Education Anarchists: Virginia Education Officials Discuss Radical Reforms

Billy Cannaday, vice provost of academic outreach at the University of Virginia, is leading the university’s distance-learning endeavors. He also serves as president of the Virginia Board of Education.

How well prepared are Virginia’s high school graduates for what comes next in their lives, whether it’s college, community college or a job? Virginia’s top education officials began asking that question in 2015, and they explored the topic with 24 stakeholder groups, from parents and school counselors to college admissions staff and university deans.

“We went 0 for 24,” Steve Staples, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, told the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) earlier today. Every stakeholder group said that most high school grads are ill prepared for the world that awaits them. A common sentiment: Schools are “working on the wrong stuff.”

Virginia’s public school system is geared to teaching content, said Staples and Billy Cannaday, president of the Virginia Board of Education, in a joint presentation. Knowledge of content, as measured by multiple choice tests, is a necessary part of the K-12 education but it’s not sufficient. Content, they said, must be supplemented by the ability to communicate, collaborate, think critically, think creatively, and solve problems.

Steven R. Staples, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The presentation by Virginia’s two top K-12 officials followed by a lengthy discussion was a first for SCHEV. Senior K-12 and higher-ed administrators rarely talk in formal settings. Indeed, although both work in the same high-rise building in downtown Richmond, they take separate elevators to their respective offices. But both camps acknowledge the need to build bridges, and the outreach to SCHEV may portend greater cooperation between the two education systems in the future.

Virginia’s high school system was designed in the late 1800s for a manufacturing-dominated economy. That system is not working for the 21st-century economy, said Cannaday. New skill sets are needed.

The Standards of Learning (SOL) tests assess students’ mastery of content in narrow silos — mathematics, English, history, science, etc. Students are rarely taught how to integrate those disciplines. Calling for a “deeper learning,” Staples said schools need to “blend disciplines.” He gave as an example a school in Southwest Virginia that linked English, history and civic engagement by assigning students the book, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and coupling it with interviews of veterans in the community.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is early in its reappraisal of Virginia K-12 education. High-level goals have yet to be translated into concrete action. The first step, said Staples, is to establish what should get done. The second is to figure out how to get it done. “We’re still working on that.”

The response of SCHEV board members was uniformly positive, although the obvious question came up: Does VDOE have the resources to pull off changes of the magnitude outlined by Staples and Cannaday?

“This vision isn’t all about resources,” said Staples. “It’s about allocating those resources in a different way.” One strategy might be to scale back state directives to local school districts. For example, the state requires schools to hire a library aide. Maybe the school principal says he’d rather hire a career coach. Another approach: Schools may have to re-think the way teachers allocate their time: five classes, 30 students per class, five  hours a day. Maybe teachers need more flexibility.

“I am somewhat of an anarchist,” Staples said. “We need to re-define high school expectations that drive change throughout the system.”

In response to questions, both Staples and Cannaday said they were open to implementation of quality pre-K programs, which can have measurable impact on pupils’ academic achievement for years, and also to charter schools — although charter schools need to be held accountable for performance just like other public schools.

An essential component of K-12 reform will be defining what is expected of high school graduates, and that requires dialogue with higher education. Said Cannaday: “We have an opportunity to talk about not only K-12 but how it connects to what comes next: college and the workplace.”

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9 responses to “Education Anarchists: Virginia Education Officials Discuss Radical Reforms

  1. re: This vision isn’t all about resources,” said Staples. “It’s about allocating those resources in a different way.”


    “One strategy might be to scale back state directives to local school districts. For example, the state requires schools to hire a library aide. Maybe the school principal says he’d rather hire a career coach. Another approach: Schools may have to re-think the way teachers allocate their time: five classes, 30 students per class, five hours a day. Maybe teachers need more flexibility.”

    all fine if they are working to a measurable goal… but not so good if they just want to do something “different’ with no way of knowing if it is any different or better than other approach much less if it leads to a 21st century education.

    “I am somewhat of an anarchist,” Staples said. “We need to re-define high school expectations that drive change throughout the system.”

    again – what are you driving towards? an education that is geared to 21st century skills ?

    ” Content, they said, must be supplemented by the ability to communicate, collaborate, think critically, think creatively, and solve problems.”

    exactly! The irony here is that while we were not the first to see public education as a fundamental driving of our economic prosperity – we did see it as an imperative and now- we don’t even agree on what we need to be doing and I include charter/choice schools who are NOT promising 21st century education – nope.. all they promise is that they’ll do better than public schools – but .. they don’t want to be measured..!!!

    Suffice to say – if you ask 10 different people what we should be doing about education – you’ll not get any agreement.. in fact – polar opposite ideas on what to do or not.

    The other countries donj’t seem to have this problem. They seem to know EXACTLY where to allocate scarce resources – and succeed.. while we are… basically arguing on what to do.

  2. Kids have lost all respect for teachers and are allowed to act up, out, etc. Until the learning area is controlled, emphasis is made on education not being a pain or allowed to have their “issues” disrupt, this is what happens. There is a huge difference between disagreeing and just acting like an animal.
    Parents who shouldn’t be parents, there is another issue.

    These are all issues that start in the family (or lack thereof).

  3. Quote from John Butcher email correspondence:

    So, having demonstrated that they do not know how to teach English, math, and history —
    — BOE now is going to teach “ability to communicate, collaborate, think critically, think creatively, and solve problems”?

    Sure. And I’m Vladimir Putin.

  4. Comment submitted by Cynthia Brown:

    Local schools are already teaching 21st century skills in creative ways and outside of the traditional classroom experience. They are doing it in ways that are appropriate for their students, so projects look different from one school to another. Larry is right – the state needs to step aside and allocate resources to the local schools.

    The issue is critical since, according to the U.S. Department of Labor “Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century” report, 65% of today’s grade-school children will do jobs that have not been invented yet.

    What I found surprising about Staples’ and Cannaday’s presentation is that they appear unaware of what is already going on. Schools and educators across the state have been finding ways to address this situation for years, all the while they are still dealing with SOL’s and bureaucracy.

    This conversation has been going on for years about the rapidly widening mismatch between what two and four year colleges and employers need and how ill-prepared students are coming out of high school as students and prospective employees – and how to address it. In response, in 2008, the 21st century skills were organized and established in a study published in 2009 by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). It’s important to note that these skills do include academic mastery (literacy, numeracy, and the sciences). Schools, libraries, museums, many nonprofits, etc. have included these in their strategic plans.

    The Virginia Standards of Learning address these concerns to some degree. However, the state still seems to have a 20th century worldview of what education should look like. This is confirmed by the suggestions offered by Staples and Cannaday – very traditional and 20th century. Rearranging staffing doesn’t teach the students the necessary skills. It doesn’t address how children today learn – which is very different than how their parents learned.

    In the meantime, the schools are implementing projects that teach 21st century skills that will prepare the students for the future. The teachers are coming up with these ideas. The work is being done on the front lines.

    As I read what Staples and Cannaday said in their presentations, it felt more like they were talking while standing on the train station platform, unaware that the train already left the station years ago. And based on what they said, they still don’t seem to understand what real change looks like. The true change-agents of education are the teachers.

  5. The common theme here seems to be, free the teacher and the principal to do what they think best with the totality of the resources available.

    OK, and when you’ve got a good teacher and a good principal, 1000 flowers will bloom.

    But what if they are just mediocre? Where does accountability fit in this equation? All those rules were aimed at correcting something — what was it? Will it stay corrected throughout the secondary system if the rule is repealed? That principal who hires the career coach (or another football coach for that matter) may have a brilliant educational instinct, or she may just love football too much — what measure of overall success or failure will be applied to her graduates; what standard will she be held accountable to? These are obvious questions for SCHEV; it’s just that whenever I see complaints about “stifling bureaucracy” I have to wonder what abuses, what inequalities, what lack of accountability, that bureaucracy was devised to correct.

    • When folks now claim that teaching young people today how to read, write, count, speak, and understand their words and numbers now must be done differently to account for the modern world, you better do precisely the opposite – get a little red school house, a blackboard, a little book called See Mary Jane Run, and a book of numbers, and a tough caring teacher with a ruler to wack fannies with, and let her or him loose on kids to get them to learn or start over and over till they do.

      What a world we live in. Better our kids go to Chinese schools, where folks are serious about education without excuses or lying about what’s going on and what is needed to fix things. Enough is enough. We been talking about this for 40 years now. People know how to fix it. They just will not.

  6. re: ” Sure. And I’m Vladimir Putin.”

    and so what should we be doing instead? and I DO INCLUDE non-public school approaches?

    It’s one thing to complain and be a critic… but that gets old after awhile .. if you really don’t have a “we should be doing this instead” idea.

    I subscribe to the idea that teaching content alone without teaching how to use it to communicate. collaborate and solve problems is an issue.

    I’m willing to have non-public schools have a run at it and if they are better then too bad for public schools but what we have going on right now with the critics is nothing close to that. They really have no alternatives.. only cynical smack downs.

    we need folks who lead on this.. we got way more than enough of the naysayers.

    The awful truth is that we have a country of folks who do not have sufficient education to get a 21st century job and I donj’t care if we’re talking about inner city or rural – it’s the same problem.. but we can’t seem to deal with it beyond pointing fingers.. and blame..


    • You summed up my feelings with your last two paras. That’s why we’ve got an electorate that would choose this guy for our president. The problem is not our system of government, but the level of education of our people. Not only are too many of them unemployable, but also they have wrongheaded ideas about how to get our economy going again and they can’t understand how much of a disservice this guy they elected is doing to them on the trade and health and tax policy fronts. It’s not ideology, it’s idiocy.


  7. Posted on behalf of Les Schreiber:

    I was a little surprised to see the article posted that high school students were not prepared for University.

    Advanced Placement is a system to teach college-level content in high school. The Economics that I taught at Richmond’s Governor’s School was the same micro and macro taught at the first level in college. In the spring the students took a national exam. The grading scale is one to five. Many universities accepted a “three” for credit, however UVA and W and M only accepted “five.” Many students entered college as second semester freshmen, and others accumulated so much AP credit that they graduated in “three” years.

    There are a few problems with AP programs in Virginia schools. Tests are given in mid-May, as the result of this state’s King’s Dominion law whereby schools do not open until after Labor Day. Teachers and students are at a competitive disadvantage compared with other states where schools open in mid-to-late August. In order to accommodate this, Virginia’s schools need to discontinue that intellectually vacuous extra-curricular activities that rob class and study time.

    Les Schreiber

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