Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Now VSU Is in Trouble

VSUby James A. Bacon

Enrollment at Virginia State University in Petersburg is down by 550 students this year, and the historically black university is facing a $5.3 million shortfall, including a $2.4 million reduction in state support. “I think Virginia State is in trouble,” Terone B. Green, who serves on the board of visitors told the Times-Dispatch yesterday.

Norfolk State University, Virginia’s other public, historically black university , is facing difficulties as well, while St. Paul’s College, a private college, closed last year.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs), created to educate blacks in an era when they were denied admittance to white institutions, are struggling to redefine themselves in an era of multi-culturalism. Few have significant endowments to fall back on. And they face the same challenges as higher education generally: soaring tuitions that are pricing more and more students out of the market. As an institution that serves blacks, whose incomes have been especially hard hit in recent years, VSU is in an perilous predicament.

The enrollment loss this year will cost VSU $1.6 million in revenue. The loss of enrollment is all the more alarming, given the significant debt burden the university took on to build new residence halls. The university has pinched pennies by closing two old dorms, cutting back on furniture replacement and non-essential maintenance, pruning the full-service dining options on campus, and requiring students to live on-campus. But those changes could boomerang by diminishing the residential experience and depriving students of lower-cost options off campus.

Virginia’s HBCUs are the canary in the coal mine for higher ed. The combination of declining enrollments and heavy debt loads will create problems for other non-elite universities, whatever the ethnic mix of their student body. Washington and Lee University, whose students rank fourth highest in the country for mid-career earnings (see previous post) and which has a large endowment, shouldn’t have much trouble weathering the storm. But VSU doesn’t have a rich alumni base — average midcareer earnings, $71,800 — to tap. And its less affluent student body is especially sensitive to tuition price increases.

The situation likely will get uglier before it gets better.

Race, Culture and SOLs

by James A. Bacon

Here we go one more time… Does cultural background influence the likelihood of Virginia students passing the Standards of Learning tests, or do disparities in results between racial/ethnic groups reflect only the disparity in resources allocated to different schools?

Over the past week, I have been arguing that cultural background is one critical differentiator, not the dominant differentiator — poverty (or economic disadvantage) accounts for roughly 57% of the variation — but it is nonetheless an important one. I allow for the possibility that some schools are better run than others, some teachers better than others, and that differences in resources may account for some variation. But culture is a significant factor, as can plainly be seen in the superior academic performance of Asians, both economically advantaged and disadvantaged, across the board.

But some readers doggedly refuse to acknowledge that culture plays any meaningful role. Among the most tenacious is our old friend Larry Gross, who asks a valid question that needs to be addressed. Pick the same school division, say Fairfax County. Then pick different schools within that division. The SOL pass rate for black children varies substantially. As he commented in my last post, “The SOL Debate: Bringing Asians into the Equation,” pass rates for blacks for 3rd grade reading in some of the Fairfax Elementary schools are all over the map:

Annadale Terrace 36%
Bren Mar Park 62%
Bull Run 71%
Brush Hill 47%
Rolling Valley 50%
Saratoga 46%

“How,” he asks, “is this explained by culture?”

Let’s take a closer look. Here are the average SOL pass rates for all subjects at all six schools — hand picked by Larry to illustrate his point — broken down by race/ethnicity and by economic disadvantage, with the same information presented in chart form below. (Note: the DOE data did not include some scores for certain subjects for certain racial/ethnic groups. I have made the necessary adjustments.)

fairfax_elementary_SOLs

fairfax_pass_chartAs expected, economic disadvantage plays a major role. For every ethnic/racial group, economically disadvantaged students showed a lower SOL pass rate than those not disadvantaged.

However, differences remain. Same school division, same schools, same economic classification…. We see the same pattern repeated over and over. Asians score highest, whites not quite as high, Hispanics lower, and blacks lower. As discussed in other blog posts, the difference between whites and Hispanics largely disappears when adjusted for English proficiency. But Asians consistently score higher than other races, and blacks usually, although not always, score lower.

Does that settle the issue? Probably not. Here’s what we don’t know. Are some of the selected six schools better run, do they have more experienced teachers, or do they have more resources, any of which my skew results between schools? Those factors undoubtedly come into play — we just can’t isolate those variables from this data.

Am I saying that culture accounts for all the variation between racial/ethnic performance in those six schools? Of course not. Clearly, even after adjusting for economic disadvantage and ethnic background, some variability remains. Equally clearly, there is a lot of variability within ethnic/racial groups. Some Asian kids just can’t get their act together. Some African-American kids are academic superstars.

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that culture explains some of the overall superior academic performance of Asian kids. Such a conclusion is not terribly controversial. We see the high performance of Asians back in the home countries of China, Korea and Japan. We’ve all heard of “Tiger moms.” We observe that Asians are not nearly as prominent on athletic teams but way over-represented when academic awards are handed out. We can admit the obvious because it does not upset deeply held political views on race and race relations. But as soon as we begin talking about the differences between whites and blacks, talk of culture becomes incredibly touchy. Indeed, a lot of people, suspecting racist motives, find it offensive when conservative white people bring the subject up.

But the idea that cultural attitudes affect educational outcomes is not terribly controversial in the black community. Bill Cosby famously highlighted the issue. Just yesterday Michelle Obama stressed the importance of education to an inner-city Atlanta school: Continue reading

The SOL Debate: Bringing Asians into the Equation

by James A. Bacon

And the debate goes on…Yesterday, in “Yes, Virginia, Culture Does Matter in School Performance,” I argued based on the statewide pass rate for the Standards of Learning that disadvantaged Hispanic school children who had proficiency in English actually out-performed disadvantaged white school children (and black as well). I hypothesized that the difference could be attributed to culture, perhaps the work ethic of poor immigrant families.

The blogger Life On the Fall Line countered by suggesting that the superior statewide performance of disadvantaged, English-proficient Hispanics could be attributed to the fact that nearly three-fifths of Virginia’s Hispanic population resides in Northern Virginia, which spends more money per pupil on schools, while most whites and blacks live downstate. “So,” he concluded, “yes, Virginia, schools with superior financial resources matter.”

That sounded like a potentially valid point, so I decided to drill deeper into the Virginia Department of Education “Virginia SOL Assessment Build-A-Table,” to see if that was the case. The chart below compares disadvantaged, English-proficient whites and Hispanics in Fairfax County, Northern Virginia’s largest school division. And for yucks, I threw in disadvantaged, English-proficient Asians and blacks.

Fairfax_SOLs

It turns out that Life on the Fall Line had a point. While poor, English-proficient Hispanics still out-performed their white counterparts, it was by such a narrow margin — less than one percentage point — that it could well fall into the margin of error.

But another stark finding jumps out from this table. Poor Asian kids kicked every other group’s academic ass by a wide margin. These are poor kids, mind you, not the sons and daughters of Indian software engineers and PhDs, whom you’d expect to excel. And, sadly, poor blacks under-performed by an equally large margin.

The response of the structuralists (those who believe that institutional structures discriminate against blacks) will be to say, “Drill down deeper! Look at the allocation of resources school by school.” That would be a worthwhile exercise for anyone who has the energy to do it. I welcome any contributions. But if differences in performance are mainly structural, not cultural, someone needs to explain the exceptional performance of Asian students. Do poor Asian kids attend the best schools with greater resources? If so, how do they pull it off? If they’re disadvantaged, they have no greater resources than their poor white, Hispanic or black peers to move into the top school districts.

While we’re at it, if school resources were the decisive factor, how do we explain that poor Hispanics outperform poor blacks? Do Hispanics not face as much discrimination and institutional racism as blacks?

From my reading of the data, it looks like once Hispanic students master English, they pass the SOLs at the same rate as white students. As I said before, that’s great news. It suggests that Hispanics are rapidly assimilating into mainstream Virginia culture. However, that still leaves the matter of Asians and blacks. How do we explain the persistent superior performance of one group and the under-performance of the other, if not in part by culture?

Yes, Virginia, Culture Does Matter in School Performance

by James A. Bacon

I was planning to give readers a break today from graphs and scatter charts relating to Virginia’s 2014 Standards of Learning tests. Then I read a quote in the Times-Dispatch this morning by Michel Zajur, CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Zajur was lamenting the high Hispanic drop-out rate from schools which, at 11.7%, exceeds the rate for blacks (8.7%), whites (4%) and Asian (3%).

“Zajur and others attribute the high dropout rate to the cultural pressures felt by Hispanic students, the article states. “While other cultures focus on education, Hispanic youths are more often pushed to enter the workforce as early as possible to help support their families.”

Hmmm… Here is a clear example of how culture affects educational achievement, a fact that some readers are determined to deny. Hispanic civic leaders, not right-wing conservatives, believe that their culture pressures young people to drop out of school early, and they’re trying to do something to change it. The article profiles the Passport to Education program in three Richmond-area schools that matches students with mentors and provides a bilingual Website to help families navigate the school system.

So, I began wondering, how are Hispanic students performing in their SOL tests? And could Hispanic culture influence the outcome? While acknowledging the hazards of generalizing about “Hispanic culture” when Virginia Hispanics originate from divers countries across Latin America, I think the answer is a resounding yes — but not in a way that people will expect.

Percentage of students passing 2014 SOLs, contrasting Hispanic students proficient in English, Hispanics not proficient in English, and whites.

Percentage of students passing 2014 SOLs, contrasting Hispanic students proficient in English, Hispanics not proficient in English, and whites.

Overall, Hispanics score significantly lower pass rates than whites. But that generality is deceptive. Utilizing the Virginia Department of Education SOL Assessment Build-a-Table tool, I found a huge gulf between Hispanic students who are proficient in English and those who are not. But, as seen in the chart above, when you compare English-proficient students, nine-tenths of the gap between Hispanics and whites disappears .

That would seem to confirm the idea that culture doesn’t matter. But let’s dig a little deeper. We also know that educational achievement is correlated with socio-economic status. What would happen, I wondered, if we compared apples with apples — disadvantaged but English-proficient Hispanics with disadvantaged white and black students? The results, I suspect, will startle many readers.

english_proficient

Disadvantaged Hispanic kids whose families have lived in the U.S. long enough to acquire English proficiency pass SOLs at a higher rate than disadvantaged whites by non-trivial margins, and blow the socks off the pass rates of black students.  To what factor do we attribute this superior performance? Do Hispanic kids attend schools with superior financial resources? Do they get the more experienced teachers? Does institutional racism favor poor Hispanic kids over poor white and black kids? That’s going to be a hard case to make.

Conversely, could there be a cultural difference? Is it possible that, as first- and second-generation immigrants, Hispanic students have a stronger work ethic than their disadvantaged peers in white and black communities? It is possible that they feel less entitled and more impelled to work hard?

Whatever the answer, it is very encouraging. The SOL data gives us every reason to believe that Hispanic kids in Virginia are assimilating very well once they master the English language.

Update on the Debate over SOL Performance

top_school_divisionsby James A. Bacon

There has been a lively discussion in the comments section of previous blog posts regarding the interpretation of the 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) data. The debate has largely focused on explaining the gap in the average SOL pass rate between white students and black students.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought reflected in the comments. The first school blames the lower black SOL pass rates on unequal access to resources, most notably access to experienced teachers. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “structural” school of thought. The second school attributes black under-performance to cultural factors, such as peer pressure to avoid “acting white” by pursuing academic achievement. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “cultural” school of thought.

I have presented evidence in previous posts suggesting that cultural factors play a big role in explaining the SOL performance gap. But the case is hardly a slam-dunk (at least not as I have presented it.) The Blogger who goes by “Life on the Fall Line” makes an interesting argument. Schools with the smallest gaps between white and black performance happen to be among the smaller school systems in the state. When there’s only one elementary school, one middle school and one high school in a jurisdiction, he says, all the white kids and all the black kids in a jurisdiction get thrown in together.

When white parents don’t have a choice but to send their children to schools with black children the racial gap looks like it shrinks. … Broadly speaking, when the chance to discriminate does not present itself as an option, the racial gap closes. Or at least that’s how it appears.

The correlation between small school systems and higher black SOL performance is far from perfect, he concedes, but he thinks the relationship is strong. (It should not be difficult to test his hypothesis. We’ve got data on black SOL performance, and we’ve got data on the number of schools per school district.)

Larry Gross advances a different argument. He points to large variations in the black pass rate from school to school.

There are 45 elementary schools in Henrico with only 10 showing significant percentages of blacks – and the reading scores of the 10 schools vary from 40% pass to 75% pass. Now if “culture” is the cause of the state-level black scores, please explain why “culture” is not being reflecting pretty much the same across different elementary school districts. Why is there a 35% disparity in black pass rates depending on school?

One reason for the variation may be that the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” black students is higher in some school districts than others. The data exists to take that variable into account. My hunch is that the variability would shrink but still persist, and Larry’s question still would need to be answered.

Larry and Life on the Fall Line both make interesting points. Anyone who embraces the “cultural” school of thought needs to address their arguments.

There is a third basket of explanations, which I call the “institutional” school of thought, that remains to be explored here. That line of thinking would attribute some of the gap in student performance to varying quality of administration at different schools and school systems. Arguably, some schools and entire school divisions are just better managed or have more inspired teachers.

Along those lines, instead of chastising failing school systems, perhaps we should be rewarding — or at least recognizing — exceptional school systems. Hill City Jim has ranked Virginia’s school divisions by the average SOL pass rate for black students. The top-performing school systems — all divisions with a pass rate of 70% or higher — appear at the top of this post. Are administrators of those school divisions doing something right, or does superior black student performance reflect lower poverty rates or other factors over which schools have no control?

I’m not sure we’ll find any definitive answers, but we’ll keep asking the questions.

A Better Route

Yeah, GRTC buses have bicycle racks now. But bus companies aren't pursuing disruptive innovation.

Yeah, GRTC buses have bicycle racks now. But bus companies aren’t pursuing disruptive innovation.

by James A. Bacon

The GRTC Transit System, like most municipal bus systems, provides a one-size-fits-all transportation service. Whatever the route, time of day and level of demand, GRTC runs a standard city bus capable of carrying nearly 60 seated and standing passengers along fixed routes. Everyone pays the same fare ($1.50 on local routes), regardless of time or distance traveled. We’ve all seen the big GRTC buses driving around with two or three passengers. We all know that, given the cost of paying a driver and operating a vehicle, many if not most bus routes operate at a loss. It would surprise few to hear that GRTC costs U.S., state and local taxpayers $33 million in subsidies to operate in fiscal year 2014.

Many people justify this significant subsidy on the grounds that buses provide a way for car-less poor people to get to their jobs. What the Richmond metropolitan region needs, they say, is more bus service so poor people can reach a broader range of job opportunities. Environmentalists also favor buses on the ground that they generate less pollution and carbon dioxide emissions than automobiles do. Local government officials in Henrico and Chesterfield counties tend to oppose the expansion of bus routes not on grounds of principle but on grounds of economy. Their argument: We just can’t afford it.

If we count on fiscally strapped local governments to loosen up the purse strings to pay GRTC to open new routes, we’ll be waiting a very long time. Maybe it’s time to start thinking differently: how to expand mass transit without GRTC. A free market in transportation services, I contend, would provide superior service to poor people. It would increase shared ridership and reduce pollution emissions. As a bonus, it would save taxpayers millions of dollars in subsidies.

Yes, mass transit in the United States is that bad. GRTC is reasonably well run by the standards of other government-owned monopoly transit systems. Government-owned monopolies worked adequately for decades when innovation in cars and buses was incremental in nature – installing seatbelts or switching from diesel to natural gas. But the traditional model is hopelessly inadequate when the transportation industry stands on the edge of the most momentous transformation since Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line.

The information technology-communications revolution is sweeping through transportation, just as it is through consumer electronics, building automation, health care, manufacturing and every other sector of the economy. Thanks to smartphones, it is easier than ever for drivers and passengers to locate one another. Thanks to Big Data analytics, it is easier for transportation-service companies to predict where and when transportation demand will occur and to mobilize assets accordingly. New technology is inspiring new business models that literally no one was thinking about 10 years ago.

The heralds of this new wave are Uber and Lyft, Silicon Valley-funded companies that have started competing with taxicab services in many metropolitan regions across the country. These companies are targeting the high end of the transportation services market, charging premium rates for customers willing to pay for a limousine-like ride at a moment’s notice. Predictably, they are getting pushback here in Virginia from taxicab companies. The regulatory future is uncertain. But whatever happens to Uber and Lyft, the new technology is here to stay. Taxi companies are already adopting it themselves.

Bridj, a Boston-area company, charges $6 per ride in comfortable, Wi-Fi- equipped coaches to travel from suburban locations to downtown Cambridge and Boston. Thousands of riders, it appears, are willing to pay a premium price for a premium service that municipal bus companies can’t match with their one-size-fits-all mind-set. As this new industry continues to innovate, it’s just a matter of time before entrepreneurs use the same technologies to serve lower price points. In a free market, there are few barriers to entry; someone will figure out how to serve poor people and do it cheaper than the transit companies can.

Eventually, someone will devise a smartphone driver-rider matching service open to all comers. Anyone with decent credit and a good driving record will be able to fork out $32,000 for a 12-seat van and start his own jitney service. In developing countries around the world – even in countries where $32,000 is a lot of money – jitney service is affordable to poor city dwellers. Surely in America, where we have some of the richest poor people in the world, someone will figure out how to convey them to major employment centers.

The transportation revolution doesn’t end there. Automobile companies are rethinking the idea that everyone needs to own his or her own car. Some think that the future is transportation-as-a-service. Outside San Diego, Calif., real estate developer Rancho Mission Viejo is partnering with Daimler AG, owner of Mercedes Benz, to roll out a service that provides subscribers access to cars, scooters, buses, shuttle vans and car-pooling, primarily for use in its Ladera and Sendero communities. The aim isn’t to persuade residents to go totally car-free, just to go car-lite. The goal is to cut the cost of mobility – $9,000 yearly to own and operate the average car – in half.

Environmentalists and anti-poverty warriors will continue to pressure Henrico and Chesterfield officials to subsidize the expansion of GRTC into the two counties. Given the paucity of walkable, higher-density neighborhoods in suburban Richmond and the lack of congestion – it’s the least congested of America’s 51 largest metros – the economics for mass transit will always be difficult. Rather than throwing money at an antiquated business model, government officials should encourage the emerging free-market alternatives. Roll out the welcome mat to Uber and Lyft. Ask Bridj to check out our market. Sweep away barriers that prevent jitneys from going into business. Beg Daimler AG to bring its transportation-as-a-service to the Richmond region.

We have a choice: Embrace the transportation past or the transportation future. I’ll take the future.

This column was published originally in Henrico Monthly and Chesterfield Monthly this month.

What Can We Learn from Virginia’s Educational Outliers?

economically_disadvantaged

Chart credits: John Butcher

by James A. Bacon

One last set of graphics shedding light on the SOLs… Occasional contributor John Butcher graphed the correlation between 9th-grade reading pass rates and the percentage of economically disadvantaged (ED) children in Virginia’s school divisions. The big-picture conclusion: The percentage of economically disadvantaged children is the dominant variable accounting for a division’s SOL performance, explaining about 57% of the variation between divisions.

But that still leaves 43% left to be explained. Presumably, much of that 43% consists of variables within the school system. Such variables might include spending per pupil, student-teacher ratios, or the quality of teachers and principals.

In the search for clues, it might be worthwhile looking at outlier school divisions that beat and fall short of expectations by wide margins. The gold box indicates the City of Richmond school system, which has nearly 80% disadvantaged students. The City of Richmond school division starts with a big handicap… and goes downhill from there.

Then there’s Lancaster County, standing by itself in the lower, left-hand corner — the worst under-performer in the state. Lancaster has one of the lowest English SOL pass rates despite the fact that only one fifth of its students are disadvantaged. If there are no unique circumstance to explain that difference, the school board and parents need to start asking tough questions.

On the positive side, there are four outliers along the top of the chart. Perhaps we should be asking what those school systems are doing right.

ed_math

This chart shows the correlation between the math SOL pass rate and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Math performance is less closely tied to socio-economic status. The percentage of disadvantaged students in the school division accounts for 42% of the variability, far less than for reading.

Butcher has identified the under-performing outliers in red: Lancaster County (left) and Buena Vista.  The green diamonds represent (from left) West Point, Wise and Bristol. As he concludes:

We might wonder why we’re not hearing from [the Virginia Department of Education] about what the outperformers are doing right (or whether they are cheating to get these numbers).  VDOE does have a massive (and massively manipulated) accreditation process; I’ve not seen any analysis that would show that it’s doing anything for the underperformers.

When the Gender Gap Meets the Racial Gap

gender_gapby James A. Bacon

When remarking upon disparities in educational outcomes, most pundits focus on the racial/ethnic gap between Asians and whites on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other. That’s no surprise, given the distressing size of the gap and the dismal implications of that gap for the prospects for forging a society in which every child has an equal shot at succeeding in life. But there’s another gap, not quite as large, but equally pervasive — the gender gap. Girls out-perform boys academically across the board. Combine the gender gap with the ethnic/racial gap, and that spells very bad news for the upcoming generation of black males.

To examine the dimensions of this gap, I used Virginia’s awesome “SOL Assessment Build a Table” tool that allows users to take a deep dive into the data. I compared male vs female pass and fail rates on reading, writing, history, math and science SOLs across all schools and grades, then broke down the gender disparities by racial/ethnic group to see if the disparities were worse for some groups than others. The chart above shows the male-female gap — the difference between the percentage of females who passed the the percentage of males who passed. Here’s the detailed data.

The most striking pattern is that boys fail SOLs at a higher rate than girls in every subject area. The gap is greatest for writing and reading and smallest for history/social science and science. Some sub-groups of boys marginally out-perform girls in science but the difference is small. Generally speaking, the performance gap for “advanced,” as opposed to simple “proficiency” accentuates girls’ academic superiority, with science and history/social sciences the main exceptions.

Another broad conclusion is that the gender gap is narrowest among whites and Asians, and the most glaring among blacks and American-Indians. Statewide, more than 45% of all black males fail the writing SOLs; nearly 43% fail the math SOLs. Without question, the fact that so many blacks are economically disadvantaged plays a role here. But the under-performance of black males is so strong that other factors undoubtedly come into play.

The difference cannot be explained by the distribution of blacks in “bad” schools and other races in “good” schools. Larry Gross has compared the SOL pass rates for economically disadvantaged whites and blacks (not distinguishing between gender) in Henrico County elementary schools and the pattern remains depressingly the same in school after school. (See his data run here.)

I’m sure people can provide many different explanations for the academic plight of Virginia’s black males. Some will argue that institutional racism runs deeper than we ever imagined. I am more inclined to attribute the gap to different cultural attitudes and family structures among ethnic/racial groups, although I am open to the argument that both institutional and cultural factors may be at work. Whatever the explanation, we need to get to the bottom of it. In a technology-driven knowledge economy in which education is more critical than ever to attaining a middle-class lifestyle, it is frightening to think that half the black males going through school today are fated to live at the economic margins.

Plumbing the SOL Racial Gap

SOL_gapby James A. Bacon

Jim Weigand, also known on this blog as Hill City Jim, responded to my call yesterday for a crowd-sourcing of the Standards of Learning data to better understand the key drivers of educational performance. Why do some school systems show SOL pass rates that are so much higher than others? Clearly, the level of affluence and education in a school division plays a major role. But does that tell the whole story? Do some racial or regional groups put a higher or lesser premium on educational achievement than others? Do some school divisions simply do a better job?

One of the starkest demographic divisions in SOL performance is race. As Weigand crunched the numbers, white students statewide had an 84% pass rate on their SOLs while black students had a 63% pass rate — a racial gap of 21 percentage points. (Weigand did not run numbers for Asians, Hispanics or other ethnic/racial minorities.) Tragically, the low pass rate is an advance indicator that yet another generation of blacks will be relegated to the bottom of the educational and income hierarchy in the United States.

The big question is why. Does the SOL performance gap reflect inequalities in the distribution of resources in Virginia school systems? Does it reflect different cultural attitudes among blacks — an aversion to “acting white”? Or are other factors responsible — subtler forms of institutional racism, perhaps, or the distribution of races between wealthy and poor regions of the state? Liberals and conservatives will be tempted to revert to their default ideological positions (liberals skew to resources/racism explanations, conservatives tend to blame black cultural attitudes) but this is too important to leave to ideology. We need reality-based answers so we can address real problems, not philosophical figments.

I have refined Weigand’s numbers with an eye to identifying outliers: the 10 school divisions with the smallest racial performance gaps and the 10 divisions with the largest gaps. Interestingly enough, the tiny West Point school system is an extreme outlier. In yesterday’s analysis, the mill town showed the second highest SOL composite pass rate of any system in the state. In today’s data, it is the one school system in Virginia where black students marginally out-performed white students! Once again, I challenge an enterprising newspaper reporter to take a close look at the West Point school system to see what’s going on there.

Other observations from the outliers:

  • School divisions with small gaps in racial performance are smaller school systems. Are these divisions more thoroughly integrated by virtue of having fewer schools? If you’ve got only one high school in the jurisdiction, it has to be integrated. Or are there other ways in which smaller school systems could lead to more egalitarian results?
  • The smallest-gap school divisions also tend to come from poor regions of the state. If everyone is poor together, perhaps there are fewer racial disparities in household income and education.
  • The biggest-gap school divisions skew more urban. And what’s going on in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, both of which appear on the list of school divisions with the biggest racial gaps? That is not what we’d expect from school systems that serve children of University of Virginia faculty and administrators.

Looking at outliers is a useful exercise but it will take us only so far. We need to look at the distribution of SOL performance across all school systems, including those closer to the mean. It’s also worth exploring other performance gaps — how about the gap between Asians and everyone else, including whites? How about the gender gap? To what degree do girls out-perform boys statewide? And what about the gender gap within racial groups? Is that gap greater in some ethnic or regional cultures (inner-city black, white Appalachian) than others?

If you want to take this analysis to the next level, you can access Weigand’s numbers here. Or, please, bring fresh data to the discussion.

Identifying the Education X Factor

by James A. Bacon

The 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) scores are in, and it appears that Virginia’s school divisions made decent improvements in mathematics over the past year while losing ground marginally in reading, writing, science and history. Bottom line: Virginia students tread water another year.

Here are the percentage pass rates across all grades and schools systems. (The cells highlighted in blue reflect old tests, which were changed in 2012-13 to make them more rigorous.)

SOLs
Another year running in place — that’s demoralizing. Can we find some seeds of succor? There are a few. I plowed through the data released by the Virginia Department of Education and compiled composite pass scores for every school district. The highest possible score — a 100% pass rate for all five subjects — is 500. I pulled out the school districts with an average pass rate of 80%, hardly a world-beating performance but at least sufficient to prosper in a knowledge-based economy.

top_SOLs

As one would expect, affluent Northern Virginia cities and counties, which have some of the highest median incomes and highest average levels of education in the country, stood out in this list of the top-24 performing school districts.

But there are some pleasant surprises, most notably West Point, a small mill town on the York River and one of only two towns in Virginia that maintains its own school district. The median household income in 2010 fell short of $50,000 — less than half that of Loudoun County, Virginia’s most prosperous locality. (Although incomes are not high, poverty is very low in the town — less than 3.0%.)

How do the school children of a small, southern mill town out-perform super-affluent localities such as Loudoun, Arlington and Fairfax Counties? It could be a fluke — the town’s population is only 3,300. Maybe the outstanding performance was the result of random variation, which create wider swings in smaller numbers. Or maybe West Point schools are doing something right that others could emulate. Some enterprising newspaper reporter should find out.

Other stand-outs are schools in the Roanoke Valley. Roanoke County, Salem and Botetourt County schools all scored in the top twelve. Those school districts are significantly larger than West Point’s, so it’s harder to attribute such consistently high scores to random fluctuations.

Even more surprising is the performance of school divisions in far Southwest Virginia. Wise County, which racked up scores equal to Fairfax County, sits in the heart of Virginia’s economically ravaged coalfields. This is deepest, darkest Appalachia. Scott County and Washington County, also in Southwest Virginia, performed in line with affluent exurban school districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions.

Again, one must ask the question: How do these school systems beat the odds? They have fewer resources. Students’ parents have lower incomes and less education than in more affluent districts. The bromides about what determines school performance — spending per student, socio-economic status and education levels of the students’ parents — provide an incomplete explanation at best. What is that X factor? Can we capture it, bottle it and share it with other school districts?

I would love to crowd-source the analysis of these questions. For anyone who is interested in digging into the numbers, here they are: