A Simple Statement of Fact about the Public Schools

by James C. Sherlock

I know. Schools. Again.

But Virginia’s schools have been shown to be getting worse faster than those of other states.

Perhaps we should do something.

Read the National Assessment Board’s press release from June 21st. One paragraph drew my attention:

The LTT assessments in reading and math measure fundamental skills among nationally representative, age-based cohorts and have been administered since 1971 and 1973, respectively.

Students were generally making progress until 2012, when scores started declining.

Scores took a sharp downturn during the pandemic. Today, the average score for 13-year-olds on the LTT reading assessment is about where it was in 1971.

Despite the large decline in math, the average score in 2023 remains higher than in 1973.

Declining since 2012 nationwide.

Virginia’s have been declining since 2017. In a hurry.

The Nation’s Report Card, a federal Department of Education program, uses the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been administered since 1969.

Take a look at the national results. Then look at Virginia results. They conform, except Virginia’s are getting worse faster.

Some still remember “Virginia has great public schools.” That was true as late as 2017. Relatively speaking.

But no more.

2017. In 2017, as measured by the NAEP, the difference between Virginia public schools and national public schools in Grade 4 was:

  • In math: nine points higher (a 248 score) than the national average.
  • In reading: seven points higher (a 228 score).

Both were rated above average nationally.

2022. Performance trends in 2022 showed a significant decrease for Grade 4 in math and reading in both average scores and achievement levels from the previous year.

Virginia 4th graders are now average nationally in both subjects.

In grade 8, Virginia students still scored significantly higher in math in 2022 than the national average, but were average nationally in reading.

But even those declines in relative performance do not tell the full tale.

In Virginia,

  • fourth graders reading at or above basic level declined from 74% in 2017 to 60% in 2022.
  • 77% of eighth graders read at or above basic level in 2017.  That declined to 65% in 2022.

In 2023, for which the state results are not yet posted, student long-term performance in both math and reading declined yet again for 13-year-olds.

Reading. The famous reading wars in English-speaking countries were between the teaching of reading with phonics and various non-phonics approaches.

A Congressionally-mandated National Reading Panel was assembled and reported (page 2-92) in 2020 using a meta analysis approach that:

Findings provided solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children’s growth in reading than alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction.

The Virginia Literacy Act of 2022 and Gov. Youngkin’s VDOE’s implementation of it is a step forward.

The resulting “Recommended Core Instructional Program Guide” for 2023 critiques even the instructional programs offered by major vendors that are recommended for approval by school divisions.

I suspect that putting programs from the likes of McGraw Hill on the not-recommended list was not in the cards.

But the review does not pull punches. It directly criticizes some of those programs centered around insufficient phonics instruction. VDOE gets it. The side-by-side comparison should deter school divisions from the ones that are weaker.

Well done.

SEL. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) has really taken hold, with organizations like the Orwellian-named Committee for Children and the influential CASEL, the go-to VDOE reference, pushing it.

SEL is certainly intrusive. See Systemic Implementation.

SEL is woven into all students’ educational experiences. More than a single lesson or activity, SEL is integrated across key settings where students live and learn: classrooms, schools, homes, and communities.

It is also widespread. VDOE reports:

Seventy-six percent of principals and 53 percent of teachers nationally reported that their schools used a social and emotional learning (SEL) program or SEL curriculum materials in the 2021–2022 school year.

Indeed, the 2020 Virginia General Assembly and Governor Northam made SEL mandatory. They proclaimed it would advance excellence, equity, and inclusion.

HB 753, Social-emotional learning, was passed by the 2020 General Assembly. Signed by the governor, it directed his VDOE to:

develop guidance standards for social-emotional learning for all public students in grades kindergarten through 12.

In compliance, the Northam VDOE established a uniform definition of social-emotional learning and developed the Virginia Guidance SEL Standards.

That standards document anticipates:

Higher achievement test scores (+14 percent)

No footnote was offered in support of that prediction.

Now neither the current VDOE list of things the data say about SEL nor the data sources listed in that same document cite improved academic outcomes among its expected advantages.

VDOE recommendations to improve the public schools. VDOE, in response to 2022 House Bill 938, this month publishedRecommendations of the Secretary of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to promote excellence and higher student achievement in response to House Bill 938.”

Its charter was prescribed very narrowly by the General Assembly to avoid any discussion of school choice.

Bottom line. Overall, the NAEP results are discouraging. A very deep hole has been dug.

For reading instruction, both the Virginia Literacy Act of 2022 and the Youngkin VDOE’s implementation of it are promising and show conviction.

That is the end of the good news.

The biggest declines in NAEP scores — the ones that drag the state averages down — as in every other standardized test set, are among poor minority children.

Those kids are not only statistics, they are children.

The local schools for too many poor minority kids remain abysmal. Some have been getting worse, not better, for years, not just during COVID. Many go from bad neighborhoods to bad schools in bad school divisions.

SEL, designed to help them, so far has proven at best irrelevant to academic learning.

School divisions are dysfunctional in many urban districts, captives of teachers unions, not serving parents and kids. Unlike in many other states, in Virginia those kids effectively have no options to their local public schools. They and their parents have no choices.

Only three actions will help transform their opportunities:

  1. a change to the state constitution mandating school choice, for which options include open enrollment, charter schools and vouchers;
  2. a change to the constitution enabling the state to take control of failed school divisions, as most states have; and
  3. Better enforcement of existing laws. Kids need to be safe in their neighborhoods and schools. They need to actually go to school rather than be chronically absent. Those are all matters for law enforcement and social services under current law, but they are also undeniably school quality and academic outcome issues.

Anything else is magical thinking.