Editor's note: Across America, nearly 25 percent of all children do not finish high school. One of the organizations working to address that problem is the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education. Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance, sat down to discuss his time leading the state and, more importantly, his current work in education.
* You left the governor's mansion in 2005. What has been keeping Bob Wise busy over the past seven-eight years?
Wise: Two weeks later, I started here at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C. It's been non-stop ever since. Our mission is that every child graduates from high school, ready for college and a career. We're a national organization promoting national reform, national policies. It's about trying to transform America's high schools into what they ought to be, and making sure that every child is able to reach their full potential.
What I like about it is it's a never-ending campaign. I'm traveling constantly, I'm stumping for something I believe in passionately. ... The important thing is it's about a cause, and it's about improving education for young people. It's not a personal campaign, and that really makes a difference. As someone pointed out to me once, 'Hey, they're never running negative ads against you.' ... One thing that really strikes me is that wherever I go, and particularly when I first came to Washington seven and one-half years ago, I'm running into West Virginians who are distinguishing themselves in education. Obviously someone like (former Gov.) Gaston Caperton, who just retired after a long career on the College Board. One of the first people I met in town who runs an organization here was Betty Hale, whose mother was a teacher in Williamson in West Virginia. Betty was a teacher before she came here. ... There also is a gentleman here who is one of the nation's experts in assessments and testing. I've worked with him for many years, and one day we started talking. I started at Charleston High School and finished at George Washington in Charleston, he was going to Stonewall Jackson High School across town at the same time.
When I was 16, I lost my first race for governor at Boy's State. And I lost to a guy who had a slogan - this is 1965 - that 'Education is the only passport from poverty.' He was right then, and he's right today. I've always remembered that. That's why I think that so many West Virginians do end up in education, because they understand how important it is, not only to themselves, but in making sure that the state and our children move forward.
* This month, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe celebrated its global operations center's 10-year anniversary in Wheeling. Ralph Baxter, Orrick's CEO, heaped plenty of praise on you for making that deal happen. What do you recall about that deal and the Cabela's deal, and where do they rank in importance during your time as governor?
Wise: I think they were incredibly important. What I appreciate about Ralph (is he) was a son of West Virginia. Here is somebody who I think left the state at 11, always had in the back of his mind that he wanted to do something to help the state, and here 40 years later he comes back and he takes a chance, because no other major law firm - and Orrick is one of the largest law firms in the world - no other major law firm had ever consolidated their operations into one center, as he was proposing, and particularly away from their headquarters. Ralph put that operation in Wheeling, W.Va. It was an incredible commitment and foresight.
It was important for us as a state to be able to help do it. If we could get Orrick, if we could get that operation which was technology based, it would truly show that West Virginia workers could interact literally with the world, because they're working with offices in Tokyo, in London to San Francisco to New York. If it could work, then it's a powerful message to the rest of the country about West Virginia.
The Cabela's deal was critical for us to, because what that forced us to do was to develop new means of financing. I spent some time in Kansas and some other states looking at ways they financed operations that we weren't using - tax revenue bonds, for instance. We had to get some measures before the Legislature, and I appreciate that now-Gov. Tomblin helped a great deal on that. ... Some didn't want to go down this road because what we were going to do, is we were going to give up tax revenue for some time. ... Most people now recognize Cabela's has been the kind of investment you want to get.
We thought we might get our tax revenue back in 10 years (through tax increment financing measures). ... I think it was about four. And then you look at all the construction that's taken place there. My son and I went hunting in West Virginia in November for deer season. Of course our first stop was at Cabela's. I was really struck by how much development has taken place since (Cabela's) opened. ... Both Orrick and Cabela's were strong messages about first of all how we as a state need to be more flexible in terms of our economic development initiatives, and second, we could put deals together and we could attract some of the most important kinds of businesses. ...
* On to education and your work at the Alliance for Excellent Education. Year after year, we in West Virginia are told public schools are getting better. But our students continue to lag behind national averages on a variety of measurements. What gives?
Wise: I think the schools are getting better, but what's happening - and this is a national phenomenon, I might add - is other nations are getting better much faster. The result is that where we used to be second in the world amongst developed nations, we're now 13th in high school graduation rates. We're 15th where we used to be second in post-secondary completion. I think our teachers are working harder than ever before ... but there's a problem: they're working in an old model. Before I left office I found my father's 1965 Chevrolet convertible. I brought it back and put a lot of money into ... getting it up and running again. When I got it up and running it could do everything it could in 1965: it could run up the West Virginia Turnpike at 60 mph, it had no environmental control equipment, it had no computerization, it didn't even have cupholders. The moral is that I put a lot of effort into making an old model run (like it did before). But if I had gotten a new car ... the outside would look the same, but the inside would be totally different. That's what needs to be happening in education. It's transforming our schools and how quickly we can do that.
As I look at the West Virginia (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores, yes, they haven't shown the increase that we'd like. I will say to West Virginia's benefit is that it's reporting its proficiency much more honestly. In other states, what I've observed is the usual gap between what a state's test show a child is proficient at and what NAEP shows is somewhere around 39 points. In West Virginia, it's about 24 points. At least West Virginia is looking in the mirror and being honest, and when you do that then you know the extent of the task you have to take on.
... I see gains West Virginia has made, and steps it has taken - adoption of the Common Core Standards is critical, West Virginia was one of the first states to be involved. ... In fact, at the time of the adoption, the main organization that led that effort was the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national association of state superintendents, and it was (former state Superintendent of Schools) Steve Paine who led that. Lowell Johnson, a member of the state board of education, was leading the national association of state boards of education at the time of adoption, just Just like Gayle Manchin is now leading that same organization. West Virginians have played a prominent role, both in-state and out-of-state, in some of the major educational reforms that have taken place in this country in the past few years.
* How do we address the gap between students from socio-economic backgrounds conducive to academic excellence and those not as favorable?
Wise: You have to understand how important it is that everybody succeeds, both from the moral ... and the economic standpoint, then double-down on what are the interventions necessary to help those children succeed. It can be done. That's part of what my organization does, it finds examples just like you're talking about, where there should be every indicator of failure. High poverty rates, a large percentage of students without English as their native language, and yet they're ... succeeding. So it's important to make sure you believe ... that every child can succeed regardless of their circumstances. That doesn't make light of the challenges that they bring to the school, but you've got to have that high expectation. And once you have that high expectation, you set the interventions that are necessary to help that child succeed. Do they need extra time tutoring? What's happening both in school and after school.
What we have found ... is that there are some elements that are critical. First of all, in every school, regardless of the income status, every student has to have a direct relationship with at least one adult in that building. Not just the daily encounter with the teacher in the classroom with 25 other students, but that there's an adult watching out for that student, who's monitoring and checking in with that student. ... So as soon as that student begins to get off track - sudden absenteeism, sudden discipline problems, beginning to fail in class - you intervene immediately. And it's not just one teacher noticing, it's a total package. ... What we find in a lot of cases is the problem is literacy, particularly in secondary schools, middle and high schools. That's when kids start to fall off ... starting in the sixth grade. What we find is that simply because a child was proficient in reading in third or fourth grade, when they hit middle and high school doesn't mean they're automatically proficient then. ... Until about 10 years ago in this country, we missed something. I missed it too. We thought if you taught a child to read by the third of fourth grade and they were reading well, they could just take if from there. We didn't appreciate fully in this country that reading skills and needs change as the child moves up in grade level. When you get to high school, your reading need is not simply to read off the printed page, but it's to take three paragraphs and to be able to understand and to synthesize, it's to be able to form a conclusion, for me to be able to interpret it and communicate it back to you. That's a totally different skill than just learning to read, and yet we didn't teach students how to do that.
Incidentally, I can look at any school's eighth grade NAEP score in reading, and look at the lowest group which is two to three grades below grade level, and tell you within 1 to 2 percentage points what your dropout rate is. All of which is to say that there are children in large numbers ... from low-income with a lot of things against them but we have to have the same expectations for them. And when you have the same expectations you also have to be willing to develop the support and strategies necessary. And I'm not talking about just blindly throwing money at the problem, that's not the answer. In fact, I urge people to not spend another dollar until you've developed a clear strategy for how you're going to improve student outcome.
* We recently reported that nearly 70 percent of all 9th graders do not read at their grade level. What impact is that having on high school dropout rates?
Wise: There's a reason that 65 percent of all dropouts take place in theninth and 10th grade. (Students) are in the eighth grade, and remember, they're reading two to three grade levels below their level, so they get to ninth grade and now they're encountering even more complex material. Many of them will fail. It gets known as the 'ninth-grade parking lot,' because you have ninth-graders who should be 10th-graders, so they've repeated ninth grade, now they move on to 10th grade, if they haven't dropped out already, they're running into the same problem and say the heck with it. No child just wakes up one morning and just ... decides to drop out. It is a process that builds up over many years and you can see it set in as early as fifth and sixth grade, and that's when we need to intervene. ...
* For children to succeed, parents need to play a major role in education. Are parents filling that role in today's education system?
Wise: You obviously want parental involvement. ... What I've found in the last seven years is that ... what seems to be basic common sense is also borne out in data. The importance of doing the research is that you can make it much more institutional. ... I say that because the data is real clear: the child that is read to from birth ... comes into school with a vocabulary that is two to three times greater than the child that is not read to. So parents have a major role. And in terms of encouragement, is a parent encouraging their child every step along the way, and is a parent encouraging and saying, 'High school is important, but you're going to have to go on and get some type of post-secondary work. It doesn't have to be four years of college, but you're going to have to keep learning after high school.' Parental involvement is vitally important.
Having said that, I often hear 'well, if the parents aren't going to be involved, there's not much we can do.' No, that's not actually the case. I'm sorry if the parents aren't involved, I want them involved, we should do everything possible, but that child comes to us as they are, and we have to understand that and do everything we can to make sure that child has a positive learning experience. We have to do that for two reasons: one, I happen to believe that's what God means for us to do, to help children, but the other part is we have to do it for our own self interest. One day, that child is either going to be helping us in our community or is going to be a drag. It's in everybody's interest - incidentally, there's another figure that's not often recognized, is that, according to Gallup, only about 30 percent of the American public has direct contact with the public school system. ... That means 70 percent of us aren't. Part of my job is showing the 70 percent why it is what happens in that high school 10 miles away, where they don't have a child, directly affects their life. It affects them economically, it affects them many other ways.
* Though West Virginia doesn't have big urban areas, many other states do. Often, it seems schools in big cities aren't doing as good a job as those in less densely populated areas. Why is this and what can be done about it?
Wise: Large urban areas tend to have large urban problems. I think during the '50s and '60s, and even the '70s, folks who could got to the suburbs. ... Big cities tend to have higher poverty rates, big cities tend to be where immigrants go to, there have been a host of reasons. By the same token, big cities have draw people for opportunity. Washington, D.C., is a good example, as is Denver and Atlanta. They import education. If you look at the dropout rates in some of our major urban areas, Detroit being the most glaring, you see a high dropout rate but you may also see one of the highest populations of four-year college degrees in the country. The thing is, they weren't generated there. Denver recruited somebody who graduated from WVU, or Marshall, to come work there. The challenge for metropolitan areas is to actually be able to grow your own.
On the other hand, what we're seeing is the problems in school are pretty much in uniform. There are a lot of suburban schools where I think folks think they're doing pretty well, but when you take a look at the data, it shows those schools need improving just like the schools downtown.
... What I didn't realize until I got into this job ... We over-reported in West Virginia for years. Every state did, every state had its own way of calculating. As I recall, we were showing at the time I left office and still today 84-85 percent (graduation rate). The Department of Education says 77 percent and an independent report ... is somewhere around 72 percent. So around 75 percent, which is the national average. In the 1960s and '70s, you could have those kinds of dropout rates and those students could still get decent paying jobs. They could go work in the steel mills, chemical plants, you could go work in the mines - you could get a decent paying job without a high school diploma. ... Today, I couldn't get into any one of those professions without some kind of post-secondary work. As one coal mine operator said to me after he had just hired 148 new miners, 'Wise, if you think I'm letting somebody go a mile underground with a half-million dollar piece of very technical equipment without post-secondary, you're crazy.' That's the difference today. It's what I call where the Bible and the billfold have joined up. The Biblical, the moral imperative says that every child should have a good education. But there's an economic imperative now. It used to be that we could ignore those kids, they'd either get a good-paying job or they'd disappear. Today we need them desperately in the work force. Sixty percent of all jobs today require post secondary. When I graduated from high school 75 percent of all jobs were filled by high school diploma or less. ... The reality is nobody can afford a 20 or 30 percent dropout rate.
* You spoke earlier about schools changing to better meet student's needs. What is the formula today for having a successful school?
Wise: We need to recognize that we can't keep doing education the same way. ... We've got teachers who are working very hard and are very able ... but the fact is they're working in a model that is not satisfactory any more.
The other thing is to recognize that student's learning needs are much greater today. We talk alot about learner-centered, and what that means is that it's important a student learns the core content knowledge, but ask any employer what they need ... (and they will say) we not only need a kid who knows content material, but we also need them to be able to think creatively, to think critically, to be able to communicate with one another, to collaborate and to be self-reflective. ... This is what perhaps we expected 10 percent of our students to develop as they went through the process for the last 100 years, and that was fine, they'd be the CEOs, the innovators. But now, in any workplace, you need that kind of innovation. ... Where I woke up in a cold sweat one time about four years ago, I realized we can't get there from here. We keep delivering education in the same way, we're not going to be able to make it. Constrained state budgets, rising standards, we simply won't be able to make it. That's why it's important to have a collaborative process, to recognize that the teacher and the principal are the bedrock of all this, that doesn't change. What does change is what it is they're doing, and what it is you're asking them to do and what kind of support you're giving them. That's one reason we've become so involved here at the Alliance in how do you use technology effectively to help educators. It can be giving a teacher a data system so that he or she doesn't have to be putting marks in a book every day, but instead has immediate feedback because now a student is working with a software package that gives the teacher immediate feedback on how well they're doing. ... If you're not able to deliver a course in your school because you don't have a certified teacher, what about online where you have a teacher in the classroom who's helping to facilitate students.
... A major project of ours over the next two years is encouraging every school district to go through a process to define first of all what are your learning goals for students, and what are your major challenges? Then here are the three 'T's' you have to address. You have to address teaching, what do we want teaching to look like and how do we want teachers involved and what support will they get. No. 2, how do we use time differently. We have a calendar that's based upon the Agrarian calendar, we have a 6 1/2 hour school day when learning is a 24/7 experience, and finally the major change in time is we grade kids partially based on how long they sit in the seat - 180 days during the year. ... Now that we have the technology, let's let students demonstrate their competency in a subject, and when they're ready to move on, whether its 90 days, 120 days, they move on. Same teacher, same classroom, but now they're advancing ... and that teacher can now spend time with a child who needs help.
The third T is technology. What is the appropriate technology for the situation you're trying to address. In Wheeling, where connectivity is pretty good, you may want to look at every child gets a laptop or an iPad. ... If you're in McDowell County, (connectivity) is a real problem, so you don't have the same approach. What I don't want is this: I don't want anybody spending the first dollar on technology until they have a strategy in place that looks at the teaching, that looks at how they're going to use time differently, and then looks at technology.
* You mentioned earlier only about 30 percent of the general public is involved in the education process. Do you believe most Americans have the will to do what it will take to ensure U.S. schools and our students can compete on a world stage?
Wise: I believe it does when it's informed. That's where I fault all of our candidates, particularly at the federal level, although education is essentially a state and local area. It's one thing to say you're for education and then move on, but neither Romney nor Obama clearly make the link is yes, we ought to be talking about the economy, but recognize this economy has changed drastically in just the last 20 years. And the way it's changed is it's an information-based economy. Right now you have about 3 million jobs that are going unfilled - they're there, but we don't have the proper skills. And these aren't Ph.D. jobs - these are two-year associate of arts or less. ... My job in this campaign is to help build that public will. I think yes, we can. The country has responded so many times before - times of war, times of crisis, and I do believe this is a crisis - it is about recognizing that every child has to do well if our economy is going to do well.