No Excuse

Educators and public officials in West Virginia are often too willing to use poverty as an excuse for poor performance by our students. The most recent report in which West Virginia performed miserably was a national assessment in which students sampled from 13 states were compared. Mountain State high school seniors placed dead last in reading, and were tied with Tennessee students as worst in math.

Immediately, the excuses began to fly. Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, cried that it is important to keep in mind the state’s low socio-economic status, and that “We need to focus on students’ social and emotional issues, as well as their academic needs.”

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, claimed “All educators will tell you that the poverty level will have a direct reflection on the test scores.”

Nonsense. If there was a direct correlation, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, D.C., would all routinely perform more poorly than West Virginia in meeting academic standards. They all have higher poverty rates than our state does. (For the record, Arkansas was among the 13 states sampled for this particular report; and, Tennessee’s poverty rate is lower than West Virginia’s.)

Campbell’s assertion that teachers’ jobs are to focus on students’ social and emotional issues, with academic needs mentioned as an aforethought, is particularly galling.

Yes, educating students whose families are struggling financially can be more challenging than teaching children from more financially secure homes. Generations ago, teachers in one-room school houses filled with farm children, understood the difficulties of their task, and found ways to do their jobs well, anyway, without throwing up their hands in defeat.

West Virginia has never been a rich state, nor is it likely to become one. Teachers in this state will see classrooms in which more than 15 percent of their students are living below the poverty line. Using those children as an excuse for unacceptable performance is unconscionable, and must end.