How to Fix Virginia Schools: Mo’ Money vs. the Bristol Model

Source: Powerline blog

by James A. Bacon

In thinking about what ails Virginia’s K-12 public schools, perhaps we should give some consideration to the state’s schools of education and what Virginian teachers are taught. To get a sense of the quality of scholarship and thought that comes out of our teaching academies, we might consider an op-ed penned nine days ago for the Washington Post by Robert C. Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Development.

Here is the thesis of his piece: “The perception that education is in crisis has contributed a fundamentally distorted view of the system that ignores the biggest problem plaguing U.S. public schools: a lack of resources.”

Sadly for Mr. Pianta, the op-ed now bears a correction at the top, which reads as follows: “An earlier version of this piece stated that, adjusting for constant dollars, public funding for schools had decreased since the late 1980s. This is not the case. In fact, funding at the federal, state and local levels has increased between the 1980s and 2019.”

The truth of the matter is that inflation-adjusted, per-pupil K-12 spending nationally reached a new peak in 2015-16, according to figures presented in the Powerline blog (and displayed above). Here in Virginia, while the state contribution to K-12 still falls short of its peak, the supposition that schools are starving for funds is driving Governor Ralph Northam’s proposal to funnel $1.2 billion more into K-12 in the next two-year budget.

But funding facts aside, is it accurate to say, as the Washington Post headline for Pianta’s op-ed suggests, “The one education reform that would really help? Giving public schools more money.”

In previous posts, I have demolished that widespread view by showing how schools in Southwestern Virginia used data, analytics and the sharing of best practices to boost Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates last year even while other regions across Virginia, including those where school districts had far more money, fell.

Let me now buttress that case by presenting a close-up of the achievements of Washington-Lee Elementary School in the city of Bristol. I draw upon a narrative written by Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Public Schools, and forwarded to me by Frank Kilgore, a long-time advocate of SW Virginia schools.

Five years ago Washington-Lee was one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. The student population was predominantly white (69%) but it had significant minority population — 15% African American, 13% multiracial, 2% Hispanic and 1% Asian. Eighteen percent of students were classified as “special education,” and 95% qualified for free and reduced meal eligibility.

The Bristol school system designated the elementary school as a “Focus School” and appointed a new principle to transform the institution. Writes Perrigan: “WL has progressed from the bottom 10% of standardized test scores in Virginia to the top 13th percentile of schools based on performance on state learning standards.”

How did this transformation take place? The school utilized data to guide instructional efforts, identify when students were encountering problems, and provide extra help as needed.

This success is a result of constant reflection on student data and monitoring of student progress. Monthly RTI meetings are held in both math and reading. Instructional coaches lead these meetings and current student data is analyzed, interventions planned and monitored, and other factors impacting student success are examined so that necessary supports can be put in place.  …

Guided Reading strategies allowed a deeper view of individual students’ reading abilities so that teacher could get to the root of students’ struggles. The process required individual assessment of students to establish each child’s reading level. Reading materials were purchased that enabled teachers to instruct every student on his/her individual level. …

Math classes have adopted small group settings as a regular practice. … Teachers have begun practicing Universal Design for Learning. … Lesson objectives are clearly expressed and posted so that students understand the daily learning goals. … The most productive feature is the frequent, specific feedback given to students as they work. …

Under the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP), school districts in Southwest Virginia have collaborated for several years to use data to identify and share best practices. The strategy has been so successful that other rural schools have joined the consortium. Alas, this extraordinary progress appears to have penetrated the worldview of the politicians and educrats in Richmond, whose solution, like Pianta’s, is to dump more money into failing school systems without making any structural changes.

Perhaps the dean of Virginia’s most prestigious school of education could rethink his critique, which blames standardized tests and school under-funding, and advocates mo’ money for pretty much everything. Perhaps the Curry School could learn something from the education revolution occurring in Southwest Virginia. Here’s a wild thought: Perhaps the Curry School could even join the CIP collaboration, lend its expertise, propagate best practices to other Virginia schools, and — dare I say it? — teach its own students! Of course, that might require Pianta to ditch everything he knows (or thinks he knows) about education in America and start from scratch, so I’m not expecting that to ever happen.

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25 responses to “How to Fix Virginia Schools: Mo’ Money vs. the Bristol Model”

  1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

    Socioeconomics is the single greatest determining factor in the success of any given school. Reforming and spending on public education is very much like quicksand. The more you struggle for improvements and the more you spend always leads to sinking faster and faster. In 2015 the United States spend $640 billion dollars on education. About half of that spending, $344 billion actually can be called money dedicated to instruction. The rest goes to support an institutional bureaucracy that has a thirst for our dollars and that thirst will never be quenched.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      The truth about school funding is that schools have to be built and maintained and operated, heat and cooled, have libraries, counselors, food service, etc and children must be transported and fed and claiming that “only” 1/2 the money is actually spent on instruction is misrepresenting the realities.

      Education costs money – it takes a whole lot of infrastructure and support services to keep teachers in the classroom. That’s a reality.

      1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

        In 2015 of the $344 billion dollars spent on instruction: $219 million wages/salaries, $87 billion on benefits/insurance, $24 billion on transportation, $51 billion on maintenance/operation of school plants, $30 billion on administration, and $31 billion on pupil support services (counselors/suicide prevention/social work).

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      johnrandolphofroanoke makes excellent point, namely:

      “In 2015 the United States spend $640 billion dollars on education. About half of that spending, $344 billion actually can be called money dedicated to instruction. The rest goes to support an institutional bureaucracy that has a thirst for our dollars and that thirst will never be quenched.”

      UVA’s Curry is far more interested in producing “leaders in education” (translated: bureaucrats) than it is in producing real teachers who actually know how to, and in fact do, effectively teach kids in schools, given that the latter actively of teaching kids is held in such low regard as a profession worthy of first class UVA professors.

      Hence, here is how the Dean of Curry School of Education Dr. Bob Pianta describes the school’s primary mission and programs:

      “The Curry School boasts a remarkable portfolio of work – scholarship that is alive and relevant to the everyday work of professionals in education and human development and exceptional preparation programs across a wide range of disciplines. As we move into the future, it is our commitment that the Curry School is driven by innovation and impact. I am exceptionally proud of what we do here. And I am convinced that the work of this school is more important than ever.

      The actions that define and embody these commitments are not confined by the walls of university buildings. Rather, our work resides in the unfolding of opportunities created when the talent and ideas of Curry faculty and students converge with the daily work of professionals – in schools, clinics, community organizations, and government. We frame our work by the uncovering of assets, and the impact of Curry emerges from the collective insight, passion, and commitment of tenacious and creative thinkers, evaluators and solvers.

      At Curry we are resolved to tackle big questions, the ones that seem intransigent and fundamental. We approach these thorny challenges with the energy and talent of teams, the perspective that assets reside within all systems, and our role is to inquire, discover, inspire, and partner to wrestle challenges into solutions that enable individuals and societies to thrive and flourish.

      You belong here. There is a place for you. In a conversation, an interaction, or a moment of inspiration—your energy, your idea may be the missing piece that unlocks the possible. We’re already doing great things here at Curry. With you on our team, we will do even more.”


      Of course, the Dean is also a man of many, many other interests, including the morals of people dead since the 19th century. For example this from Nov. 19, 2019 UVAToday:

      >>>the dean of the school, Robert C. Pianta. The committee is part of a larger effort to examine the school’s name.

      “As the Curry School looks ahead, with regard to mission, focus and impact on the public good, we want to assess the extent to which the honorific names we have used for the past 50 to 100 years, including both ‘Curry’ and ‘Ruffner,’ are closely aligned to our mission and core values,” Pianta said in his email to the Curry School community last fall announcing the committee.

      In 2018, the school leadership and faculty voted to add “and Human Development” to the school’s name, a decision that more accurately represented the scope and breadth of its mission. In parallel, the school’s leadership began to research the namesake of the school, given Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry’s role not only in advancing public education in the South, but also as a defender of slavery prior to the Civil War. The process also included Ruffner, whose history reflects many similarities.”

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think the “MO money” is arguable and the real issue is WHERE the Mo Money is actually spent.

    A lot of the “Mo money” is funneled into the school system and seldom finds it’s way to the actual classrooms with the at-risk kids.

    I do not think the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP) is legitimate.

    If you try to find out info about them, it’s lacking. They show a map of “participating schools” but they don’t name the schools.

    If you click on Administrator resources or Teacher resources you get a 404 error.

    If you go to the Bristol School System website and try to find out about the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP)… NADA… it’s like it does not exist.

    In short, there is a dearth of information about the program itself – how it actually works.

    Talk about transparency. NOT!

    typical of those who say there is a better way than Mo Money – it’s not real.

  3. Larry, you need some remedial search work. This program seems to build well on previously documented successful approaches. Picked up two examples from 1989 and 1999. (shown following the CIP quote.)

    Here’s the CIP website with a map showing the districts, mostly, but not exclusively, in SW Va:
    The Comprehensive Instructional Program
    Welcome to the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP). The CIP is a consortium of public school divisions in Virginia working collaboratively to improve student achievement as measured by Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments. The CIP is designed to help instructors by providing activities and assessments that are highly aligned to Virginia’s Curriculum Frameworks in content and rigor. These resources have been submitted by teachers who have demonstrated superior performance as evidenced by their students’ scores on Virginia’s SOL assessments. The CIP also analyzes data across the consortium to identify successful schools and divisions and share their practices with other consortium members.


    West Virginia Story: Achievement Gains from aStatewide Comprehensive Instructional Technology Program 1999

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      What specific schools and what specific curriculum at their schools?

      ” The CIP is designed to help instructors by providing activities and assessments that are highly aligned to Virginia’s Curriculum Frameworks in content and rigor. These resources have been submitted by teachers who have demonstrated superior performance as evidenced by their students’ scores on Virginia’s SOL assessments. The CIP also analyzes data across the consortium to identify successful schools and divisions and share their practices with other consortium members.”

      what are these and where are they shown?

      You’re referencing a 1999 report which does not appear to be the same program at all and it’s in West Va.

      Look – I’m IN FAVOR of alternative approaches to education but this is bogus.

      If it were real – it would list the actual schools and give specific details about the program and how it works – not reference “studies”…

      We demand transparency and accountability from public schools and we should – but we should also demand the same from alternative programs.

  4. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

    I thought this was a good simple overview of per pupil spending in the United States. It illustrates my point that public education at the elementary, secondary, and college levels are potholes that can never be filled. Public education is 150 years old in Virginia now. How much more time and money does this institution deserve?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Education is like traffic congestion , crime, disease, etc.

      it’s like someone believing that a road is “paid for” when, in fact, a road needs maintenance and operation money forever and if it gets congested – more money is needed for more lanes…

      there is no “final solution”. It’s a continuum …

      and education has to change and evolve with the education and skill requirements of a 21st century economy.

      public education is slow to adapt – no question – it seems like they’re always a day late and a dollar short… and you’ll find me among the critics who want more out of them that they are currently achieving.

      Having said that – I also hold that same standard to other things including other alternatives to public education.

      I’m not about to throw public education to the wolves for a pig-in-the-poke alternative that does no demonstrate “better”. “better” is not just an “alternative”.

      1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

        Yes education should change and evolve as the 21st century reveals itself more fully to us. Who could have imagined the 2019 of today on New Years Eve 1999? We were all too busy wondering about Y2K. My chief concern is that the evolution of modern education will emerge downstream of modern American Culture. A dystopia will be the end result.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          I just don’t go along with gloom & doom thinking, sorry.

          I think we have problems and we need to work to fix them but by no means is what we have “no good” or a total failure.

          I realize that some see a steady decline into failure. I just do not and I don’t see how we begin to fix anything if the idea is to totally trash what we have and start over. It’s self-defeating.

          Most of the world’s developed countries EXCEL at govt-provided public education. That’s not “failure” to adapt and evolve at all. We’re just down a notch in this country – in part , in my view, because we have disparities in how we do public schools – essentially by income demographics – of neighborhoods.

          Public schools are a success – worldwide – a high correlation of literacy wherever they are and 3rd world is terrible with only the rich getting access to education.

          We’ve got our problems but we are far from lost.

          1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

            Larry we lost. I know. I have been at the front lines for 27 years. I cannot collect, assign, or grade any homework or classwork. I can only give tests. No test can count more than 20% of a report card grade. Students can retake tests right up to the last day of school. 53 hours of instruction time will be flushed down the drain by June. This time was spent on anything but learning. Midterm and final exams are banned. The number of verified credits needed for graduation has been reduced by one third. There is no attendance policy and there are no consequences for missing any number of days of school. Nobody gets suspended anymore. Discipline is tracked by race. The consequence is that nobody is held accountable and teachers are now totally declawed to the point of being harmless hamsters. Larry we lost. This is never coming back. Every single problem I faced in 1993 when I began my career is still there and the number of new problems is unbelievable. Why reward a 150 year old broken institution with endless billions that will never produce substantive results?

        2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          johnrandolphofroanoke, what compelling real life proof you have given us, showing us how America’s educational establishment, like UVA’s Curry School of Education, has brought about a decades long ruination our nation’s k-12 public schools.

          So, now along come the frustrated local folks at Washington-Lee Elementary School in the city of Bristol to take matter into their own hands. And, like growing numbers of local people in other places, they have now achieved extraordinary progress for their kids in five years under programs like Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP).

          Surely this proves that Curry School of Education and many other members of America’s public education establishment have been grossly incompetent and negligent using social justice, identity politics, and progressive experimental teaching theories.

          To reward these incompetents now with $Billions more dollars to compound their awful record of failure and ruination would be horrible policy. Particularly so now when we have far better and cheaper solutions squarely within our reach, indeed right smack in front of us.

          PS, Jim, there is typo in your post. Northam proposes “to funnel $1.3 Billion more into K-12 in the next two-year budget”, not $1.2 million.

  5. Johnrandolphofroanoke, what you describe sounds what I’ve been warning about — but worse. I’ll bet that graduation rates are up, though, right?

    1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

      I teach in a nationally ranked high school. Top ten in the state of Virginia. Socioeconomics is the top determining factor in student achievement. The same results in this school could be achieved in a private school operating on a shoe string budget. I can only imagine what schools face in places such as Petersburg and so on. Numbers can paint any picture you want to see.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Here is a key insight from fine comments of johnrandolphofroanok:

        “I teach in a nationally ranked high school. Top ten in the state of Virginia. Socio-economics is the top determining factor in student achievement. The same results in this school could be achieved in a private school operating on a shoe string budget.”

        I am sure he is right. In fact, it is being proven again and again across America now, with different mixes of Socio-economic kids. The Success Academies is only one of many examples. The key idea is that kids can be the best they can be if given a fair chance, and in all cases then the top performers in high performing school are achieving at far far higher levels than they do in poor performing schools.

        So another key question is what are the differences between top performing schools and low or middling performing schools? And what are the key differences in results achieved by those schools, in the kids themselves?

        Another question is how does education establishment year after year hide these differences from us, and how does it do this in all its many different ways, and why have they been so successful at it for so long, hiding their chronic failures?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    johnrandolphofroanoke, you’ve got a point of view, I’ll grant. I personally know about 15 teachers in various school systems and none have your view. There are problems – yes… and actually always have been but we turn out a LOT of well-qualified students who go on to be successful at places like UVA, Harvard, Tech, etc.

    We are the most productive country on earth. We are leaders in all fields of science and technology so how can that be “lost”?

    Beyond that – all the countries that beat us academically in K-12 – every one of them is funded and run by the govt. What would you replace our system with?

    We have some very excellent K-12 in the country – in Virginia – how can that be “lost”?

    I’m just not from the school of “it’s lost, blow it up and start over”. Sorry. You sound burned out. I’ve known teachers that got burned out and others that got scapegoated by unscrupulous higher-ups… Teachers are the salt of the earth – maybe one person in a 100 can do that job. I know it’s hard.

    1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

      Boy you are right. I am burned out. Filed the retirement paperwork today. If I had ever been cut lose to do my job the right way I would have had a much more impactful career. Still I did very well, I know it, and I am proud of it. Indeed so many former students have gone on to great careers in medicine, law, science, engineering, business, entertainers even, and defenders of the flag. If I had been cut lose that line of success would have been substantially longer. I don’t know what to say about a fix. Education is large, complex, and culturally driven institution. Can it truly be fixed, shaped, and directed for constructive purposes? Isn’t this the best instrument for creating a “more perfect union”? Perhaps that is the essence of the riddle of education. There is no consensus at the moment of what exactly a “more perfect union” really is.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’ve said many times here and will repeat. If private sector entities can do better than public schools, I support that competition.

    All I ask is that we compare apples to apples on transparency and demographics.

    The hardest job of the public schools – bar none – is the job of educating kids from the lower socio-economic demographics. Kids of well-educated parents almost invariably value education and are motivated to achieve while kids of lesser-educated parents tend to not be that way and schools and thus teachers are expected to deal with them come hell or high water or there will be pain – professional and career. I know that from being with other teachers that has happened to.

    But I must say – similar things can and do happen to private sector teachers also -even though they effectively screen the lower-income demographics… and can and will kick out those who won’t behave. But public schools have no other places to kick out bad students and even if they did – we fail when that happens. We pay their entitlements, and we pay to imprison them – far, far more than it would cost to spend more to educate them.

    But my hat is off – always – to public school teachers..

    and one curious thing I have noticed.

    One would think that with the never-ending conveyor belt of new teachers doing their careers – and then retiring – that in every community there would a cadre of retired teachers willing to do “para” type jobs, mentoring, behavior enforcers, etc… but that does not happen. Once a teacher retires -most are (more than )DONE with teaching apparently. That tells me it’s NOT … that enjoyable of a job …

    By the way I DO KNOW one teacher who did her stint but she was such a success at teaching science AND had classroom control that the school system offered her a sweetheart deal to come back and she did and she is happy. One of very few that I know.

    1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

      I like you Larry. Your an optimist. How far would Adams have gone without the optimism of Jefferson? To be a great teacher you have to be willing to make compromises with the imperfect nature of education and the culture that drives it. Your time is up when the burden of the compromise outweighs the rewards of a service to society. I do have an answer for my 11 year old daughter. Military school at Randolph Macon Academy. I was worried that I put Doodlebug in over her head. Not the case. High standards, long days, athletics, consequences, rewards, uniforms, discipline, and a strong sense of ethics have made a impactful difference in just five short months. The cost is 20 grand a year. It is the wisest investment I have made for my daughter.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        johnrandolphofroanoke – the inherent nature of those who can teach is showing through for you and I wish you and Doodlebug the very best going forward. You improved the lives of many youngsters becoming adults more than you might every think when you are overwhelmed with the problems that have to be dealt with.

        Thank you for being that person who has given of yourself to improve others.

      2. “High standards, long days, athletics, consequences, rewards, uniforms, discipline, and a strong sense of ethics.”

        These are values that you just don’t hear expressed by the educrats in Richmond anymore. Indeed, they are anathema to many. Public schools used to emphasize these values. Now they are sacrificed to the idols of political correctness.

        1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

          The values we are speaking of are the perfect remedy. These values are colorblind, they do not prefer one religion over another, the care not of class, and these values don’t judge by a zip code either. Randolph Macon is a highly diverse school. The key ingredient is a willingness to subscribe to high standards and high expectations.

        2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          johnrandolphofroanoke says:

          “High standards, long days, athletics, consequences, rewards, uniforms, discipline, and a strong sense of ethics.

          I do have an answer for my 11 year old daughter. Military school at Randolph Macon Academy.”

          My parents had exactly the same answer for me in 1961.

          As a last resort, they sent me away into the 11th grade at the “Military school at Randolph Macon Academy.”

          Two years later I entered the University of Virginia thanks to Randolph Macon Academy.

  8. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    An important remnant outpost of sanity and reason, and western imagination and learning, at the University of Virginia, The Institute of Advanced Studies & Culture that also publishes The Hedgehog Review, A guide for the Perplexed since 1999, sent me a “Christmas Gift,” that included a very apt and timely observation on our times:

    “Out through the fields and woods
    And over the walls I have wended;
    I have climbed the hills of view
    And looked at the world, and descended;
    I have come by the highway home,
    And lo, it is ended…

    And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
    No longer blown hither and thither;
    The last lone aster is gone;
    The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
    The heart is still aching to seek,
    But the feet question “Whither?”

    Ah, when to the heart of man
    Was it ever less than a treason
    To go with the drift to things,
    To yield with a grace to reason,
    And bow and accept the end
    Of a love or a season?

    —Robert Frost, from “Reluctance”
    Your Friends at The Institute for
    Advanced Studies in Culture and
    The Hedgehog Review

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