Beyond Money and Good Intentions — K-12 Needs Data-Driven Innovation

jlarc_schoolsby James A. Bacon

Two markers yesterday from the never-ending debate over K-12 education:

  1. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued a report on efficiency and effectiveness of Virginia’s K-12 spending. The main finding: Virginia school divisions spent 7% less per student in FY 2014 than they did in FY 2005. Schools scrimped by employing fewer teachers per student, limiting teacher salary growth and requiring teachers to pay a higher percentage of health insurance and retirement benefit costs. Cutting spending, the authors implied, was a bad thing. “There is support in the research literature,” they wrote, “that such reductions can negatively impact instructional effectiveness.”
  2. The XQ Institute published a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal announcing a contest to award $50 million to five teams willing to re-think and build the high school of the future. “In the last 100 years, our nation has radically transformed. We’ve gone from a Model T to a Tesla, and a switchboard to a smartphone. But our schools have stayed frozen in time. … Let’s create a place that builds brains and stirs hearts and treats our nation’s students like a most valuable national resource. A place that explores a new kind of intelligence, the kind of thinking that’s challenging, creative, and endlessly relevant.” (Read more about the XS Super School project here.)

Virginia schools, like most across the country, remain captive to the idea that the quality of education is commensurate with the level of inputs — teachers, support staff, facilities — into the system. Given the rigid, rules-driven nature of the system we have built in Virginia, there may be some truth to that view, although I cannot help noting that the Department of Education has been crowing recently about how Virginia high school students have been exhibiting gains in SAT and ACT college-preparedness scores over the past five years, so spending cuts need not necessarily lead to deleterious results.

One of the mandates in the JLARC report was to examine Virginia’s experience with online learning. The report’s conclusions were limited: Online learning does cost less than educating a child in a physical school but there is a problem with students not completing their courses. Perhaps the most disturbing conclusion is that it is difficult to evaluate online education because Virginia’s school system captures little relevant data:

There is currently no reliable statewide information comparing the performance of similar students at virtual and physical schools. There is also no accurate statewide method to estimate how much funding the state should provide for virtual learning.

Compare that to the approach advocated by XQ Schools: Super School teams will self-assemble, immerse themselves in the leading thinking and research, investigate how students learn what they need to learn, and build a school from scratch based upon those principles. Technology is part of the equation but only a part. States the website: “Teaching has to be innovative, and this doesn’t just mean bringing new technologies or the hottest theoretical approach into the classroom. … Successful schools build a culture of performance, in which everyone is accountable for student success and use information to assess progress, flag problem areas, and identify opportunities and solutions.”

I would nominate Craig Larson, an associate professor in math at Virginia Commonwealth University, to organize one of those super teams. He penned an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch urging a more data-driven approach to deciding what works and what doesn’t in Virginia schools.

The City of Richmond’s new school superintendent, Larson writes, has introduced an Academic Improvement Plan that did not appear to be based upon any research. “With a $271 million annual budget, RPS should be doing more substantial research. And this research should show up in … reports; it should be discussed by School Board members; and it should make it to the paper and the news, and be discussed by interested citizens.”

It’s not enough to have good intentions, says Larson. Virginians need a cultural change. “We need to expect our school leaders to have this knowledge. We need to ask them for data at every School Board meeting. … We should expect to read about ideas based on data every time we read the paper.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia can follow one of two paths. We can continue teaching the same way we have for decades, only spending more money to do so, or we can encourage innovation, experimentation and data-driven analysis of results to achieve radical gains in efficiency and effectiveness.

Virginia is playing small ball. According to the JLARC report, school efficiency reviews have been conducted for 43 school divisions, yielding 3,300 recommendations and $37.5 million in annual savings. That’s out of $15.7 billion spent, or about two-tenths of one percent. Tweaking maintenance practices for school buses may be laudatory and worthwhile, but it’s not going to change students’ readiness for the world that awaits.

We need to think bigger, think more creatively and be more rigorous in our analysis of what works.

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  1. Andrew Roesell Avatar
    Andrew Roesell

    Dear Jim, The whole modern approach to education is wrong. Like modern land-use, there is no continuity with the past; it is economically utilitarian and irreligious and has no place for aesthetics. It is for these reasons, and others, that people seek private schooling and homeschooling. We live in a “high tech dark age” in terms of real learning, no matter how “data driven” it, indeed, is.

  2. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    I believe the JLARC report was designed to come to the conclusion…Mo’ Money! I expect when the Governor releases his budget in December he will be quoting both subject and verse from this report…hide your billfolds!

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      And we see yet another way Fairfax County taxpayers will be screwed. No more education money until the funding standards are revised to reflect fully the differences in cost of living around the state and local real estate taxes in RoVA go up accordingly.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    well the JLARC report is 173 pages… and they say this early on:

    ” Instructional efficiency cannot be reliably assessed
    Whether divisions use instructional funding efficiently to achieve instructional goals cannot be reliably assessed. There are no well-established benchmarks either for what constitutes an efficient level of instructional spending or for the resources students need to achieve instructional goals, such as the optimal ratio of teachers to students in each class. ”

    We do know that many schools in Va spend more, some far more than the state mandates to meet staffing levels for SOL courses.

    Many schools offer many courses that are not SOL courses.

    Henrico, for instance, spends about 90 million dollars more than the State requires them to spend on providing resources for SOLs.

    what they spend it on – is usually not disclosed in a way that taxpayers can see what the courses are and how much they cost.

    Not only does the State not pay for these courses, they don’t cover health care, pensions or raises. So localities that hire instructors not covered by the SOQs – pay ALL of the costs… those teachers are far more expensive than SOQ teachers… but taxpayers have no idea which teachers are required and which are not – they’re all categorized as “instruction”.

  4. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    Here in Lynchburg, for this year’s budget, our Required Local Expenditure (RLE) is $18.7 million. We give them that plus another $18.7 million and then we give them $3.6 million more. All for operations only, no debt service or Capital Outlay is included in those amounts.

    They give us, according to, the 125th worst school division of the 131 that they rank.

    When you complain that the taxpayers are not getting their monies worth, the Educrats response is “don’t you care about the children…children are our future, blah, blah, blah.

    So now you are telling me that besides providing this “free and appropriate” public schooling we need to fund the Community Colleges and soon we will need to fund the 4 year schools. Will the instructors work for free? Gas & Electric companies give us free service? Maybe we can all go on Oprah and get stuff for free! Wasn’t it Dire Straights that sang “money for nothing, and your chicks for free”.

    My Mayor said today of the JLARC report “we need more state money.”
    Sew up your pocketbooks!

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