Category Archives: Education (K-12)

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.


Beyond Money and Good Intentions — K-12 Needs Data-Driven Innovation

jlarc_schoolsby James A. Bacon

Two markers yesterday from the never-ending debate over K-12 education:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.

Building the Ed-Tech Research Network


by James A. Bacon

K-12 schools and higher ed institutions across the United States are expected to spend a combined $11.3 billion on education technology in 2015. So many new products are flooding the educational marketplace that educators are finding it difficult to make informed decisions about which to use. To address this challenge, the Jefferson Education Accelerator (JEA) is partnering with American Institutes for Research (AIR) to expand JEA’s network of experts and researchers.

JEA, an initiative of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, launched in February as an educational accelerator/incubator. Its big value-add is a nationwide network of K-12 schools and colleges that provide efficacy studies of new products and services. Washington, D.C.-based AIR uses social science research to gain insights into education, health and the workforce. Among the issues it has addressed recently: what and how summer schoolers learn, school discipline reform, and early childhood education quality ratings.

“AIR brings a breadth and depth of experience in research, evaluation, and technical assistance that we believe will complement the Curry School expertise and support the objectives of JEA,” said Bart Epstein, founding CEO of the accelerator.

Last month Reston-based Echo 360, developer of a learning platform, joined as JEA’s first customer. For an undisclosed sum, JEA will help the Steve Case-funded technology company conduct research and scale its operations.  “Our review of its internal data shows strong evidence of significant impact on student engagement and outcomes,” Epstein said in a press release.

“We know that traditional lectures present a significant challenge for institutions grappling with completion rates and student engagement. Echo360 already shows strong evidence of supporting faculty and engaging students,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School. “At UVA, we’re excited to further explore how technology like theirs can help faculty and institutional leaders improve actual student success.”

Bacon’s bottom line: U.S. K-12 education is in a rut. It costs too much and it has failed to move the needle on educational outcomes. Applying technology to revolutionize teaching methods is, in theory, one way to jump-start the industry. But technology is not a magic wand; the effectiveness of the new technology tools is notoriously difficult to evaluate. Implemented carelessly, technology initiatives can squander a lot of money.  Field-testing the tools in real-world conditions and evaluating them with scientifically valid methods should help take the politics and the anecdotal out of decisions on which technologies to deploy.

Virginia Students Buck National SAT Decline

SATsIt turns out that the improved ACT college-readiness test scores I wrote about last week were not a fluke. Scores for the SAT, another college-readiness test, came in slightly improved for Virginia high school students this year, bucking a downward trend nationally.

Said Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples in a press release today: “The performance of Virginia students on the SAT during the last five years provides additional evidence that the efforts of teachers and other educators to help students meet Virginia’s high expectations are producing real gains in learning and achievement.”

Also encouraging was that Virginians’ stronger-than-average performance extended to all racial/ethnic groups. Virginian Asians out-performed Asians nationally (except in math); likewise, whites, blacks and Hispanics consistently out-performed their racial/ethnic peers, as seen in this chart:


What’s remarkable about this chart is the degree to which Virginia Hispanics out-performed their national peers — by 122 point across all three tests. That compares to blacks who racked up 27 more points, whites with 22 points and Asians with 18 points. That is a huge difference. The difference cannot be attributed to the fact that Hispanics live disproportionately in Northern Virginia, which tends to have better schools. The same could be said of Asians. I’m guessing that Virginia Hispanics have a different socio-economic profile than Hispanics nationally.

The racial/ethnic divide remains as before: Asians are the top performers, followed by whites, Hispanics and blacks in that order.


Higher SOL Scores: Improved Student Achievement… or Bureaucratic Blarney?

Source: Virginia Department of Education

Source: Virginia Department of Education

by James A. Bacon

Seeming good news from the Virginia Department of Education: Virginia students showed significant improvement in their SOL scores in the 2014-2015 school year. Pass rates increased five percentage points for mathematics (from 74% to 79%) and reading (also 74% to 79%) from the previous year. Pass rates for writing increased two percentage points (from 75% to 77%).

Also encouraging: Hispanic and African-American students closed some of the achievement gap with white and Asian students. “The gap in reading between black and white students has narrowed by two points since more challenging reading tests were introduced,” states the VDOE press release released this morning

“Virginia teachers and students are adapting to the more rigorous standards implemented by the state Board of Education several years ago,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples. “The positive trend lines confirm that meeting these new standards is possible, although it will take time for schools to complete the adjustment.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The question is, how real are these gains? The 2014-2015 school  year was the first in 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 retakes increased pass rates by about four points on each test. In other words, most of the improved performance reflects a change in administering the tests — a change designed to improve results — not a change in underlying achievement!

Staples defended the change:

By providing a second chance, we get a more complete picture of the performance of schools in preparing students to meet the commonwealth’s high expectations for learning and achievement,” Staples said. “We all understand the limitations of a single, point-in-time test. Some students who initially do not pass may have just had a bad day. And there are students who barely miss the benchmark and just need a little extra instruction in a particular area to achieve proficiency. For these students, an expedited retake offers another opportunity to demonstrate success before the end of the year.

That’s all fine, as far as it goes. But let’s be clear that we’re comparing apples with oranges when comparing 2013-2014 tests with 2014-2015 tests. It’s impossible to say, as VDOE does in its press release, that the results “represent significant progress in the commonwealth’s effort to better prepare students for success in college and careers.” No, it represents the effects of letting failing students re-take the test, which they could not do last year. It is impossible to conclude from this data that performance is actually improving, and to insinuate otherwise is pure political spin.

Economics Works

Now that Jim and his great family are enjoying a break on the OBX, I thought some far Left stories from the New York Times might brighten his day.

I retired from teaching at the end of the 2008-09 school year. That was right in the middle of the financial crisis. Unlike Goldman Sachs, which was paid 100 cents on the dollar for credit default swaps, teachers didn’t get bailed out. In some states many were fired. At my former employer, Richmond’s Governor’s School, I believe they have had one two percent raise since I left. Even in these low inflationary times, teaching school has meant a decline in real income.

As a former teacher of economics, I often wondered how long teaching could remain a viable career for a recent college graduate. Today’s NYT answers this question.

Teacher shortages are showing up all over the country, from California to North Carolina. More interestingly, teacher prep programs at the university level dropped 30% from 2010 to 2014. According to this article, some districts are putting students in the class room before they finish their programs. I’m not sure how reflective the article is of the situation in this area, but the trend of a developing shortage does appear to be national.

— Les Schreiber

The Ironies of Virginia’s Growing Diversity

Midlothian’s New Grand Mart taps state’s growing diversity

 By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly immigration is popping up as a major issue in Virginia and the nation.

Virginia Beach has been dubbed a “sanctuary city” for undocumented aliens by Fox News and conservative Websites. GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump is scarfing up poll number hikes by calling Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. illegally “rapists” and proposing an expensive new wall project to block off the southern border. Pro-Confederate flag advocates are pushing back against anti-flag moves, but they can’t escape the reality they are conjuring up  old visions of white supremacy, not their version of respectable Southern “heritage.”

So, if you’d like to look at it, here’s a piece I wrote for The Washington Post in today’s newspaper. When I visited a new, international food store called New Grand Mart in Midlothian near Richmond, I was impressed by how large it was and how many people from diverse backgrounds were there.

Looking further, I found one study noting that Virginia is drawing new groups of higher-income residents of Asian and Hispanic descent. In the suburbs, African-Americans are doing well, too.

The Center for Opportunity Urbanism ranked 52 cities as offering the best opportunities for diverse groups. One might assume D.C. and Northern Virginia would rank well, and they do. More surprising was that Richmond and Virginia Beach rank in the top 10 in such areas as income and home ownership. True, mostly black inner city Richmond has a 26 percent poverty rate but it seems to be a different story elsewhere.

Stephen Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington says that economic prosperity and jobs that had been concentrated in the D.C. area, much of it federal, has been spread elsewhere throughout the state. It may not be a coincidence that New Grand Mart was started in Northern Virginia by Korean-Americans who undertook research. It revealed that the Richmond area was a rich diversity market waiting to be tapped. They were impressed and expanded there.

Other areas that do well in the study are Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C. and ones in Texas, which show a trend of job creation in the South and Southwest outpacing economic centers in the Northeast, Midwest and in parts of the West. Another story in today’s Post shows that there are more mostly-black classrooms in Northern cities than in the South. The piece balances out the intense reevaluation of Southern history now underway. A lot of the bad stuff seems to have ended long ago, but somehow similar attitudes remain in cities like Detroit and New York.

This progress is indeed interesting since old-fashioned American xenophobia is rearing itself again.

In Virginia, the long-term political impact will be profound as newer groups prosper. They may not be as inclined as whites to embrace Virginia’s peculiar brand of exceptionalism, such as their emotional mythology of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson. Their interest in them might be more dispassionately historical.

And, as the numbers of wealthier people from diverse backgrounds grow, they may be less willing to keep their heads down when faced with immigrant bashing. That’s what people of Hispanic descent did in 2007 and 2008 when Prince Williams County went through an ugly phase of crackdowns on supposed illegals. They could strike back with their own political campaigns.

Whether they will be blue or red remains to be seen. It’s not a given that they’d be Democratic-leaning. Farnsworth notes, however, that as more diverse people move to metropolitan suburbs, whites in more rural, lower-income places may become more reactionary out of fear. Hard-working and better-educated newcomers might be out-classing them in job hunts, so they might vote for politicians warning of a yellow or brown peril.

In any case, New Grand Mart presages a very crucial and positive trend in Virginia. It shows the irony of the hard right echo chamber peddling stories designed to inflame hatred and racism, such as the one about Virginia Beach being a “sanctuary” for illegals. In fact, the city is attracting exactly the  well-educated and hard-working newcomers of diverse backgrounds upon whom it can rest its future.

But we’re in an age of bloated billionaires with helmet hairdos and no military experience claiming that former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a shot-down Navy pilot who spent five years in a brutal North Vietnamese prison, is not a hero. If Virginia can ignore such time-wasters and embrace diversity, it will be a better place.