Modeling Success in Virginia Schools

by James C. Sherlock

I recently spent considerable time reporting on competing methods of grading in Virginia public schools. 

The choice of grading system appeared to make no measurable difference in learning.  

Sometimes you just have to admit that someone else has built a better mousetrap. 

That is very hard to do concerning something you care very much about and have spent a career trying to perfect. But if you are serious about your lifetime’s work, it can become absolutely necessary.

In educating kids in public schools, there is a far better way. Success Academy (S/A) in New York City has built it since 2006. It has educated primarily poor and minority children to the very highest standards.

I will demonstrate that better mousetrap by comparing Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) to the parallel Success Academy Curriculum teaching guide in a single, concrete example: third grade literacy.

Then I will recommend that Virginia try a controlled experiment with the S/A system of teaching and learning to see if we can replicate it in our public schools. They need not, indeed should not, be charters.

Nothing else has worked to raise the education levels of Virginia’s poor and minority children. Let’s go out on a limb and try something that has succeeded.

New York City’s 47 S/A schools have solved the major issue in American public education. They have not only improved educational outcomes for poor and minority children, but have raised their success rates to the top of the mountain.

If those S/A schools formed their own school district, it would be the highest- performing district in the state, as measured by New York Regents Exams. By a lot.

Success Academies are public charter schools. Ninety-six percent of their “scholars” – S/A’s name for their students – are black and brown. About 80% of them live below the poverty line. Sixteen percent have special needs. About 9% are homeless. They are in some of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City.  

Success Academy doesn’t enroll. Their students are chosen by lotteries. Success Academy requires only a contract with parents that they will help their children succeed. There is a waiting list recently numbering 17,000 families.

Among students in grades three through eight in 2019, 99% of S/A scholars passed the state math exam, 90% passed the state English exam. In that same year, the statewide passing rate didn’t surpass 50%. 

S/A trains its own teachers, principals and other academic leaders. It has to. No one comes out of education schools ready to teach the way S/A has found they must if the children are to become not just students but scholars.

So, it has created its own teaching think tank and teacher development institutions: Robertson Center and S/A Education Institute .  

The S/A Education Institute’s What and How We Teach offers detailed descriptions of the S/A curriculum at a level of detail that exceeds Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL).

Take a minute to look at that page and the curricula. Also see the online courses they offer for free. Tour the virtual schools. Visit Robertson Center.

A Grade 3 Literacy Instruction Comparison

Success Academy. Go back and select Elementary School Curriculum and then select Literacy. 

Do not skip “What you must know before you press go.” That is where you find out about parental investment, classroom management, goal setting, and preparing for teaching and learning.  

Without those components, the curricula is not going to succeed nearly as well. With them, teachers and learners have a real chance.

Let’s now return to the Grade 3 Literacy Curriculum Unit Guide. See The Key to Establishing a Strong Reading Culture.

Then view the seven Units. Each has a number of Components. 

Now select Grade 3 – ES Literacy/Unit 1. It has four Components: Falling in Love with Reading, Read Aloud, Shared Text and Classroom Library Set Up.

Each component has its own defined Purpose, Keys, and Lessons.

The Lessons offer detailed “how to” guides:

  • first What does Success Look Like; and then
  • each individual lesson has timed elements, each with a number of steps.  

Take a look.

Virginia Standards of Learning.  

For direct comparison, I have reproduced Virginia SOL Grade 3 literacy. Please open and read it.

Immediately you will find that SOL is not nearly as prescriptive as the S/A curricula.  Clearly, the level of training, mentoring and oversight of the classroom necessary for execution of the S/A curricula is much higher than for SOL.

But we already know that the S/A methodology works far better. Comparing results on state standardized tests between S/A and Virginia Public Schools, we have seen that SOL does not educate children nearly as well as S/A’s Curriculum. Again, not even close.

Can we replicate S/A methods in Virginia? I can find nothing in the S/A curricula that requires Virginia to call schools that implement the S/A program charters.  

But Virginia schools will have to implement the entire program if we wish S/A’s results.  And that means autonomy for the school principals from SOL curricula, school board regulations, from negotiated contracts, and for hiring and training.  They will need oversight from a group of leaders that fully understand and support their pathway.  So, yeah, charters under the NYC model, not the current Virginia one.  

The primary question is whether Virginia schools are prepared to implement the S/A standards for parental investment, classroom management, goal setting, and preparing for teaching and learning that form the infrastructure for its success. I say we can.

Remembering that S/A successfully educates homeless kids and kids with disabilities, if we find we have some kids who for whatever reason will not accept the responsibility for their own part of the deal, personal discipline, then we will have to make different arrangements for them.

If some call that conclusion heartless, inequitable, or racist — and they will — they should look at S/A’s student racial mix and think again.  

Remember, 8% of S/A kids are homeless. So, they figure it out even for kids with no home environment.

Summary. Success Academy offers standards for the field of play, a sequenced playbook and timed elements within each play.

SOLs offers lists of goals and methods unconnected to either sequence or time and with no acknowledgment of the state of the field of play.

We already know which one produces the best results for the kids most in need.  This is the civil rights education issue of our time.  I refer doubters to the Virginia Constitution Article VIII Section 1 – Public Schools of High Quality to be Maintained.

What to do? That suggests to me that Virginia try S/A curricula and methodology as a pilot in a sufficient number of schools to assess not the S/A training, curricula and standards, which we know work, but Virginia’s ability to replicate them.  

Success Academy Education Institute and The Robertson Center are there to help. See the link information “For Makers of Magical Schools”.

Virginia needs some.

Updated Mar 15 at 7:02 AM

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9 responses to “Modeling Success in Virginia Schools”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I agree with you that many Virginia school divisions are not doing a good job teaching reading. The Success Academy model looks to be a good one. The numbers bear that out. However, comparing the Success Academy curriculum with Virginia’s SOL is comparing apples and oranges. The SOL is intended to set out the goals for reading instruction, not a guide of how to meet those goals, which is what the Success Academy model is. How to meet the SOL goals is up to each teacher in Virginia. There is no model curriculum or guide on how to do that (at least, none that I know about). Maybe that is the problem in Virginia and what was being addressed in the Virginia Literacy Act (HB 319), which the General Assembly has passed. Our friend Matt Hurt from Southwest Virginia has expressed a lot of concern over the state providing a model for teachers to use, however.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      “The SOL is intended to set out the goals for reading instruction, not a guide of how to meet those goals, which is what the Success Academy model is.”

      My point is that the results suggest we are not doing it right.

      Another observation. I used the literacy SOL and the parallel documentation from S/A. I did not mean to suggest that elementary school literacy is the only subject for which the S/A model is similarly documented and works. They have their own instructions for every class at every level of school from K-12.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I agree with you that we are not doing it right in some schools. I realize that literacy was only an example and the S/A model applies to other subjects.

        By the way, I had a mistake in the passage you quoted (correctly). It should have been “The SOL is intended to set out the goals…” I have made the correction in my original comment.

    2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
      Kathleen Smith

      Dick, I agree. The SOL is what is to be taught, not curricula of how it will be taught. There are many reading curricula out there. Finding the right one to meet your students needs is difficult as kids all learn differently. Go back and search the now defunct Reading Programs from the federal grants of the 80’s, 90’s, and early 00’s. They all look pretty much the same and much like the Success Academy. We learned a lot from Reading First in the early 00’s. I am not saying that JS is wrong, I am saying that it is apples to oranges.

      The program selected has to work for your students and teachers. New teachers like explicit models like Direct Instruction. Say A, then B then C. As a teacher, I wanted more flexibility and would have left if I was told to teach Direct Instruction. Yet, I have actually visited classrooms where it worked well. It really depends on so many things.

      I loved teaching reading to K-4, but not so much in Grade 5-6. Just me, not everyone. I had a friend who could make 6th graders recite poetry. Just as kids are different, so are teachers. Different skill sets may require different methods.

      Success Academy has been successful because the kids must feel wanted and they are motivated to learn. That is what makes the difference, not the program, the people who teach the kids.

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        I very respectfully disagree Kathleen. You are a true expert. But what did you see in Richmond or Petersburg schools that makes you think they will achieve S/A levels of student achievement?

        The S/A has been unimaginably successful because it’s methods work in all of the urban S/A schools with all of their thousands of teachers because the principals allow no deviation from the system. The whole system.

        Virginia’s glaring failure in k-12 public education is with poor urban and suburban black and brown kids packed into bad schools even in some otherwise high achieving divisions much less Richmond.

        S/A educates those kids like no American schoolever.

        I suggest we try it their way.

        1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
          Kathleen Smith

          I agree that we need schools like Success Academy, but outside the realm of school boards that don’t do what is best for kids. If I have a brain tumor, I am not going to a foot doctor. Kids need experts, like Success Academy who know how to teach in ways the kid learns, not more of the same that got them nowhere.

      2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        When Eva Moskowitz, the founder of S/A, was asked why her system works, her short answer was:

        “Well, first of all, I would just say America and New York has intellectually underestimated children, and we don’t. We create a culture where we really believe in our kids. And so I would say that one of the things we do is just set incredibly high expectations for our kids. But we also have a fairly rigorous curriculum. You know what we’re doing in third grade math, often other district schools don’t do until fifth or sixth grade. We have extraordinarily high rates of college admissions. It’s a hundred percent, and kids can’t get there without being driven.”

        1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
          Kathleen Smith

          We are saying the same thing. Some kids can do well in a public school. Some don’t. It is for those kids that Success Academies work. We have to have other options outside of school boards who can make decisions for most kids well, but are podiatrists when neurologists are needed. The boards don’t want to give up the bucks.

  2. Shelly Arnoldi Avatar
    Shelly Arnoldi

    How does the new system pan out with SAT/ACT scores? Are students improving? Where can we find data going back 10+ years? My kids are less challenged and are learning less. Please don’t point out race or financial advantage/disadvantage. Show where kids are improving or getting worse.

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