More Initiatives = Worse Outcomes

This is the eighth in a series of articles exploring Virginia’s Standards of Learning Matt Hurt

The General Assembly and the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) have loads of ideas of how to make Virginia’s schools better. The deluge of new initiatives in recent years, however, has outpaced the capacity of many school divisions to handle them. Many unintended consequences ensue.

An organization can do one or two things well, or many things poorly. This truism applies especially to smaller school divisions with smaller administrative staffs to carry out the new tasks.

For context, let us consider the responsibilities of Dr. Marcia Shortt, an administrator in the Wise County public school system. Shortt’s responsibilities include the following: Elementary education, Middle School education, federal programs, personnel, and several others. Three others in the central office help her. They include a coordinator of federal programs, a federal programs clerk, and a personnel manager (who also serves as the superintendent’s administrative assistant and the Clerk of the Board). The administrative costs associated with federal programs are extremely high due to compliance issues and the bureaucratic process for getting reimbursements for federal funds, among other reasons.

In his book, “The Ever Increasing Burden of America’s Public Schools,” Jamie Vollmer outlines some of the responsibilities that have been added to public school educators over the years. We started out with the expectation of making sure our students could read, write, and do math. Then all kinds of other things were added. In recent years, the following list of initiatives (not all inclusive) have been added to educators’ plates by the General Assembly and VBOE.

Through Year “Growth” Assessments
Balanced Assessment Plans
Implementation of new Educator Evaluation Standards
Implementation of new Social Emotional Standards
Implementation of Cultural Competency Training
Implementation of new Computer Science Standards
Model Policies Concerning the Treatment of Transgender Students
Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program
Federal Programs — ESSR funds (pandemic relief funds) — too many documents to link here)
Revisions to Locally Awarded Verified Credits
New Assessment Program for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities
Implementation of the Virginia Inclusive Self-Assessment and Action Planning Tool

Almost all of these initiatives fall under Dr. Shortt’s responsibility. When these new requirements were enacted, the state did not remove prior requirements — they piled these on top of everything that was there. These initiatives did not come from Richmond with extra funds to hire additional folks to help implement them. The last time I spoke with Dr. Shortt, she informed me that she has yet to figure out how to add more hours in the day (and she typically spends 12-hour days at work), so other priorities must take a back seat to meet the new state mandates.

Student enrollment in Wise County this year is 5,542 students, which puts the school district at the 70th percentile in student enrollment. If a division as large as Wise has trouble keeping up with all of the state initiatives, how much harder is it for the 70% of Virginia public school divisions that are smaller? Please keep in mind that Virginia public schools are funded based on enrollment, which puts smaller divisions at a disadvantage because they have fewer dollars to accomplish the same administrative requirements.

Students returned to school in the fall of 2021 further behind in prerequisite skills than any other time in recent history. Now more than ever, we need our educational leaders to focus on the instructional process to ensure that our kids get up to speed as quickly as possible. In the best of circumstances, this will take a few years to get our students back on track.

One of the things we have learned about high levels of student achievement, especially with at-risk student populations, is the crucial role of leadership. Leaders of successful schools and divisions spend a significant time working with their colleagues in a collaborative manner to ensure appropriate conditions for desired student achievement are created and maintained. This is not a process in which you can wind it up and watch it go. It must be carefully tended and nurtured, which requires a great deal of ongoing time and effort.

Additional state mandates are proving to be barriers to the improvement of student outcomes. Our educational leaders are busily engaging themselves with all of the new required initiatives and have much less time available to focus on the instructional process. It is insane to expect better outcomes when new mandates continue to be piled on, no prior mandates are lifted, and no extra help comes. If we continue this inane practice, please expect the educational outcomes of our students to suffer.

The Board of Education has three main priorities which can be found on their Comprehensive Plan page (none of which, unfortunately, explicitly addresses student outcomes). The General Assembly doesn’t have such a plan, and the laws passed by that body do not always align with the Board’s priorities. Educators in Virginia, however, must serve both masters.

Our Richmond leadership — governor, Board of Education, and General Assembly — need to develop a unified hierarchy of priorities with measurable objectives. Any program or initiative not aligned to the top one or two priorities should be tabled until the top priorities are met. We need to work our way down that list of priorities, only addressing one or two at a time. Anything that distracts educator attention from meeting those priorities should be eliminated.

Matt Hurt is executive director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program based in Wise County.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


17 responses to “More Initiatives = Worse Outcomes”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I would not be too surprised that people that VDOE hires come from larger school systems where their professional experience is more administrative than hands-on so perhaps VDOE needs some folks on staff that represent the smaller schools perspective on considered “mandates”.

    However, many fields have these issues. I sit on a transportation board and as well do volunteer taxes and I can attest to the changes that come down from above that have to be dealt with.

    Education, Transportation, Health Care and Taxes are HARD!

    Every new law, every change to code ripples down into changes to regulations and policies.

    For instance, the public outreach person at our MPO has had other items added to her plate involving not only outreach to the general public, but the “underserved”, those who do not speak English as a first language, the disabled and even poorer neighborhoods that are sometimes chosen as easier places to build a new road than richer subdivisions.

    I don’t know the answer because the thing that is wanted and desired – is standards and consistency on policies. They want the MPO in Fredericksburg to follow the same consistent policies and standards as Richmond or Lynchburg – as well as smaller communities which may not have enough staff to do some of it.

    And I know from doing volunteer taxes, – every year, it gets harder as they add more and more things to the tax code and the pandemic basically exploded the additional things that are involved is people’s taxes from waivers and credits to stimulus payments, etc.

    But back to education – the very basis of NCLB was literally that NO CHILD will be left behind – in other words – the law would be uniform and consistent across the board no matter it large school system or a small one.

    And I’m betting another set of new laws and policy proscriptions are headed down the pike under this new Va Governor administration.

    However, it could be that Youngkin and company will do some house-cleaning not only staff but weed out some overgrown and needless policies….

    So, maybe that’s what Matt is alluding to?

    thanks again for your thoughtful and informative essays even the ones that complain, they do demonstrate the difficulty of Education these days… and how folks at the end of that dog tail – the local administrators and teachers get it in the neck on a regular basis for Richmond – not only VDOE but the GA and administration.

    1. Matt Hurt Avatar

      The problem is not so much with the folks who work at VDOE, because that organization simply enacts the mandates of the Board of Education and the General Assembly. They don’t have the autonomy to cut the crap, they have no other option than to send it down the line. Many of these folks do come from smaller divisions, and they understand the deleterious effects of continuing to pile on to folks who are already overwhelmed.

      I certainly do hope that the next administration and GA backs off on a bunch of these cumbersome mandates that won’t yield desired results, and that includes most of them. I hope everyone who reads this contacts their legislators to convey this request.

      One of the problems with all of this is that there are those among our leadership (state and federal) who believe that they can legislate/regulate desired outcomes. Many of these folks, especially in Congress and the GA don’t have the educational background to understand how their mandates actually affect things in the trenches. Also, you have multiple levels of unelected bureaucrats who are tasked with interpreting the law and creating regulations which must be implemented- this is a much bigger problem with federal educational law. In fact, I would bet the farm that most legislators (state and federal) don’t even read the legislation prior to voting on it. But they probably also don’t have the context to fully understand the full implications of that legislation either. Just because a law has great intentions doesn’t mean it will yield great results.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Interesting. The focus of late especially politically has been on VDOE and it’s initiatives, training, etc …. no?

        1. Matt Hurt Avatar

          Yes so, but those initiatives are largely due to BOE and GA, not the whims of folks at VDOE.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            “BOE” meaning at the school district level not VDOE-directed ?

          2. Matt Hurt Avatar

            The Virginia Board of Education. They direct the operations of VDOE.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            Did not realize they were separate entities! live and learn. they have their own website?

          4. Matt Hurt Avatar

            It’s a lot like a local school board and the central office administrators. The board makes the policy and the administrators carry it out.


          5. LarrytheG Avatar

            Okay, but VDOE is the one that implements policies to the school districts… but kinda got the impression that some of this stuff is not coming from VDOE…

            So the board gets new appointees and policies changed and implemented via VDOE?

          6. Matt Hurt Avatar

            VDOE is a reactive body, they must react to whatever directives they receive from USED, the General Assembly, and the Board of Education. While they have a certain degree of discretion with some particulars, they don’t get to make policy.

            The site below displays the terms of each member of the Board of Education.

          7. LarrytheG Avatar

            Okay… so one more dumb question and I’ll take my additional education and rest for awhile.

            Do ALL directives, policy from USED, GA and BOE go THROUGH VDOE or some go direct to the schools and separate lines of authority to each of these other entities?

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    This is another fine essay on the shortcomings on the SOL system in Virginia. The complaint is a familiar one, as Larry’s comment shows. What would help people like me to understand better the scope of the problem would be some details on what exactly is involved in implementing some of these requirements.

    For example, I clicked on one of the links in your list. All I got was a document informing school divisions that a new standard a standard for teacher evaluations had been added: on “culturally responsive teaching and equitable practices”. But, what does implementing and complying with that standard entail? How much teacher and administrator time?

    1. Matt Hurt Avatar

      Basically on the culturally responsive teaching and equitable practices, teachers will be required to receive additional training and administrators will be required to provide that training and keep up with the documentation. I see a couple of problems with this.

      First, this is one of the cuts in a death by a thousand cuts. Each one is not all that bad, but there is a cumulative effect which serve to distract folks from helping students make up for all the lost instructional time that our educational response to the Covid pandemic caused.

      Second, I think this type of training does not serve our students in certain subgroups well. For example, the vast majority of our educators really have a heart for children- they certainly didn’t go into this field for the pay, especially this is not the case in Virginia. This training will likely cover all of these historic, systemic problems these subgroups have had to face. The problem with this is that it has the great possibility of causing these educators to believe that these kids can’t achieve at the same rates of others because of these historic and system problems. Therefore, this will likely promote the continuation of low expectations (if not make them worse) for these kids that we have already documented.

      A more direct solution that will likely help this problem is to publish the distributions of grades and SOL results by subgroups for schools and divisions. This in itself will not solve the inequitable outcomes problems, but it will highlight some of the root causes, and provide some data which folks can use to better tackle the problem.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Are these things that might not be seen as much in Charter and private schools?

        1. Matt Hurt Avatar

          Private schools largely are untouched by such things. It is my understanding that a charter school may be able to get an exemption on some things, but I’m not sure about that. I’m not at all well versed in the code on charter schools in Virginia. They are still public schools.

  3. LesGabriel Avatar

    Among the “loads of ideas” coming from the new GA and VBOE, surely some (many?) will entail rescinding some earlier mandates on our schools. Perhaps one day, we could get to the point where the job of our schools will be the education of our children. Of course, I am leaving out all of the Federal mandates. I suppose we are still a couple of election cycles away from a new Administration and a new Congress who will start chipping away of those.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Just what to point out that it’s actually the Federal Mandates (No Child Left behind and the “Title” programs) that have led to standardized testing of the schools, as well as additional money and resources for kids with special needs and at risk kids.

      Many local school systems would not fund these programs nor even do standardized testing if not for the Federal and State “mandates”.

      Perhaps some would get rid of them all… and call that “better”. I would not.

Leave a Reply