More Bureaucracy Won’t Help Virginia Schools

Source: Cranky’s Blog. The gold square represents the City of Richmond; the red squares represent peer districts in Norfolk, Hampton and Newport News.

Among the most dismal of the Standards of Learning (SOL) results released last week by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) was that only 72% of 3rd graders had achieved reading proficiency — down 3% from the previous year ans 12% from a decade previously.

The usual suspects will respond to the news with the usual nostrums. Those on the left predictably will say that Virginia needs more money to (take your pick) hire teachers, pay teachers more, hire more counselors, or build newer, shinier school buildings. As an antidote to such thinking, contemplate the scatter graph above compiled by John Butcher on Cranky’s Blog.

In previous posts, Butcher has documented that there is very little correlation between per pupil expenditure and SOL achievement. In today’s post, he explores variations on the same theme, showing that there is minimal correlation on a school-district level between between the teacher-pupil ratio and SOL achievement in either reading or math.

In other scatter graphs, Butcher shows that there is even less correlation — essentially zero — between school size and reading/math SOL proficiency.

From the right side of the philosophical spectrum, as a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial opines, come calls for more¬†charter schools, more magnet programs, and more publicly and privately funded vouchers. While such alternatives may be appealing as a long-term solution, one has to be realistic that politically they are a non-starter in a state run by a Democratic Party governor and a legislature that likely will turn blue as well. Conservatives and libertarians should continue fighting for school choice, but in the meantime they need to proffer serious analysis of what ails public schools and what can be done to fix them — or at least not make them worse.

If the problem isn’t money, or teacher-pupil ratios, or school size, what is it? I think I’m getting closer to some answers. Let me sketch out my thinking at this point in time.

What really ails Virginia schools. Virginia’s public education system combines a toxic mix of three elements that interact in terribly dysfunctional ways: (1) the sociological reality of a large and growing population of children raised in material poverty, absentee fathers, substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, and other dysfunctions; (2) the spread of politically correct doctrine, manifested most recently in the imposition of “restorative justice” as a means of achieving school discipline; and (3) a push for accountability metrics, of which the SOLs are only one, that pressure school districts, principals, and teachers to game the system in order to show progress where none exists.

This combination is especially poisonous at schools with concentrated poverty. A number of things are going on. Schools are under pressure to reduce the rising rate of absenteeism — both the problem of students skipping school and the problem, among students who do come to school, of skipping class. The educrats seem to understand that it is a farce to claim that high school graduation rates are declining even while absenteeism is increasing. They also understand that students won’t learn (and pass their SOLs) if they don’t enter a classroom.

But the absenteeism-reduction imperative conflicts with the restorative-justice imperative. When kids skip school, there’s usually a reason — they’re bored and/or frustrated.¬† They are bored and/or frustrated because they don’t understand the material, can’t participate meaningfully in class, and feel set up to fail. They feel all those things because they have been socially promoted to grades beyond their competence, a phenomenon that is itself the product of politically correct thinking.

So, Virginia schools now have more bored/frustrated kids sitting in classrooms. Some just tune out. But others act out, disrupting class. Here’s where the restorative justice approach to school discipline comes in. Schools subject to federal court order to reduce expulsions, suspensions, and other sanctions on the grounds that they disproportionately impact minorities typically have substituted a therapeutic approach. In Henrico County, I understand, teachers are first called upon to “de-escalate” a disruptive situation. If that doesn’t work, teachers are supposed to take the student into the hall and reason with them. If a student must be removed from class, the time can be 20 minutes, no longer. Following these steps consumes a significant percentage of the teacher’s time. (My source estimates that he spends about 25% of his class time dealing with disruptive students, more than ever.) The result is that teachers have less time to teach the majority of students who do want to learn and are willing to behave comport themselves properly…. which leads to lower SOL scores. Of course, as I have frequently observed, the victims of disruptive students are disproportionately minorities themselves.

Can things get worse? Yes, they can. This school year the VDOE is rolling out a new set of accreditation standards, which include a host of new performance processes and metrics. While the goal of establishing objective measures for holding schools accountable is laudable in the abstract, the new processes could mire schools in even more red tape, lead to more gamesmanship and data manipulation, empower those who figure out how to work the new rules and demoralize those who don’t. When placed in impossible situations, teachers, principals and school officials could be even more tempted to engage in ass-covering behavior to avoid sanctions that could hurt their careers. Virginia schools could plunge even deeper into self-deception and denial. That’s not a prediction, just a possible outcome — but one we should be alert to.

Consider yourself forewarned. More bureaucratic rules are rarely the answer to any complex problem.

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10 responses to “More Bureaucracy Won’t Help Virginia Schools

  1. Here’s a question for Jim B and Butcher – and I bet the data exists and can be crunched to get the answer.

    If we take the aggregate data – and deduct the scores of those on free and reduced – on a state basis as well as districts – what would the resulting SOL scores look like?

    The basic premise is that there is a “problem” in Virginia schools… with the ways the schools are operated… with the quality of teachers and with “teaching to the test”… etc… but is the real problem that kids that are from economically disadvantaged families – do badly at the SOLs?

    In fact – you could do one more selective data study and that is take all the kids that receive free & reduced – from all schools – and what is their aggregate SOL scores?

    Now.. if I’m right – then would the answers that Jim B and Butcher and others have suggested – the right answers?

    So, let’s get the data straight so we actually can focus on the real issue.. then from there discuss what to do in response to it – because CLEARLY to this point – whether it’s Henrico or Richmond or even Fairfax – they all have the same challenges with getting good SOL scores from the economically disadvantaged demographics.

    • John and I have documented that about half the variation in SOL achievement is correlated with the socio-economic status of the students. That’s not controversial. But school systems can’t control that variable. John and I are interested in what schools can control — accounting for the other half of the variability.

      • I doubt that it’s just half but if you can reference where you did do this with data – I’d go and read it.

        So.. IF you ARE going to focus on schools that do not do well on SOL and it’s NOT students of the low socio-economic demographic… let’s see it.

        I just think when you broad brush and don’t address the issue with the well-known academic shortfall with free & reduced economics… we’re really not drilling down to the relevant issues.

        so how about it? can we see the schools/districts where the SOLs are bad AFTER we subtract out the lower socio-economic scores?

        So then we have two distinct issues – right?

  2. Education is process that begins long before a child gets to Kindergarten, and those third grade reading scores are indeed crucial. Getting a child to grade level and keeping them there on reading is quite simple, but time consuming, and it takes parents willing (able) to read to the children and (very important) be seen reading themselves by their children. It means turning off the damn TV and taking away the damn phones and tablets and getting the child to read a book or some other printed matter. Where the parents are not willing or able to perform this task, some other adult can substitute. Parents are best. But you learn reading by doing it. Yes, sometimes reading disabilities surface but the sooner they are spotted the sooner remedial steps can apply.

    Starting this at Kindergarten is way, way too late.

    Just look around you, the problem is obvious everywhere you look. Along with proof that the problem can be overcome. And I give weight to the complaints that the focus on the SOLs may have taken away some of the joy of just reading for its own sake. I saw a back to school news snippet and the little girl said she was happy to start reading again – meaning apparently no random reading on her own over the summer.

    Expect the schools to deliver “education” like some other commodity, say pizza, and you will always be disappointed.

    And it ties into the other discussion, about how at a young age students in challenged circumstances must be told, shown, convinced that education is a path to economic security. Maybe or maybe not college, but a strong high school program followed by skill training. I really wonder if that message is being given enough. (Thank goodness none of them read this blog! They’d give up immediately!)

    Living overseas without television for half my life before I turned ten is the best thing that every happened to me. Thank you, DoD!

    • I dunno about the TV and other distractions – unless we KNOW there are distinct differences between kids whose parents are well educated AND who mentor/shepherd their own kids through school – … and kids of parents who are not well educated , don’t have a culture of education , are not well off economically and who do NOT mentor/shepherd their kids through school.

      A bigger question is – is it he job of schools to fix this and if it is – do we really expect them to fix it without more resources targeted at these harder-to-educate kids?

      I think the current meme of affixing “blame” to the schools, the bureacracy, the teachers.. and the parents – etc… NONE of that actually deals with how to improve it… it’s almost as if , we can affix blame that it absolves us of doing anything more about it – especially if it takes more funding…..

  3. I am not buying the Republican vs Democrat angle regarding the lack of charter schools in Virginia. Lots of bright blue states have lots of kids in charter schools. Here is the data:

    https://ballotpedia.org/Charter_school_statistics_for_all_50_states

    The following six states allow unlimited campaign contributions from corporations and unions -Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia. Four of them are at or near the bottom of charter school participation, including Virginia.

    I don’t think the charter school situation in Virginia is about red state vs blue state. It’s more like green state vs clean state.

    Our state government is corrupt and it hurts everybody.

  4. There is rich and deep research that shows home environment is THE most important thing- from less screen time to how many words are spoken in a home to how much reading occurs by adults. However, that being said, school systems need to educate the children they have. It seems to me that the focus of some of this discussion should be on districts that have challenges, and yet, still achieve great results. I live in Appomattox County, where the free and reduced lunch rate hovers right around 50%, and per pupil expenditures are around $9100 per student, which is very low comparatively. Yet, they have been fully accredited for three years in a row. They are not the only school system in the state that is consistently beating the odds. How are the districts that are succeeding through the challenges managing these results? What are the similarities between districts that are beating the odds? Can Cranky or someone who has the gift of these wonderful cross-tabulations determine who the superstars are? For me, the cross tab should include a comparison of SOL pass rates to free and reduced lunch, but I also find the per pupil expenditure interesting, as doing more with less is always a bonus.

  5. Pingback: Poverty: The Bad Excuse For Bad Schools – CrankysBlog

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