Failing Richmond Schools Doubling Down on Failing Policies

Thomas Jefferson High School graduates. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Richmond Public School System is in crisis, roiled by two independent audits and the publication of new state data showing that the administration is hobbled by rampant inefficiency, there are deep and pervasive achievement gaps between white students and black and Hispanic students, and the high school dropout rate is the highest in Virginia.

The sense of urgency is welcome. The school system has been failing its students for many years. But the major players — school board members and school administrators — seem to be drawing the wrong conclusions. Judging from news accounts, educational power brokers are doubling down on their commitment to “restorative,” or therapeutic, disciplinary policies designed to reduce “inequities.”

From flawed assumptions flow flawed policy prescriptions. These policies, I predict, will backfire. The restorative justice approach to school discipline will make the racial gap worse by disrupting the education of minority students who come to school motivated to learn.

Captive to progressive dogma, Richmond public school officials are blind to the nature of the problem. That dogma was captured perfectly in a quote from the new school superintendent Jason Kamras, who said: “There’s nothing wrong with the kids in RPS. We, the adults who are charged with caring for them, have not done right by them for too many years.”

It’s true enough that the adults have failed spectacularly. As documented by one of the audits Kamras commissioned, the administration is riddled with inefficiency. Employees aren’t fulfilling basic tasks, for instance, such as building inspections, contributing to the disgraceful deterioration of the city’s aging school buildings. Richmond allocates significantly more per student on operational expenditures than neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield Counties — $10,973 in 2014 compared to $8,879 and $8,958 respectively — yet its physical plant often is in atrocious condition.

Unfortunately, there is plenty wrong with the kids, too. A large percentage come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and many are categorized as having learning disabilities. Describing the students as “economically disadvantaged” really doesn’t tell the whole story. Most “economically disadvantaged” kids also are socially disadvantaged. The problem isn’t material poverty, it’s social breakdown. The kids live in single-mother households; many if not most have absentee fathers. Many are subject to child abuse and neglect, often at the hands of live-in boyfriends. Their domestic lives often are chaotic. They receive little educational guidance or encouragement at home. Tragically, these dismal realities affect students’ success at school.

But look how the social-breakdown problem, when viewed through the social-justice paradigm, is translated into a racial issue (and here I quote the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s summary of an audit performed by The Education Trust):

The audits found major inequities in the district’s academics, ranging from suspension rates that disproportionately affect students of color to white students having better access to advanced courses….

The Education Trust’s report, which focused on academic equity, found that nearly 1 in 6 students were suspended out of school at least once in 2017 and 1 in 5 students were chronically absent. The report also found that elementary and middle schools with a population that skews white are much more likely to have students enrolled in gifted education programs and algebra in eighth grade, which have been shown to better prepare students for college and careers.

What’s the answer? Round up truant kids and get them back into school. Change policies to reduce the number of suspensions and other disciplinary actions. Get teachers to engage with problem students rather than expel them from the classroom. Judging by a Michael Paul Williams column in the Times-Dispatch, the RPS administration is doubling down on restorative justice in the expectation of reducing the inequities. Writes Williams:

Kamras, to his credit, appears focused on attacking those inequities. The hiring of Ram Bhagat to implement restorative justice practices and to develop a trauma-informed approach to education was inspired. Bhagat, a retired RPS teacher with substantial community capital, is the district’s manager of School Climate and Culture Strategy.

The power of ideology to blind people to reality is on full display in the Richmond public schools. Let’s start with the obvious: the fact that one in five Richmond students was chronically absent in 2016-17. The “inequities” decried by The Education Trust and school officials stems from that fact. Clearly, a high percentage of Richmond students — almost all of whom come from “economically” disadvantaged backgrounds — are not committed to advancing their education. Rounding up these kids and getting them back into school does not improve their motivation. Most of these students have already fallen far behind their classmates academically. They find class either boring, frustrating or threatening because, in many cases, they can’t keep up with what’s going on. Thus, they “act out.” Teachers spend more time focused on the problem students and less time with students wanting to learn.

By contrast, most white kids in Richmond public schools come from affluent families that place an emphasis on education. Parents have the wherewithal to invest considerable time at home reading to their children, teaching the alphabet, helping them with homework when they’re younger, and leaning on them do their homework when they’re older. Needless to say, chronically absent students aren’t attending the advanced classes, so white students are largely insulated from the consequences of politically correct policies that undermine order.

Here’s the real tragedy: There are thousands of black kids whose families value education and who expend great effort — often in the face of greater social obstacles than their white peers — to learn. Last year 80% of Richmond students were not chronically absent. Roughly half of Richmond’s black students passed their reading and math SOL assessments. One in twenty earned assessment scores that ranked them as advanced. I submit that very few of these black achievers are among those who skip school, skip class, and disrupt teachers when they are in class. To the contrary, these are the students who are cheated by the erosion of order in schools and classrooms. These are the ones who receive fewer hours of instruction every week while teachers are distracted by trouble makers. But no one speaks for them.

What can we expect as the flailing leadership of Richmond Public Schools doubles down on restorative justice? More disruptive students in classrooms. More distracted teachers. More demoralized teachers, who quit or transfer out of inner-city schools. More students short-changed of a full education. A continued erosion of student assessment scores. And more anguished hand-wringing by educators committed to the social justice paradigm whose policy prescriptions continue to fail.

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9 responses to “Failing Richmond Schools Doubling Down on Failing Policies”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    If it is possible for some children in the RPS to get a good education, sufficient for admission to a college or a good career start — and it clearly is — then the fact that so many fail to is as much about the students and their families as it is about the schools. This is hard work. Being a parent in a stable middle class family is hard work, so raising kids in a poor or working class single-parent household is an astounding challenge. A parent or some other involved adult has got to be driving the value of education on a daily sustained basis or a child will succumb to all the other easier paths.

    The main way the school division might fail them is by covering up their struggle with social promotion or statistical chicanery. To allow rampant absenteeism without consequences is the school system’s failure. Low expectations and acceptance of mediocrity is the school system’s failure. I’m not sure I share your obsession with the discipline issues and I certainly just reject any and all notions that a school system managed by black Americans discriminates against black Americans. It….is….not….race.

    One incident should not taint all my thinking, but I always go back to something that happened with my wife and a talented black math student she had long ago, and the way the kid was taunted by his peers for “acting white.” I still worry that anti-education attitude is more widespread than it should be. Now I add a second incident, because she has tried to volunteer at our local city school and they do not want her. The former middle school math teacher of the year for VA and superstar Math Counts coach never got asked back for a second day as a volunteer. THAT is entirely on the school system.

    Poverty today is different than generations ago, I think – more entrenched by a mesh of dependency, exploitation and the breakdown of the family. We have to deal with it. As frustrating as it is, we have to keep pushing.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Steve, your comment above is wonderful, highly insightful.

      Equally wonderful and on target is comment today posted by Jim on behalf of Bob Shannon. I also post that here, and I hope Bob Shannon will continue to participate here:

      Comment posted on behalf of Bob Shannon:

      Many writers dance around the topic of race as it relates to anything, schools no exception.

      Your fact based tactful assessment is spot on. Much of the left’s analysis begins with their desired outcome and is shaped to reach said desired outcome, facts and or truth be damned.

      Last year we had the President of a Charter School company speak at one of our meetings. Virginia G.A ( bought and paid for by the education establishment) has resisted at the obvious behest of the Public School bloated bureaucracy the opening up of Charter Schools here in Virginia. The fact that we have only a half dozen in the entire state speaks volumes to the powerful influence the VDEA has over our elected officials.

      The results these schools have achieved is breathtaking. At a significant savings these schools have taken some of the most challenging students and worked miracles. It is happening all over the country where private charter schools have been allowed to flourish.

      The ” business model” of public schools is collapsing. Here in Central Virginia we spend around $11,000–$12,000 per student, a significant amount of money, yet the results are only getting worse. As such I am of the view that it is only a matter of time until the business model collapses. Needs compete with other needs, and when the bill comes due in 2020 for Medicaid Expansion ( 1.002 billion) taxes will have to be raised or services cut elsewhere in Virginia spending.

      The silver lining to the debt at every level of government is that we will be backed into a corner and forced to realign priorities, something politicians abhor. The warning shot the rating agencies fired across Congresses bow 5 years ago when they downgraded U.S Treasuries is coming around again, with the exception that next time it won’t be a single notch but perhaps a more significant downgrade having ramifications for the entire country and the economy. As my grandmother used to say “you want to dance , sooner or later the band is going to want paid”.

      The Richmond Times Dispatch just months ago uncovered the scandal in Chesterfield where tens of millions in unfunded benefits through the O.P.E.B ( Other Post Employment Benefits) program has been quietly kept off the radar until the R.T.D series of articles revealed just how rotten the county public schools accounting practices have been. .86 out of every dollar spent in public school budgets goes directly to pay/benefit costs.

      In a presentation I did some 10 years ago to a local school board I made the point that you can pour resources into public schools, but if a child goes home and is a latchkey kid, no responsible adult in the household emphasizing education , the kid sits in front of a TV or a I-pad until he/she falls asleep , no reading or studying, no homework, the results are predictable. I had a 1/2 dozen folks fall out of their chairs when I summarized my prepared remarks by stating

      ” no long term solution is viable until we address the elephant in the room, namely that as a society we have been subsidizing illegitimacy as a national policy for 50 years, and we must stop doing that”

      It was not a message well received by the education crowd. It was however one they needed to hear. If you read through the recent recommendations being promoted in the G.A on the topic of school safety you can easily see the evidence of the mental health/law enforcement/public sector empire builders forming a full employment cabal that will blow these local school budgets through the roof should even half of their ridiculous recommendations be actually implemented.

      Some years back I sat and watched a power point presentation that showed a “master reading teacher , teaching a reading teacher , who in turn was teaching a 10 year old student how to read” .I then asked the School Superintendent why public schools had abandoned phonics, a reading method that worked quite successfully for over a century . Employ these new teaching tactics ( many of which are a fad fostered in the halls of the Cabinet level Education departments) and ultimately resulting in nothing more than hiring more ” specialists”….padding the payroll and growing the empire. Look at the reading scores you displayed in your own article. Where can anyone make the case that hiring “Master reading teachers” made a dimes worth of difference. Of course they will argue how much worse it would be absent these gimmicks that in reality only benefit some more folks who glom onto a decent paying public sector gig.

      School uniforms, a return of reasonable corporal punishment, and homework every night of the week. Having been educated by Nuns in that strict disciplined environment I can personally attest to a remedy that will work, if only the goofy social experiments are abandoned, and people like you Jim continue to speak the truth.


      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Reed (or was that Shannon?), cannot agree with you on corporal punishment. No, that shall not return. Uniforms and homework load? Go for it.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          That was Bob Shannon’s view. I am agnostic on corporal punishment as I have never witnessed it nor have I seen a need for it in my experience that is limited to 7 schools during my first 12 years of education. In all of those 7 schools back in 1950s and very early 1960s there were no discipline problems in those classrooms. People then where I went to school did not put up with such crap. Simple as that. And only two of those schools were on Marine Corps bases, the rest were civilian, 3 of those 7 were public schools in Maryland and Virginia, one in Europe.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      It is not often that the truth emerges against all odds against a corrupt system backed by the the full weight and power of the state and the ruling elite of that state. This rare confluence of events is now at hand, and it is staring us in the face.

      Steve Haner and Bob Shannon comments copied in above bring us to this tipping point. Now I will add my own, namely:

      Recall the corrupt citizens recent claim that:

      “50,979 (52%) of Va. high school students earned an Advanced Studies Diploma (including International Baccalaureate).

      36,013 (36.8%) earned a Standard Diploma.”

      2,733 (2.8%) earned an Applied Studies or Modified Standard Diploma

      1,046 (1.1%) earned a GED.

      5,404 (5.5%) dropped out.”

      This sort of overblown nonsense is the sure sign of a failed system. The lack of seriousness inherent in such officious make work simplistic pie in the sky statistics are sure signs of a system chronically avoiding the truth of what is going on.


      Because so many within the public system do not want to confront the truth. They will instead do anything to avoid the truth.

      For example, please show us by competent and reliable testing how many of the “50,979 (52%) kids earning an Advanced Studies Diploma (including International Baccalaureate), can read, write, and compute numbers at the 12th grade level? How many at the 11th grade level? At the 10th grade level? At the 9th grade level? How many are functionally illiterate?

      As to the 36,013 (36.8%) who earned a Standard Diploma:” I suspect that half these kids are functioning at or below the 9th grade level. And many of those kid are functionally illiterate, operating at below the 6th grade. And that the majority of all our high school graduates have no employable skills, moral training, or work ethic at all.

      So what have they been doing and learning for the last 12 years in public elementary, middle school, and high school? Does anyone know, or care? Does absolutely nobody know, or care? Or is it that absolutely nobody will say? Or that nobody will tell the truth? That surely seems the case.

      This is not to say that some relative few public schools are quite good. It is to say that the substantial majority of public schools are chronically failing are children. And that all those responsible for the failure are hiding that crime.

      And we all refuse to admit all this, much less to anything about it within the public school system, despite the fact we all know how to fix the problem.


      The answer is plain, because a majority of our private and charter schools are incredibly successful and give our kids, no matter their background, a good and solid education. These private and charter schools are among the best in the world. Thus, as a result, our public schools have the ingredients of success in front of their noses, but those public school and those who run them vehemently refuse to see those ingredients, much less use them, because those ingredients threaten their monopolistic and privileged financial interests, that today do so much harm to our kids. This is why Betsy DeVos is considered such a great threat, and is so demonized.


      Well, the fixes are all quite obvious, and so threaten the failing status quo. A great majority of our private and charter schools are obviously very successful, among the most effective schools in the world. The great majority of these private and charter schools give their students, no matter their background, a good and solid education, and those schools can prove it. ALL KIDS CAN LEARN. They prove this daily, right here in America. But the great majority of our public schools refuse to teach our kids, and fail to insist that their kids can learn. And our public schools hide those facts daily.

      As a result:

      All our public schools have the ingredients of success in front of their noses but vehemently refuse to see those ingredients, much less use them. This is why Betsy DeVos is considered such a treat, and is so demonized.

      Meanwhile, the majority of our public schools continue to harm our children daily, chasing scapegoats like “restorative justice.” We must change public schools or put them out of business. Kids are too important to waste.

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Charter schools, private schools, home schooling all succeed for one simple reason – parental engagement (and as noted some other adult can serve that role). That has been the secret sauce forever.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    It’s difficult to really understand what JB is advocating… he does lay out in detail the problems and he does tread close to the race line even now IMHO.

    But what would he have these problem kids with one parent homes do – during the day if not at school?

    I do not buy this garbage about “restorative justice” being an evil that destroys school for all the other kids … I consider that an ignorant view – perhaps a willfully ignorant one…

    Most school systems have ways to separate the disruptive ones from the others and programs tuned to their needs…

    but we DO task the school systems to try to educate as many as they can with as much as they can – knowing that the ones that don’t succeed will either end up in prison or receiving taxpayer-provided entitlements the rest of their lives.

    No.. it’s not fair to us that these kids come from broken families and/or have “bad” parents.. but is our “solution” to have them grow up to be like their bad parents ?

    What do we really want to do about it?

    It’s EASY to damn the whole mess… no problem.. and no shortage of those who do and spread their blame to include “failed” schools and “failed” policies like “restorative justice”.

    Can anyone name a better approach that avoids that nasty “restorative justice” problem? If so.. I’m all ears… what’s the better path?

    1. CrazyJD Avatar

      Larry, it is thinking like yours that is part of the problem. If I’m to understand correctly you think restorative justice is the answer to the problem. Whatever else might be the answer that is clearly not part of it. Clearly the public school business model has failed miserably. Yet you want to hang on to it presumably.and presumably you want to throw more money at it . At any rate, those who think like you will do anything to stand in the way of charter schools, voucher schools,anything that is not a public school. If I am wrong, please tell me. At least tell me that restorative justice is not your only answer. If it is not what is?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        @Crazy – no I do not think restorative justice is a big deal – except in the eyes of those who want to chew on it like a bone. In the bigger scheme of things – you have to do something with the kids that do not integrate into normal classrooms – or you cut them loose to live on the streets.


        Here’s a relevant issue.

        Is the Richmond School System different from a lot of other systems with large numbers of low-income, dysfunctional family students?

        If they are -they DO deserve to be called out on the merits.

        If, instead, they are just representative of a bigger systemic problem – then what is the purpose of targetting them?

        In the end – what should be done?

        I never really hear that from the critics; they only want to talk about what fails…

        I have zero problems with non-public schools trying to do this – as long as they are held to the same standards. Otherwise it’s totally bogus. It’ sjust an irresponsible way of running away from the problem.

        I’m willing to be you and I see eye to eye on a lot more than others.

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