Category Archives: Education (K-12)

The Cost of Doing the Wrong Thing

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), an entity that normally restricts its focus to higher education, has issued a report calling for reforming Virginia’s educational system from stem-to-stern, from pre-K to higher ed. The report, “The Cost of Doing Nothing: An Urgent Call to Increase Educational Attainment in the Commonwealth,” is predicated on the common-sense analogy of an educational “pipeline.” As children and youth move through the educational system, each stage builds upon the stage preceding it. Virginia’s colleges and universities cannot remedy deficiencies in educational achievement that occur long before students apply to college.

The report makes a useful contribution to the public policy debate in Virginia by viewing investments in human capital as a “system” rather than as discrete silos such as pre-K, primary education, secondary education, workforce training, and higher education. Unfortunately, the authors reach the all-too-familiar conclusion that the system requires more programs, more initiatives and mo’ money from taxpayers at every juncture. Continue reading

Some Alternatives to Mo’ Money to Address the Teacher Shortage

Teacher Selena Erraziqi (left) and Sen. Tim Kaine at Stafford Middle School. Photo credit: Free Lance-Star

Last week, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, visited a middle school in Stafford County to discuss the nationwide teacher shortage and ways to increase “respect for the profession.” Kaine has sponsored federal legislation that would, among other things, provide loan forgiveness and other financial incentives to teachers in rural divisions and fund preparation programs at minority-serving institutions.

In a roundtable discussion with teachers, school administrators, school board members and others, Kaine asked for ideas that would strengthen his initiative. For many present, the answer is higher pay,” reported the Free Lance-Star. “I don’t want us to lose sight of the idea that we have to pay for what we value,” said Stafford School Board Vice Chairwoman Sarah Chase. “If we don’t pay enough, then we get what we pay for.”

It comes as no surprise that, if you ask educators how to deal with teacher shortages, they will put higher pay at the top of the list. But we live in the world we live in, in which teacher pay competes with a perceived need for more counselors and support staff, smaller classrooms, newer school buildings, and the like, while exponentially growing Medicaid expenditures are eating the state budget at the expense of other core state responsibilities. Continue reading

“It Is Becoming OK Not to Go to School”

Zenobia Bey

Zenobia Bey is CEO of Community 50/50, an organization dedicated to promoting “positive thinking” and “social skills” in Richmond inner-city youth. As a civic activist who works and lives in the community, she has a different take on the high dropout rate in Richmond Public Schools than what we hear from well-meaning white, middle-class politicians, journalists and pundits who pontificate about poverty from afar.

While the high school graduation rate has improved statewide since 2014, the graduation rate has declined from 84% to 75.4% for Richmond high school students. Richmond Public Schools have the worst dropout rate in the state. Clearly, the problem is related to the high incidence of poverty among Richmond school students. But poverty does not explain why the problem is getting worse — even as the Richmond School Board last spring suspended an attendance policy that would have put 400 students at risk of missing graduation.

Writes RVA Hub in an article about Richmond’s low graduation rate: Continue reading

Richmond Schools: a Social Justice Lab Test

Doubling down on the social justice model of education, the Richmond Public School system is replacing the principals of 11 of the city’s 44 schools with “social justice-minded leaders,” in the words of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The hiring of principals on the basis of social-justice criteria from an applicant pool of more than 200, combined with a commitment to social justice from the school superintendent, the school board, and the Virginia Department of Education, will provide a classic laboratory experiment for the efficacy of social justice principles.

The turnover in school principals, like that of teachers, is a perennial problem in Richmond, one of the most severely under-performing school districts in Virginia, even accounting for the high percentage of disadvantaged and disabled students. Last year saw 10 new principals. Continue reading

New Rules Make Year-to-Year SOL Comparisons Impossible

James F. Lane, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction

Fewer Virginia students will take end-of-course Standards of Learning (SOL) tests this spring due to revised regulations approved by the state Board of Education last year, making it impossible to compare school pass rates this year with the pass rates of previous years.

“This is a dramatic change in testing patterns,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane in a press release announcing the changes this morning. Pass rates for end-of course SOL tests in mathematics, science and history for 2018-2019 will mark the beginning of new trend lines, he added. “Comparing 2018-2019 pass rates with performance in 2017-2018 would be an apples-to-oranges exercise.”

The change comes after two years of falling SOL scores and revisions to Virginia Department of Education criteria for school accreditation. A third year of declining scores, especially in predominantly African-American schools, would have proved embarrassing for an educational establishment that has promised to narrow the white-black academic performance gap. It also would have called into question the efficacy of policies that de-emphasize traditional disciplinary policies in favor of a counseling-intensive, social justice approach. Continue reading

Qarni’s Agenda for Virginia Schools

Atif Qarni. Photo credit: Free Lance-Star

Governor Ralph Northam may have run as a political moderate, but his Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, embraces the proposition that America is profoundly racist and supports policies that would transform Virginia’s educational system accordingly.

Speaking at Brooke Point High School in Stafford County yesterday, Qarni called for schools to move away from standardized testing and focus on deeper learning. He wants to expand access to preschool in the Commonwealth. He wants to pay teachers more. He wants to hire more resource officers, psychologists, social workers, and counselors. And he wants to pay experienced teachers as much as 15% to 20% as incentive to teach in “high needs” schools.

Who would pay for all this? Virginia has concentrations of great affluence as well as great need, he said. State government should play a role in helping to ensure students all across the state have equal access to quality education, he added, as reported by the Free Lance-Star“It’s very, very critical to look through an equity lens.”

Underlying these sentiments is a view that America is systemically racist. Here’s what Qarni, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan with his family at the age of 10, wrote last month in Blue Virginia: Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Taxes, Crime and Schools

Cigarette taxes rarely yield projected revenues. A Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy study on cigarette taxes in Virginia has found: (1) cigarette taxes produce the most income the year they are imposed, then revenue declines in subsequent years; (2) over the long run, revenues rarely meet projections; and (3) convenience stores and small grocery stores don’t lose just cigarette sales when customers shop for better deals in neighboring jurisdictions, they lose the sale of incidentals. Conclusion: “Any short-term revenue gain often times comes at the expense of a long-term decline in sales and diminished economic activity.”

Baltimore, scandal and violence. The super-prosperous Washington metropolitan statistical area is flanked by two smaller MSAs: Baltimore to the north and Richmond to the south. The core jurisdictions of each, the City of Baltimore and the City of Richmond, have similar demographics and similar challenges with inner-city poverty. But crime-ridden Baltimore is losing population while Richmond, though hardly Nirvana, is gaining residents. The Washington Post profiles Baltimore in an article headlines, “Weary of scandal and violence, Baltimore residents ask: ‘Why do we stay?'” The last time the WaPo paid attention to Richmond was to highlight the police force’s success, one of the best in the nation, in closing out murder cases. The crime rate is a critical variable in inner-city revitalization. Continue reading

Go, School Board, Go. Hold Their Feet to the Fire!

Wow, the Richmond School Board is asking some very pointed questions about the unexplained ballooning of costs to build three new schools for the Richmond Public School system. I’m impressed.

In a letter sent to the city’s procurement director and city engineer in charge of the construction projects, four school board members asked why the estimated $110 million construction cost leaped to $140 million in just five months. The spunky Richmond Free Press obtained a copy of the letter. City officials blew off the Free Press when its reporter inquired into the cost escalation, but it may be more difficult to ignore the school board members. Continue reading

Coming to a Classroom Near You: Lord of the Flies

In 2015 Virginia enacted a law requiring the Virginia State Board of Education to develop regulations limiting the use of involuntary seclusion and restraint as tools to maintain order in public school classrooms. The state now is close to finalizing the regulations, reports Community Ideas Stations.

Putting students in isolation or employing mechanical constraints should be used only “when there is a serious danger to the child or to others in the environment,” says Colleen Miller with the Disability Law Center of Virginia.

How widespread is the practice? In 2015 Chesterfield County reported secluding students a total of 80 times, and restraining students a total of 29 times. Henrico reported six instances of seclusion and 21 of restraint; the City of Richmond reported zero instances of seclusion and 41 of restraint. However, a public radio investigation suggests that actions are under-reported. An investigation uncovered hundreds of instances that never got reported in Fairfax County in 2015. Also, Powhatan and Hanover County public reported no cases to federal authorities. Continue reading

What Is Causing Teacher Churn?

Emma Clark, from her Twitter page

Emma Clark was an idealistic young woman who became a teacher at Boushall Middle School, a Richmond school where three in four students are eligible for government assistance. “I wanted to get into a high needs school because, to me, the whole point of getting into education was to try to create more equity of opportunity in our country,” she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “That meant teaching in a school where kids aren’t getting everything they deserve.”

After two and a half years of teaching civics, Clark left Boushall. She didn’t like the direction the school was heading under a new principal, she told the RTD. She would have liked to have transferred to another city school but a Richmond Public Schools policy prohibited teachers from transferring schools before they’ve taught for three years. She now teaches in Chesterfield County.

Desperate to reduce a teacher turnover rate of nearly 20% — compared to a national average of 11% to 13% — superintendent Jason Kamras has rescinded the policy. Better to let someone transfer within the system than to see them move to a school in Henrico, Chesterfield, or Hanover County.

Teacher turnover is a chronic issue in Richmond Public Schools, as it is at many other low-performing school districts. (And by “low performing,” I mean schools where standardized test scores fall below the level expected based on the percentage of students classified as disadvantaged or disabled.) But it astonishes me how little attention is given, either by school administrators or local media, as to why turnover is so high. City schools attract many idealistic young teachers who want to make a difference — they just don’t stay long. Continue reading

Why Teachers Leave Schools

John Butcher (aka Cranky) has brought to my attention a pilot exit questionnaire for teachers administered back in January 2017. The questionnaire, given to teachers leaving five “geographically and demographically diverse” school divisions, yielded 212 responses. The pilot project field tested a more comprehensive survey designed to gauge a perennial problem in Virginia public schools — teacher turnover — for purposes of analysis in future state Superintendent’s annual reports.

The results, as preliminary as they are, are fascinating. Of the 50 or so reasons teachers listed for leaving their positions, four clusters predominated: personal, such as retirement or a decision to relocate; salary (presumably too low); workload and poor learning climate; and lack of support from administration.

It will not surprise reader’s of Bacon’s Rebellion that I am particularly interested in two closely inter-related factors, “school culture and climate” and “student discipline/behavior.” Each of these factors was listed by one out of four teachers as a reason for leaving their jobs. Continue reading

Innovation Sharing in Virginia Schools

Virginia School Consortium for Learning logo

This may be the most promising initiative I’ve seen coming out of Virginia’s educational establishment in a couple of years. Press release from the Virginia Department of Education:

Teams of educators from 31 school divisions gathered last week [in Chesterfield County] to share ideas on how to accelerate innovation and promote deeper learning in the commonwealth’s public schools. The educators make up the first cohort of the Virginia Is for Learners Innovation Network. …

The innovation network’s goals are to promote deeper learning at all grade levels and to align instruction and assessment across the state with the expectations of the Profile of a Virginia Graduate. The profile — which was adopted by the state Board of Education in November 2016 — describes the knowledge, skills, attributes, and experiences identified by the board, higher education and employers as critical for future success.

Of course, the sharing of educational best practices does nothing to advance the Narrative of Endemic Racism, so it’s not surprising that we read nothing of it in any of Virginia’s newspapers. I didn’t attend the gathering, so I can’t vouch for the quality of ideas exchanged. But the meeting sounds like a win-win proposition.

Richmond Schools Weaken Anti-Truancy Initiative

Attendance officer Breon Eppes. Photo credit: Richmond Free Press

It has long been a pillar of Virginia education policy to increase the high school graduation rate. To advance that goal, several school districts have cracked down on students skipping school. The Richmond Public School system, for instance, has long employed a team of “school attendance officers” to round up truants and get them back into the classroom.

Then last year, in a move that generated little publicity, the General Assembly gutted a 20-year-old anti-truancy law. That bill, according to the Richmond Free-Press, did four things: It (1) doubled from five to 10 the number of days that a student could miss, (2) allowed schools to wait another 10 days before meeting with parents, (3) eliminated most of the authority of school attendance officers to be involved, and (4) allowed school districts to use volunteers instead of paid staff to work on attendance issues.

Now, with support from the Richmond school board, Superintendent Jason Kamras proposes to save $500,000 by eliminating 21 positions slotted for attendance officers and replacing them with seven “attendance liaisons.”

The Richmond Free-Press quoted Bacon’s Rebellion’s friend and comrade-in-arms John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog and the first person outside the educational establishment to notice the change:

Update: In an important comment, Dick Hall-Sizemore takes exception to the way the Richmond Free-Press characterized changes to the anti-truancy law, and suggests that the tweaks might have stemmed from issues specific to Fairfax County, and anything happening in Richmond was unintended consequence. Continue reading

Moral Measures, Skin in the Game, and K-12 Education

Four former state secretaries of education banded together to publish an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today in support of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal to raise real estate and cigarette taxes to fund the Richmond public school system’s strategic plan. In the op-ed they made a statement that is core to liberal thought:

The moral measure of any community is its commitment to investing in opportunities for its neediest citizens. About 40 percent of children in the city of Richmond live below the poverty line, and nearly three-quarters are economically disadvantaged. All of Richmond’s children deserve the opportunity to reach their potential to be contributing members of society. When that happens, our entire community will benefit.

The answer, of course, is mo’ money. The answer is always mo’ money.

I may not speak for everyone with conservative or libertarian leanings, but I speak for many. We, too, want to create a society in which every Virginia child has access to a good education. We, too, want to see African-American children in Virginia’s inner cities escape the clutches of poverty. We, too, want everyone from every county, city and town in Virginia to become a productive and contributing member of society enjoying a decent standard of living.

We disagree on how to achieve those aims. Continue reading

Too Many Problem School Kids? Hire More Counselors!

In its ongoing transformation from an organization dedicated to protecting civil liberties into an organization dedicated to advancing social justice causes, the ACLU has issued a report, “Cops and No Counselors,” which makes the case that “the lack of school mental health staff is harming students.” (The study was picked up obligingly by Richmond’s WRIC TV.)

The ACLU, which has taken the lead in instituting a social justice model of school discipline in Virginia schools, argues that Virginia should reallocate resources from law enforcement and “school resource” officers to more mental health counseling.

The study documents that 86% of Virginia students attend schools that fail to meet the benchmark of American and Virginia school counselor associations of at least one counselor per every 250 students. As WVIR notes, mental health support for schools was a focus of the General Assembly this year. Among other measures enacted, the budget set aside $12 million to cover the cost of hiring about 250 more counselors across the state, enough to reduce the ratio of counselors to high school students from 1-to-350-to 1-to-325.

Another bill requires counselors to spend 80% of their day working with students. Apparently, counselors aren’t doing enough counseling. Continue reading