Category Archives: Education (K-12)

More Meaningless Numbers from Virginia Educrats

bogus_numbersby James A. Bacon

In a story that generated front-page headlines, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced yesterday a “significant increase” in the number of Virginia public schools earning accreditation in 2015. The number of fully accredited schools increased by 10 percentage points to 78%.

“Offering every Virginia student a world class education in a public school is at the very foundation of our efforts to build a new Virginia economy,” the governor said. “This year’s strong progress is a reflection of the dedicated work of educators, parents and communities and a clear sign that the reforms we have put into place are working.”

“Getting challenged schools the resources they need to ensure student success is one of the most important steps we can take to improve our Commonwealth’s education system,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton. “Every school that earned full accreditation this year is another school that is better preparing its students for a lifetime of success.”

O Frabjous day! Calooh! Callay! Maybe the educational establishment has finally figured out how to turn around Virginia’s ailing public schools! Maybe there is hope for the future!

Or maybe not. The press release was honest enough to acknowledge the following: “The 2014-2015 school year was the first during which students in grades 3-8 were allowed to retake SOL tests in reading, mathematics, science and history. On average, the performance of students on expedited retakes increased pass rates by about four points on each test.”

In other words, any comparison between 2015 results and 2014 results is likening apples to oranges.

What the press release does not tell us is how many schools this adjustment pushed over the minimum accreditation level. (“Students must achieve adjusted pass rates of at least 75 percent on English reading and writing SOL tests, and of at least 70 percent on assessments in mathematics, science and history.”) Four points on a 1-100 scale is not insignificant. Moreover, that four points is an average. It is possible, indeed probable, that the “expedited retakes” proved to be a bigger factor in improving test scores for poorly performing schools, where more students needed to retake the tests, than for strong performers.

Among the crucial data not included in the press release was the number of schools that would have been accredited had the old policy remained in place. The Virginia Department of Education did not provide the data for citizens to conduct their own analysis or draw their own conclusions.

John Butcher has been illuminating VDOE statistical prestidigitations far longer than I. As he has written on his blog, Cranky’s Blog:

The moving target moves; and having moved,
Moves on:  nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to give an honest answer
Nor all thy tears wash away the bureaucrats’ obfuscation.

The manipulation of data is insulting. And who suffers the most from this statistical sleight of hand? Children, disproportionately from poor, African-American households, who are consigned to schools with no effective accountability, that’s who. Just another example of how the bureaucratic, statist status quo works to oppress poor people of color in Virginia. If you think there’s such a thing as “institutional racism” in this country, this is it.

Update: Cranky calculates the impact of other “adjustments” VDOE makes to the data for students with limited English proficiency and for students who have recently transferred into a Virginia public school. On the math tests, the adjustments had the felicitous effect of increasing the number of schools achieving the 70% pass rate from 1,519 to 1,627, or six percentage points.

Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline


The case of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an 11-year-old autistic child in Lynchburg schools, started with kicking a trash can and ended with a charge of felonious assault, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

by James A. Bacon

Amid growing national concerns about “mass incarceration,” particularly of African-Americans, a Center for Public Integrity study found in August that Virginia schools refer students to law enforcement agencies at a higher rate than schools in any other state in the country — and three times the national average. The report highlighted the case of an autistic, 11-year-old African-American student in a Lynchburg school, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who, in a series of incidents that started with kicking a trash can, wound up being charged with disorderly conduct and felony assault on a police officer.

There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States puts too many people into jail and prison, and that there has to be a better way to deal with minor crimes and misdemeanors.  There is less agreement about what that “better way” might be.

Fortunately, the federal system of the U.S. government creates a “laboratory for democracy” that allows lots of experiments at the state and local level. One such experiment for reducing the school-to-prison pipeline will take place in the City of Richmond when schools resume next year after the Christmas break. A new program called LIFE, reports Louis Llovio with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will divert students into an after-school program designed to “get them the skills needed to make better decisions.”

Richmond police arrested 149 students last year; of those arrests, 59 were for disorderly conduct for such behaviors as not sitting down in class or cussing at a teacher. In the hope of plugging the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” LIFE will be open to students committing minor offenses. Students will attend nine 90-minute sessions covering topics such as conflict resolution, drug and alcohol awareness, gangs and respect for self and others. Parents are expected to attend three of the nine classes.

Diversion programs have a mixed record, according to Llovio’s reporting — some research finds that they lead to increased recidivism. But program organizers continue to tweak them in the hope of improving outcomes, so it’s possible that the Richmond program will enjoy better results. Personally, I’m highly skeptical that 13 to 14 hours in an after-school program can do much to change a student’s behavior by the time he’s reached middle school or high school. But I’m willing to entertain the notion that if participants are chosen based on a teacher’s appraisal of their potential willingness to change, and if parents participate as well, the program might rescue a few kids from jail.

The key is to set goals and metrics by which to measure those goals. If results don’t improve, adjust the program. If they still don’t improve, shut it down.

Bacon’s bottom line. Two things worry me. First, one of the few clear public policy successes of the past two decades has been so-called “broken windows” policing, in which police crack down on seemingly minor offenses like vandalism in order to avert an escalation into major crimes. The thrust of the movement to roll back “mass incarceration” seems to go against the broken-windows philosophy. We need to be vigilant against a retrogression to the widespread public disorder of the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, we must remember the silent victims of school disorder — the majority of students whose education is disrupted by the behavior of a noisy, troublesome minority. The hand-wringing over “mass incarceration” paints criminals as the victims while ignoring the plight of their victims. While it’s true that the jailed and imprisoned population is disproportionately African-American, let us not forget that the vast majority of their victims are African-American. Affluent white Virginians living safely in their leafy suburbs have little to fear from the consequences of social experiments gone awry. Poor African-Americans have the most to lose.

So, let’s try experiments to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline, but let’s monitor them very closely and make sure they accomplish what we expect of them.

How the War on Poverty Went Awry


Edward C. Banfield

by James A. Bacon

In 1968, nearly five decades ago, Edward C. Banfield wrote a brilliant analysis of urban problems in America: “The Unheavenly City.” Today, his contributions have been all but forgotten. But they are worth resurrecting because of their prescience. While optimists proclaimed that the expansive programs of the Great Society would conquer poverty, Banfield believed the opposite. “Unless lower-class persons display an unprecedented amount of upward mobility,” he predicted, “the lower-class population of the city may grow, perhaps rather rapidly.”

Despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars on the social safety net, urban renewal and anti-poverty programs, poverty is as deeply entrenched and endemic as it was when the Great Society was put into place. Liberals and progressives say the reason is that American society simply hasn’t spent enough money. Just fund pre-K, raise the minimum wage or address the food desert, and we’ll get there. But disciples of Banfield know otherwise, for those programs fundamentally misdiagnose the problem of poverty in America.

Banfield viewed the poverty through the prism of future orientation. He divided society into four classes — upper, middle, working and poor — based upon the ability of people to envision the future, defer present gratification for future reward, and control their impulses. Those who worked for the future would be upwardly mobile; those who lived present-oriented lives would be downwardly mobile. Present-oriented people would tend to collect in the lower economic classes, earning less money. More important than their material poverty, these peoples’ lives would be marked by violence, crime, alcohol and drug addiction, child abuse and all manner of other social pathologies.

The American welfare state has done a reasonable job at ameliorating material conditions of poverty. As Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, Heritage Foundation scholars drawing upon Census Bureau data, America’s poor have access to material possessions once considered luxuries: 80% have air conditioning, 92% own a microwave, nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite TV, and half have a personal computer; 82% of poor parents reported never being hungry due to a lack of money for food; the average poor American has more living space than the typical non-poor person in Sweden, France or the United Kingdom.

What makes the lives of American poor people miserable is not material deprivation but dysfunctional behavior. As Banfield wrote, “A slum is not simply a district of low-quality housing; rather it is one in which the style of life is squalid and vicious.”

The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment. If he has any awareness of a future, it is of something fixed, fated, beyond his control: things happen to him. He does not make them happen. Impulse governs his behavior, either because he cannot discipline himself to sacrifice a present for a future satisfaction or because he has no sense of the future. He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless. His bodily needs (especially for sex) and his taste for “action” take precedence over everything else — and certainly over any work routine. He works only as he must to stay alive, and drifts from one unskilled job to another, taking no interest in the work. …

In his relations with others, he is suspicious and hostile, aggressive yet dependent. He is unable to maintain a stable relationship with a mate; commonly he does not marry. He feels no attachment to community, neighbors, or friends (he has companions, not friends), resents all authority (for example, that of policemen, social workers, teachers, landlords, employers), and is apt to think that he has been “railroaded” and to want to “get even.” He is a nonparticipant: he belongs to no voluntary organizations, has no political interests, and does not vote unless paid to do so.

The lower-class household is usually female-based. The woman who heads it is likely to have a succession of mates who contribute intermittently to its support but take little or no part in rearing the children. … The stress on “action,” risk-taking, conquest, fighting and “smartness” makes lower-class life extraordinarily violent. … In its emphasis on “action” and its utter instability, lower-class culture seems to be more attractive to men than to women.

Banfield goes on to make various predictions that that idealists and social engineers plausibly could deny at the time but seem indubitably true after five decades of failed social policy: Continue reading

Addressing the Racial Divide in School Performance

lynchburg_city_schoolsby James A. Bacon

Race is a bigger indicator of success than economic status in Lynchburg city schools, asserted Jay McClain, assistant superintendent for instruction, at a school board retreat yesterday. Even when controlling for economic disadvantage, white students show pass rates about 20 points higher than black students, he said, as reported by the Lynchburg News & Advance.

“This is really, really important information. People have often tried to use … poverty as a proxy for race, like saying the reason why there are racial differences is because of poverty, and therefore ignoring the importance of race,” school board member Regina Dolan-Sewell said. “And you’ve got the numbers right here saying … poverty matters, but race matters separate from poverty.”

“It’s not just poverty. Poverty’s huge, but this is so clear that it’s not just poverty, that…we are systemically funneling our children of color in a different direction,” said board member Jenny Poore. “You’re not guilty because you acknowledge it. … But if you don’t pay attention when you see a chart like this, then yeah, you are guilty.”

Sadly, Lynchburg is not an outlier. With a handful of minor exceptions, the phenomenon applies across the state. No one likes these statistics. All Virginians want to live in a society that gives every kid, regardless of background, a fair shot at succeeding in life. Broadly speaking, the questions are: What do we make of the racial disparity? And what do we do about it? Of the two questions, the first is the more important. Until we have an accurate diagnosis of why racial differences in school performance persist, we cannot hope to devise appropriate prescriptions.

No one disputes that performance on the Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rate at Virginia schools is heavily influenced by the socio-economic status of the families the students come from. Students from affluent backgrounds (as measured by their enrollment in free meals programs) tend to perform significantly better than their disadvantaged peers. Disadvantaged students, whose lives are in flux due to dysfunctional family situations, have an up-hill struggle for obvious reasons. But socio-economic status explains only half (in every rough terms) of the variability.

What other factors might create the racial disparity in educational performance? That’s where it gets tricky. The discussion quickly polarizes around liberal and conservative ideological views; partisan narratives trump rational debate. I will try to be as objective as I can. Here are some commonly touted explanations explaining the difference in performance between blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians:

  • Culture matters. Asian students consistently out-perform all other ethnic/racial groups, even when adjusted for socio-economic status, suggesting that something about Asian culture (the “tiger mom” phenomenon, perhaps) is the differentiating factor. Likewise, it can be argued, African-Americans have unique cultural attributes arising from a history of slavery, segregation, lingering discrimination in the post-segregation era, disproportionate exposure to the corrosive effects of the welfare state, disproportionate family breakdown, an assertion of black cultural identity, embrace of a culture of victimization, and concomitant rejection of “white” norms such as the emphasis on academic achievement.
  • Institutional racism. While overt racism has largely gone underground, residual racism and “white privilege” persist in America’s institutional structures and subtle cultural stereotypes. Differences in academic performance can be attributed to such factors, say, as the fact that African-American students are disproportionately likely to be punished for school infractions, or the fact that black youth are disproportionately likely to be arrested for victimless crimes such as drug possession. Negative stereotypes may influence even well-meaning teachers to treat African-American students differently from their white and Asian peers.
  • Better schools. A variant of the institutional racism explanation, this theory says that predominantly white schools have better principals and more seasoned teachers than predominantly African-American schools. The better teachers and administrators gravitate toward schools with students who pose fewer disciplinary problems, with the result that students of those schools benefit from superior instruction. Because those school populations are disproportionately white and Asian, those groups benefit from this trend.

The evidence is pretty persuasive that inspired teachers and administrators can make a difference. Insofar as the racial/ethnic gap in school performance can be attributed to school-related factors, improving the quality of instruction at black-majority schools is an appropriate focus of public policy. The question is how do we keep the better teachers and administrators in schools — particularly middle schools and high schools — where students are frequently disruptive, sometimes violent and often less receptive to learning? Do we pay teachers more? Do we open up the profession to less-credentialed teachers to apply? Do we weed out poor teachers more aggressively? Do we create better teaching conditions by enforcing stricter discipline and/or addressing the emotional needs of disruptive students? There are lots of theories, but nobody knows the answer. The optimum mix of policies is unlikely to come from a top-down solution devised by the educratic elite. It’s likely to bubble from the bottom-up as the result of widespread experimentation. Continue reading

Highland View: a Poor School that Works

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

by James A. Bacon

Highland View Elementary School educates children from one of the poorest districts in Bristol, a city where the poverty rate is nearly twice the state average. Poor families, mostly white, grapple with the same kinds of issues commonly associated with inner-city black families in Virginia’s urban crescent: broken families, high unemployment, alcohol and drug addiction, disorganized lives, abuse, neglect, hunger and a lack of interest in academic achievement.

Yet somehow, Highland View accomplished something that 556 other schools with large at-risk student bodies did not. Reports Jim Nolan with the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “For the first time since 2011, it earned full accreditation from the state Department of Education. More than 70 percent of its students passed the Standards of Learning exams in math, science and history, and 75 percent cleared the benchmark in English.”

How did Highland View achieve full accreditation despite a 11% cut in per-pupil spending over 10 years?

Much of the credit goes to Principal Pam Smith, who recognizes that it takes more than textbooks and teaching to help poor children. “The school is their counselor, their doctor, their nutritionist, their mother,”she said. “We’re their family.” As Nolan tells the story, Smith knows the story behind every child, whether he or she is homeless and couch surfing (sleeping on couches in different homes), is hearing disabled, is being raised by a grandparent or has a father with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Credit goes, too, to the Bristol community, which has rallied behind the school. Home Depot has given Kindergarten cubbies. O’Reilly Auto Parts chipped in $800 to fund snacks for the after-school program. The local Kiwanis Club provides free vision screening and has contributed 100 pairs of shoes. Churches donate “snack packs” for kids to take home on weekends. Families contribute second-hand clothing so the school can maintain an inventory for when children appear at school in hopeless dirty, ragged or inappropriate clothing. A not-for-profit group, Communities in Schools, works closely with the Highland View to help families obtain counseling, housing, clothing, food, school supplies and transportation from local government agencies and not-for-profits.

By providing essential needs that parents have failed to provide their children, Highland View gives its pupils a fighting chance to earn an education and become productive citizens rather than fall into the quicksand of inter-generational poverty.

Bacon’s bottom line: Highland View is a success story. It is an example to be emulated. However, the nature of poverty in America today is such that, despite the existence of food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, nutritional programs for women with infants and young children, school lunch programs, housing assistance, child welfare services, and substance abuse & mental health programs, not to mention a host of private, not-for-profit enterprises filling gaps in the social safety net, the number of dysfunctional families appears to be increasing.

The problem is not simply that families are poor and have fallen on hard times, a predicament which some manage to work their way out of. The problem is that an increasing number of families are hopelessly irresponsible and disorganized. They lack the skills to function in contemporary society. They perform so badly as parents that society increasingly has to step in and fill their role. If children suffer from dysfunctional families in elementary school, does anything change when the children move onto middle school? How often are the gains achieved at Highland View lost in later years?

As a society, we are morally compelled to try to rescue these poor children. But I have to ask, do our good intentions aggravate the problems they are meant to solve? Do we make it easier for lousy parents to be even lousier parents? There has always been poverty in America. But I fear we are unintentionally creating a generation of poor people more lacking in basic life skills than at any time in American history.

Maximizing the ROI on Investments in Human Capital

heckmanby James A. Bacon

There is a sterile quality to the debate over universal childhood education. Liberals cite studies that say that it makes sense to invest in pre-school for poor children on the grounds that it increases the odds that kids will perform better academically, thus less likely to drop out of school, more likely to get a job, and less likely to get incarcerated, saving society billions of dollars in the long run. Noting that pre-school can’t overcome the affects of dysfunctional families and lousy schools, skeptics (usually conservatives) say the positive effects fade within a few years and question whether creating another massive entitlement program will do any good.

As a society, we’re desperate to find something that helps poor children overcome the debilitating consequences not only of material poverty but an upbringing so impoverished that many don’t know their colors, numbers or ABCs by the time they enter kindergarten.

James V. Koch, professor emeritus of Old Dominion University, puts a different spin on the pre-K issue in the “State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015.” He sides with those who believe that high-quality early childhood education has a large positive benefit but proposes a funding source for pre-K that makes the idea more palatable to conservatives.

Drawing upon the work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman, Koch argues that social investment in human capital accomplishes more in a child’s early, formative development than later in life when his or her cognitive abilities have been largely set. As seen in the conceptual graph above, investing in enriching a child’s development at ages 0-3 yields a higher return than in preschool, which in turn provides a higher return than school, which in turns pays back more than job training.

Koch cites the famous Perry Preschool Project which began in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s. A $21,000 per pupil investment (in today’s dollars) yielded cumulative savings of $240,000 by age 40. Whether those results could be replicated is the subject of debate. But an even bigger problem is political. Someone is going to have to pay for universal pre-K. Middle-class parents are not likely to be thrilled about paying more in taxes so poor children can attend programs that cost two to three times what they can afford for their own children.

That political calculus could change if the funding comes from elsewhere. Writes Koch: “There is now a strong argument for shifting resources away from later-in-life job training programs and re-directing them to early childhood programs.” But that creates a political problem of its own, he concedes: Benefits from early-childhood programs take years to become manifest; the pain of training cutbacks is immediate.

Koch advances another novel argument: Early childhood education is good economic development.

One must compare these salutary results with the much less impressive outcomes that are generated by conventional businesses subsidies (usually tax incentives) that government units at all levels habitually utilize in hopes of improving their economic situations. … In general, tax incentives yield low returns for cities and counties that rely upon them, and typically yield negative returns for regions and states.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m skeptical of the whole ball of wax — early childhood intervention, government-administered job training programs, business subsidies, tax incentives, you name it. But if government has got to “do something” to reverse the pathologies and dysfunctions created by previous efforts to “do something,” then voluntary universal pre-K arguably would make a better long-run investment than jinky tax breaks and duplicative and ineffectual job training programs. Make universal pre-K spending neutral by cutting less effective programs, and I just might buy into it.

Delving into those Graduation-Rate Numbers

by James A. Bacon

Yesterday the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) issued a press release touting an improved percentage of students graduating from Virginia high schools. Local media treated the story as filler material, re-writing the press release and throwing in some stats from local school divisions. Fortunately citizens and bloggers are on top of the job, asking the tough questions. (Whether the political class pays attention to us is a different matter entirely.)

Larry Gross, an habitue of the Bacon’s Rebellion comments section, asks a pertinent question: What is the value of high school degree if a student can earn it while failing one or more SOLs?

In 2015, 90.5% of all students entering ninth grade four years before managed to graduate from high school, according to VDOE data. Those graduating students took the 8th grade SOLs in the 2010-2011 school year. The pass rates that year were 90.4% for English, 88.4% for writing, 83.2% for math and 92.3 for science. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, unless some dramatic improvement occurred during their high school years, a meaningful percentage of 2015 graduates fell short of basic math proficiency.

The numbers look even worse when we consider the revised and tougher SOL standards introduced a couple of years ago. Statewide pass rates for the current crop of 8th graders were as follows this past year: English 75.2%, writing 71.5%, math 73.5% and science 78.3%. What will it say about the value of a Virginia high school degree if more than 90% of those students succeed at graduating?

John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, argues that VDOE and local school divisions inflate the on-time graduation rate by including “modified standard diplomas” and “special diplomas.” For what it’s worth, the “standard” and “advanced studies” diplomas are the only ones recognized by the federal government for purposes of calculating graduation rates.

Some school divisions, Butcher suggests, game the system by aggressively moving poor-performing students into tracks that will earn them less rigorous “special diplomas” and “modified standard diplomas” generally reserved for children with disabilities.

Educational administrators are under intense pressure to show improved educational performance. It’s human nature to try to game the system. Citizens have to ask the tough questions that no one in the political class seems to be asking: Do the gains in graduation rates reflect gains in educational achievement or are they illusory?

Jim Weigand, another frequent contributor to the comments, ranked the graduation rates of Virginia’s school districts, as seen here. At the top of the list with the highest graduation rates: the City of Falls Church, the town of West Point, Charles City County, Page County and Clarke County. At the bottom of the list: Waynesboro, Alexandria, Danville, Dinwiddie County and Petersburg.

Take two school systems — Waynesboro and West Point. Both are small municipalities. Both are largely blue collar. And roughly one-fifth of the population of both jurisdictions consist of disadvantaged minorities (black, Hispanic, American Indian). But the graduation rate for the 2015 class of West Point students was 98.4%, while for Waynesboro it was 79.7%. What’s going on? Why does one out-perform the other by such a wide margin?

Bacon’s Rebellion — asking the tough questions so you don’t have to!

Virginians Graduating from High School Surpasses 90%

on-time_graduationMore seemingly great news from the Virginia Department of Education… Nine out of ten students who entered the ninth grade in 2011 earned a diploma within four years, and more than half graduated with an Advanced Studies Diploma, VDOE  announced today. The equally positive flip side of the coin: The drop-out rate continues to decline. The drop-out rate for the class of 2015 was 5.2%, down from 5.4% the previous year.

Folks, either we’re making great educational strides in Virginia, or Virginia’s educrats are masters of the snow job. I don’t know which, but the trends reported by VDOE are encouraging on their face and warrant digging into to see if they reflect real gains in educational achievement or simply the watering down of standards.

Here’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples’ spin on the data: “The students who graduated in May and June began high school just as the commonwealth was introducing challenging, new assessments in mathematics, English and science. That we’ve seen another rise in the graduation rate — despite a significant increase in the expectations for high school students — indicates the hard work and professional expertise of the teachers, principals and other educators in the commonwealth’s high schools are making a real difference.”

For what it’s worth, VDOE has not inflated the graduation rate by counting GEDs.

But not everyone trusts VDOE. John Butcher over at Cranky’s Blog skewers the department for abandoning the Student Growth Performance (SGP) metric in favor of a new metric, the “Progress Table.” His analysis of VDOE:  “They are stupid, or they are lying.”

I haven’t delved into the weeds enough to affirm John’s logic on this particular issue, although I’ve found his thinking to be sound in the past. As for the graduation rate statistics, they sound like good news. But I embrace the old Ronald Reagan maxim of “trust but verify.”


School Disorder and Teacher Turnover

school_disciplineby James A. Bacon

Whatever else ails Virginia’s K-12 school system, it’s not an inability to create an environment favorable to teachers, at least if you believe WalletHub’s latest statewide ranking of the Best and Worst States for Teachers. Virginia ranks 2nd in the country based upon 13 metrics ranging from cost-of-living-adjusted salaries to the percentage of public school teachers threatened with injury by students. (For details on the methodology click here.)

Why do we care? Because salaries and working conditions affect the willingness of teachers to stay in the profession. More experienced teachers tend to be more effective teachers.

WalletHub cites a 2003 study by the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy that found that one fifth of all new public-school teachers leave their positions before the end of their first year and half never last more than five. More recent research suggests that turnover is much lower. In a longitudinal study between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012, the National Center for Education Statistics concluded that only 10% of new teachers failed to return the next year, and only 17% within five years. The discrepancy may be explained by different economic conditions, which were more dire in the second study than the first. The decline in teacher turnover may reflect the lack of alternative job opportunities. Perhaps more teachers would have jumped ship if they could.

Regardless, it would be good to know the teacher turnover rate in Virginia. A 2009 annual report on the condition and needs of public schools in Virginia noted that annual teacher turnover for all teachers was slightly more than 9% percent. The figure was 10% percent for principals and assistant principals. I couldn’t find any consistent reporting of turnover numbers for Virginia, however, through searches on either Google or the Virginia Department of Education website. This would seem to be a basic metric and not especially difficult to calculate. There is no excuse for not tracking and benchmarking teacher turnover.

Whatever the overall numbers, the turnover problem does appear to be concentrated in schools serving low-income populations.

According to a 2014 WTVR report, 8% of all teachers at Martin Luther King Middle School in the City of Richmond had left by February! The TV station interviewed former teacher John Murden who had stuck it out for eight years before quitting. “I’d get so frustrated,” Burden said. “I’d put my backpack on and start to walk out. I’d get down the hallways and turn around and then go, ‘Okay, I need my job.'”

Other teachers told WTVR they couldn’t handle teaching at the school any more. The number one problem: the breakdown of discipline. “Kids were getting in trouble with lots of stuff,” said Murden. “Kids were getting in food fights with no repercussions. Students were threatening teachers and nothing would come of it.”

While teaching low-income kids is a special challenge, not all schools with low-income students have the same discipline problems. According to WTVR, the highest teacher turnover rate of any school in Chesterfield County, Davis Middle School, was 2.6%.

One possible solution, typically advocated by teacher advocacy organizations, is to pay teachers more in order to entice them to work in more challenging schools. But that won’t solve the problem of teachers quitting because they fear for their physical safety or are frustrated by the disorder that keeps them from teaching.

Enforcing order the traditional way — disciplining students — has become problematic because African-American students tend to be punished at higher rates than students of other ethnicities, which has provoked outcries of discrimination by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and oversight by the federal Department of Education. Henrico County schools have sought to revamp their disciplinary programs by creating individualized student behavior programs and devoting more resources to student support.  It will be interesting to see if such reform efforts work.

One way or the other, if we can’t restore discipline in schools, we cannot maintain environments conducive to learning or retaining teachers. If Virginia is one of the best states for teachers, I shudder to think about conditions in other states.

Inadequate Effort, Try Again

dunceJohn Butcher, who puts the cranky in Crankysblog, dissed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission for its nothing-burger draft report on “efficiency and effectiveness” of K-12 spending. The 120-page document, he says, ignored what the General Assembly asked it to do. He writes:

Of the nine recommendations, six talk about efficiency; half of the six deal with school buses; only one of the six deals with something that relates to education.  None tells us about the educational effectiveness of our school spending or how to improve it:

  1. Track teacher turnover.
  2. Provide facilities management expertise.
  3. Provide “guidance” regarding sharing information about facilities management best practices.
  4. Consider statewide contract for bus routing and monitoring software.
  5. Provide transportation management expertise.
  6. Assist with transportation management best practices.

As to virtual schooling, JLARC again avoids answering the question.  The three recommendations:

  1. Provide information about online schools.
  2. Estimate costs of online learning.
  3. Compare achievement of virtual v. physical schools

JLARC normally does better work. The advice in this “draft” isn’t bad, it just tweaks the margins. As I noted in a previous post, the last round of efficiency reviews resulted in $37.5 million in annual savings out of $15.7 billion spent, or about 0.2%. That level of savings doesn’t come close to addressing the magnitude of the issues facing our schools.

At the risk of sounding like a 5th-grade school teacher, I advise JLARC to go back, re-read the instructions, and try again.