Reform K-12 Education to Increase Diversity in Virginia’s Colleges — and in Life

by James C. Sherlock

Much is appropriately made of the relative lack of diversity in Virginia’s state-supported colleges and universities. Some trace that exclusively to racial discrimination. My research indicates it may also reflect the educational disadvantages of being poor.  

Here I will offer a path to begin to fix both.

I have researched and written a good bit about the wide variations in K-12 student SOL pass rates among Virginia’s poorest school districts. See Rev 1 Reading and Math Virginia 2018-2019 SOL results by State and Division by Subject by Subgroup.

Some students, parents and school districts in Virginia’s poorest communities exhibit extraordinary success in those standardized tests across all races and among economically disadvantaged students. That success is measured not against other poor districts, but among districts statewide.  

Some districts with the same level of resources achieve very poor results. So, money in the school systems appears to not be a controlling variable.

The poor performance of students in many poor districts helps explain the lack of geographic, economic and racial diversity within some of our state’s college and university student bodies. 

Many of those institutions are discussing quotas as a remedy to improve diversity. I submit that is a wrongheaded approach — lowering the bar rather than teaching poor students to jump over it.

I recommend that Virginia’s colleges and universities band together, perhaps using the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia as a facilitator if it is functional for this purpose, and try to raise the educational performance of all the children of poverty.  

Appoint a task group to determine in no more than 12 months, less time is better, and then implement concrete measures that can be taken to raise the SOL performance in Virginia’s most economically disadvantaged public school districts. Those districts include urban and rural, majority black and majority white districts, and sufficient Hispanic and English Learner students to measure results against those populations.

I recommend focusing on the bottom economic quartile of Virginia’s communities in assessing causes, developing solutions and testing the recommendations. These districts matter and, most importantly, such a plan is executable.  

The program I recommend offers a measurable objective — improved SOL performance 

  • with a group small enough for the colleges and universities to assist with the implementation of recommendations;
  • with existing performance measures;
  • with districts with student populations diverse enough to be representative;
  • with participation large enough to be statistically significant; and 
  • with a built-in control group comprised of students in districts in the top three quartiles of population wealth statewide.  

While imperfect, the performance measure, SOL pass rates, is already established and standardized. 

Have Virginia’s public colleges and universities join together to help provide the resources, especially their talent, to help implement the solutions recommended by the task force.   

While some larger, relatively wealthier districts have schools that are high performing and schools that are not, including them in a program to test the recommendations of the task force would vastly increase size and complex variables of any trial and reduce the size of the control group.

Whatever is done in these poor school districts that works can be emulated in wealthier districts.

I believe the best person in Virginia to head the task force is unquestionably Dr. William R. Harvey, President of Hampton University. In his 42 years at the helm of that university he has constructed a tremendous legacy. I point readers to his CV  for confirmation of his leadership accomplishments.  

He has not only served with utmost distinction in leading Hampton University, but also is a highly successful businessman and has served on the President’s National Advisory Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.

There are so many variables outside the classroom that affect educational achievement that some of the recommendations of the task force will reflect that fact. If the assessment focuses on poor school districts with good results vs. poor school districts with poor results, however, some of those variables will be relatively frozen — another advantage of the recommended design of this program. 

Expand membership of the task force beyond the education schools. While they bring a unique perspective, it is not broad enough. Seek membership that includes representatives from the broader Virginia community.  

Include especially parents of K-12 students in Virginia’s economically disadvantaged districts that have succeeded in teaching poor kids. But don’t make the task force so large it can’t function.

Start implementation with the recommendations that are focused on the classroom and parental involvement because, once again, those improvements have successful existing models in poor districts and appear achievable in the relatively near term without a massive investment that will delay implementation.  

Whatever is done should be targeted to help all poor kids. 

The goal is provide poor students the educational tools to succeed. Racial minorities will be disproportionally helped. But the program will also help the young white student who gets her nutrition through free school breakfasts and lunches and lives with an opioid-addicted single mother. Hers represents real life for some students in some of Virginia’s poorest counties.

Virginia’s unique political geography can unify support in the General Assembly. Our poorest school districts are split to include both majority black Democratic voting districts in some cities and the rural area between Richmond and the North Carolina border and majority white Republican districts in the Southwest.

Sorting this program by economic class is much more useful in getting to the true problems and will prove far more conducive to public support than sorting it by race.  

The diversity in our schools — and in life in Virginia — will improve the way it most effectively can – through education.