Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Mo’ Money Is Not the Answer

by John Butcher

It’s been a while since I sent Jim a bang per buck analysis of school performance. Now that the 2016 SOL data are out, I’ll try to get back in the groove.

In the past I have plotted the raw division SOL pass rates vs. the annual disbursements per student. But comparing bang-for-the-buck between different school systems is a tricky business. We know, for example, that poverty impacts academic performance. As shown in the scatter graph below, economic disadvantage explains about 39% of the variation in 2016 reading test scores.

2016_reading

To level the playing field this year, I’ve adjusted each division’s pass rate to eliminate the effect of economic disadvantage. (I can offer an explanation in the comments, if you’d like to know the details.)

2016_reading_corrected

You might notice that six divisions show corrected pass rates exceed 100%. That is because their pass rates were high in the first instance and considerably higher than their average ED would predict.

That rising tide floats all boats: The adjustment also raises the City of Richmond from an actual 60% pass rate to an adjusted 79%.

As to cost, VDOE will not post the 2016 data until sometime this spring so we’ll have to make do with 2015 data for disbursements per student (using end-of-year enrollment).

On that basis, here are the 2016 division average reading pass rates, corrected for the economic disadvantage of the division’s studentbody, plotted vs. the 2015 division disbursements per student.

2016_reading_adjustment_disbursements

The fitted line suggests a slight increase in score with disbursement but there is no correlation. That is, spending more per student is not correlated with better pass rates. Continue reading

SOL Scores Inch Higher

reading_SOLThe percentage of Virginia students passing the Standards of Learning assessment tests gained a percentage point in the 2015-2016 school year, the Virginia Department of Education reported today.

“A one-point improvement in mathematics means that approximately 11,500 more students met or exceeded the benchmark for proficiency for their grade or course,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples said in a press release. “In reading, a one-point increase equals approximately 8,000 students, and in science, more than 6,000.

To see the scores for all school jurisdictions, courtesy of Jim Weigand, click here.

— JAB

Debating the Wrong Stuff

Richmond mayoral candidates: debating the wrong stuff.

Richmond mayoral candidates yesterday

by James A. Bacon

A brief exchange in a debate between Richmond mayoral candidates yesterday revealed a striking blind spot among contenders that does not augur well for the city’s long-term fiscal integrity.

Former Del. Joseph D. Morrissey enlivened the discussion by criticizing Levar Stoney, former Secretary of the Commonwealth under Governor Terry McAuliffe, for the governor’s support of the controversial Stone Brewing Co. deal. In that deal the city enticed the West Coast brewing company to locate a brewery and restaurant in Richmond by means of $33 million in Economic Development Authority financing and $2 million in subsidies. The city should have put the money into its aging and decrepit schools, Morrissey said.

Stoney defended the deal, saying that it brought jobs and economic revitalization to the city’s impoverished Fulton Hill neighborhood. He in turn criticized Morrissey for not doing more as delegate for increasing school funding from the state.

City Council President Michelle Mosby noted that the bonds, backed by lease payments from the brewery, really didn’t take money from the schools at all.

In all the conversation, as described by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, no one questioned the idea that a lack of money is what ails the Richmond school system. The pitiful educational achievement of Richmond school children, low even when adjusted for the number of pupils from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, has many deep-rooted causes. I’ll focus on the issue that has gained the most attention to make my point.

Other than a few new school buildings, Richmond city schools are notorious for their poor condition. An 2014 article in Style Weekly started this way: “The ceilings at Thompson Middle School started oozing in the fall. Watery, foul-smelling drops of diluted tar fell into classrooms and hallways. The long, wet winter only made things worse. The ooze continues to creep. The staff does what it’s always done when the building starts showing its age: It copes. Custodians work late. Teachers rearrange desks. Buckets are put into place.”

The physical condition of the schools is a scandal. How can children be expected to learn in such an environment? Many have pointed to the age of the schools as the problem, suggesting that the answer is to spend tens of millions of dollars to tear down the worst ones and build new ones in their place.

The average age of Richmond school buildings dates back to 1955. That sounds old, but age is not the problem. My son just graduated from Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico County which opened in 1954. The architectural style is, to be charitable, institutional. Freeman just may be the dullest looking school building I have ever laid eyes on. But the interior appears to be in a state of good repair. The grounds are clean, the floors are waxed, and utilities function properly. Age isn’t the cause of Richmond’s decrepit schools. Maintenance, or lack of it, is the problem.

Some might respond that Henrico is an affluent school district that can afford to maintain its buildings while Richmond is poor and cannot. Well, according to Department of Education data, Richmond spent $13,087 per pupil while neighboring Henrico spent $9,250 for operations in the 2014-2015 school year.

OK, then, maybe Richmond has more poor kids with special needs who incur higher instructional costs at the expense of buildings and maintenance. Well, no, that’s not right either. Richmond expenditures for “operations and maintenance” were $1,185 that same year, considerably more than the $971 per pupil spent by Henrico.

Here’s the problem: Richmond spreads its operations & maintenance dollars over more schools (adjusted for enrollment) than does Henrico. The Richmond public schools website lists 42 elementary, middle and high schools and specialty facilities. Henrico, with twice the enrollment, lists only 69 schools. Despite having a lower operations & maintenance budget per pupil, Henrico spent more money per facility: $729,000 in 2014-2015 compared to $676,000 per facility in Richmond.

I presume that “operations & maintenance” includes the cost of heating, cooling, and lighting. Insofar as spending on utilities, which are necessary to maintain a learning environment, must come off the top of the budget, Richmond schools are left with even less for maintaining roofs, preventing leaks, repairing utility systems, and making routine repairs.

Thus, the root of the problem is that the Richmond School Board cannot muster the political will to consolidate its schools as rapidly as it should. (The board did vote last year to merge Thomas and Elkhardt middle schools.) Thus, the school district is not spending enough to properly maintain its facilities and, as a consequence, its oldest schools are falling apart.

Bacon’s bottom line: Instead of debating how to find more money for Richmond schools, perhaps mayoral candidates should be debating whether the school board could do a better job of spending the money it already has.

Update: Reader Larry Gross points out that major structural repairs to school buildings would be considered capital expenditures, not included in the “operations & maintenance” fund. Fair enough. Have Richmond schools allocated as much to this category as Henrico to keep up with depreciation? I don’t know. I doubt many of the mayoral candidates do either. But this is the kind of analysis we need before people talk about pumping more money into the school system.

Raising the Next Generation of Cheaters and Liars

cheaterby James A. Bacon

As a high school student in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, I was a mediocre math student. Somehow I excelled at geometry but I struggled with algebra, and my grades rarely rose above C+. I could have done better if, like some of my classmates, I cheated routinely on my homework. Our teacher, Doc Arnds, a short, gray-haired man with a bow tie, reviewed the answers in class every day before we handed in our homework. Nothing but our sense of personal integrity prevented us from changing our answers to get a better grade. I rarely did. But I do confess: I was honest but not a saint. If I’d made a careless mistake but had otherwise grasped the concepts, I did change an answer on rare occasion. With so many others cheating, it was hard to resist. The chiseling was so routine that my classmates had a euphemism for it — “quick penciling.”

At the time, I marveled that Doc Arnds would let the kids get away with it. Surely he could tell what was taking place right in front of him. To this day, I don’t know if he took quiet retribution against the worst malefactors. Maybe he did and we never heard of it. Maybe he tried, but wealthy, powerful parents squatted on him. Maybe he gave up trying, figuring that cheaters’ dishonesty would catch up with them eventually — cheaters never prosper. I don’t know.

What I do know is that society has always had cheaters. Always. In their discussion of how social behavior arose among humans, evolutionary biologists theorize about the impulse to altruism, and the impulse for cheaters to free-ride on that altruism, and the impulse of society to generate outrage against free-riders when they are exposed. Cheating is so deeply rooted in the human psyche that it has never been extinguished.

I also know that cheating is more prevalent than it used to be. While about 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940s, between 75% and 98% surveyed reported having cheated in the 1990s, according to a fact sheet published in conjunction with the Educational Testing Service published in 1999. Frequent cheaters feel justified in their practice. They see others cheat and think they will be unfairly disadvantaged if they don’t. A big reason for the ubiquity of whatever passes for quick penciling in the era of school laptops, I suspect, is that cheating no longer inspires the same outrage that it once did. Honor is deemed an antiquarian concept. Situational ethics prevail. Expulsion for cheating is decried as too harsh.

Against that backdrop, I hope readers have been following the posts in Bacon’s Rebellion by Robert Maronic, a former Latin teacher with Roanoke County Public Schools, and John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, on the subject of widespread cheating in Roanoke County schools.

The fact of widespread cheating is disturbing in its own right. Even more worrisome is the indifference of local and state education authorities to the phenomenon. No public official would ever condone cheating, of course. But no one in Virginia seems to be moved to do anything about it.

Virginia Department of Education officials say preventing cheating is the responsibility of local school boards and superintendents. But when Maronic took his concerns to his local school board and the board of supervisors, he got the brush-off. No one wanted to deal with the problem.

I cannot imagine that the problem is restricted to Roanoke County. To the contrary, the evil affects every school system to a greater or lesser degree. Cheating has become so endemic that it would take immense political will to extinguish. Administrators would face inevitable pushback. Affluent white parents, wanting no blemish on the academic record of their little darlings, would raise hell. Poor minority parents, already aggrieved by perceived institutional racism, would cry discrimination. And everyone would have an excuse — why pick on my kid when everyone is doing it?

I understand why school officials might quail before the task. Clamping down on cheating would be a difficult job. But there is no under-estimating the corrosive effects of widespread dishonesty. American society is built upon trust. If that trust disintegrates, we descend into every-man-for-himself hell-hole. So, in my mind, school cheating is a big deal, the toleration of it is a scandal, and citizens who care about the future of this Commonwealth should express their outrage. Cheating must end, or heads must roll!

VDOE on School Cheating: It’s Not Our Problem

by John Butcher

We have seen that a former Latin teacher in the Roanoke County Public School (RCPS) system alleged wholesale cheating on non-SOL high school tests in the system. And we have seen that the President of the Board of Education, Billy K. Cannaday, Jr., ducked the issue, responding, in essence, that RCPS is doing something about the cheating… and, besides, the State can’t do anything.

So, of course, I filed a Freedom of information Act request with VDOE for the underlying public records.  The response: A collection of emails and drafts of the Cannaday letter but no report of a serious inquiry into the cheating.

If you’ve ever dealt with the bureaucracy you know that functionaries don’t make a trip to the water cooler without writing a memo to file. Even though Virginia Department of Education administrators handled a letter from the aforesaid Latin teacher, Robert Maronic, largely by word of mouth, they left a paper trail.

Elizabeth – I am going to review the draft letter with Dr. Cannaday over the next two days while he is here for the Board meetings. Can you give me some notes (either written or verbal) that provide more specifics about who you talked with, what they are doing about the concerns, etc. so that I can share those informally with Dr. Cannaday?

  • Morris replied the same day:

Just in case you need it, here is the contact info for the person I spoke with from Roanoke County Public Schools:

Ben Williams
Associate Director of Testing & Remediation
540-562-3900

  • The June 22 Luchau email chain includes a June 20 from Eric Von Steigleder, the Special Assistant for Communications in the office of our Secretary of Education. He wrote:

    FYI ‐ Mr. Maronic wrote a similar letter to our office as well. With input from DOE and our office, I mailed the attached letter to the constituent encouraging him to work with his local Superintendent as well as his school board to address his concerns.

They didn’t produce the “attached letter” but Maronic has provided me a copy:

holton_letter2

Note her response: “I encourage you to share your concerns with your local superintendent’s office as well as your local school board.” (Maronic had brought up the issue to the School Board and Board of Supervisors, but no action was taken.)

So, there you have it: The few records that exist suggest that the VDOE inquiry into Maronic’s charges of widespread cheating amounted to a single phone call by one mid-level VDOE functionary to a mid-level Roanoke school functionary. The Party Line, running up to the Secretary: “Nothing we can do about it.”

Continue reading

The State Department of Superintendent Protection

monkeysby John Butcher

On June 7, I posted a letter to the President of the State Board of Education from a former Latin teacher in the Roanoke County system alleging cheating at one or more schools in that system. That teacher, Robert Maronic, averred “widespread” cheating and claimed to have informed the administration of the problem in November, 2012, the Board of Supervisors in October, 2015, and the School Board in November, 2015.

(Maronic posted an op-ed in Bacon’s Rebellion on the same topic: “Halt the High School Cheating Epidemic.” — JAB)

On June 24, Maronic received a reply (reproduced below) from the President of the Board of Education. Let’s analyze that letter.

Thank you for your letter detailing concerns with the Roanoke County Public School system. I appreciate you [sic] taking the time to contact the Virginia Board of Education.

Just from the first sentence we know this letter is Bad News: President Cannaday characterizes allegations of wholesale cheating as “concerns.”

The [Roanoke County Public School] division informed the Department that it is taking measures to address this issue and is working with outside support to combat this challenge.

So, the Roanoke County division admits to some or all of the allegations:

  • It is taking unspecified “measures.”
  • Those measures will “address,” but perhaps not eliminate the cheating.
  • The division is “working” with outsiders to “combat this challenge.”

What this does not say is that the Roanoke County School Superintendent has eliminated the cheating and fired the people responsible for it.

Pursuant to the Constitution of Virginia, the Board of Education determines and prescribes the Standards of Quality for school divisions, and the supervision of schools in each school division is vested in the local school board.

Hmmm.  Let’s look at authority:

  • Va. Const. art. VIII, § 4:  The general supervision of the public school system shall be vested in a Board of Education . . .
  • Va. Code § 22.1-65:  A division superintendent may be assessed a reasonable fine, suspended from office for a limited period or removed from office by either the Board of Education, upon recommendation of the Superintendent of Public Instruction or the school board of the division for sufficient cause.

We need not parse the scope of “general supervision” to understand that the Roanoke County Superintendent is responsible for what happens in his system.  Either he knew of the cheating and needs to be fired for not dealing with it, or he did not know of the cheating so he needs to be fired for incompetence.

And Cannaday is president of one of the two boards that can do the firing.

Continue reading

When Balanced Budgets Aren’t Really Balanced

hide_the_peaby James A. Bacon

The politics of fiscal implosion are ugly. Just look at what’s going on in Petersburg and Richmond.

  • Confronted with a massive budget deficit last year in contravention of the state constitution and the prospect of a deficit in the year ahead, Petersburg City Council bravely agreed to cut the compensation of the city’s 600 employees — but carved out exemptions for senior city officials and themselves.
  • Another trustee has resigned from the board of the city of Richmond’s severely under-funded retirement fund, which has been embroiled in governance issues over who calls the shots over investment decisions.
  • City of Richmond officials say they have nearly completed their comprehensive annual financial report for 2015 — seven months late! The city has not completed the required report on time since 2014. City officials blame IT issues.

That’s just in the Richmond region, which I am familiar with because I read the Richmond Times-Dispatch as my daily newspaper. Who knows what’s happening elsewhere? While Virginians pride themselves for their fiscal rectitude, it is increasingly clear that some jurisdictions don’t hew to standards much higher than Chicago, Cleveland or Detroit.

In theory, the state constitutions requires the state government and each political jurisdiction to balance its budget each year. Virginians should be concerned that Petersburg failed to do so in fiscal 2016, that it shows every sign of failing to do so again in fiscal 2017, and that there appears to be no sanction or penalty in sight. Likewise, we should be concerned of the various tricks the state and its localities can use, if so inclined, to hide long-term structural budget deficits. Here are three:

  • Under-fund employee pensions. The Commonwealth drastically under-funded the Virginia Retirement System in the last recession, although it is now doing penance by accelerating repayments. The City of Richmond has under-funded its government-employees pension, which it operates independently of the VRS.
  • Slow pay creditors. This tactic comes straight out of the Illinois Fiscal Irresponsibility Playbook. Petersburg, it has been revealed, delayed payments of millions of dollars not only to the VRS but schools and the regional jail.
  • Defer maintenance. Rather than properly maintain roads, streets, buses, water systems, sewer systems, school buildings and the like, save money by scrimping on maintenance, even if it means even higher costs down the road.

To what extent do local governments rely upon these and other budgetary sleights of hand to balance their budgets? Nobody knows. Let me rephrase that: The public doesn’t know.

The bottom line here is that citizens cannot take at face value that their local governments are truly balancing their budgets. Some might be. I have faith that my home county of Henrico, whatever its other failings, runs a tight fiscal ship and doesn’t play bookkeeping games. But I don’t know it for a fact. Speaking generally, not specifically about Henrico County, government administrators are subject to the temptation of hiding bad news. And in most cases, local elected officials are either too timid or too untutored to ask tough, probing questions about how money is being spent.

Citizens unite! There are active taxpayer groups in Arlington, Fairfax County and Virginia Beach that I know of. I hope and pray that there are others of which I remain ignorant. Rather than fight lonely fights, they need to pool resources and expertise. I invite like-minded citizens to join Bacon’s Rebellion to create a platform to share knowledge and hold state and local governments more accountable than our elected officials seem able to do on their own. If anyone is interested in such a collaboration, please contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.