Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Did the State Reduce the Rigor of Math SOLs?

Last year the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) approved new math tests for the Standards of Learning (SOLs) exams. Due to the change in content, educators had to evaluate how many questions students need to answer correctly in order to be counted as “pass proficient” or “pass advanced.”

This spring the school board voted to adopt math cut scores that were significantly lower than those initially recommended in the process. The VBOE in its March 2019 meeting led one board member to voice concern that the action would feed the public perception that the state was reducing the “rigor” of the test. 

Said board Vice President Diane T. Atkinson: “I have a concern. … The distance between what would maintain previous rigor and where we are going is significant from my perspective.” The board had endured criticism previously when it eliminated some tests required for accreditation in order to focus on “deeper learning,” she said. “I am concerned this will add fodder to that conversation.” Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Keeping the Political Class on its Toes

Cranky strikes again. John Butcher does another deep dive into Richmond Public School statistics, comparing the capital city’s school system with the schools in peer cities of Norfolk, Hampton and Newport News. Richmond spends $2,887 more per student than the state average, and it spends $1,659 more on instructional expenses. Yet somehow, the district supports fewer instructional positions per 100 students and pays teachers and principals less. And, as Butcher has amply demonstrated before, disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students in Richmond under-perform their disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged peers in other urban-core localities by wide margins.

How about the indignity of attending lousy schools? But never fear, Richmond school administrators are au current with the latest in politically correct virtue signaling. As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond schools started requiring graduating students to wear gender-neutral gaps and gowns this year, ending a decades-long practice of having separate colors for men and women. Explained Superintendent Jason Kamras: “We want to make sure out transgender and nonbinary students don’t have to suffer the indignity of being forced to express their gender in a manner contrary to their identity.”

Big subsidies for big data. Virginia is home to 159 data centers that benefited from $417.5 million in sales-and-use tax exemptions from mid-2010 through mid-2017, according to estimates from a new Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report. JLARC deems the state subsidies to have been “relatively effective” and generate “moderate economic benefits.” It is reasonable for the state to continue the exemption, concluded JLARC. However, the tax break does not appear to have stimulated growth in distressed areas. Continue reading

How Crime-Prone Students Worsen Educational Outcomes for Everyone

Exposure to crime-prone students in school has “large and significant” effects on test scores, school discipline and even adult criminal behavior, finds a new study by Stephen B. Billings and Mark Hoekstra published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Exposure to crime-prone peers in the same neighborhood also has an effect, but the negative influence is far stronger in the school setting.

“We estimate that a five percentage point increase in school and neighborhood crime-prone peers increases arrest rates at age 19-21 by 6.5 and 2.6 percent respectively,” state the authors in “Schools Neighborhoods, and the Long-Run Effect of Crime-Prone Peers.” 

Billings and Hoekstra stick to the narrow issue of establishing the correlation between “crime-prone peers” and students’ cognitive and behavioral outcomes, but the study is sure to influence the debate over school disciplinary policies. If students displaying anti-social behavior are kept in school as part of the therapeutic disciplinary regime now in vogue, one can predict negative spillover effects on fellow students.
Continue reading

Arlington Schools’ Non-Solution for English Learners

Arlington County, which has one of the most politically “progressive” school systems in Virginia, has reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to bolster support for students learning English, reports the Washington Post.

The column described systemic problems in the school system. English-as-a-Second-Language students are often taught below their grade level and grow frustrated and bored. As a specific example of dysfunctional education, columnist Theresa Vargas cites a 15-year-old girl who had spent three years in the school system but still didn’t know how to use an English-Spanish dictionary correctly.

Now for some context missing from the column… The problem is not a lack of money. Arlington County spent $19,323 per pupil in Fiscal 2017 compared to an average of $11,745 per pupil spent statewide that year, according to Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) data.

Neither is the problem a lack of commitment to “diversity and inclusion.” The Arlington County school system has an Office of Equity and Excellence, which… Continue reading

Cranky Strikes Again, Shows Rampant Cheating in Richmond Schools

I have been chronicling the administrative-cheating scandals in the Richmond Public School system, noting with each post that the situation is even worse than it appeared the previous time I wrote. Now it appears that administrative cheating is even more systemic than even I had suspected. In a statistical tour de force, John Butcher, writing in Cranky’s Blog, leaves readers with the impression that the graduation criteria have been so thoroughly corrupted that the numbers are meaningless.

Butcher starts with the common-sense (and incontestable) observation that economically advantaged (referred to as Non-Economically Disadvantaged, or Not ED) students pass the SOLs at higher rates and graduate from high school at higher rates on average than Economically Disadvantaged (ED) students. No one disputes this generality. Indeed, the statement is a truism. The disparity in outcomes is routinely cited in the debate about the inequity in racial outcomes.

Incredibly, the pattern doesn’t apply at Richmond’s five mainstream high schools. At four high schools, economically disadvantaged students graduate at higher rates than their Not ED counterparts. The only exception to the pattern is Armstrong High School, where the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) conducted a course schedule audit in 2016, bringing attention to the administrative-cheating scandal that has been brewing ever since. The ensuing crackdown at Armstrong, Butcher argues, had a “salutary effect” there but had no impact on the other four high schools. Continue reading

More Course-Credit Abuses Discovered in Richmond Schools

Richmond school superintendent Jason Kamras at news conference. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The graduation scandal in the Richmond Public School system just went from bad to worse. Following up on a state audit in November that found extensive irregularities in the awarding of class credits, a team of city and state school administrators has reviewed every current high school transcript. What they found, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Rubber-stamping student work. Choosing to use an alternative test instead of giving students the common state test. Putting students on individualized education programs to circumvent state graduation requirements.

Only three in four city seniors in Richmond high schools graduated on time last year. The graduation rate was 16 percentage points below the state average. But, as low as it was, the rate was artificially boosted by administrative artifice. Said Tracy Epp, the district’s chief academic officer: “The further we dig in, the more issues we discover.” Continue reading

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