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Friday, September 22, 2017

Wyoming surrenders to education mediocrity

Using the plan submitted to the feds, Cowboy State leaders will create a school system that won't produce the grads needed to compete in a modern economy. This state's students need champions, not a leaders who are faint of heart.

“We have to have an educated workforce. It is absolutely critical.” -- University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols regarding the ENDOW Advisory Council, a statewide group responsible for investigating ways to diversify Wyoming's economy.

By D. Reed Eckhardt

The above comment from UW's president might seem obvious. Wyoming cannot succeed in the modern, high-tech and global economy without educated workers who can handle its challenges.

The demand for ranch hands, oilfield workers, and coal miners is headed only in one direction -- down. Meanwhile, companies seeking smart employees who can
handle state-of-the-art tasks and can pivot to meet the needs of a rapidly changing economic environment will move to the forefront. If they don't find those workers here in Wyoming, they are going to locate elsewhere along the Front Range.

So please explain why this state's leaders -- its governor, its superintendent of public instruction, its Legislature -- continue to ask so little of their schools and the students who sit in their classrooms every day? 

It is unfortunate that the image, if only in the minds of many residents, is that Wyoming's public schools are excellent. Because there are no data to back that up. For example, the most recent Quality Counts report ranked the state's academic quality as a C-minus. And ACT scores show that just 33 percent of this state's high school graduates are college-ready in math, 38 percent in reading.

Given that, one might think that Wyoming's leaders are showing great distress about the quality of their schools. That they might be making a concerted effort to strive for excellence.

Think again.

Consider just one example: the goals contained in the recent plan submitted by State Superintendent Jillian Balow (and signed by Gov. Matt Mead) to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, also know as ESSA. According to the report, within 15 years -- that's right, 15 years -- the state hopes to have its third- to eighth-graders 59 percent proficient in math and 65 percent in reading. And those numbers drop to 46 percent and 39 percent, respectively, for high school graduates.

Please, doesn't anyone see what this means? That in 15 years, six of 10 Wyoming high school grads still will not be proficient in reading and more than half won't be able to do math at an acceptable level? These are not just low bars for success; they are criminally shallow. And they make you wonder where the schools are now if they are going to be at these levels in a decade and a half.

Here's the dirty truth: The Cowboy State has settled for educational mediocrity for far too long. If that continues, there will never be the kind of workforce that UW's Nichols (and others, including Mead)  envisions and which Wyoming will need to compete for jobs and to meet its forever goal of diversifying its workforce.

Say what you will about the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which preceded ESSA, but at least its sponsors understood the importance of setting that bar high. It was impossible, of course, to prepare every student in every school for success. But at least the sponsors' hearts were in the right place: They focused on education excellence. Wyoming's leaders, with their ESSA proposal, are surrendering before the fight even has begun. It is an acceptance of mediocrity. This state's children, parents, and taxpayers deserve better than this.

Here's hoping that next year's elections produce two things: A governor and state superintendent who champion education excellence and who will accept nothing less; and a plan to make that happen. Wyoming may not need a No Child Left Behind Act, but it must have a will, a mindset and a strategic blueprint to prepare itself and its young people for the future. It is time to stop talking about creating an educated workforce to diversify the economy and do something about it. The status quo -- as reflected by the state ESSA plan -- is not going to get that job done.

D. Reed Eckhardt is the former executive editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. He has been writing about education issues in the state for almost two decades.

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