Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Compassion for Unruly School Kids, Indifference for their Victims

In  the name of halting the “school to prison pipeline,” liberal legislators propose to take away an option — charging kids with disorderly conduct — that will make it more difficult to maintain discipline in school.

Bills filed by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would exempt students from a disorderly conduct charge if they misbehave at school or on a school bus. “Our students cannot learn if they’re being put out of school because of behavioral issues,” McClellan said last week at a Legislative Black Caucus press conference. Continue reading

Virginia Public Schools: Better than You Think

Virginia: High educational achievement for moderate expenditures. Source: Cato Institute. (Click for more legible image.)

Which states have the best public education systems in the country? By most rankings, Virginia scores fairly well. U.S. News & World-Report puts Virginia in the No. 12 spot. Education Week grades Virginia B-, considerably better than the national score of C. Forbes ranks Virginia 6th in the nation (7th in quality and 2nd in safety). Given all the scandals and problems we have identified here on Bacon’s Rebellion, it’s frightful to contemplate that Virginia has one of the better public school systems in the country. I shudder to think what’s happening in other states’ schools systems. But the state rankings make it clear that things could be worse… a lot worse.

Now comes a report by the libertarian Cato Institute, which places Virginia at the top of the heap. While Cato’s results undercut the Bacon’s Rebellion narrative that Virginia public schools are badly in need of reform, Cato’s methodology strikes me as valid. Continue reading

Lawsuits, Fiscal Stress and the Autism Epidemic

Junior Matthews with his mother and father, Gregory and Tonie Matthews. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Gregory  “Junior” Matthews, Jr., 16, has been diagnosed with severe autism. He is nonverbal and classified as disabled. Providing for his education is very expensive. His parents, who until recently lived in Henrico County, sought to send him to the Faison Center, which specializes in educating children with severe autism. But Henrico County balked at its share of the cost — about $23,000 annually, covering about one-third of the tuition. (The state covers the rest.)

The Henrico County School Board filed a lawsuit February to overturn a hearing officer’s decision that the county had not been meeting the boy’s needs and should pay to send him to a private school that could. Now a federal judge has dismissed the lawsuit, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Continue reading

Do New Schools Improve Educational Outcomes?

This graph shows the low correlation between the age of the school and English SOL pass rate of the students.

City of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney celebrated yesterday the planned construction of new school buildings to replace three of the city’s oldest, most decrepit facilities, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. With money raised from a hike in the meals tax, leveraged to issue $150 million in bonds, the city will build new structures for George Mason Elementary (96 years old), E.S.H. Greene Elementary (63 years old), and Elkhardt Middle School (77 years old).

There is understandable revulsion at the disgraceful physical condition of the city’s older schools, some of which have rat droppings, leaking roofs, broken sinks and toilets, and malfunctioning heating/cooling systems. Over and above conducting emergency repairs to bathrooms, the city has committed to a $225 million, 44-school modernization program over the next three decades.

An assumption underlying the plan is that there is a strong relationship between the physical condition of a school and the quality of educational outcomes. Continue reading

Bring Back SGPs (Student Growth Percentiles)

I suspect John Butcher was writing tongue-in-cheek when he headlines his latest post on Cranky’s Blog, “Why Do the New Tests Punish the Poorer Kids?” As shown by the graph (left), when the Virginia Department of Education introduced new Standards of Learning (SOL) tests reflecting higher standards a few years ago, average test scores dropped for both students classified as disadvantaged (qualifying for free school lunches) and those not so qualified (referred to as non-disadvantaged). But scores dropped harder and further for the disadvantaged kids. The gap in pass rates between the two groups has increased from around 13 percentage points to about 20. Continue reading

Statewide School Enrollment Declined in 2018

After decades of steady enrollment growth, Virginia’s public school system had 2,000 fewer students in 2018 than the year before. The trend is not uniform geographically; enrollment is still increasing in some school systems while it is falling in others. But the net result statewide is fewer students statewide, according to our favorite demographer, Hamilton Lombard, publishing in the StatChat blog. Continue reading

Tracing the Epidemic of Children with Disabilities to Its Source

Source: Virginia Child Protective Service

Virginia public schools are swamped by an increasing number of children afflicted with disabilities, the vast majority of which are emotional or cognitive in nature. Schools are experiencing a silent crisis as they try to accommodate a growing cohort of students who have a legal entitlement under the law to a greater share of resources and who, when mainstreamed, often disrupt the education of their classmates. Given society’s commitment, born of compassion, to educating children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, schools are caught in a tightening vice.

How did we get here? Why are there so many needy children? Has it always been this way? Have American schools always had a large percentage of children whose needs simply went unrecognized — or, as it often feels, are things getting worse? And if they are, why? Continue reading

Disadvantaged, Disabled and Homeless

In the last post I pledged to explore, and hopefully to explain, the social epidemic of broken kids. For all our rising incomes and for all our advances in health care, the number of children suffering from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as well as the number diagnosed with autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, and other cognitive and emotional disorders appears to be on the rise. The problem cannot be attributed to one single cause. It is multi-factorial and complex.

I’m certainly no expert, just a journalist trying to understand what’s happening. One place to start is to look at numbers generated by the Virginia Department of Education and made accessible through its searchable Build-a-Table database of Standards of Learning test takers. VDOE tracks the number of kids designated disadvantaged (eligible for free school lunch programs), disabled (falling within one of 10 sub-classifications), and homeless. All are associated with higher failure rates in SOL tests, and all are associated with behavioral problems that disrupt classes for other children.

Continue reading

A Rising Generation of Broken Kids

Claiborne Mason, president of the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls, talks to students at the John G. Wood School.

In the 15 years Brendan Folmar has worked at the John G. Wood School, a private day school for emotionally handicapped children, he has witnessed a disturbing change in the kind of children admitted to the school.

When he first joined the Wood School staff, many of students were comparable to students today who are mainstreamed in Virginia public schools. Today the condition of students at Wood, says Folmar, the school principal, is more acute and more challenging to treat than ever. Continue reading

Measuring Outcomes for Private Schools that Teach Kids with Disabilities

Location of schools belonging to the Virginia Association of Independent Specialized Education Facilities. See member list here.

There are more than 90,000 kids classified with disabilities in Virginia’s public school system. They typically require more resources than other students — smaller class sizes, educational assistants, and the like — and local school districts are struggling to pay for them. Not all of the funds spent by the Commonwealth of Virginia on behalf of kids with disabilities goes to public schools, however. Millions of dollars support the roughly 80 private day schools that specialize in educating children with specific disabilities from autism to dyslexia.

Not surprisingly, when state resources are finite, not everyone agrees on who should get what. Some say that many children with disabilities could be schooled effectively but at less expense in public school settings than in highly resource-intensive private schools. Private school advocates counter that their higher staff ratios and specialized training, though more expensive, provide better outcomes. But nobody knows for sure because the private schools don’t collect data in a way that would inform the debate. Continue reading

Is Autism Increasing, or Is the Diagnosis of Autism Increasing?

This chart reflects the number of children taking the SOL Reading tests. It may omit a few children who did not take the test.

The number of children with autism in Virginia public schools surged roughly 270% between the 2005-06 school year and the 2016-17 school year, far outpacing the modest increase in children with disabilities, according to data in the Virginia Department of Education SOL “Build-a-Table” database.

Most other major classifications of disabilities declined over the same period, raising the possibility that the dramatic increase in the number of children with autism reflects not an underlying increase in children with the disability but a reclassification of children already known to have learning and emotional problems. Continue reading

State Basic Aid for Schools Still Below Recession Level

Source: Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission

Virginia spent about $6 billion in FY 2018 to fund the state’s constitutionally mandated K-12 standards of quality (SOQ), representing an increase in both total spending and spending per student every year since 2011, according to data published by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC). However, while the state now spends more money on support for K-12 education than before the 2007 recession, adjusted for inflation, spending per student was $649 less on average.

Continue reading

Autism and the Twitter Outrage Mob

My tenure as an editorial and op-ed writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch may have been brief but I learned a lot. My first unsigned editorial ignited the wrath of protective mama bears who have children with autism. I got my first up-close look at the awesome power of a Twitter Outrage Mob. It was quite a spectacle.

As I’ve had a chance to reflect upon what I wrote, I feel partially penitent. Living with a child with autism isn’t easy. Parents often rearrange their lives, moving to locales with better school resources, dropping out of the workforce to provide at-home care, living with the fear that their children might never become independent, functioning adults. Autism can become an all-consuming issue. Had I known, I would have expressed more sympathy. But I wouldn’t have changed the thrust of the editorial.

Continue reading

Social Promotions: As High as 40% in Some School Districts?

Virginia school systems keep track of many numbers: enrollment, demographics, graduation rates, student-to-teacher ratios, SOL scores, all manner of fiscal expenditures… The list is endless. Just check out the Virginia Department of Education website’s “Statistics and Reports” page. But you can’t find any numbers on the rate of social promotions. Needless to say, the practice of promoting children from one grade to the next even when they have failed to master the subject matter is not one that educators want to highlight. Continue reading

Cranky Shows the Educrats How It’s Done

Cranky, er, I mean John Butcher, continues to do the kind of statistical analysis of Virginia’s public schools that I wish we would see from our public officials. In a recent post on Cranky’s Blog, he dove deeper than ever into the relationship between economic disadvantage and SOL outcomes. And he demonstrated with greater clarity that some schools do better at educating disadvantaged students than others.

It is universally acknowledged that students classified as “disadvantaged” — qualifying for free school lunches — perform worse on average in Standards of Learning tests than do students not so categorized. Likewise, it is universally acknowledged that schools with higher percentages of disadvantaged students will tend to show lower SOL test scores than schools with fewer disadvantaged students, and that any evaluation of their effectiveness should take that fact into account. While the percentage of “disadvantaged” students accounts for roughly half the variability between schools, other factors — some of which schools and school districts can manage — also account for half.

In a graph published on Bacon’s Rebellion last week, John showed the variability between school districts. In the graph shown above, taken from his most recent post, he showed the correlation between English SOL pass rates and the percentage of disadvantaged for all schools. Then he did something particularly interesting — he overlaid schools from a specific district over the universal graph to show how that district compares to state averages.

The graph above compares average SOL scores for both advantaged and disadvantaged students statewide. It shows that the higher the percentage of disadvantaged students in a school, the worse both categories of students perform. In schools dominated by disadvantaged students, even the non-disadvantaged students do worse. Statewide, the depressive effect is roughly the same, as can be seen by the slope of the two lines.

Now, let’s look at some individual school districts.

In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest school district, we can see that the effect of higher percentages of disadvantaged students upon non-disadvantaged students (the green line) is in line with statewide averages, but the impact on disadvantaged students (the yellow line) is particularly striking. What is going on? Do Fairfax School Board members have a clue that this is happening? Continue reading