Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Virginia: a Bastion of Financial Literacy

Virginia is the third most financially literate state in the country, according to a new Wallethub survey that combines metrics of personal financial behavior and public policy indicators. New Hampshire and Utah rank No. 1 and No. 2, while Arkansas and Mississippi rank at the bottom.

“Financial literacy ultimately comes down to familiarity with key themes and concepts, the ability to think critically, good judgment and self-restraint,” writes Senior Writer John Kiernan.

The Old Dominion ranked 1st in the country for high school literacy, reflecting its low drop-out rate and its status as one of only four states in the country to require a stand-alone course in personal finance as a graduation requirement. Virginians also were more responsible on average in the handling of their personal finances, as measured by indicators such as the percentage of households that spent less money than they earned and the percentage that maintained rainy day funds.

I can vouch for the value of the state’s required course on personal finance. My 15-year-old son, enrolled in 10th grade, is taking the course this year. He is learning about everything from credit cards and mortgages to check accounts and 1066 federal income tax forms. I’ve maintained a savings account for him for years, which he long regarded suspiciously as a black hole that sucked up the money he received as Christmas and birthday gifts. But after learning about checking accounts, he was quite excited this year to go down to the bank with his Christmas loot, fill out the deposit slip and put the money into his savings account. He zones out when his mother and I try to teach him anything – but making it part of the school curriculum seems to confer legitimacy.

I’d classify the Economics & Personal Finance class as one of the more useful things that public schools teach in Virginia. I have no idea whether school learning actually changes peoples’ behavior — I’m a bit skeptical in that regard — but it can’t hurt. Everyone benefits when people assume responsibility for their own financial welfare and avoid making stupid and costly financial decisions.

-- JAB

Poverty No Excuse for Lousy Richmond Schools

This communication from reader John Butcher was worth reproducing in full. I publish it here with his permission. — JAB

I enjoyed Peter’s piece about “The Richmond Elite’s Bizarre Self Image” and the comments that followed.  I want to suggest that the focus there on Richmond poverty is appropriate but misses the main point.

Beyond question, the kids who are economically disadvantaged are educationally disadvantaged.  Indeed, we can tease out the magnitude of the poverty effect from the SOL test data.  Here, for instance, is a plot of the 2013 division reading pass rate v. the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged under the Education Department’s definition:

butcher1
The data give a decent least-squares fit (R2 = 0.64), suggesting that the ED percentage indeed correlates with the scores. On this graph, Richmond is the gold square. (Recall that Richmond had the lowest reading score in the Commonwealth this year). The red diamonds are (from the left): Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, and Petersburg. Charles City is the green diamond.

Here is the same graph for the math tests:

butcher2

The color codes are the same and the correlation is not quite as good.

Richmond is 2.52 standard deviations below the fitted line on the reading test, 1.36 below on the math test.

Focusing more narrowly on the divisions with more than 70% economically disadvantaged students, we see: Continue reading

Rethinking Online Classes at U.Va.

President Sullivan

President Sullivan

By Peter Galuszka

Just two years after the University of Virginia weathered a crisis and the short-lived resignation of its president for supposedly not embracing online education fast enough, Mr. Jefferson’s school is taking a cautious approach about Web-based courses.

This is a good thing, despite the excitement over having thousands of distant students sign up for MOOCs, or large scale college online courses, and expect to instantly log on to all the good things universities offer with supposedly few of the negatives.

Although U.Va. does participate in offering online courses through Coursera, they are not for college credit and Virginia is not following the example of Georgia Tech which is offering an entire degree program via the net.

The Daily Progress reports that U.Va. administrators and professors are worried that it is too easy for unseen students to cheat on the courses – an important consideration due to U.Va.’s strict honor code. Other problems are the high dropout rate of MOOCs and the fact that they may be best suited for introductory courses because professorial classroom involvement is important for more advanced ones.

These views raise questions after all the hype about MOOCs, including many posts on the blog. A special irony is that just two year’s ago, U.Va.’s highly capable and popular President Theresa Sullivan was forced to resign in Board of Visitors putsch led by chairman Helen Dragas supposedly because of her lack of enthusiasm in embracing new technologies.

One well-known blogger wrote a gushy lead paragraph on a posting stating that “Helen Drags gets it.” Err, maybe not, because Sullivan was reinstated after a huge outcry within the U.Va. community and after major, negative world media coverage.

Elsewhere, MOOCs do seem to be gaining some traction. One at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill noted that a Tar Heel course got 30,000 sign ups on-line.

But a University of Pennsylvania study showed that of 16 open online courses the school offered, fewer than half of all registrants even watched the first lecture.

So, it seems that MOOCs are going through a period of adjustment. And, they are politically charged since many conservatives, still angry over social changes in the 1960s and 1970s, see MOOCs as a way to overcome what they view as the overweening political bias of cossetted universities.

As the Daily Tarheel at UNC reports: “Rob Schofield,, director of research and policy development for the left-leaning think tank N.C. Policy Watch, said though MOOCs have many positive aspects, there are drawbacks.

“This problem is especially worrisome in the current political environment in which far-right politicians are doing everything they can to de-fund public schools and universities and turn them into on-the-cheap education factories,” he said.

Luckily for the Old Dominion, the University of Virginia is evaluating MOOCs with its eyes open.

The Richmond Elite’s Bizarre Self Image

richmond-times-dispatchBy Peter Galuszka

If one wants to know one source of Richmond’s malaise, she or he need look no further than the pages of the Richmond Times Dispatch, the mouthpiece of the city’s elite. This is especially true when one reads this morning’s edition. The inadvertent revelations about the city and what is wrong with its leadership are stunning.

Some background. Last week, Style Weekly, an alternative newspaper in the city, published a hard-hitting cover story taking a ground-up view of just how awful and neglected the city’s school buildings and system are. The coverage is very much contrary to the image Richmond’s “leadership” wants to sell about the city.

As the schools are mismanaged and families are abused, the Richmond elite, and the RTD’s editors are pushing other pet projects such as building a new baseball stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom to replace a crumbling one elsewhere and a chamber of commerce trip to Tampa by 159 “leaders” to learn how another city works.

Full disclosure: I am a contributing editor at Style but had no input to the school story. I did file two blog postings about the schools story and received a number of highly insightful comments by readers. The basic problem, as several put it, is that  the schools are a mess is that the middle class has moved to the suburbs, the upper class sends its children to private schools and many of those left aren’t in a position to join the debate are have much influence. One out of every four people living in the city is poor.

The TD’s coverage today is a wonderful blueprint about exactly what is wrong with the elite’s thinking. Examples:

  • The front page features a catch-up story featuring short 125 word essays written by seven city council members and nine school board members. Three council members, Reva Trammell, Michelle R. Mosby and Cynthia Newbill – didn’t respond, perhaps wisely. The story states that judging from the responses, “momentum is building” for “substantive change.” The council, the school board and the mayor are working together. Mind you, this is not based on any real reporting—such as shoe leather in the school halls. Instead, one gets to read what the leadership responsible for the horrific problems thinks about them – sort of like interviewing the foxes after they raid the chicken coop. An added extra: the RTD claims it sent out its questionnaires before Style published its story, sort of like backdating stock options.
  • Flip to the “Commentary” section and a piece by John W. Martin, CEO and president of the “Southeastern Institute of Research in Richmond and frequent opinions contributor to the TD. His piece is basically an extended apology for proposing a new stadium in the middle of the blooded ground of the country’s second-largest slave market – standard stuff. Especially bizarre is the art. It is a cartoon drawing of what appears to be an interracial couple happily walking near what could be a combined slave memorial ballpark. The man is white, blond, wears a Richmond polo shirt and is flipping a baseball. His arm is around an African-American woman in sports togs and carrying designer shopping bags. In front is an apparently mixed-race child in a Flying Squirrels baseball cap happily holding out his glove to catch the ball from dad. The effect is downright creepy. It insults the intelligence of the readers and hits a very sensitive raw nerve, given Richmond’s sad history of race relations and the TD’s historic support of segregation five decades ago when it really mattered.
  • Let’s move to the Op-ed page where there is piece by Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the University of Richmond business school and upcoming chair of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. She was part of the chamber’s trip to Tampa to “learn” how they do it (while Richmond’s school buildings crumble). Her important takeaways seem to be that Tampa puts lights on its bridges, that it is a big port city, the region has distinctive personalities and that there are some universities there. Her conclusion: “I fell love with Tampa during out visit, but “I’m still married to Richmond.” Now that is extremely helpful.
  • Lastly, there is an impenetrable story by TD publisher Thomas A. Silvestri about several fictitious people discussing Tampa. Unsure of the point, I read the endline bio of Silvestri. It says he used to head the chamber and did not go on the Tampa trip because he’s been there before.

So, there you have it folks. Instead of real reporting, you have Richmond’s elite, some of whom are responsible for the problems, interviewing themselves. And that is a big reason why the city is in such a huge mess.

Blaming the Innocent and Exonerating the Guilty

Scuzzy girls' locker room in   Armstrong High. Who's responsible for inadequate maintenance?

Scuzzy girls’ locker room in Armstrong High. Who’s responsible for inadequate maintenance? (Photo credit: Style Weekly.)

by James A. Bacon

In the previous post, PeterG questioned the priority of “Richmond’s elite” of building a new baseball stadium for the Flying Squirrels over patching the city’s scandalously decrepit public schools. I share his skepticism that what the city really needs right now is a new stadium. However, I disagree with a core premise of his post, that “Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools.”

In FY 2009 the City of Richmond schools spent $13,601 per pupil. Henrico County spent $9,369. Chesterfield and Hanover spent slightly more per capita. In other words, “Richmond’s elite” spent 45% more per pupil on Richmond city students than on students in “affluent” Henrico County. (I rely upon outdated statistics because I simply did not have time this morning to search for more recent ones. The per-pupil spending gap has not changed significantly since then.)

A better question is why “Richmond’s elite” tolerates suburban schools receiving so few tax dollars compared to their city counterparts.

An unspoken assumption embedded in PeterG’s commentary is that the problem in Richmond schools is insufficient funds as opposed to a misallocation or mismanagement of  funds. Is the failure to budget sufficiently for basic maintenance in a school system that spent $13,600 per pupil in 2009 (and more today) the fault of “Richmond’s elite”… or the school administration?

One last thing: PeterG fails to take into account the considerable resources raised by Richmond-area philanthropists to supplement public dollars spent in the schools. The Communities in Schools program, for instance, locates resources from city social services and non-profit programs to help students coping with the dysfunctions of poverty — lining up  food, clothing, tutors, mental health counselors, health care, transportation, and occasionally even furniture for children’s homes. “Richmond’s elite” is actually very involved in helping poor, inner-city minority kids.

I’m not persuaded that gallivanting off to Tampa in search of the great Tiki bar will help Richmond junketeers discover anything terribly useful for Richmond — I do agree with Peter on that. The Chamber of Commerce’s annual visits seem to lack focus and rarely come back with insights that can be applied locally. Instead of visiting Tampa, perhaps the group should have traveled to New York City to see what difference the charter schools movement there is making for minority kids and assess the applicability of charter schools to Richmond. That’s the kind of bold, non-incremental thinking the city needs.

The region’s political and civic leaders probably do need a cattle prod to think more creatively about the region’s challenges. But blaming them for the sorry condition of city schools is really too much.

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

More Virginia Families Choosing Cities, City Schools

by James A. Bacon

It has been the traditional pattern in Virginia, as elsewhere, for young people to move to core urban areas to live as singles and then migrate to the quieter, safer burbs with better schools when they marry and have children. That dynamic still is working but it is weaker than before. More young families are staying put in urban jurisdictions to raise their kids and enroll them in local schools, feeding the strongest population growth that many Virginia cities have experienced since the 1950s.

And that, notes Hamilton Lombard on the StatChat blog, is forcing many cities and counties to re-work their school enrollment projections and their capital spending plans.

Lombard displays the data in a way I have never seen presented before. The chart below (modified slightly for purposes of clarity) compares the number of births in a jurisdiction to the number of children who went on six years later to enter the school system in 2005. Jurisdictions to the left of the line, mostly urban city jurisdictions, saw a marked loss of school-age children. Localities to the right of the line, mostly suburban counties, had far more children enroll in their schools than were born there previously. The chart show the dominant post-World War II pattern of young families moving from the city to the burbs.

importers_exporters
That was 2005. Now look at 2013 below. What’s different? Well, around 2006, per capita Vehicle Miles Driven peaked — people began driving less. Smart Growth advocates suggest that the younger generation is less infatuated with cars and prefers to live in walkable communities with access to mass transit. Then in 2007-2008 came the real estate crash and the Great Recession. As Lombard observes, mortgage rules tightened and it is harder now for families to buy a house in the ‘burbs. People are staying put. Only one-third as many homes were sold in Virginia in 2012 as in 2005. The number of Virginia families with children living in rented residences has increased 15%.

The shift in school enrollments is marked: Urban core jurisdictions are exporting fewer families with children, and counties are importing fewer.

2013_jumbled

Lombard sums up the impact on school systems:

Elementary schools have been among the first to feel the impact of the change in growth trends. Most rural and suburban elementary schools have too much classroom space because fewer families have moved to their divisions. At the same time, many urban school divisions, after decades of shuttering schools, are reassessing their capital improvement plans so they have enough space for the increases in enrollment.

Bacon’s bottom line: There are several points to be made.

First, this data refutes the commonly held notion that most young families with the means to do so all will desert core cities and move to the suburbs when their children reach school age. Clearly, some young families are still making the move but more are staying. Whether this trend represents a fundamental shift in lifestyle preferences, a temporary effect of economic hard times or a little of both is hard to say. But the fact is undeniable: An increasing number of young city dwellers is growing, which is driving population growth in urban cores.

Second, it is good to see that analysts at the Weldon Cooper Center’s demographics research group, which publishes StatChat, are beginning to document this seismic demographic shift. If these insights get incorporated into the state’s official population projections, it will impact how dollars are spent in many areas, not the least of which is transportation. Kudos to Lombard for work well done.

Third, once middle- and professional-class families begin enrolling their children in urban-core jurisdictions in larger numbers, it could have a profound effect on how those schools are perceived. If the perception of inner city schools improves from dismal to not-so-bad, even more families might be willing to forego the suburban relocation. It’s way too early to say that that city schools have reached a tipping point but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.

The Koch’s Bizarre Meddling in Chesterfield

koch brothersBy Peter Galuszka

The Koch brothers are back in the bucolic suburban tracts of Chesterfield County.

This time, their national group, Americans for Prosperity, has launched a robocall campaign to oppose a proposed real estate tax hike of 4.6 cents to help pay for $304 million renovations to schools or perhaps hire more teachers to bring classroom sizes back to pre-recession levels.

It’s apparently the second time that Americans for Prosperity have been on their case in Chesterfield. Last year, the hard-right group sent out bizarre “report cards” to ordinary citizens bashing them for not registering to vote.

In one famous local case, a recipient was actually a registered and active voter and greatly resented the idea that a multi-million dollar national outfit like the Americans for Prosperity was trying to monitor his personal business.

This time, Sean Lansing, the group’s Virginia director told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the goal is to “educate” residents on the issues, as if they are too stupid to understand local tax and classroom size problems that they probably know far better than some AEP appartchiki.

Chesterfield has caught itself in a bind because it hasn’t raised real estate taxes since 1990 despite its brisk growth rate. Voters in November voted down a 2 percent meals tax that could have raised money for schools. Henrico County voters, by contrast, narrowly approved a 4 percent meals tax and thus have no budget crisis that another tax hike is needed to resolve.

Admittedly, one of Chesterfield’s problems is bad planning. The staunchly Republican county has a long history of being very friendly to developers. Consequently, the county is in a constant service “catch up” mode. Need schools, such as Cosby High near some of the county’s largest residential developments, was already way overcrowded before it was finished a few years ago.

What is puzzling is what the Koch brothers are so interested in Chesterfield. It is hardly an election battleground. There is no strong Democratic or other opposing party. Yet with consummate arrogance, this cabal believes that residents need robocalls to “educate” them.

“Educate” them for what? If you want good schools and other services, someone has to pay for them. And as a Chesterfield resident for nearly 14 years, I can attest that taxes here are considerably lower than other places I have lived as an adult (Washington, New York, Chicago, suburban Cleveland, etc.).

No Negative Coal Poetry, Please

WV Governor's ArtsBy Peter Galuszka

Meanwhile, over in West Virginia, the long arm of King Coal reaches over to a high school poetry reading.

Grace Pitt, a Hurricane High School student, wanted to read a poem by Charleston poet Crystal Good about Richmond-based Massey Energy’s April 5, 2010, disaster at its Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 men. The reading was to be held at the West Virginia Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony this week.

The poem describes how the disaster, the deadliest in this country in 40 years, created 29 black diamonds “in what they call a ‘mine disaster’; others ‘industrial homicide.’ (The United Mine Workers of American titled their report on Upper Big Branch as “industrial homicide.”)

According to the Charleston Gazette, before the reading, Tabitha Walter, grants coordinator for the Division of Culture and History and a sponsor of the ceremony, emailed that “I really hate to do this, but because your poem deals with coal and many state representatives will be there, our director wants you to choose a different poem.”

The email went viral and the push back was so strong that the state department backed down.

The poem will be read Thursday.

It is not unusual in the coalfields for coal companies and other energy firms to bankroll cultural events and perhaps maintain some degree of control over them. Alpha Natural Resources, the Bristol-Va.-based coal firm that bought Massey, funds “Mountain Stage,” a roots and folk music program with a national audience that is produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The public broadcasting group also recently ran a soft documentary that noted how natural gas has been drilled for years in the Mountain State. The film was an apparent propaganda effort to smooth public acceptance of using controversial “fracking” to reach Marcellus Shale gas fields.

And Your Priorities Are Teaching Kids, Really?

maggie_walker_hsAs a retiree from Maggie Walker Governor’s School, I am constantly bombarded with requests for money for who knows what.  As I have written here before, teachers in Central Virginia have not had a raise since the 2008-2009 school year.  A search of the school website showed a conflicting message about finances.

A review of the minutes of the January 16, 2014 budget session demonstrates some rather strange contradictions. The general faculty will receive a “whopping” raise of 2% as some are asked to teach more classes, thus significantly raising the workload. A course or two may be dropped, and other minor adjustments may be made. But wait, there’s more.

The budget includes a $13,000 raise for an administrator whose sole job is to overlook the curriculum of the school.  (Please see 01-16-2014 meeting of the regional board of the Budget Work session on the school’s website.)  The Board justifies this outrage by having this educrat work a few more weeks in the summer. It mystified me how an organization that claims to be short on cash seems to find funds to pay such increases while asking the bulk of their employees to continue to experience a decreasing standard of living.

I would love to be a fly on the wall when the leadership of the school gives the usual “let’s-do-more-with-less” speech.  If it believes that its administrative staff is underpaid, let them go out into the pool of mid-management talent and find out what the job market in the real world is really like.  This is an example of why the public has lost faith in education.

– Les Schreiber