More Graduates, Less Learning

by John Butcher

The estimable Jim Bacon notices the increased graduation rates this year and wonders how much of the increase reflects the waivers issued by the Superintendent. We have some of the underlying data.

On May 26, the Governor issued Executive Order 51 that provides, in part:

Authorization for the heads of executive branch agencies, on behalf of their regulatory boards as appropriate, and with the concurrence of their Cabinet Secretary, to waive any state requirement or regulation. . . .  All waivers issued by agencies shall be posted on their websites.

The following graduation requirements are waived based on authority granted to the Superintendent of Public Instruction per Executive Order Fifty-One (2020):

  • Students currently enrolled in a course for which they need a verified credit in order to graduate;
  • Students who have previously been awarded standard credit, but have not earned the associated verified credit;
  • Students who have not completed the student-selected test;
  • Students who are currently enrolled in or have previously completed a course leading to a CTE credential necessary for a Standard Diploma but have not yet earned the credential;
  • Students who have not completed a United States and Virginia history course*;
  • Students who have not completed a fine or performing arts or career and technical education course*;
  • Students in the second of sequential courses*;
  • Students who have not completed an economics and personal finance course.*

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) does not set out any direct measure of the effect of these waivers, but the history of the cohort graduation rates provides some clues.

But first, what rates shall we measure?

The VDOE announcement brags that the 4-year, “on time,” 2020 cohort graduation rate rose to 92.3% from 91.5% last year, “despite the closure of schools due to COVID-19 in March.”

At the threshold, we might notice that the “on time” graduation rate is manipulated by the inclusion of Modified Standard diplomas that are issued to students who “are unlikely to meet the credit requirements for a Standard Diploma.”

There were fewer than ten Modified Standard diplomas this year. The Board already put its thumb on the scale as to that diploma. “The Modified Standard Diploma will not be an option for students with disabilities who enter the ninth grade for the first time beginning in 2013-2014. Credit accommodations allow students with disabilities who previously would have pursued a Modified Standard Diploma to earn a Standard Diploma.” The current jiggering is set out here: “Special education students and limited English students who have plans in place that allow them more time to graduate will be counted as graduates or non-graduates when they earn a diploma or otherwise exit high school.” Translated, that means that Special Ed and LEP students who don’t graduate in four years get counted in the next (or later) year’s cohort. Talk about win-win for boosting the graduation numbers.

The more honest numbers are the “federal” rates (counting only the advanced and standard diplomas), 89.9% this year and 88.7% last year.

Here is the recent history of the federal diploma rates.

The state rate was flat between ‘18 and ‘19. Extrapolating, that suggests that the 1.2 point improvement in ‘20 was entirely artificial. The fitted line shows an annual increase of ca. 0.3% per year as of 2019, suggesting that 3/4 of the 1.2% increase this year came from the waived requirements. Slice that any way you like, most of the increase reflects administrative fiat, not academic accomplishment.

Thus, of the 98,481 students in the cohort, it looks like somewhere between about 885 and 1180 received bogus diplomas.

Closer to home, the Richmond data suggest that the waived requirements artificially reversed Richmond’s plunging graduation rates.

You and I get to wonder what kind of lying bureaucrat would brag that the artificial increase served “to ensure that students were not held back because being unable to take a Standards of Learning test or complete a required course” while ignoring the wholesale grant of degrees to students who would not have earned them.

The distribution of the 2020 division rates skews toward the low end with Richmond, the yellow datum, leading the skew.

Data for Covington, Lexington, and Highland Co. are absent. I’ve colored the 90% datum light blue to indicate the location of the state average.

All that said, “economically disadvantaged” (here, “ED”) students underperform their more affluent peers (“Not ED”).  The division average SOL pass rates for the two groups differ by about 20 points.

Similarly, the (inflated) state average graduation rates for Not ED and ED students differ this year by just 10%, so the division averages again reflect affluence as well as performance. To deal with that, let’s break out the data for those two groups.

Here we see that the state average increase this year came mostly from the ED population. This makes sense, given that the ED group graduates at a lower rate and would be helped more by a waiver of graduation requirements.

As to Richmond, this year’s jump came entirely from the ED average while the graduation rate of Not ED students actually dropped.

(If you can explain that Not ED drop in the face of waived requirements, or those other fluctuations in the Richmond rates, please relieve my confusion with an email to John{at}calaf{dot}org.)

When we separate out the ED and Not ED data, Richmond’s place among the divisions is more complicated.

Richmond is the gold bar in the first graph and is one of the four represented by the gold bar in the second. The light blue bars again are at the counts at the state averages, here 92 and 82.

As to Not ED students, Richmond’s 59% graduation rate (!) is third from the bottom. (Mercy! What can be going on in Covington, 12%, and Hopewell, 37%?)  As to ED students, Richmond’s 74% is too low, but not in the cellar.

These data do not begin to explain why Richmond’s Not ED graduation rate is so appallingly low, nor why it declined (yet again) this year.

Finally, here are the graduation rate changes from 2019 to 2020, sorted by decreasing ED differences.

It is far from obvious why any of those graduation rates should decrease in light of the waivers, much less how Goochland landed a 24.76% decrease in the ED rate.

The column was republished with permission from Cranky’s Blog. 

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32 responses to “More Graduates, Less Learning

  1. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Wow. A great deal of useful data here. The class of 2021 should get some sort of special sticker on their diplomas to denote that they missed so far 5 months of school and had it replaced with substandard virtual instruction. Appreciate the countless hours it must have taken to compile this body of work.

  2. Albeit, personally, I disagree with the best known part of the lyrics. OTOH, that was 50 years ago, and there weren’t SOLs to which to be taught.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Simon recorded that here at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. He thought the “Swampers” were a black session band. Paul was shocked to find an integrated good old southern rock band to help make that record. One of the greatest albums of all time. I had a chance to get a tour of the place. Solid Hart Pine walls, ceilings, and floor to create the unique Muscle Shoals Sound.

      • And one of the things I get out of this is that the economy has lots of jobs for people who don’t necessarily have a top notch math/science education.

        It does not have to be “racial” – Asian, Black, Hispanic nor white to think in terms of the wide range of “higher” education that can bring success to a kid in high school.

        Why we continue to frame this as a narrow-scope academic “merit” thing is beyond me.

        Success in life is possible in a wide variety of paths – and if we’re gonna offer special “schools” then lets recognize that there are a whole lot more jobs inthe economy than just science and math.

      • And the Stones did some good stuff there too… when they were the not stoned Stones. Jimmy recorded there. The list of musicians that recorded there may only be outdone by Nashville.

        • James Wyatt Whitehead V

          There is a guy named Jay who owns Deep Grove Records in Richmond and he used to work at Muscle Shoals. He was present for the Rhymin Simon album. Endless cool stories and about big stars in the middle of nowhere Alabama. Ask him about Cher. I seem to remember a pretty good documentary on this studio.

          • A VERY good documentary. Watched it twice on PBS. It turns up every once in awhile during Pledge Week.

            There’s also a great documentary on the Laurel Canyon studios and the musicians there.

  3. Baconator with extra cheese

    What matters most for Virginia is Equity and Diversity. Virginia was More successful last year because diversity in high school graduates increased and it was very equitable for the kids who can’t necessarily read, add numbers, or write to get diplomas just like the other kids. Which is Ok because as we are all learning complete sentences, math, and books are all tools of white culture and white supremacy! The diversity increased in ways never seen before… we had special needs kids get regular diplomas!

  4. There is a bunch of data here but I wonder what the point of the post is.

    No surprise to me that the way graduation was done last summer was different and waivers likely done to help some kids not end up being able to really graduate for another year and really no hope that the schools could do much about it anyhow. excuses. excuses. excuses, right? 😉

    And yes, VDOE and the schools will use every trick in the book to get their numbers to be as good as they can.

    I’ve pointed out before how this problem starts way back in elementary school where Butcher and Bacon want to point to places like Richmond but I would point to places like Henrico where in the same school system SOL reading scores between SCHOOLs – are as much as 50 points different. Why? And why do Bacon and Butcher not ALSO make this a subject of a blog post and instead continue to harp on places like Richmond?

    SOL 3rd grade Reading:

    Dumbarton Elementary 41.25
    Fair Oaks Elementary 41.67
    John Rolfe Middle 45.93
    Elizabeth Holladay Elementary 46.59
    Longdale Elementary 47.89
    Harold Macon Ratcliffe Elementary 48
    Charles M. Johnson Elementary 48.61
    Cashell Donahoe Elementary 48.78
    Highland Springs Elementary 49.33
    Nuckols Farm Elementary 90
    Holman Middle 90.71
    David A. Kaechele Elementary 90.79
    Twin Hickory Elementary 91.09
    Short Pump Middle 92.31
    Rivers Edge Elementary 94.44
    Shady Grove Elementary 94.83

    It should come as no surprise when reading scores can be this bad – that graduation rates are also not good and schools like Henrico with VDOE help do what they can to make the numbers look better.

    When there are 50 point differences in SOL reading scores, is it an “equity” issue or what and it shows up high schoo grad rates? Eureka!

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      I think the main point Mr. Butcher is making: the books are cooked. You have to dig deep to get to the real data that reveals the true current outcomes in education.

      • I agree with that – but it’s also true of other schools – they all do this INCLUDING the Success Academies, etc.

        What’s the point? He puts forth how many charts to “demontrate” this and for what? What schools do NOT do this? It’s just the nature of the beast… I don’t like it – but it’s not exactly the mother of all scandals either.

        And the real irony here is that it’s the mandated transparency of the public school system that allows him to ding them.

        Without that transparency, Butcher would have bumpkis. And it’s something that most other non-public schools don’t have to do..

        Bigger picture – he just wants to impugn public schools and his favorite seems to be Richmond.

        You want scandal? look at the difference in SOL scores in the very same school district – like Henrico.

        Now THAT’s a scandal. But then we are told, it’s really not because those low scores are really the fault of the parents…

        very confusing.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V, a long time teacher in Virginia’s public schools said above that: “I think the main point Mr. Butcher is making: the books are cooked. You have to dig deep to get to the real data that reveals the true current outcomes in education.”

        Unfortunately, as concerns the Virginia Department of Education, Mr. Wyatt is right. “The books are cooked” and have been for some times. Indeed, within VDOE, dishonesty is the norm, not the exception, and this chronic institutional dishonestly goes to the heart of the ongoing gross failures of public education in Virginia. This has long been reported on Bacon’s Rebellion. For example, consider the following:

        In reply to Tom Banford.

        Banford says:

        “There is no evidence that Virginia schools are resembling re-education camps and are neglecting math, reading, and writing. In fact the criticism is that they are focused too much on this due to standardized testing and are ignoring critical thinking and long term learning. Further, you have yet to explain what “restorative justice” means in a school setting. Home schooling is a very good alternative for some parents. It would be nice to hear from people that actually have experience in Virginia’s public schools.”

        Virginia public schools K -12 are rampantly expanding reeducation camps. See Uva. curry school of education website for details. (Note School by now may have renamed itself to rid itself name Curry).

        As to many Virginia K – 12 public schools neglecting math, reading, and writing:

        Please remember that Virginia Board of Education falsified achievement tests of Virginia high school students by upward of 40% so as to falsely claim these kids qualified for a college education when surely the Board of Education knew that these students did not qualify.

        This conclusion is based on a related series of earlier articles on Bacon’s Rebellion, including for example, these comments of mine, under post titled : Virginia Reading Test Scores Plunge, dated Oct. 30, 2019, namely:

        “Reed Fawell 3rd | October 31, 2019 at 11:06 am | Reply

        Here is an important question on this NAEP reading Proficiency Chart that shows that ONLY 33% OF VIRGINIA’S EIGHT GRADERS ARE ABLE TO READ AT OR ABOVE THE NATIONAL 8TH GRADE LEVEL.

        If that is true, then why should we believe that its true that 12th grade kids in Virginia pass Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) at far more than double the NAEP rate (at 8th grade), namely:

        “Reading: 78% pass rate, down 2 percentage points from the previous year.

        Writing: 76% pass rate, down 2 percentage points.”


        In fact, what normally happens after the 8th grade is that disadvantaged kids and other poor learners (whether advantaged or not), fall even further behind their grade level achievement after the 8th grade. This happens for well known reasons. Thus the majority of American kids are no where even close to “college ready” after they “graduate” from 12th grade, assuming they did not drop out altogether from schooling before then.

        In short, what do 12th grade federal NAEP proficiency charts tell us about Virginia students who graduate? And how do those figures compare to Virginia’s own SOL charts, and what do the latter have to do with telling us about College readiness? Can we believe them? If so, why?

        Reed Fawell 3rd | October 31, 2019 at 1:14 pm | Reply

        “2015 12th graders reading at 12th grade level nationally per NEAP tests – In 2015, thirty-seven percent of twelfth-grade students performed at or above the Proficient achievement level in reading, according to NEAP test results.

        These test results include following percentage breakdowns for students whose parents had variant educational levels:

        18% pass rate for students whose parents did not finish high school.

        24% pass rate for students whose parents did finish high school.

        36% pass rate for those whose parents had some education after high school.


        What a remarkable record of gross failure. No wonder most kids learn nothing in college. Now, if we compare Virginia students proficiency rates in 12th grade to their grade level, we will see how honest or dishonest Virginia’s SOL testing is. Good luck finding it.

        Now too, we know why 12th grade NEAP testing results are so hard to find, and often are not published at all, including since 2015.


        Reed Fawell 3rd | November 1, 2019 at 8:32 am | Reply

        Given these NAEP test results, the key question is can Virginians trust the reported results of the Virginia Department of Education’s SOL tests? The answer is a resounding NO. This tests cannot be trusted. Why? Because they are grossly inflated.

        For example, compare the following SOL results with NAEP results reported in Jim Bacon’s August 13, 2019 post entitled “Latest SOLS: More Declines in Reading, Writing”:

        “Here are the top-line results for the state:

        Reading: 78% pass rate, down 2 percentage points from the previous year.

        Writing: 76% pass rate, down 2 percentage points.

        Math: 82% pass rate, up 5 percentage points.
        Science: 81% pass rate, unchanged

        History/social science: 80% pass, down 4 percentage points

        Asians, as usual, out-performed all other racial/ethnic groups, followed by whites, Hispanics, and blacks. Despite a heavy emphasis by the Northam administration to address racial inequities in schools, the black-white achievement gap grew wider last year in reading and writing, while remaining the same for science.

        VDOE instituted two main changes to its testing. First, it reduced the number of tests high school students must pass to graduate. Under the revised regulations, explains the VDOE press release, “students who meet the testing requirement in a content area do not have to take another test in the subject unless additional testing is required for the school to comply with federal testing requirements. Previously, high school students continued to take end-of-course tests even if they had already earned the credits in the content area necessary to graduate.”

        “The reduction in high school testing is most apparent in history where there is not a federal requirement that students take at least one test in the subject in high school,” VDOE spokesman Charles Pyle told Bacon’s Rebellion. The Every Student Succeeds Act “requires that students take at least one test in reading, math and science during high school.”

        Second, VDOE introduced new tests and standards for math. Some educators have expressed concern that the math standards were watered down. (See “Did the State Reduce the Rigor of Math SOLs?”)

        School Superintendent James Lane said VDOE staff will collaborate with school divisions to address the achievement gaps in reading, especially in the elementary grades. VDOE will work with schools and divisions that did not see declines in reading performance in order to identify best practices and successful strategies for improving reading skills. The effort will include a review of the effectiveness of interventions to assist young readers not reading at grade level.

        “School divisions must ensure that all children receive research-based reading instruction — beginning in kindergarten — that addresses their specific needs, and that students are reading at grade level by the end of the third grade,” Lane said. “This includes making sure that students read a variety of challenging content, including non-fiction and literature that expands vistas and vocabularies. We must meet students where they are, but we must also move them to where they need to be: reading at grade level or above and ready for success in the 21st century.”

        Obviously, VA’s SOL numbers are bogus. They inflate real test results by a factor of two. Surely this is an effort to buttress repeated claims within VA’s educational cartel that some 70% of Virginia’s high school graduates are “college ready” when only some 37% could possible meet that test even under NAEP’s watered down definition of “college ready.”

        Simply put the Virginia Department of Educations SOL test results grossly mislead parents, students, and the public paying the bills that support a failing system.”

  5. Baconator with extra cheese

    Such a question is easy to answer Larry. The Sec of Ed would tell you that is a clear idicator of systemic racism. And as citizens we should completely agree and fire every teacher, principal, and adminstrator complicit in the systemic racism indicated by those Henrico Schools. And likewise the School Board, Board of Supervisors, and County Manager should all be fired and or resign because they are also complicit in the systemic racism. And since the school district is obviously systemically racist, per the Sec of Ed’s and Dr Gov Northam’s presentations, the district should not be eligible for federal funding for violating federal law.
    Systemic racism will not end until we do something about it. I’m all in now. I can’t wait to go to town halls and public meetings and ask everyone of these clowns why they are complicit.
    And by end I mean blaming every discrepancy or unequal outcome on racism because anyone has to know there are about a 1,000 factors that determine if a kid will not succeed.

    • re: ” And as citizens we should completely agree and fire every teacher, principal, and adminstrator complicit in the systemic racism indicated by those Henrico Schools.”

      Do we do that with crime, or congestion or poverty?

      no, we do not.

      But we do have problems in our public schools, no question and I suspect if we look closer at some of these elementary schools, it’s more “systemic” than it is “racist”.

      But for some reason, we prefer to tut tut about the grad rates rather than the things that lead up to the grad rates – which is a significant number of kids in Henrico are already in trouble in the 3rd grade – no surprise at all that they then do badly at graduation.

  6. John Butcher –

    Thank you for your very powerful and insightful post. Facts are difficult things to ignore unless, of course, you are a part of the current educational establishment is Virginia, under the current Democratic regime, its politicians, and its corrupt bureaucracy.

    • Lying about facts is never a solution. It is a fraud that does great harm to kids, their parents, local communities, and society.


      Because the chronic lying by public officials in Virginia hides and obfuscates the chronic problems they impose on our children. This is what today’s irresponsible politicians and the Democratic educational establishment in Virginia does everyday to hide their own failures from the public. This burying of the facts about the Democratic establishment’s gross failure to educate kids in Virginia is the twin sister the Democrats scapegoating, their spewing false charges of systemic white racism, another lie that also insures that yet more disadvantaged kids in Virginia will fall victim to the failed educational system in Virginia.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Mr. Reed it is so broken now I am leaning more and more towards the concept of “deinstitutionalization” of public education. This system has existed for 150 years in Virginia. The last half century has been a gradual decline in outcomes. Perhaps some form of deinstitutionalization will yield positive and measurable outcomes for all subgroups involved.

        • But like I have pointed out – many public schools in Virginia do this:
          3rd grade reading SOL:

          George H. Moody Middle 83.16
          Pemberton Elementary 83.33
          Short Pump Elementary 85.09
          Jackson Davis Elementary 87.67
          Colonial Trail Elementary 88.79
          Pocahontas Middle 89.22
          Tuckahoe Elementary 89.25
          Gayton Elementary 89.53
          Nuckols Farm Elementary 90
          Holman Middle 90.71
          David A. Kaechele Elementary 90.79
          Twin Hickory Elementary 91.09
          Short Pump Middle 92.31
          Rivers Edge Elementary 94.44
          Shady Grove Elementary 94.83

          How can we say the public school system is “broken” when they produce some of the best educared children in the country, in the world?

          As usual, we have folks who see this is terms of whole glass or empty glass.

  7. Keep your eye on the predictor, not the outcome. SOL third grade reading pass rates are critical!!!

    • First grade grade reading pass rates are even more critical than third grade. Kindergarten pass rates are critical too. Indeed, the chronic failures that destroy the futures of our kids start from day those kids are born and those failures mount and accumulate during the first six years of their lives to the point that a significant number of those kids are destined to be failures in life before they reach the first grade. The responsibility of their failures rests primarily on their parents, and the culture wherein those parents have been raised. Today’s Democratic party promotes that culture. It’s is a culture of grievance and dependence, of scapegoating and allegation against others, and self loathing and helplessness and hate. So many kids are doomed and their chances for success decreased as they pass through the corrupt process of education.

      • Larry, as stated endlessly on this blog by others you need to learn how to read with comprehension so that one can engage in an intelligent conversation with you without you chronically misrepresenting what other people say, and also without you forgetting what other people say to the point that you never learn with result that you keep spouting nonsense, thoughtless ideology, and mindless platitudes in response to others trying to have an intelligent discussion with you.

        For example, I did not say all kids were doomed before their sixth year, and anything close. What I said above, I have said many times on this blog citing world class authorities on the subject, all of which apparently goes over your head or simply never registers therein, making further discussion with you as waste of time.

        For example, in reply to Dick Sizemore on June 28, 2020 in The Big Lie of Unequal Funding, I said:

        “Dick asks:
        “So, does that mean that kids without motivated families, or probably more the case, too overwhelmed to be motivated in terms of school, are doomed.”

        To short answer is yes. These kids are doomed in a great majority of cases, and it has been going on now for most of 50 years, without our denting problem, but indeed acerbating it.

        The state has played a significant roll here in promoting this problem, by destroying the family, and individuals’ sense responsibility for themselves and their children, and for other children and people, all social constructs that are critical for our children’s success. These simple facts, consequences and realities put in play by government policies have been known and documented, but ignored, since the 1960s and 1970s. Hence, our kids now reap what we have sown for decades.

        As a result, our children’s lost of family and strong supportive communities, and their values, has greatly damaged several generations of our children. This includes irreparable harm being done from their birth through the child’s sixth year, a critical, and typically irreplaceable, time for healthy childhood development, or its lack.

        This has always been the case historically, as these childhood needs are built into all humanity, each and everyone of us. Now these critical needs of all infants and young children are clearly understood, and should be appreciated, as never before by us. This is thanks to monumental advances in the research of childhood development over past 30 years, particularly over past decade. See discussion herein of books like “Becoming Human.”

        And here, Dick, the characterization you use, “without motivated families,” must include the neglect, abandonment, and outright abuse of children from birth on by those responsible for their well being. This devastates kids of all ages, but most particularly the very young.

        Too many kids now have far too little chance to succeed, even before they enter the first grade, absent great effort and luck in school. And now, far too often, the obstacles to many kid’s success pile up in public schools today, year after year, in our grievance society where no one feels truly responsible for them, and/or is in fact held responsible, much less to account. Instead these ‘responsible’ adults point their fingers every which way, except at themselves. All of us must change this shirking of responsibility, hard as it may be. Why? Because all of us deserve that change, most particularly those caught up in the problem and its horrible consequences visible all around us now, a collapsing society and culture.

        So we must attack these deep seated social problems vigorously on all fronts from birth, including calling them for what they are, and meeting them head on, in lieu of scapegoating and grievance mongering; and so we must honestly acknowledge these issues as “across the board problems” irrespective of race and skin color, which, in the real world, have little or nothing to do with the problems at hand or their solutions. This also means guaranteeing that all kids who are willing and motivated to learn must have the unfettered right, as human beings, to learn in a safe place with highly motivated and empowered teachers, in classrooms free of kids (and parents, and leaders) who otherwise make this impossible in their classrooms.

        This includes the building of a social ethic and environment that holds all parents to account. To do otherwise is a grave injustice to their kids, the parents themselves, and society generally. Most particularly it is a gross injustice to the great majority of kids (and their responsible parents) who have right to learn and earn a good education fully equal to theirs talents, motivation, and sense of responsibility to themselves and to others.”

        For another example, in the June 21, 2020 post The Coming K-12 Meltdown, I said:

        “Recently, in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Robert Hamilton, author of 7 Secrets of the Newborn, 2018, described the human child’s first year of life as being the first 3 months after the child’s birth “when kids are disoriented and angry at mom ripping them from womb. So during this period the newborn struggles to get its bearings outside in its new and alien place, as it struggles to sleep, feed, stay warm, and safe.”

        Then miraculously around 3 months outside the womb, the child, now oriented, seems transformed as it takes its first purposeful steps into its new world of wonders. Says Dr. Hamilton “These developments make (the doctor’s) three month check up (of an infant) an affair of joy and wonder, the look these babies have in their eyes, the guileless glance that convey hope and destiny, plus a furtive glimmer of self knowledge. Babies this age seem to have a sense of the human potential they’re soon to claim.”

        It is here that Michael Tomasello, in his seminal new book Becoming Human, “a grand synthesis of three decades of collaborative research at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig,” picks up the story of the human child’s cognitive and social development from the 1st year after birth to somewhere around 6th year of the child’s life that typically ends its kindergarten year before the 1st grade. If you understand that story, then you will understand why so many of our public schools as now operated fail our disadvantaged children while at the same time you will deeply appreciate why the methods and reasoning behind a child’s first year in kindergarten in a Success Academy put the child so firmly on the road to success. Those methods and reasoning behind the success of the Success Academies are described in Robert Pondiscio’s book How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice after he spent a year closely observing Success Academy Bronx 1.

        To quote Mr. Pondiscio:

        “At the end of the school day, Syskowski and Matt Carnaghi empty their classrooms of their kindergarten-size chairs and arrange them in three rows in the open area adjacent to Liz Vandlik’s office. The children are held for dismissal, forcing parents to come upstairs and listen to the teachers before picking them up.

        At 3:45 p.m. sharp, Syskowski launches in. “The reason we’re having a meeting together is because there’s a lot of work to be done. We need to come together as a Bronx 1 community and figure out what’s going on and set goals.”

        She scans the thirty adults seated before her in chairs meant for five-year-olds. “As you can see, right now we have a meeting for ninety children and this is the parent turnout. It’s not good.”

        Syskowski walks them through the reading benchmarks for kindergarten. “It’s January. A number of our children are still Level A or pre-A, which means they don’t know how to read.”

        The kindergartnerers will be tested again in February, by which time they’re all expected to be at Level C.

        If the point is lost, Syskowski lays it out plainly. If their children are not at Level C by the end of February, they are unlikely to reach Level D by the end of the school year. “If they do not reach D, they do not go to first grade,” she says, “Do not. Period.”

        She pauses to let the message sink in, then repeats it. “They will not go to first grade if they’re not a Level D. That has been said before, and I’m just restating it.”

        Now that she has the parents’ full attention, Syskowski pivots from reading levels to school culture and expectations—for adults. “A lot of you are brand new to Success Academy. We know it’s a new world,” she tells them. “We want you to ask questions. We know what we teach here is a little different. It’s different than the way you learned and the way we learned. We received a lot of training and we know this is the best way that children learn. If there are things that you need, you need to ask. So, this is us reaching out, having that parent meeting and saying, ‘Here we are. This is our space. And we need to talk because we’re not meeting benchmarks.’”

        The benchmarks Syskowski is referring to are not only the reading-level chart in her classroom but achievement levels of the kindergarteners relative to dozens of other Success Academy schools.

        “Other schools within our network over in Brooklyn, in Manhattan and Queens, their children are reading at benchmarks,” she says pointedly. “All of us in this room are not doing enough for our kids. The children in Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan can do it, and our kids can’t, even though we all have the same curriculum, we all have the same training.”

        There are no secrets in a Success Academy school. Classrooms and hallway “data walls” leave little to no doubt which children—by name—are at, above, or below academic standards. This can be off-putting to some parents and has been attacked by critics outside the network. On the other hand, it is the rare student in any school who isn’t aware of who the standouts and strugglers are in class. Success Academy puts it on the wall for all to see.

        Syskowski begins to spin a sobering tale of the trajectory children can find themselves on in the absence of energetic efforts. “First grade is a huuuuge literacy year,” she says. “If we don’t set them up in kindergarten, they will drown.”

        The parents sit silently. “We need to step it up.”

        Carnaghi has been standing alongside Syskowski, nodding stoically. He introduces himself as a “first-year LT,” or lead teacher, then adds almost apologetically, “I’m pretty resourceful and here for you guys.”

        But it’s Syskowski’s intervention, and she’s just getting started. Her tone is unfailingly warm and encouraging—she wants to win the parents over and make common cause, not alienate or antagonize them—but her words are unsparing.

        Standing behind the rows, I cannot see all the parents’ faces, but most appear to be nodding along. If there’s discontent with Syskowski’s brand of tough love, there’s no sign of it. “If your children are late or they’re not here, we can’t teach them,” she says. “We really need you to get your children here by 7:45 if not 7:30.”

        The first moments of each day, kindergarteners have breakfast with their class, and teachers do a “re-teach,” working with individual children on skills in which they’ve fallen behind. “If they are not here on time or not here at all, we can’t do that,” she says. “We have some children in this grade who’ve already been absent eleven times. Anytime I’m sick, I come here. I can’t afford to lose that day with your children. At the same time, your child cannot miss that day with any of us. We’re here, we need to be here, we want to be here, and every second is really . . .”

        A toddler starts crying loudly, drowning her out, and without breaking pace, Syskowski orders the toddler’s sister, Rama B., one of her students with a serious, almost adult face, to take her into a nearby classroom.

        Syskowski is rolling now and doesn’t want to lose her audience, which now fills all the chairs and spills down the hall. “You want your child to go to college. You sent them here to a college-bound school. Our philosophy is that every single child goes to college and it starts when they’re five. I know that you want that for them, because that’s why you brought them to Success Academy. At the same time, it’s a daily grind. You need to put that work in to get them there.”

        Syskowski asks for a show of hands. “Whose child is reading at a Level A right now?” A few hands go up. If the parents are aware of their child’s reading level, many more hands should be in the air. Carnaghi scans the room and jumps in. “There’s one,” he points and calls out. “Two. Anyone else? There are plenty here.”

        It is impossible to tell if the parents don’t know, don’t want to reveal that their child is below benchmarks, or are feeling called out and embarrassed. “We want to get it out there. You’re not alone!” Syskowski implores, trying to encourage more parents to own up and join in.

        “Level B?” More hands go up. “There’s three, four, five,” Carnaghi counts off. By the time she gets to Level D, only one hand is up. “So that means out of everyone here, we have one child who is ready for first grade,” Syskowski says, growing quiet. “We’re a community of parents. Use each other to help each other. I know you guys have daily struggles as parents. I’m not a parent, so I don’t know that struggle. I know that struggle as a classroom teacher when I’m with your scholar and really pushing them, and they’re like, ‘Ms. Syskowski, this is hard,’” she says plaintively. “And yeah, it’s hard.”

        Syskowski’s urgency is not misplaced. By January, the children should be learning to read. Midway through kindergarten, they should recognize and be able to name and write upper- and lowercase letters. They are acquiring those “print concepts,” such as understanding the basic structures of a book and that text moves from left to right, even if they are not fully able to decode the printed word.

        Five-year-olds are also developing phonological awareness, such as recognizing syllables, rhymes, and “phonemes,” the forty-four units of sound that make up every word in the English language. An essential literacy building block at this age is beginning “sound-symbol relationships” and the ability to read consonant-vowel-consonant words like “cat” and “dog.”

        Syskowski and her colleagues do not expect parents to be surrogate reading teachers or to have a nuanced understanding of these skills or progressions. But they nonetheless put a heavy lift on parents to read nightly with their children and to monitor and ensure that they are reading at home—something affluent parents tend to do reflexively, often without even knowing why.

        “We’re seeing two really big issues,” Syskowski says. “Your reading logs still have your scholars’ books on them. They can read those books by themselves. Those are not the books that go on the reading logs,” she instructs. The reading logs are for books that parents read aloud. Very young children can understand even sophisticated texts when they are read aloud, which, research indicates, helps them develop as readers by exposing them to new vocabulary and allowing them to hear mature readers’ fluent pronunciation and expression. Kindergarteners should also spend twenty minutes reading independently at home each night. “That doesn’t mean they read on their own, you go do laundry. It. Is. Challenging. I hear you. We need that patience and excitement to tell them, ‘You know what? You are a great reader, and you can do this.”

        Carnaghi has been largely silent, but now it’s his turn to take the lead. Reading logs must be completed 100 percent of the time. “If we look cross grade right now? Ninety percent. Ninety-two percent. Eighty-six percent,” he says, indicating the compliance rate in each of the kindergarten classrooms. “It’s not getting done.”

        If any other elementary schools in the neighborhood asked parents to maintain reading logs, 90 percent compliance would be a cause for celebration. Here it’s a crisis. “The reason we’re so on you about these reading logs is because it sets up routines, right?” he continues. “These routines help build up memory skills, problem-solving skills. These are all cognitive skills. If you’re not at home constantly building those, your child will not be successful.”

        There is a long pause as Carnaghi and the parents stare at one another. “Really cold, hard fact. You really need to listen. You need to hear it. Like hear it.”

        This is one of the first times I’ve seen Carnaghi “on.” While few restrictions have been placed on my observations, Vandlik asked early in the school year that I “give Mr. Carnaghi some room.” As a new teacher who expected to be an associate, not lead, teacher, it seemed an undue burden to be under an outsider’s microscope, unhelpful to him and a distraction to his students. As a result, I’ve barely set foot in his classroom. Like so many of his colleagues, he radiates earnestness, even as he tries to play bad cop to Syskowski’s good. “One in six children in our community who are not proficient readers by third grade—forget about college. They’re going to have a really hard time passing high school,” he says.

        It’s suddenly hard to hear over the delighted squeals of kindergarteners playing in the classroom behind me, unaware of the high-stakes conversation we are having about them. But the grim urgency Carnaghi is trying to communicate is not misplaced. Failure starts early in communities like Mott Haven. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. first graders who struggle in reading are still struggling in fourth grade; three out of four third-grade readers who are below grade level are still below grade level in ninth grade; and one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time—a failure rate four times greater than among proficient readers.

        If the ninety-odd kindergarteners of Bronx 1 steer clear of this grim vortex of failure that has been all but inevitable for children in this community for generations, it will be in no small part due to what Syskowski, Carnaghi, and the rest of the kindergarten teachers are doing this year—aided and abetted by fully engaged parents.

        “I assume right now that every single parent in this room knows exactly how to teach that kid because nobody comes up to me and asks me, ‘What can I do? How can I help my child? Is there anything else I can do?’” Carnaghi is making demands, almost hectoring, but his tone is plaintive, nearly pleading. “We’re here for your kids. But you’re not showing us that you’re here for your kids right now, because these routines are not getting set up. If you need to know what to do, raise your hand now.”

        Syskowski takes up the call. “Any question at all!”

        Now there are lots of hands. Parents ask about how to handle behavior problems at home. One says she has a hard time getting her child to focus. Another mother expresses frustration at how poorly her child is performing on sight-word quizzes. “When he’s in the house, he does the work perfectly fine. But when he comes here, I guess he gets a little bit scared. Whenever we do words in the house—‘they,’ ‘were,’ ‘was’—he does it perfect. When he gets here, he usually gets one right or two right. Sometimes he gets all three right. So, I’m a little bit . . .” She trails off.

        “Think about environment, right?” Carnaghi replies. “At home, your child is in such a relaxed environment. Do you time him?” Mom says no. “Start timing him. Get him used to timing in both environments. When he’s at home, he gets all the time in the world, he’s relaxed. That’s not a problem. But if you really want to see something different, put on a timer.”

        In other school settings, the suggestion that parents time their children, conduct weekly tests of sight words at home, or be forced to sit and listen to their child’s teacher lecturing them that they’re not living up to their parental responsibilities would cause an insurrection. But none of the parents raise an eyebrow, whether out of deference, intimidation, a shared sense of urgency, a reluctance to make waves, or some combination of these factors.

        Carnaghi adds, “Being timed makes anybody anxious, right?” He turns to the crowd. “Silent thumbs-up if that’s what makes it anxious for you?” and many turn their thumbs up while several chuckle audibly. “It’s not easy!”

        “We have an open-door policy here,” Syskowski reminds them, returning to her main theme. “Tell us the time you’re scheduled to be off from work. Tell us the time you want to come in. Schedule some time. Please!”

        Syskowski calls on a mother who is having trouble keeping her child’s frustrations in check. “Nyelle has that same problem. If she doesn’t know a word like ‘what,’ she actually gets angry. She cries and then we have to end it,” she explains. “I feel like she’s a little behind. I know she’s got a C, but I feel like she should already be at D. But the last, maybe, two weeks, we had to shut down early because she gets so emotional.”

        Syskowski senses a teachable moment. “You said something really awesome I wanted to get out in the open. Nyelle is very much a high-flier in my class. It’s very hard for me to challenge her, because she gets it in a snap,” she explains, pointing at the mother, but directing her comments to the whole group. “Right now, Nyelle’s mom is saying she’s really not doing her best. Yes, a C is past where we need to be right now, but knowing your child and saying, ‘That’s not good enough,’ keeps that bar high. Yes, it is going to be frustrating, and we will give you strategies to handle that frustration. They totally get frustrated here.”

        “We had a visitor in our class today, and he was like, ‘That’s the first time I saw tears’ today,’” Syskowski adds, and I realize she’s talking about me. She tells the parents what happened with the little boy who won’t be going to blocks tomorrow. “That was really tough for him to hear. At the same time, did I say, ‘It’s OK if you don’t finish your book review?’”

        Now it’s Syskowski who starts to tear up. “No. It’s not OK. Because why would I let him fail when other kids are surpassing it and they’ll go to first grade? You would not want me as your child’s classroom teacher. You would not want Mr. Carnaghi or Ms. Skinner to be your child’s teacher if we were like, ‘You know what? You’re right. It is really hard. Let’s just let them be a B.’” How about if they get two out of the four sight words correct? ‘That’s good enough.’ Where are they going to be in thirteen years? Then we won’t talk about college. And that’s something that . . .” Syskowski lowers her gaze to the floor. “I get chills. That’s something that’s really hard for me to . . .”

        Syskowski doesn’t finish the thought. She can’t. She’s crying. “I do get emotional. Because your children are amazing. They are absolutely amazing. I try to . . .” She quickly gathers herself. “We will never lower that bar because it’s too hard. We will figure out other paths to get to the destination.” She hammers every word—“Other. Paths. To get to the destination.” She adds, “We will not lower it.”

        Syskowski is spent. The meeting breaks up with a smattering of applause from the parents, who pull on their coats, collect their kids, and begin to melt away down the hallway. Vandlik emerges from her office and shoots me a smile as she heads down the hall toward the main office. It’s the biggest tell of the afternoon. In most schools, this kind of whole-grade, all-hands-on-deck meeting would be a major event. At Bronx 1, the principal didn’t even participate.” End Quote.

        For more of this fine book on how a serious and highly successful school for mostly all disadvantaged kids in the Bronx teaches kids extraordinary learning and success, please read How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice (Avery, 2019, $27, 384 pages), by Robert Pondiscio.

        Note that at end of 2018-2019 school year, the students at Success Academy Bronx 1, 100% percent black or Hispanic and 84% economically disadvantaged, and all chosen by lottery, earned proficiency rates of 89.9% in English Language Arts and 98% in Math. Of these, 41% scored at the highest level in English Language Arts , as did 83% in Math. Thus these kids exceeded the performance of two of New York State’s highest preforming schools, Scarsdale and Bronxville where no students are disadvantaged and most are from highly affluent families.

        Also see 2015 article “What Explains Success at Success Academy” wherein, among many things, one finds:

        “Elementary students complete two “project-based learning” units in each grade, where students read and write about a particular subject for six weeks. In 4th grade, for example, children learn about the American Revolution. This year, Success is piloting two additional two-week “mini Core Knowledge” project-based learning units. “We love [Core Knowledge founder] E. D. Hirsch,” says Michele Caracappa, Success’s director of literacy.

        In middle school, Success adds independent reading time and includes a literature class. Students receive iPads loaded with books. Middle-school students must read seven key texts, typically comprising four novels, two nonfiction books, and one of poetry. (I saw middle-school students in Harlem reading The Block, which combines poetry of Langston Hughes with paintings of Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden.)

        Writing skills are emphasized in daily workshops from kindergarten through 8th grade. In later grades, students produce longer pieces across several genres, going through the entire writing process. Much focus is on revision; teachers are trained to give targeted feedback.

        Success’s children’s literature expert, Sara Yu, fills the schools with rich, engaging books at all levels. Yu worked for many years at the highly regarded bookstore affiliated with the Bank Street College of Education. She notes that books aren’t selected only to produce competent readers, but also to expose children to “relevant, important, beautiful material … diverse cultures, economic backgrounds, settings, and characters.”

        This devotion to content pays off. At the Success Academy in Bedford-Stuyvesant (one block the public housing complex where Jay Z grew up—still a tough neighborhood), 81 percent of 3rd graders were proficient in ELA last year (98 percent in math!). A 4th-grade English class dissects How My Parents Learned to Eat, the story of an American sailor learning to use chopsticks to impress his Japanese girlfriend. …” End Quote.

        • exact quote:

          ” Indeed, chronic failure that destroy the futures of our kids start from day those kids are born and accumulate during the first six years of their life to the point that a significant number of kids are to to failure in life before they reach the first grade. The responsibility of their failure rests primarily on their parents, and the culture wherein those parents have been raised. Today’s Democratic party promotes that culture. It’s is a culture of grievance, dependence, scapegoating, self loathing, helplessness and hate.”

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            And that quote is completely in line with and not contradicted by, but reinforced by my follow on comments here, which have been on this website for months, indeed expressed here for years. Read my comments again, Larry.

    • ” The responsibility of their failure rests primarily on their parents, and the culture wherein those parents have been raised.”

      So the schools are not primarily responsible?

      If so , why do we keep saying they are?

      And beyond that, if it is the parents who are responsible, why do we say that voucher schools can fix it?

      The “Success Academies” can apparently educate these kids, no? If so, why can’t the public schools adopt that same model?

      What doesn’t work is dinging the public schools for manipulating their grad rates…

      speaking of schools misrepressenting grad rates and blogs talking about it:

      ” Gary Rubinstein saw an article in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post claiming that 100% of the 98 students in the graduating class of Success Academy’s high school had been accepted into college.

      Based on Success Academy’s long history of high attrition, he knew this claim was likely false.

      So he checked and his hunch was right.

      He asked:

      Is 98 really all the students in the class of 2020?

      The answer, of course is, ‘no.’ What the actual number is depends on how you define the class of 2020.

      If you go back to a New York Post editorial from just six months ago, it begins with the sentence “Seniors at the Success Academy HS of the Liberal Arts just got their SAT scores — and all 114 did great, with an average score of 1268, 200 points above the national average.” So six months ago there were 114 seniors, which is 16 more than the 98 that are now called the ‘entire’ senior class. For Success Academy to lose roughly one-seventh of the students who were in the senior class just six months ago is stunning. These 16 students had been at the school since at least 3rd grade. Where did those 16 students go?

      But if you look further back to the state data, you will find that the class of 2020 had 146 eleventh graders for the 2018-2019 school year. This means that they lost about 1/3 of the class of 2020 between then and now….

      If you go back two more years to see where the class of 2020 was when they were in 9th grade you find that there were 191 students in the cohort back then. Also notice that when they were in 9th grade the boy/girl split of the 191 was about 50%/50% while when they were in 11th grade the boy/girl split of the 146 was 44%/56% in favor of the girls. We will have to wait until the official data comes out next year to see what the split was for the ‘entire’ 98 who graduated.

      Rubinstein looks at the numbers all the way back to kindergarten and finds that only 28% of those who started Eva Moskowitz’s celebrated Success Academy made it to high school graduation. Way different than 100%.”,Way%20different%20than%20100%25.

  8. “For Success Academy to lose roughly one-seventh of the students who were in the senior class just six months ago is stunning. These 16 students had been at the school since at least 3rd grade. Where did those 16 students go?”

    Welcome to the real world Larry! The one we all live in, and always will, even in the very best of times, schools and places. Your Progressive Utopia does not exist.

    • The real world like Public Schools also?

      How is Success Academy “better” if they also do not graduate all either?

      You know by now, I’d support other school options IF – they do perform better than public schools. But I do NOT support other schools because someone claims they are better but in reality they are no better.

  9. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Checking into the data base I was floored that only the major school districts are reporting homeless students. Any district graduating under a 1,000 students reported none. That is falsehood and they are hiding important numbers of one of the most vulnerable groups of youths.

  10. I’d put Virginia Public Schools up against any would-be non-public school competitors in terms of transparency and accountability.

    It’s easy to throw stones at public schools when they provide the level of transparency they do – and yes criticism IS warranted for their performance.

    But it’s totally illegitimate to imply that non-public schools would do better when they provide almost no transparency of their performance.

    It’s blind “frying pan into the fire” advocacy.

    Be reasonably fair and admit that the mission of public schools to educate ALL children regardless of their background is a higher bar by far than the mission on non-public schools.

    Some argue as if public schools have failed and other approaches are needed.

    I do not disageree with the idea of offering competing schools – as long as they have to compete on an apple-to-apples basis – which means they have to accept the same demographics as public schools AND they have to be AS transparent.

    You don’t like SOLs or you think they are being “gamed”, fine – make that same bar for non-public schools and see how they actually compare.

    Otherwise all we are doing is tearing down the public schools on a flimsy promise and little else.

    And what we really are doing is basically abandoning kids whose parents do not meet the demands that they “help” their kids. If they do not, we seem to be saying.. “too bad, you’re screwed”. That’s not public education.

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