More Initiatives = Worse Outcomes

This is the eighth in a series of articles exploring Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessment.

by 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.