by James C. Sherlock
The wisdom of Occam’s razor has seldom been more fully realized than in modern educational theory.
Friar William of Ockham in the 13th century proposed that simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they tend to be more testable. And usually more accurate It has been true a long time.
The left hates that.
I have wondered for years why educational theory has avoided pilot studies. I think I have figured it out. Educational theories are the least scientific of disciplines. Education schools are historically the least disciplined of researchers, and favor full immersion instead of field trials.
They cannot stand pilot tests that will not only possibly, but likely disprove their theories.
One example close to all of us is that the ed school prescriptions for drastic overhauls of educational policy do not seem ever to reference the enormous amount of data that we have on Virginia schools.
And they will never construct a pilot with repeatable results for anything they are in a hurry to implement.
The revolution cannot wait.
I have sampled the data available to the public for this column. It is thus available to VDOE, the Board of Education, the school districts and the ed schools.
I chose my home area of South Hampton Roads: the cities of Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.
These data appear to be unused by anyone but the school districts. And I have not seen a single instance of a school district, much less the VDOE, using these data to highlight failures of public school education to the public as a way of gaining support for fixes.
Failures, as well as successes, need to be brought to the public’s attention along with the actions being undertaken to correct problems. Education schools in Virginia are well advised, but will not take the advice, to study such data before publishing a word about changes to policy, much less dramatic changes.
The data available allow users to see each individual school as well as the school districts. From there we can see that most Black children underperform white children on SOLs as a proxy for levels of learning.
But not all do. So is there anything to learn there?
Nothing to see here say the educrats. Given the results that I will demonstrate here, a theory that Black children cannot learn in public schools under current curricula and texts is exposed as utter nonsense.
I am particularly fascinated that some Virginia public schools have broken through the left’s “rule” that Black children, particularly poor Black children, cannot learn at the same level as white children.
These data absolutely refute the theory that the curriculum needs to be overhauled because it is unfair — inequitable.
Someone will have to explain that to the Black kids who outperformed white children who sat beside them in their own schools.
You will see in this sample that chronic absenteeism stands out as a singular challenge to school performance. But absenteeism gets in the way of the grand theory of racism being the presumptive center of the American experience, and the educational experience.
Consider, if you will, that chronic absenteeism. It is a pretty straightforward concept even for the left But they not only refuse to deal with it, they refuse to acknowledge it.
The City of Chesapeake has, with very aggressive Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court referrals (over 3,000 in 2018-19), gotten absenteeism under control. Seems that Chesapeake really wants its kids in school. And parents don’t like to be summoned to court.
The federal government requires reporting of chronic absenteeism in every school as one of the touchstones for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the update to No Child Left Behind.
Chesapeake’s chronic absentee rate for the third of its students who are Black was 8% over three years and for white kids 7%. Portsmouth, without the same program, had a Black student chronic absentee rate over the same three years of 18% and a white rate of 13%.
What is a kid going to learn about math and reading if he is not in school? In which school system did both Black and white students perform better? You got it right without peeking.
The federal government makes chronic absenteeism an issue. Virginia does not.
I will present the results of my sample survey of each city, and point out a few things that I see there. I have added data in excess of SOL results to add some depth to the assessment.
These include chronic absenteeism rates, and health statistics including health outcomes, % of children living in poverty, % of children living in single parent households and relative numbers of primary care physicians and dentists in each city.
The individual city health data are from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and chronic absenteeism from reports required to the federal Department of Education.
I have highlighted Title 1 schools as a proxy for poverty of the student body.
I am using only the SOL results for Black non-Hispanic and white non-Hispanic children for this small demonstration report. Other categories in the data include American Indian or Alaska native, Asian, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic two or more races, and Unknown.
As in my previous reporting, the SOL data are from 2018-19, the last year that was not interrupted by COVID.
We can reasonably expect that COVID-related learning losses have made the situations reflected by those results worse. The data for student population is from fall 2020, so the schools that opened since then are shown without SOL data.
None of these data reveal what actions school districts have taken over the past two years to improve their schools going forward when the children finally arrive for full time school in the fall.
But they tell you a great deal about the value of good policy.
Each city’s custom spreadsheet is linked at the beginning of each section.
Norfolk has a failed school system with a very few high achieving schools. Last fall it registered 30,087 students, 59% of whom were Black. Chronic absenteeism is a huge problem.
It has only four schools out of 43 whose Black and white student populations each exceeded state averages for students of their race in SOLs in both reading and math.
One of those three, Academy for Discovery at Lakewood (ADL), is a city-wide 3rd through 8th grade school with an academic focus on Project Based Learning (grades 3 through 5) and the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (IB MYP) (grades 6 through 8). And Black students at ADL had a pass rate in reading only 4 points above the statewide average for Black children.
The other high performing schools were Ghent K-8 in the wealthiest part of the city, Larchmont Elementary and Larrymore Elementary. Larchmont and Larrymore are Title 1 schools, and are thus deserving of special praise for their achievements. Larrymore is half Black.
White students underperformed their white counterparts statewide in the majority of tests at the majority of schools. Black students underperformed their Black counterparts statewide on the majority of the tests in the majority of schools.
Black students underperformed white students on every test in every school. In six schools, Black children had a pass rate of less than 50% on both math and reading tests. Those dreadful schools were Jacox Elementary, James Monroe Elementary, Lindenwood Elementary, Southside STEM Academy at Campostella and St. Helena Elementary.
And yes, fewer than half of the STEM Academy students, white and Black, passed the math SOL.
The City of Norfolk is ranked 99 out of 133 by Robert Wood Johnson ranking of Virginia jurisdiction health outcomes. Forty-one percent of Black children live in poverty; 13% of white children live in poverty; 45% of all children live in single- parent households (not broken out by race), almost double the state average of 24%. Norfolk has an above average number of primary care physicians and an above-average number of dentists.
Eighteen percent of Black students were reported chronically absent (more than 10% of days) division wide in 2019. The white student rate was 10%. The ESSA goal is at or below 10%.
Virginia Beach has a high-performing school district with a few underperforming schools. Last fall it registered 68,053 students 23% of whom were Black.
Virginia Beach generally educates Black and white students well.
One statistic prominent on the spreadsheet shows that Black students demonstrated better performance in math relative to statewide Black pass rates than did white kids relative to white statewide pass rates.
There are too many high performing schools to list individually. You can see them in the Virginia Beach spreadsheet.
It shows six schools in which Black students outperform their white classmates head-to-head in absolute pass rates in math, one in reading.
Those six schools in which Black children outperformed their white counterparts were:
- Holland Elementary, a Title 1 school,
- John B. Dye Elementary, where black students out performed their white classmates in both math and reading,
- Old Donation gifted school,
- Rosemont Elementary, another Title 1 school. Rosemont’s 183 Black kids passed math at a rate of 96% and reading at 93%; and
- Salem Elementary. Salem’s 103 Black students passed math at a rate of 95% and reading at a rate of 93%.
The Rosemont Elementary performance was truly amazing.
The worst performing school, in a surprise, was King’s Grant Elementary, in which both Black and white students fell below the statewide pass rates in both math and reading. King’s Great is 22% Black and was not a Title 1 school.
Virginia Beach is ranked 24 out of 133 by Robert Wood Johnson ranking of Virginia jurisdiction health outcomes. Twenty percent of Black children live in poverty; 6% of white children live in poverty; 26% of all children live in single- parent households (not broken out by race). The city has an average number of primary care physicians and an above average number of dentists.
Eleven percent of Black students were reported chronically (more than 10% of days) absent division wide. The ESSA goal is a maximum of 10%. Nine percent of white students were chronically absent.
Chesapeake has a high-performing school district with 17 high-performing schools and eleven challenged schools out of 41 that took SOLs in 2018-19. Since then six new schools have opened in growing Chesapeake. It is clear that some of that performance is due to Chesapeake’s remarkably low chronic absenteeism rates.
Last fall it registered almost 41,000 students, 32% of whom were Black.
Chesapeake educates its Black students better relative to their statewide Black peers than it does its white students relative to their white peers in the state.
White students in 17 of 37 schools reporting white student SOL scores in reading scored below the white statewide counterparts In only eleven schools did Black kids underperform Black state averages.
At Indian River High School, Black students outperformed their white classmates head-to-head in reading.
I am delighted to report that at state football powerhouse Oscar Smith High School, both white and Black students outperformed their statewide peer groups in both math and reading.
On the down side, Norfolk Highlands Primary school for kids PK-3 showed what the state calls a level-two achievement gap in Math and a Level 3 (worst) achievement gap in English overall and for Black children. Only 40 of 106 Black kids passed reading SOLs. Norfolk Highlands is a Title 1 school.
Eight percent of Black students were chronically (more than 10% of days) absent division wide in 2019. The ESSA goal is a maximum of 10%. The white chronic absentee rate in 2019 was six percent. Chesapeake has the most aggressive program in the state to refer kids and their parents to Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court for excess unexcused absences.
Chesapeake is ranked 36 out of 133 by Robert Wood Johnson ranking of Virginia jurisdiction health outcomes. Twenty-five percent of Black children live in poverty; 9% of white children live in poverty; 29% of all children live in single- parent households (not broken out by race). The city has an above-average number of primary care physicians and an above-average number of dentists.
Portsmouth has a poor-performing school district with six high-performing schools and twelve challenged schools out of 20 that administered SOLs in 2018-19. It is clear that a lot of that poor performance is due to Portsmouth’s terrible chronic absenteeism.
Last fall it registered almost 14,000 students, 73% of whom were Black.
Portsmouth educates its white students better relative to their statewide white peers than it does its Black students relative to their Black peers in the state.
The high-performing schools are
- Churchland Academy Elementary, a Title 1 school;
- Churchland Elementary;
- Churchland High;
- Churchland Primary and Intermediate, a Title 1 school
- Hodges Manor Elementary, a Title 1 school; and
- I.C. Norcom High.
Westhaven Elementary had student pass rates below state averages for both white and Black student populations for both math and reading. The Black student reading pass rate was 47% at Westhaven.
Black student chronic absentee rate system wide in 2019 was 17%. White student rate was 13%.
Portsmouth is ranked 111 out of 133 by Robert Wood Johnson ranking of Virginia jurisdiction health outcomes; 37% of Black children live in poverty[14% of white children live in poverty; 47% of all children live in single-parent households (not broken out by race). It has a far below-average number of primary care physicians and an above average number of dentists.
Suffolk runs an excellent school system. It improved both Black and white student chronic absenteeism rates over the previous three years. It educates its white and Black students equally well relative to their peer groups statewide.
Last fall it registered a little over 14,000 students, 55% of whom were Black.
It had 19 schools 2018-19, ten of which were high performing. Six underperformed.
Black reading pass rates in three of the schools were under 60%; in four of the schools 80% or higher.
The high achieving schools for both white and Black students were:
- Colonel Fred Cherry Middle School;
- Creekside Elementary, a Title 1 school;
- Florence Bowser Elementary;
- John Yeates Middle;
- King’s Fork High;
- King’s Fork Middle;
- Nansemond River High;
- Northern Shores Elementary; and
- Oakland Elementary, a Title 1 School.
Black student chronic absenteeism rate in 2019 was 10%. White student rate was 9%.
Suffolk is ranked 45 out of 133 by Robert Wood Johnson ranking of Virginia jurisdiction health outcomes. Twenty-five percent of Black children live in poverty; 7% of white children live in poverty; 30% of all children live in single- parent households (not broken out by race). It has an average number of primary care physicians, a below average number of dentists.
Northern Suffolk has experienced explosive growth over the past 25 years. It is wealthier than the rest of the City.
Pretty straightforward first step.
Get the kids in school. I hope I am not irrational suggesting it might help with the rest of the issues. Chesapeake has demonstrated that current law will get the job done.
Then come to us with Virginia data, not just theory, to support changes to our education system.
Finally, use Virginia pilot programs scientifically designed to prove or disprove what you have to sell.
Then we will verify.
After the kids are actually in school.