Are SW Virginia Schools Doing Something Right?

Abingdon Elementary School in Abingdon, Va.

by James A. Bacon

Yesterday I published a map showing the proficiency of Virginia schools broken down by census district. Schools in Western and Southwestern Virginia fared remarkably well, often competitive with schools in the affluent suburban neighborhoods of the state’s big metropolitan areas. Reader Frank Kilgore has responded with some additional data from the 2019 Region VII Performance Report that puts school performance in Southwest Virginia (Region VII) in a flattering light.

Some highlights:

  • Percentage of economically disadvantaged students — 55.5% compared to 40.4% state average, second highest of eight regions. (Southside has the highest percentage.)
  • Students with disabilities — 15.3% compared to 13.2% statewide, second highest of eight regions. (Southside has the highest rate.)
  • Per pupil funding — $10,404 per student compared to $12,032 state average. (Lowest in the state.)
  • Staffing ratios — 11.4 students per teacher compared to 12.8-to-one state average. (Best in the state.)
  • Beginning teacher salaries — $35,900 compared to $41,200 state average. (Lowest in the state.)
  • Math Standards of Learning pass rate in 2019 — 82.8% compared to 77% state average. (Best in the state.)
  • Reading SOL pass rate in 2019 — 81.2% compared to 77.3% state average. (Best in the state.)

Southwest Virginia schools also had the highest average SOL pass rates for science, history and writing. Despite the high poverty rate, SW Virginia has the the highest percentage of fully accredited schools of any region.

Bacon’s bottom line: When you have as many travails as Southwest Virginia does, you brag about what you can. In this case, SW Virginia, all of which lies within rural Appalachia, has a lot to proud of. Despite the high incidence of poverty and disabilities, the dearth of economic opportunity, and (not included in these statistics) the lower-than-average educational attainment of the general population, K-12 schools and their students manage to excel.

First set of questions: Are SW Virginia schools doing more with less? In one sense, yes. Per-pupil funding and teacher salaries are considerably lower than the statewide average. On the other hand, the region has a much lower cost of living. If adjusted for a cost of living, how would per-pupil funding and teacher salaries compare? The fact that SW Virginia schools have a better staff/teacher ratio than the state average suggests that, despite less funding per pupil, schools can still afford to hire more teachers and staff. On the other hand, the numbers don’t tell us how much of that “staff” translates into teachers in the classroom versus support staff and administration, or how much lower staff/student ratios actually contribute to better teaching.

Second set of questions: Insofar as SOL performance is correlated with socioeconomic status and the presence of disabilities, Southwest Virginia schools have a tougher job than anywhere else in Virginia but Southside. On the other hand, Southwest Virginia has the highest percentage of white students (91.98% compared to the state average of 48.4%) and lowest percentage of minorities. That means schools have fewer students coping with English as a non-native language and fewer students struggling with the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and racism. What would school performance look like if we could adjust for all of these factors?

Depending on the answers to these two sets of questions, Southwest Virginia may have lessons to impart to the rest of the state on how to do K-12 right. If the SW Virginia schools use the same or fewer resources as other schools, and if their demographic pros and cons proved to be a wash, other Virginians might want to see what they do differently and better.

Inhabitants of far Southwestern Virginia often say, “People in the Richmond think the state ends at Roanoke.” And they often observe that they are closer to seven or eight other state capitals than to Richmond. Who knows, deeper analysis might show that to be a blessing, not a curse.

Update: Matt Hurt, director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program in Wise, addresses several of the questions and points made above in the comments. Summary: The consortium of SW Virginia schools empowers teachers, shares best practices, and uses data to drive decision-making.

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18 responses to “Are SW Virginia Schools Doing Something Right?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    the thing about schools in rural areas is that there are much few multi-school districts where the individual schools are aligned with “neighborhood” income/education demographics.

    In other words everyone and their dog goes to the same school no matter their parents lot in life and the schools are set up to serve BOTH the at-risk kids AND the kids of higher income/higher education AND – EVERYONE gets “bused”!

    AND… That is the idea behind busing economically disadvantaged kids from their homes to schools in economically advantaged neighborhood schools.

    Equity IS – access to the SAME opportunities. If you don’t have that then you don’t really have equal opportunities.

    1. That’s a hypothesis worth examining.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    This data and the map shows the complexity involved in the issue of how to improve K-12 education.

    The irony is that this situation may be a good example of the axiom, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Southwest Virginia apparently does a good job of educating its children, who then are able to leave the area in search of better jobs and opportunity.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Years ago, I had an interesting conversation with two Virginia state senators; one from Fairfax County and one from SW VA. The latter told me that many parents had mixed feelings about education for their kids. They wanted them to get good educations but, at the same time, didn’t, because they knew many of them would move away. Having lived away from my grandparents, parents, brothers, uncles, aunts, etc., since 1976, I realize the price one often pays for moving for career. And my wife paid a similar price for a similar decision. Our kids paid a price too.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        How right you are in your comment. You have just put your finger on one of the greatest primary reasons why our society and culture are falling apart, people anxious, empty inside, neurotic, lost and depressed, creating whole new industries of healthcare that cannot fix the real problem, except perhaps by pills often doing more harm than good. And nobody, save you, will talk about it, except to extent they demean those who know what so many of the rest of us have lost.

        In addition, you can be sure this has a great deal to do with all of Virginia’s failing schools, and those that despite all else, succeed.

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        TMT’s above comment fits in nicely with following comment I made here earlier, namely:

        Reed Fawell 3rd | March 21, 2019 at 9:39 am | Reply

        In short form, I want to tie in Steve’s and Jim’s above comments with my own above comments, try to show how the all these comments mesh and work together.

        One should never count on the kindness of strangers.

        Similarly, one should never count on the competence and caring of strangers. Indeed, in all matters large and small, one should be wary of strangers. There is a sensible balance here, but its most always best with strangers to go short on trust and long on verify, until trust is verified.

        We all know these rules instinctively. So, living one’s life amid strangers is inherently stressful, harmful and dangerous. Hence now, more and more, we are able to see why our culture, our communities and our health is falling apart for ever more Americans as they increasingly become atomized individuals, strangers in the own land.

        The internet feeds these trends, as do many other false realities that are now flooding our post modern world. Thus there is a growing need of ever more American to reconnect with their real world, rebuild their lost networks and relationships with real living people in their homes, communities, and at work. Only by actively meeting and engaging with real people, building trust among as many people and factions and institutions, can we as human beings learn, grow, thrive.

        For more go to:

      3. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

        And yet, as a rural person, I keep getting told that those who want things like broadband must move to the city…that anyone with gumption and good sense would leave the rural areas behind. I keep hearing that no one wants to spend money for anything in rural areas. They want us to either pay for what we can afford to have or do without (think broadband). And they don’t understand that they got broadband by taking our workers to urban areas, leaving us with less telephone service. It’s OK for our resources to go to them, but not for them to ever share with us.

        Even those with ties to the land are having increasing challenges making a living in rural areas. Folks like the idea of rural living but aren’t willing to help make it realistic/possible.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      But Dick – given the realities – the better outcome for those kids is a good education that gets them a job – even if it’s not where they grew up.

      One of the significant difference between urban and rural is the rural family connections to the land. A lot of rural folks return to their roots at some point whereas city folks are forever nomads or “transplants”!!!!

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Jim says:

    “On the other hand, Southwest Virginia has the highest percentage of white students (91.98% compared to the state average of 48.4%) and lowest percentage of minorities. That means schools have fewer students coping with English as a non-native language and fewer students struggling with the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and racism. What would school performance look like if we could adjust for all of these factors?”

    The answer to question posed by Jim’s last sentence (namely “What would school performance look like if we could adjust for all of these factors?”) is that the performance of these schools (as reflected in their current student performance today), would be the same, that is remain unchanged, irrespective of the number of students with English as a non-native language and/or students “struggling” with the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and racism” in these schools.

    That’s right, absolutely no change at all. This has been proven time and again in well performing schools that do the job for their kids they are tasked to do. Thus, the failure of kids performance is always with the adults in charge, not with their students.

    So the real question is, Why do we (the adults) keep raising these stereotypes insulting our students over and over again when history shows that these “minorities” perform at a high level (roughly equal to whites) when they are given a fair chance. That is when they are given what all American kids deserve, but far too often never get, namely excellently run schools with excellent teachers empowered by strong content driven curriculum effectively delivered in safe, disciplined environments, supported by engaged parents.

    On the flip side of the coin, there is another unfortunate reality at work in Virginia. The performance records of most kids in Virginia are tainted by Virginia’s SOL testing regime that grossly inflates the achievements of far too many Virginia students. This test is contrived by Virginia’s Department of Education to cook the books so as to hide the flaws in Virginia K-12 public school system.

    Here, however, one suspects that SW Virginia, like West Point, Virginia, has found ways to circumvent important negative learning elements of the state wide system.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Here are more elements that likely are at work in creating the success schools found in SW Virginia and West Point Virginia, as I earlier pointed out on this blog, namely:

      Reed Fawell 3rd | March 20, 2019 at 2:06 pm | Reply

      Another fine article, Jim. You are on a roll.

      The larger narrative is that it’s easy and tempting to blame any bad result on a Oppression Narrative when that bad result is caused of the complainants own failed policies, activities, and ideologies that for generations leave in the wake folks who:

      1/ have not gotten married,
      2/ didn’t go to school to learn, so didn’t learn,
      3/ have fathered several children he hardly knows or not at all, or have birthed several or many children who live alone with her, and who were fathered by several different men long gone,
      4/ have a constant stream of lovers who abuse her and her children,
      5/ never go to church with their children or otherwise,
      6/ live alone and isolated in a crime and drug infested communities,
      7/ are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol,
      9/ are unemployable, refuse to work, or can’t keep a job, and
      10/ who themselves grew up in a broken community of failed relationships and toxic culture quite similar to the broken place they live in now.

      Such folks surely grew up as the children of an Oppressive Narrative. The question is who are the people who chronic refuse to fix that toxic culture that oppresses and destroys its own people and their children?

      Plus my additional follow on comments to the post that relate equally to health care and to education, as both work together like Ying and Yang namely:

      Reed Fawell 3rd | March 20, 2019 at 2:33 pm | Reply

      Let’s follow that line of thinking. For example:

      People who don’t go to church regularly for more prone to ill health and earlier death than those who do.

      People who don’t get and stay married are more prone to ill health and earlier death than those who do.

      People, particularly middle aged men, who are unemployed, for whatever reason, for more prone to ill health and earlier death than those who are.

      People who are married and have children are more prone to good health and longer life than those who do not.

      People who are deeply engaged in their communities, and its activities, are more prone to good health and longer life than those who do not.

      People who went to college are more prone to good health and longer life than those who did not.

      People who live chronically with financial, marital, or other social stress are more prone to poor health and earlier death than those who do not.

      Any society that discourages, prevents or demeans these beneficial habits, and/or celebrates, promotes or encourages these other harmful habits, is quite literally harming the health of citizens, and indeed often is killing its citizens or driving them to an earlier death. Hence, for example, the great spike of suicides in America.

      Another words, if you want to open your eyes to see, here here you will find the real Oppression Narrative going on in America.

      Reed Fawell 3rd | March 20, 2019 at 2:45 pm | Reply

      Here lies the real base reasons why American society, its culture, and increasingly most of its communities, today are falling apart.

      Race has nothing to do with this massive failure, although the disadvantaged (no matter their ethic makeup) were hit first and hardest and now what hit them earlier is spreading to all but the affluent within our society, say the top 10%.

      Identity politics is the scapegoat, the weapon, those seeking to take advantage of this massive failure of leadership grab now. The politicians, academics, crony capitalists, top 1o% hide behind.

      Again note that what is truly good for human health is also truly good for human education, and what is bad for human health is also bad for human education. Healthy human communities are good for all in almost every aspect of our lives. Conversely, unhealthy human communities are bad for us in almost all aspects of our lives.

      This is why the Russian male today on average lives for 57 years as I recall, a grossly low number. So this too is why we should be so greatly concerned with the shortening life span of American males, particularly white American males. Why? Is it because they are under cultural assault within many of our communities?

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        These unhealthy American social forces using toxic identity politics pushed by American higher and secondary education that devalues and demeans the American Male (white, Asian, Hispanic and black alike) is destroying the fabric of American society, and American communities in so many places. This also goes a long way towards explaining why males now typically drop out of high school (and even middle school learning) long before they “graduate from High School.”

        And it also explains why today’s American females make up 60% of those attending colleges and universities today. In short, today’s educational system in America, corrupted from its top to its bottom, is despoiling American society from its top to its bottom.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think good education of local citizens creates “jobs” in that locale. If the rural economy only supports a minimal amount of jobs – education won’t change that.

    But rural kids often/usually have better prospects at getting a decent-enough education to be able to go to where the jobs are and get on the education conveyor belt to improve their opportunities once they are in a job-rich area.

    That’s a different thing that a kid who lives in a low-income neighborhood and the local school is overwhelmed by so many low-income students that “failure” can mean “graduate” illiterate – essentially educationally disabled and stunted for life if they do not have access to remediation.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      But poor kids in urban-suburban areas in Virginia get access to more taxpayer-funded, school resources than do kids coming from higher income families in the same school division. I post this over and over. And it’s ignored over and over.

      They get federal Title 1 money. They get state money for low-income schools. And many localities provide additional funding. They have much smaller class sizes – often 15-16 as contrasted to as many as 30 in “wealthy” schools. There are extra reading and math teachers, most especially in the lower grades. Many of these classrooms have a teachers aide.

      When do students and their parents become responsible for their own success or failure? Where is the commitment to take advantage of these resources? And if neither the kids nor their parents are interested in taking advantage of these extra resources, why is society responsible?

      A contract, even a social contract, requires both parties to agree to, and comply with, their obligations. Mo money, mo money is not a correct or fair answer.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “If the rural economy only supports a minimal amount of jobs – education won’t change that.”

    Dead wrong. Real Education or its lack is never a zero sum game. A town’s growth or collapse most always is a direct result of the will, energy, inventiveness, and creativity of its citizens, or their lack of such qualities. All communities are in constant state of flux, up or down, and rarely sideways for long.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    When I finished 4th grade, I was attending a private school in Bethesda, Md. where all schools, public and private, do very well. Then we moved to central West Virginia and I went to public school for fifth grade and it was a shocker. I had taken French in Maryland and when I asked about it, I was told, “Why? You won’t be needing it.” The math was all very rote. As for English as a Foreign Language, despite the fact that almost all the kids were white, I had trouble with the dialect. “Picture,” for instance, became “Pitcher.”
    I have no idea how things are in Southwest Virginia although I spent a bit of time there about seven years ago when I was researching a book. But somehow all these suggestions I read for coal-country’s good fortune with schools gives me pause. They fit into a certain kind of mind set I would rather not go into. One explanation is that they must be more with little, therefore let’s cut salaries and supplies to the bone. Or, they are all white and there’s no cumbersome diversity with unruly black kids and Hispanics who can’t speak English. Sorry but that seems to be the narrative here. That wasn’t the case for me in Appalachia 57 years ago.l Hopefully, things have changed.

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    One more thing. If memory serves, the cost of living — rent/mortgage — is much cheaper in rural Southwest Va. So, it seems it would be much harder for a teacher inn Fairfax to live as well. That kinda skewers the “Pay less, do more” argument.

  8. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Not everyone has given up on good jobs in rural America.

    The foundation is based in Helena, MT and also has a Washington, D.C. office.

  9. Posted on behalf of Matt Hurt, director, Comprehensive Instructional Program, in Wise:

    Please allow me to introduce myself. I am the director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program. This consortium of public school divisions began in Region VII which comprises 19 divisions in southwest Virginia. As our successes have materialized and other folks caught wind, our consortium has grown to 41 divisions across the Commonwealth. I am the person who put together the data and the presentation you linked in this article.

    Thanks very much for posing those questions. I really appreciate when folks question such things, because we want to leave no stone unturned in the quest for improving student achievement as measured by Virginia’s SOL tests. Please consider the following.

    • Cost of living- I have no idea how to control for this. I have not found any good statistics for comparison of one part of the state to another. If you know of any that are relevant, please let me know.

    • Student-teacher ratios- this is typically lower when we have large numbers of really small schools. The geography in more rural areas dictate school boards have to balance school construction costs, student transportation times, and the public desire to maintain schools in their historic communities. Given that the localities on our end of the state are so cash strapped, the idea of building new schools in central locations to more efficiently utilize staff is but a pipe dream. Therefore, salaries are lower due to the fact that we have to employ more teachers as well as the low overall funding.

    • We have conducted a number of correlational analysis to determine the potential impact student economic disadvantagement, minority enrollments, and English Language Learner (students who speak English as a second language, if at all) enrollments have on SOL performance. The results of the correlations are linked above, and they demonstrate a significant but relatively weak correlation to enrollments of students who are minority as well as students who are economically disadvantaged. Most years, there was no significant correlation between English Language Learner enrollments and SOL performance, and when there was, it was extremely weak.

    When we noticed the successes earned in our part of the state, we asked a lot of our folks what they felt were the secrets to this success. Below are those things that folks felt made it happen.

    • We put teachers in charge of our instructional decisions. Each year, school divisions in our consortium submit a list of teachers to serve on our curriculum teams, and they make all of the decisions collectively regarding our pacing of instruction as well as our common assessments.

    • We provide many opportunities for teachers and administrators to collaborate with their peers across school and division boundaries to share best practices.

    • We use data to a great degree to identify what is working with our students and then communicate that to everyone else. We also use the data to help inform expectations, as well as to monitor our progress during the year and from year to year.

    Thanks again for posing those questions.

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