Two markers yesterday from the never-ending debate over K-12 education:
- The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued a report on efficiency and effectiveness of Virginia’s K-12 spending. The main finding: Virginia school divisions spent 7% less per student in FY 2014 than they did in FY 2005. Schools scrimped by employing fewer teachers per student, limiting teacher salary growth and requiring teachers to pay a higher percentage of health insurance and retirement benefit costs. Cutting spending, the authors implied, was a bad thing. “There is support in the research literature,” they wrote, “that such reductions can negatively impact instructional effectiveness.”
- The XQ Institute published a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal announcing a contest to award $50 million to five teams willing to re-think and build the high school of the future. “In the last 100 years, our nation has radically transformed. We’ve gone from a Model T to a Tesla, and a switchboard to a smartphone. But our schools have stayed frozen in time. … Let’s create a place that builds brains and stirs hearts and treats our nation’s students like a most valuable national resource. A place that explores a new kind of intelligence, the kind of thinking that’s challenging, creative, and endlessly relevant.” (Read more about the XS Super School project here.)
Virginia schools, like most across the country, remain captive to the idea that the quality of education is commensurate with the level of inputs — teachers, support staff, facilities — into the system. Given the rigid, rules-driven nature of the system we have built in Virginia, there may be some truth to that view, although I cannot help noting that the Department of Education has been crowing recently about how Virginia high school students have been exhibiting gains in SAT and ACT college-preparedness scores over the past five years, so spending cuts need not necessarily lead to deleterious results.
One of the mandates in the JLARC report was to examine Virginia’s experience with online learning. The report’s conclusions were limited: Online learning does cost less than educating a child in a physical school but there is a problem with students not completing their courses. Perhaps the most disturbing conclusion is that it is difficult to evaluate online education because Virginia’s school system captures little relevant data:
There is currently no reliable statewide information comparing the performance of similar students at virtual and physical schools. There is also no accurate statewide method to estimate how much funding the state should provide for virtual learning.
Compare that to the approach advocated by XQ Schools: Super School teams will self-assemble, immerse themselves in the leading thinking and research, investigate how students learn what they need to learn, and build a school from scratch based upon those principles. Technology is part of the equation but only a part. States the website: “Teaching has to be innovative, and this doesn’t just mean bringing new technologies or the hottest theoretical approach into the classroom. … Successful schools build a culture of performance, in which everyone is accountable for student success and use information to assess progress, flag problem areas, and identify opportunities and solutions.”
I would nominate Craig Larson, an associate professor in math at Virginia Commonwealth University, to organize one of those super teams. He penned an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch urging a more data-driven approach to deciding what works and what doesn’t in Virginia schools.
The City of Richmond’s new school superintendent, Larson writes, has introduced an Academic Improvement Plan that did not appear to be based upon any research. “With a $271 million annual budget, RPS should be doing more substantial research. And this research should show up in … reports; it should be discussed by School Board members; and it should make it to the paper and the news, and be discussed by interested citizens.”
It’s not enough to have good intentions, says Larson. Virginians need a cultural change. “We need to expect our school leaders to have this knowledge. We need to ask them for data at every School Board meeting. … We should expect to read about ideas based on data every time we read the paper.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia can follow one of two paths. We can continue teaching the same way we have for decades, only spending more money to do so, or we can encourage innovation, experimentation and data-driven analysis of results to achieve radical gains in efficiency and effectiveness.
Virginia is playing small ball. According to the JLARC report, school efficiency reviews have been conducted for 43 school divisions, yielding 3,300 recommendations and $37.5 million in annual savings. That’s out of $15.7 billion spent, or about two-tenths of one percent. Tweaking maintenance practices for school buses may be laudatory and worthwhile, but it’s not going to change students’ readiness for the world that awaits.
We need to think bigger, think more creatively and be more rigorous in our analysis of what works.There are currently no comments highlighted.