CIP: the Secret to SW Virginia Schools’ Success

School divisions participating in the Comprehensive Instructional Program

by James A. Bacon

The school districts of Southwest Virginia are among the poorest in the Commonwealth, but that hasn’t stopped them from out-performing more affluent districts across the state. Public schools in Region VII, stretching from the City of Radford to Virginia’s far-western tip in Lee County, have the lowest per-pupil funding in the state, yet they have the highest average pass rates for Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores. I highlighted those findings in a recent post. What I couldn’t say then was how Region VII managed to score the best results of the state’s eight education regions.

So I talked to Matt Hurt, curriculum director for the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP), a bottom-up initiative starting in Southwest Virginia, to find out more. It is a remarkable story and an encouraging one. With the right approach, Virginia schools can lift themselves up by their boot straps. Lesson for the General Assembly: The answer isn’t Mo’ Money.

Southwest Virginia students have not always been top SOL performers. Their rise to the top has occurred in just the past few years, says Hurt. The secret: Local school districts pooled resources to do three main things: (1) identify the most successful teachers across the region; (2) share their instructional materials and other best practices; (3) set high expectations, and (4) measure what works. Five years have made a significant difference.

Despite a higher percentage of disabled and economically disadvantaged students, 82.8% of Region VII students passed their math SOLs compared to 77% for the state, and 81.2% passed their reading SOLs compared to 77.2% for the state. While pass rates declined this year statewide, they increased slightly in Southwest Virginia,

The CIP initiative arose from an informal collaboration of Southwest Virginia school superintendents who met regularly to discuss common problems. In the 2013-14 year, the bottom dropped out of SOL pass rates after the state had instituted new, tougher standards, and Southwest Virginia had been no exception. Meanwhile, the General Assembly had been slashing state support for K-12 education, and the SW Virginia superintendents didn’t see any help coming from Richmond. They decided to pool resources and share best practices, and they hired Hurt to drive the Comprehensive Instructional Program forward.

Not all school systems were big enough to support their own statistician. Hurt gathered the data and formatted it so member districts could see how they were performing — and how they were performing compared to their peers. “The data gave them a frame of reference,” he says. He also used the data to figure out which teachers had students with the highest SOL pass rates (after adjusting for the percentage of disabled and economically disadvantaged kids). Then, says Hurt in an offhand reference to collecting their instructional materials, “We spent the 2014-15 school year stealing their stuff.”

In 2015-16, the first year of implementation, CIP put those materials on the web, and made them freely available to other teachers. CIP also organized events where teachers could share best practices. “We put teachers in the drivers’ seat,” says Hurt. “We bring the teachers together once a year. They plan the specific skills they will teach quarter by quarter.”

“When the teachers first got together,” he says, “they complained that the initial benchmarks were too hard. Now they’re saying they’re too easy. Expectations are increasing. As expectations go up, so to the scores.” Many kids tend to skate by with the least amount of work they can get away with, he explains. If teachers raise expectations, students have to perform at a higher level.

In the few years it has been operating, says Hurt, CIP has learned an important lesson: It is important to set priorities. “We can do one thing well or a lot of things poorly.” The thing that CIP and its member school districts want to do well is equip as many students as possible with the core skills they need to pass the SOLs, which also are skills they need to function in society. “You’ve got a lot of school board members who run for office because they have an ax to grind or a pet project. A lot of times, those pet projects are not designed for disadvantaged kids.” CIP encourages school districts to strip away projects that don’t contribute to the essential goal of teaching core skills.

A second lesson learned: “The amount of money that’s spent on education,” says Hurt, “doesn’t move the needle that much when it comes to SOLs.” Indeed, in some years, more money correlated slightly negatively with performance.

Hurt defends the SOLs against those who criticize them for encouraging teachers to “teach to the test.” His response: “Which of the skills do you not want your kids to master?” The history test, he acknowledges, “is nothing more than a game of Trivial Pursuit — can you regurgitate these facts?” But he insists that reading, writing, and math are fundamental skills. “If you want to lift students out of poverty, that’s what you’ve got to focus on.”

The philosophy may not work so well for the children of doctors and lawyers, Hurt concedes. The school systems are poor, so they can’t afford as many specialty classes that advanced students might want to take. “The higher-performing kids might be losing out,” Hurt concedes. His daughter attends school in Wise County, one of the poorest districts in the state. There is no money for robotics or coding. “There are very limited opportunities for her to do anything advanced.”

A third lesson learned: Set high expectations. “If a kid doesn’t do what a teacher expects him to do today — if he doesn’t grasp the skill — the teacher will keep him in the classroom during recess or the exploratory class so they can work with that kid.”

A fourth lesson: Relationships are critical. “A lot of at-risk kids come from families where the parent’s job is walking down to the mailbox and picking up a check.” Such parents have low expectations, they’re not concerned with grades, and their kids tend to be unmotivated. But a teacher who bonds with these student can provide that motivation.

It takes more than teachers, Hurt though says. School principals, support staff, even the central administration all need to be involved. He says he is coming to the conclusion that having “home-town folks” as teachers and principals is important. People who want to build their careers and lives close to home are more invested in the community than transients who treat their jobs as stepping stones. Educators with a home-grown orientation are more likely to invest in relationships with students, he theorizes.

The Virginia Department of Education has been helpful to the CIP initiative, especially with technical things like collecting statistics and putting on webinars. But otherwise VDOE has played little role in CIP. “From my perspective, [the Department of Education] is a body that responds to the legislature.”

Despite the lack of state support — or perhaps because of it — CIP is catching on among rural school districts. The Wise-based consortium, which had 21 school divisions in 2015-16, now is up to 41 divisions, including some from Southside, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Chesapeake Bay area.

Bacon’s bottom line: Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that change doesn’t have to come from Richmond. Indeed, bottom-up change based on a pragmatic philosophy based on keen understanding of local conditions is more likely to be effective than top-down change imposed by political ideologues in the state capital. While the Northam administration waters down SOLs in pursuit of social and racial “equity” with calamitous results so far (as measured by SOL scores), it is encouraging to see that a number of school districts have chosen a different path. The supreme irony is that SW Virginia educators are succeeding in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students, while the state as a whole is not.

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16 responses to “CIP: the Secret to SW Virginia Schools’ Success”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    “He says he is coming to the conclusion that having “home-town folks” as teachers and principals is important. People who want to build their careers and lives close to home are more invested in the community than transients who treat their jobs as stepping stones. Educators with a home-grown orientation are more likely to invest in relationships with students, he theorizes.”

    That sounds completely right to me and supports what I read in the post about West Point, Va.

    Adjusting for economically disadvantaged and disabled students needs to be done but I wonder if it’s enough. It seems to me that English as a second language and the percentage of local students attending private schools is also a factor.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Sounds like they actually let teachers teach. What a concept!

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Thanks for following up on this, Jim. This is good reporting. Someone needs to see if this concept can be adapted to urban areas.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      “Someone needs to see if this concept can be adapted to urban areas.”

      Dick, do you by chance ever read? Yes, basic concept is called Success Academies, and has been applied with overwhelming success in urban areas, as earlier discussed here on Bacon’s Rebellion. More later.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I read quite a bit. What I read about Success Academies is that they are charter schools that are not similar at all to the CIP effort.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Dick, your comment is not correct. My earlier statement is correct. But the wonderful thing about your wrong comment is that it quite likely is typical among many, including parents, officials in government, and many in public education, despite the growing success of some public school systems in Virginia that have learned and or are learning, to their great credit, how to escape the norms that unfortunately are to often pervasive in other Virginia jurisdictions. And, fortunately to, often methods of success used by private interests can be matched to public schools who cannot fully implement them on their own account. Hence, showing how your comment is wrong, at least in substantial degree, gives opportunity for all of us to learn from those who are showing the way with imaginative and bold ideas in the public sectors as well as the private or quasi public sectors, including the many private ideas that today are married too and enhance existing and otherwise failing public schools, or that otherwise pick up the slack where public schools cannot yet go. So expect to hear more from me on this subject here.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Thank you Jim Bacon – for highlighting success in public schools! I’m curious about this consortium. Does it have a name and is it a formally-organized group?

    In terms of “teaching to the test”. Do you want a drivers license? Do you want to take the SATs or become a Doctor or Lawyer or Solider or airline pilot? Get ready to take a TEST!

    Everyone has got THEIR “idea” of what should be taught – but if you don’t measure what you teach then how do you know if it is being learned?

    1. Yes, the consortium is called the Comprehensive Instructional Program. Here’s the website:

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        The website is a little skimpy. Does it identify the members of the CIP and basic things like what the program itself really is? Unless I’m not seeing it – it does not seem to be a formal organized group just a loose amalgam of like-minded folks.

        In other words, what exactly is the curriculum and have the member districts actually implemented it as policy?

  5. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Thanks for this Jim. Nice to see what they are doing.
    AND I couldn’t agree more with the focus … “reading, writing, and math are fundamental skills. ‘If you want to lift students out of poverty, that’s what you’ve got to focus on.’”

  6. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    It won’t surprise my better half….nor would it have surprised my late uncle, who spent his entire career teaching or being a principal and then with the state Department of Education, never leaving that region of Virginia.

  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    This letter deserves to be posted here as well.

    Statement from Secretary DeVos on 2019 NAEP Results
    October 30, 2019
    Contact: Press Office, (202) 401-1576,

    WASHINGTON—U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released the following statement on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results:

    “Every American family needs to open The Nation’s Report Card this year and think about what it means for their child and for our country’s future. The results are, frankly, devastating. This country is in a student achievement crisis, and over the past decade it has continued to worsen, especially for our most vulnerable students.

    “Two out of three of our nation’s children aren’t proficient readers. In fact, fourth grade reading declined in 17 states and eighth grade reading declined in 31. The gap between the highest and lowest performing students is widening, despite $1 trillion in Federal spending over 40 years designated specifically to help close it.

    “This must be America’s wake-up call. We cannot abide these poor results any longer. We can neither excuse them away nor simply throw more money at the problem.

    “This Administration has a transformational plan to help America’s forgotten students escape failing schools. By expanding education freedom, students can break out of the one-size-fits all system and learn in the ways that will unlock their full potential. They deserve it. Parents demand it. And, it’s the only way to bring about the change our country desperately needs.

    “I want to thank the staff at the National Center for Education Statistics and the members of the National Assessment Governing Board for their work and for their commitment to providing this important assessment of student achievement.”

    2019 Math Report Card
    2019 Reading Report Card

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    some interesting info:

    The Income Gap
    Employees without a high school diploma earn an average of $23,000 year, which deeply affects their ability to break the cycle of poverty. Every student who leaves high school without a diploma costs our society $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity.

    For years, the percentage of the nation’s fourth graders in public school who can read proficiently has hovered at around 35 percent. Children who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade are four times less likely to graduate on time

    For students from low-income families, the situation is even more dire: 82 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunches cannot read with proficiency.

    Every state in the nation has large percentages of students who are unable to read at grade level. In fact, nationally more than 8.7 million low-income students in kindergarten through fifth grade are not proficient in reading

    The question is – are low income people going to benefit from Betsy DeVos “transformational plan”? What exactly is that plan?

  9. […] estimable Jim Bacon reports on the recent success of schools in Southwest Virginia. The schools there collaborated in an initiative that now has […]

  10. […] a pleasant contrast to that bad news, the (locally created and run) Comprehensive Improvement Plan has produced remarkable gains in the […]

  11. […] peers (Not ED).  As well, the post dwelled on the remarkable progress of ED students under the Comprehensive Instructional Program, a bottom-up initiative that started in VDOE’s Region 7 (southwest […]

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