Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Where in the Virginia Department of Education is the Kids’ Interests Division (KID)?

by James C. Sherlock

James Lane
Superintendent of Public Instruction

There have been two iterations of relaxation of Virginia SOL rules issued so far this school year by the Department of Education.  They offer perfect roadmaps to the future under the current leadership of that Department.

School Accreditation Waived and Refusal to Take SOLs Authorized

The first step was potentially the most consequential. On November 6, 2020, the Superintendent of Pubic Instruction issued the following memorandum: Continue reading

Shut Down All Public Schools Until Teachers Can Be Vaccinated, VEA Demands

Virginia Education Association President James J. Fedderman

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Education Association President James J. Fedderman has called for all public schools in Virginia to shift to all-virtual instruction until teachers and staff have been vaccinated. “Learning losses can be made up,” he said in a video statement. “Loss of life cannot be.”

“Governor Northam this week said that getting Virginians vaccinated against COVID-19 is the best way to end this pandemic, rebuild our economy, and move the Commonwealth forward,” Fedderman said. “We call upon the Governor, school board, and school superintendents to keep all students and staff safe with virtual instruction until staff are vaccinated.”

What concrete evidence did Fedderman present to justify the continuation of online learning? The rolling 7-day average of daily cases in Virginia now exceeds 5,000, according to the VEA web page accompanying his video, and more than 5,200 Virginians have died. Nationally, more people died of COVID-19 than any day since the pandemic began.

In the video Fedderman also drew upon his personal experience. Over the holidays he said, his entire family was infected by the virus over the winter holiday. He spent two weeks getting barely two hours of sleep a night and lost 30 pounds from the “vicious disease.”

Here are some of the facts he did not mention. Continue reading

Calling All Teachers

by Kerry Dougherty

One of the first beats I ever covered for a newspaper was Fairfax County Public Schools for The Washington Post in the early 1980s.

I learned something almost immediately: Despite enjoying enviable job security, teachers are notoriously reticent about speaking to the press. They worry that if they’re critical of what’s going on in their schools they’ll be fired. Or reassigned. Or shunned in the faculty lounge.

So most teachers just keep their heads down and keep teaching their students regardless of the difficult situations in their buildings.

But even that hasn’t been easy since Gov. Ralph Northam closed the schools last March. Many teachers and students were unprepared for full-time virtual learning. They certainly weren’t prepared to reopen in the fall. Some schools are holding in-person classes, others reopened and are now closed, still others are struggling with the 10-month-long failed experiment in distance learning. Continue reading

Educators Ponder Online Learning As Response to Lost Market Share

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s experiment with online learning in public schools during the COVID-19 epidemic has been widely panned as a poor substitute for in-person learning. But many school superintendents, spurred by the loss of thousands of students from public schools, are thinking that online learning may be here to stay, at least in a limited capacity.

In Virginia Beach the University of Virginia K-12 Advisory Council hosted Friday about 60 senior school administrators, mostly superintendents and assistant superintendents to discuss lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience. As part of the process, the organizers white-boarded suggested topics for breakout groups to discuss. There was a widespread sentiment that the epidemic had forced administrators to re-examine established ways of doing things.

Perhaps most remarkable was the recognition that public schools need to think about their “market share” in the educational marketplace. Apparently, the loss of 3% or more of student enrollments to private schools and home schools in some districts has been a real wake-up call. The decline in enrollments translates directly into a loss of state dollars. Continue reading

Dissecting Social Justice in Schools with Thomas Sowell

by James A. Bacon

A guiding premise of the Northam administration’s education policy is that Virginia’s system of public education is guilty of systemic racism. Informed by social-justice sensibilities, Northam hopes to close the achievement gap between racial/ethnic groups by making the school curriculum more “culturally relevant” for minority students, training teachers in culturally relevant instruction, recruiting more teachers of color, and presenting a more “inclusive” version of American history.

I have long argued that most of these supposed remedies will accomplish little to close the achievement gap, that, in fact, they might do actual harm. The ideas Northam is implementing have been incubating for years. Thomas Sowell was writing about them in his 2006 book, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals.” Sowell’s arguments are every bit as relevant today as they were 15 years ago, perhaps even more so.

Sowell’s book is so rich that it is impossible for me to do it justice in a brief column, but I will try to hit the highlights as they apply to the debate over K-12 education in Virginia today.

The foundational thesis of the book is encapsulated in the title phrase “black rednecks.” Sowell, who has written extensively about minorities around the world from Jews and overseas Chinese to Armenians and Volga Germans, believes that an ethnic groups’ cultures persist over long periods of time and cultural traits shape how the groups respond to the challenges confronting them. Continue reading

Race vs. Class in Education Personal Data Collection – An Alternative

by James C. Sherlock

Earlier I addressed the current method for collecting racial and ethnicity data for civil rights enforcement and found it lacking.

So why do we do it that way? Because we have done it for a long time? The constitutional concerns can’t be wished away, and there are new proofs available in genetic testing databases that the data are wrongly constructed and wrongly answered.

I spent some time in founding and running the nation’s largest military simulation facility in Suffolk, Virginia, in my last assignment for the Navy nearly 30 years ago.

What if we at least test alternatives using modern computer simulation methodologies and see what the results show? Simulations may give better estimates than the current system, or, importantly, show that civil rights concerns may be more efficiently and effectively focused on class rather than race. Continue reading

E Pluribus Unum

by James C. Sherlock

Federal and state executive and legislative branches and the courts make thousands of decisions daily based on race and ethnicity data.

The federal regulations for gathering and reporting those data have been imposed in response to civil rights laws. The iron law of unintended consequences has taken precedence as it often does in such matters.

We know absolutely that those data are wrong: both artificially constructed and inaccurately reported. The working assumption in the drafting of the regulations is that the data will be close enough for government work. Let’s take a look.

Race and ethnic information about educational system participants is required by the federal government from the states, by the states from school districts and institutions of higher education and by those institutions from individuals, all driven by federal regulations.

Data about school staff, teachers and students are being collected at each of those levels and consolidated at each level in reporting. Continue reading

General Assembly Legislation of Note: Education, Schools and Health

by James C. Sherlock

As bills affecting education, educational institutions or health get filed and make their way, or not, through the General Assembly in 2021, I will occasionally make note of them here.  I will certainly not list them all, but will highlight the ones of interest to me and I hope to our readers.

Education and Educational Institutions

As of this afternoon, these are the education bills I find interesting.  There are no bills yet filed under the heading educational institutions.

Del. Terry L. Austin, R-Buchanan, has introduced two bills to ensure professionalism and regional representation within the Board of Education (not a minute too soon).

  • The first is HB 1826 Education, Board of; qualifications of members. Requires the nine-member Board of Education to include at least one member with experience or expertise in local government leadership or policymaking, at least one member with experience or expertise in career and technical education, and at least one member with experience or expertise in early childhood education, all of whom are appointed by the governor. My take: good idea. Not sure that special education should not be added. It is a bigger deal than the other specified qualifications.
  • The second is HB 1827 Education, Board of; geographic representation of members.  Requires the nine-member Board of Education to include at least five members, appointed by the governor, who each reside in different superintendent’s regions in the Commonwealth. My take: good idea long overdue.

Sen.William M. Stanley, Jr., R-Glade Hill, has again submitted his annual bills to rehabilitate school buildings. These are SB 1106 Public School Assistance Fund and Program; created. Creates a fund to repair or replace roofs. And SB 1109 Voter referendum; issuance of state general obligation bonds for school facility modernization. My take: good ideas long overdue. Continue reading

Northam Appoints Leaders to Guide Public School Overhaul

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, new co-chair of The Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Education Practices Advisory Committee

by James A. Bacon

Governor Ralph Northam has announced his appointees to an advisory committee tasked with making recommendations about adopting “culturally relevant and inclusive education practices” in Virginia’s public schools.

The committee will be led by three co-chairs: Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon, who introduced legislation to set up the committee; Francisco Durán, Arlington County school superintendent; and Andrew Daire, dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education.

Francisco Durán, Arlington school superintendent and committee co-chair

“Inclusive and culturally relevant learning environments are vital to creating equitable pathways to success for all Virginians,” Northam said in a press release announcing the appointments. (See the full list here.) “The work of this committee will advance our ongoing efforts to tell the complete and accurate story of Virginia’s complex past, improve our history standards, and give educators opportunities to engage in important conversations and lessons with their students.”

“When we teach an honest narrative of our past, students better understand their place in history and are equipped to work toward a better society,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “This committee will build on the work of the Commission on African American History Education to ensure the content taught in Virginia classrooms is accurate and inclusive of perspectives which have been historically marginalized.” Continue reading

Hurrah — Teachers Near the Top of the Vaccination List

Administering the vaccine at the Richmond City Health Department. Credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Department of Health has released its priorities for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in the next phase of the vaccination rollout. The top priorities are exactly who you’d expect — front-line essential workers and people over 75. It is reassuring to see that child-care and K-12 teachers and staff are high on the list.

In the initial phase, vaccines are being distributed to hospitals and nursing homes, either to people most likely to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus or to be at high risk of dying from it.

Next come the frontline essential workers. Police, fire and hazmat workers top the list. Then come corrections and homeless-shelter workers who work in settings where prisoners and homeless, packed into confined quarters, are at high risk of transmitting the virus.

Then comes the category of “child-care, K-12 teachers and staff.” One might ask why the commonwealth is prioritizing school teachers. After all, “the science” is clear that K-12 schools are low-risk settings for getting the virus. I’ll tell you why: Unlike the other occupations, teachers appear to be uniquely reluctant to return to their normal place of work. Their fears — rational or irrational — must be addressed. Continue reading

About-Face by Virginia Beach School Chief

Aaron Spence

by Kerry Dougherty

Aaron Spence, superintendent of Virginia Beach Public Schools, has seen the light.

Finally.

After months of kowtowing to the local teachers’ union — er education association — which is doing its best to keep classrooms closed, he belatedly joined the common sense get-the-kids-back-in-class crowd.

Better late than never.

Spence was persuaded, it seems, by medical experts who told him what many have known since last spring: That youngsters are not being infected by COVID-19 at significant rates, they tend to have very mild symptoms if they do test positive, and they’re terrible vectors of COVID-19. In other words, they don’t spread the virus. Continue reading

Watering Down the SOLs. Again.

by John Butcher

If you want to boost the pass rates of the Standards of Learning exams, you have three choices (aside from the one perfected at Richmond’s Carver Elementary): Improve teaching, make the tests easier, or relax the scoring.

On the 2019 revision of the math tests, the Board of “Education” chose the last option: They adopted cut scores in five of six cases that were less than the level necessary to retain the same level of rigor as the earlier tests. The results were predictable (and, of course, fed the false notion that student performance was improving).

The Board now has jiggered the English tests to the same end. The recommendation (teacher-driven; no pretense here of objectivity) was for every cut score to be lower (easier) than the level necessary to maintain the rigor of the tests. Continue reading

The Gray Lady Backs School Testing

James Lane
Superintendent of Public Instruction

by James C. Sherlock

I wrote in a column not long ago that it will be impossible to create plans to make up for COVID-related learning losses if we cannot benchmark those losses and their subsequent mitigation.

I recommended standardized testing as the only readily available and proven way to take those measurements.

For most readers of this space, the concept that standardized testing (SOLs in the case of Virginia) is required this spring to establish a baseline for learning losses is simple common sense. For the national teachers unions and for much of the woke left, standardized testing is considered unfair to the poor, a vestige of systemic racism and a violation of dogma.

What is unfair to disadvantaged children is to mask their educational needs by burying the evidence.

That is why it is good to see that the editorial board of the New York Times, in this morning’s lead editorial, has written that we need standardized testing for benchmarking of learning losses. Continue reading

The Learn-What-You-Need-When-You-Need-It Education Model

by James A. Bacon

I stumbled across an ad on the Washington Post website that attracted my attention. AWS (Amazon Web Services) was advertising its cybersecurity certification training.

Click on the ad and you land on an extensive website promoting the company’s cybersecurity curriculum. “Start your security training journey,” proclaims the header.

Explore the paths to building security skills with this introduction to AWS Training and Certification. … Discover on-demand digital and live classroom training opportunities for all skill levels or roles. … Learn more about the comprehensive security curriculum designed by AWS experts.

The goal of AWS, the cloud subsidiary of Amazon, is to develop a cadre of IT professionals certified to use the AWS platform. What particularly intrigues me is how the training curriculum differs from conventional courses in Virginia’s community colleges and four-year institutions. The fact that classes are delivered in both digital and in-person classroom formats is the most obvious but least interesting difference. Continue reading

More Data on SW VA’s Breakout School Performance

by John Butcher

We have seen that the divisions in SW Virginia (“Region 7” in the VDOE system) formed their own organization, the Comprehensive Instructional Program (“CIP”), that brought nice improvements in student performance.

While we wait to see whether the Board of “Education” will punt on the 2021 SOL testing, I’ve been looking over the 2019 data (there being no tests in 2020). The data for Region 7 paint a lovely picture.

You may recall that, since undertaking the CIP, Region 7 has seen major improvements in the pass rates of its economically disadvantaged (“ED”) students.

Continue reading