Audit Skewers Arlington’s Virtual Learning Fiasco

Photo Credit: Thomas Park on Unsplash by way of the Sun Gazette.

by James A. Bacon

An internal audit of Arlington Public Schools’ calamitous virtual-learning program during the 2021-22 school year cut school leaders no slack.

“There was insufficient or minimal ownership, leadership . . . stakeholder input, planning, risk assessment, pilot study and progress reports,” John Mickevice told School Board members, as reported by the Sun Gazette. Among the key findings:

  • The school system “lacked a formal project plan” to implement the program;
  • Those leading the program provided “no timely feedback” to upper-level school leaders when things began to go south;
  • There was not sufficient time given for staffing the program and training that staff.

When Arlington schools reopened during the COVID epidemic last year, about 3% of the student body enrolled in the Virtual Learning Program (VLP). The program was “mired in chaos,” according to the Sun-Gazette, dealing with a major leadership departure and a lack of effective communication between students’ families and the school system. Some students were effectively deprived of a month or more of education.

Superintendent Francisco Durán blamed others. Time “was too short to really plan this program,” he said. “Evolving health conditions and state/federal regulations and guidance were continually evolving,” he added.

But the Arlington Parents for Education were less forgiving. “The School Board and superintendent received this information as if they were distant spectators to a car wreck, rather than some of the responsible actors whose conduct – or lack thereof – led directly to this failure,” the organization said.

First amendment on vacation. Meanwhile, reports the Sun-Gazette in a separate article, the last School Board meeting during the summer will not open up to public comment, as it usually is. “We are not taking public comment during the summer meetings,” said Chairman Reid Goldstein, explaining that the time saved will allow the School Board to “focus on conducting the necessary business promptly.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Arlington school officials may have dropped the ball on virtual learning, but they have been unrelenting in their pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion. Unfortunately for Black students, that’s worked out about as well the Virtual Learning Program has. Over the past five years, the Black-White divide in educational achievement has gotten worse, much worse.

Drawing upon Virginia Department of Education data, I compared the gap between the pass rate for White students and Black students taking Standards of Learning English reading exams in 2015-16 and 2021-22:

Arlington 2015-16: 21 percentage-point gap
Arlington 2020-21: 33 percentage-point gap

The racial gap got wider statewide as well, but by only a fraction.

State 2015-16: 20 percentage-point gap
State 2020-21: 24 percentage-point gap

(Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly labeled the racial gap for the 2020-21 school year as 2021-22. The 2021-22 SOL data has not yet been published.)

Indeed, after five years of emphasis on equity, Arlington has gone from having a Black-White gap only slightly higher than the statewide average to having a gap exceeding the state-wide average by nine percentage points.

These are the results you get when you have a school system run by ideologues who deflect blame to others and limit feedback from the public.

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15 responses to “Audit Skewers Arlington’s Virtual Learning Fiasco”

  1. Evolving health conditions and state/federal regulations and guidance were continually evolving…

    “Give it up for Captain Obvious, everybody, the brilliant leader of Arlington’s Public Schools”

    1. Still the point is correct. Implementing major new rules in a large organization always involves a lot of confusion and these changes were enormous. On top of that when the rules are constantly changing it is a prescription for chaos, which is what we got, nationwide.

      Note: confusion during big rule changes has been my field for almost 50 years.

      1. Lefty665 Avatar

        Interesting vocation. To what do you attribute your longevity at spreading confusion during big rule changes? 🙂

        1. Well played, sir.

          1. Lefty665 Avatar

            Helping organizations make big technological changes was my career too, Hope that gives me standing to laugh at it, and myself, a little. Change is hard, most people don’t like it at all.

    2. Lefty665 Avatar

      That reminds me of something, what is it? Ah, I know, evolving, ie over time. The significance of the passage of time, continually evolving,“There is such great significance to the passage of time when you think of a day in the life of our children.” Arlington has found its muse in Kamala Obvious. It is almost as if she was encouraging Arlington to do more for its school children.

      There is some consolation. At least Arlington appears to believe in evolution, although I’ve never heard it used as an excuse before. If we had not evolved these damned opposed thumbs no one would have expected anything from us.

  2. Arlington’s White Supremacists school board members’ plans are moving forward as planned….

  3. There are two different articles here, one on pandemic learning and the other on the black-white divide. Whether there is any connection is an interesting question.

    On the pandemic learning side, in fairness this was an unprecedented emergency situation of very large scale. A great deal of confusion is to be expected, and accepted.

    I have what I call the “novelty index” which says the greater the novelty in an activity, the greater the confusion predicted. This is certainly true in “issue driven situations”. If you do not know what you will be thinking about 24 hours ahead, because of what might come up, then you are in an issue driven situation. The pandemic learning case had a very high novelty index.

    Aside: issue driven situations require a new system of management, which I call “chaos management”. Traditional management methods were developed 100 years ago for predictable situations, like making cars. Our lives are increasingly issue driven.

    1. The situation was chaotic. It’s fair to ask if other school districts encountered the same level of confusion as Arlington. If every county’s virtual learning program collapsed into chaos, that would left Arlington off the hook. If Arlington was an outlier, then school officials likely have only themselves to blame.

      1. Good question, but the levels of confusion may have varied a lot. I doubt Arlington was an outlier but they may well have been a relatively extreme case. It is a complex scientific question.

        I have done some work on measuring confusion when complex issues hit big organizations. It would be a fun study but I doubt the powers that be want to know how bad it was.

        My favorite example was the Aegis Cruiser shipbuilding program. The electronics were changing so fast that they lost track of what went onto each ship. Hard to train a crew when you do not know what is there.

        1. Lefty665 Avatar

          Moore’s law making it all obsolescent every 3 years has to be a stinker with stuff like Aegis. By the time it gets engineered, procured and coming out of the production pipeline it’s time to be replaced.

          Had a relative working on orbital stuff. He used to bitch that he could walk into Radio Shack and buy far better technology than was certified for use in space.

  4. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    It is the People’s Republic of Arlington. You expect much pushback from voters or even parents? Give the report authors points for honesty.

    Photo looks a lot like one of my grandsons, who was equally thrilled with the virtual approach in Henrico…

    1. I once heard a resident refer to it as Arlington, Vietnam – but that was in the early eighties before political correctness was a thing…

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    IIRC – recently Sherlock was lauding Virtual Virginia…

    ” The VDOE has made a commendable start with online learning through its Virtual Virginia classes. But these are available in only a handful of school districts, serving less than 2% of the commonwealth’s students. This system could become a major player, with serious funding from the General Assembly. (emphasis added)”

    Makes me wonder what happened when schools like Arlington went “virtual” and if parents had other options like Virtual Virginia or, etc.

    How can it be that Virtual Virginia does it so well and school districts like Arlington did it so badly?

    I remain an advocate for virtual learning but admit it’s got to be done right and more than a few school districts simply did not.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Well, first off everybody now in the virtual mode is a volunteer, wants to do it that way. Fall of 2020 not so much.

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