for state employees to things such as increasing class sizes, denying pay during future strikes, support for charter schools, and a program to use public money for private and religious-school education.
Leaders from West Virginia’s education unions announced that members from across the state had overwhelmingly voted to authorize a new statewide labor action should it be deemed necessary. The vote came nearly a year after the teachers first authorized a strike in 2018.
While one House committee voted to strip the bill of some of its most contentious provisions, teachers are worried about the final product.
Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia arm of the American Federation of Teachers, was quoted by the Charleston Gazette-Mail as saying: “It feels like deja vu in some way. We would like a little reprieve here. We’re tired of being attacked the way we have been by [the legislature].”
The piece below explains what’s at stake for teachers in West Virginia. It is the testimony that one teacher wrote to deliver to the legislature, though she wasn’t given enough time to say it all.
Joanna Burt-Kinderman has been a math teacher and an educator of teachers for nearly 20 years. She has taught middle, high school and community college math, and pre-service teachers math education coursework.
In her role as the district math coach for Pocahontas County Schools in rural West Virginia, Burt-Kinderman has helped a K-12 math department become one of the best in the state. Her embedded professional development approach treats teachers as educators, learners and reflective evaluators.
She is also a founding design member of the FIRST2 Network, an initiative to broaden participation of rural first-generation college students in science, technology, engineering and math programs of study. Burt-Kinderman has been named a “Leader to Learn From” for 2019 by the editorial board of Education Week. You can follow her at @Ms_JBK and read her mathematical musings at problematizingmathteaching.com.
Here’s what she had planned to say to lawmakers:
Legislators of West Virginia,
I have watched hours of hearings from out-of-state speculators on education policy changes for our state. I was given only 70 seconds Monday morning to say what I had to say. I failed, so I’m grateful for anyone willing to hear me out, and echo these sentiments loudly enough that our legislators might hear us.
This is what I meant to say:
We’re all here today because we agree that our future as a state is dependent on great schools for our kids. It’s urgent. We have to do better.
I’m Joanna Burt-Kinderman, Pocahontas County High School class of ’94. I moved back home to raise my girls, ages 9 and 11, and dedicate myself to making math teaching better in our state. Our team has seen rapid improvement, been studied by the U.S. Department of Education, and commended by Education Week’s editorial board, who have named me a “Leader to Learn From for 2019.”
When I coach teachers, I ask them to carefully define the problem they want to solve, to understand the most likely ways to solve it, analyze the potential impacts and drawbacks, then pick an approach that *the teacher* is moved to work on.
Like teachers, you are trying to solve a problem. You want better student outcomes. Thank you for slowing down to ask what might most likely help solve this problem, and how changes might affect the whole system.
One of the best predictors of student outcomes is parent income. This is real. The best thing you can do to help improve test scores in our state is to move urgently to create a diverse economy that has great jobs for our parents.
It is not an excuse to say that one of the best predictors of student outcomes is parent income. There are examples all across our state of outliers doing head and shoulders above the rest, against the odds. In Pocahontas County, we are leaders in our Career and Tech, with regular national championships in forestry; we are leading the way in robotics, and pioneering new methods of improving math instruction.
But when outcomes are different across the state, we don’t investigate success — only failure. You don’t fund finding and scaling what does work. Focused on failure, you throw extra rules — dictating minutes and days and forms in triplicate.
Now, in the most extreme example I’ve ever seen, you are debating risking it all, setting up and funding an entire parallel system to accelerate failure, creating some kids who are winners and some who aren’t. You are actually laying a path to de-fund already-taxed systems, systems that are working against the odds and that show hopeful signs of some progress.
We have a long way to go, but we are beating the odds. West Virginia schools are leading the way nationally in early grades teaching students in poverty. West Virginia ranked fourth and second nationally in fourth-grade for educational achievement in math and reading for kids eligible for free- and reduced-priced lunch.
These days, teachers aren’t sharing their favorite lessons in the hallway. Conversation is taken over with strategizing and hand-wringing about how to better educate ourselves on the political process and how to better educate you on how schools really work.
So here’s my short lesson.
My county is the third largest but least-populated in the state. Many residents are on fixed incomes, we can’t pass a levy, and we are one of those systems that already gets funded for 1,400 [a method of funding unique to West Virginia]. We have many kids who ride the bus well over two hours a day, more than a full day weekly. Forty-five days a year on the bus.
If just 10 percent of our kids could take funding with them [to schools not in a district], the loss to children in our system would be devastating. Due to the incredible amount of mandate in your state code, we won’t have the choice to save our most promising practices.
What would go for my girls? Anything not mandated. Calculus. No art or music for elementary students, no new classes like engineering, no sports. We’d likely have to consolidate schools further, leaving more children spending more of their lives on buses each year, with fewer enrichment opportunities once they get there.
Our system as a whole isn’t good enough, but there are pockets of innovative solutions — great ideas and practices all across our state that lie isolated from one another. That’s low hanging fruit — let’s connect and learn from what we do best. Thank you for restoring innovation zone funding. This allows schools to try out new ideas.
Please ensure that we have funding to scale innovation: to identify what is working in our state and learn from it across the state. Consider an adequacy study: Is our funding formula equitable? Are all kids in West Virginia getting the same chance at a quality education?
As you do the urgent work of making things better, make sure you understand all the implications to the kids in Pocahontas County and across our state. If you need help, I’m at your service, on call, and you can find me in your inbox.