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.  

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

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” 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.”

    So Jim might be shocked but I agree with this.

    The problem is that this ball of “stuff” has rolled downhill to the colleges and they are tired of waiting for K-12 to fix it so they’re dong what they think needs to be done rather than wait 20-30 years more.

    This is what Northam and a lot of educators support:

    Governor Northam Proposes Historic Investment in Early Childhood Education
    $94.8 million in new funding, legislation will transform Virginia’s early education system and increase access for at-risk three- and four-year-olds across the Commonwealth

    because they think the problem starts BEFORE K-12.

    Folks WILL argue about this but I asked a question the other day and got crickets and will ask again:

    What do we do with a child in the 3rd grade who has failed SOL reading?

    Let me also point out that the SOLs actually in some schools 30% or more of the kids failing, Do we pass them to the 4th grade and keep plugging away and if they make it to high school but still can’t read then it’s “OH well, the colleges will take a quota anyhow”?

    I congratulate Jim. He is earnest, color-blind and he does care and that counts for a lot in my book.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      “What do we do with a child in the 3rd grade who has failed SOL reading?”

      I believe that is a problem that the task force I have recommended will address. One way to address it is to ask how the successful economically disadvantaged school districts that have great success in SOL pass rates address it.

      I spent five years as a volunteer 3 days a week teaching 5th graders in Virginia Beach schools how to multiply. As background, Virginia Beach students are supposed to learn how to multiply by completion of the 3rd grade, but a lot of the schools have transient population because of military transfers.

      I did it old school – having them memorize multiplication tables. It almost always worked and took the average student in my class groups about 3 weeks to “graduate” from 15 minute a day sessions – the homework was the next level of number tables – having proven to me that they could multiply, thus divide, through the 12 tables and thus have a clue in math class through 12th grade. Point is, Virginia Beach schools gave me the opportunity to do that. Such solutions are undoubtedly used in the successful public schools in districts far less well resourced than Virginia Beach.

      As for reading, my wife as a volunteer has taught a poor adult how to read. It is a longer process certainly than teaching multiplication, but she has proven success with a woman who never went to school as a child in a poor Caribbean Island, could neither read nor write, and whose native language was not English. Her life was transformed.

      So I don’t know what a focused task force will come up with, but none of it is impossible and the real solutions won’t cost a ton of money.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I strongly suspect if we pay for individual tutors for kids that are behind – it would have more success than now as your wife demonstrated.

        In fact, it’s the premise behind Title 1 – which is Federal funding for an instructor with a Masters Degree in learning disabilities who can often get the kid back on grade-level… time on task – but using modern assessments like UVAs PALS which drills down on the specific issues.

        I’m still going to compliment you when I think you’re right even if you feel the need to continue to diss me…

        I try to be true to the issues… and reject the partisan blather that we see too much of here… and I’ll call it out when I see it.

        If it “disturbs” then ignore it. I regularly ignore some posters… for that reason AND I invite them to do the same including you! Don’t like what I write? No problem. Push on to the next comment and ease your mind!

      2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        My Dad who dropped out of school in the 9th grade to help support his family, but later got his GED, made each one of his kids memorize the multiplication tables until we could get them perfect for a week. (I had trouble with the 7’s.) We all objected and thought very nasty thoughts about our father. But we all could multiply and divide.

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          My fourth (or fifth?) grade teacher made us do that. Never had any trouble multiplying or dividing after that.

          1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            My son struggled some with reading. But after fighting with Fairfax County Public Schools to get someone to teach him phonics, he quickly picked up reading and was even with his class in no time. On the other hand, my daughter has never sounded out a word in her life.

            There are different tools to use to meet different kids’ needs. I think most teachers are more than ready to use them but they often run into interference from “staff.”

      3. Nancy_Naive Avatar

        Rote. It’s an excellent method to begin understanding, or just stop at a needed result. Having taught graduate and undergraduate mathematics for 23 years, I can atest to the speed with which people can learn how to go through the mechanics of problem solving, not just multiplying and dividing.

        Learning how to apply even more complicated formula by rote is a good precursor to understanding the derivations of the formula later, which of course, is the ultimate goal.

        Yep, have to agree that teaching someone to read a language as illogical as English would be a harder row to hoe…. or, shouldn’t that be “row to how”? Oh, wait… no, “roe to hoe”… damn,… how does a fish… dang it! Does? Female deer?? Oh, dear.. aaaarrrghh!

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Mr. Larry the kid that failed the 3rd grade SOL test is an easy fix. You fail the kid for the whole year. Kid is required to go to summer school. Summer school will consist of 7 hours a day 5 days a week for six weeks of small group focus on reading comprehension and vocabulary. Immediately retest on the completion of the summer school. Kid will pass. Reinstate kid to the 4th grade. What is missing is the will, the leadership, connecting the kid with the right teacher, and a bit of cash to fund this. Massive institutions like public education fail over and over by not simplifying the remedy.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Captain Sherlock I like the idea of getting our colleges involved. Why not require colleges to participate in the remedy? No help from colleges to assist with the public school deficiency should equal no funding from the General Assembly. Power of the purse will move them into action.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      James – we’re not failing kids in the 3rd grade who fail SOL reading?

      Also – UVA Curry School of Education has a pretty significant role in K-12 in Virginia , no? THe following from VDOE


      The Virginia Department of Education maintains a list of Instructional Interventions That Have Proven to Be Successful with Low-Achieving Students (PDF). In addition, the U. S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse provides information on evidence-based literacy interventions External Link. Best practice information on instructional interventions can be found in the Center on Instruction’s Practice Guide, Intensive Interventions for Students Struggling in Reading and Mathematics External Link (PDF) .

      Regardless of the intervention selected, experts agree that repeated and meaningful practice with the foundational components of reading, (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) comprise the bulk of activities aimed at strengthening the reading ability of students who demonstrate weakness. Families and educators alike will find resources such as the PALS Activities External Link to be an integral part of providing vital foundational reading practice.

      Purpose of the Initiative
      The Early Intervention Reading Initiative (EIRI) was established by the 1997 Virginia Acts of Assembly, Chapter 924, Item 140, to serve either kindergarten or first-grade students to reduce the number of children with reading problems through early diagnosis and immediate intervention. During the 2000 General Assembly, this initiative was expanded to serve kindergarten through third-grade students. Participating school divisions must administer a diagnostic assessment to students identified as needing reading intervention at prescribed times in grades K-3. Since 2000, through a contract with the University of Virginia (UVA), the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) External Link has been provided to school divisions at no charge to identify the students to receive reading intervention, while specifying the types of deficiencies to be addressed

      1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

        Readin’, Ritin’, Rithmatic, and Rhythm. Oh, wait, no. That last is sex education. Heavens to Betsey, no.

        They think they can build a future with the lowest bidder. Hey, works with Space Shuttles… well, most of the time.

      2. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Sorry Mr. Larry. The Curry School of Education was cancelled. Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry was a Lt. Colonel in the Confederate army and owner of numerous slaves. Never mind his career in education, President of Howard College, Minister to Spain, soldier, preacher, elector for President James Buchannan. Cancelled! I think the new name is School of Education.

      3. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Your right Mr. Larry. 3rd graders who fail the SOL usually matriculate to the 4th grade. I love that word. Not until high school do you have to earn verified credits in history, math, English, and science. A verified credit is an SOL passing score of 400 or above out of 650 and a passing grade in the class too.

  3. Jim, It would be a mistake to bring in the Education Schools. They are part of the problem, not the solution. They’ll say we need more teachers, better paid teachers, smaller classes, more counselors, etc. etc., in other words more money. They represent a failed paradigm. They are the failed paradigm.

    You might want to look into the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP), a coalition of rural public schools, which started in Southwest Virginia and spread to other rural schools as the SW Va schools outscored all other regions. (In a different post, you highlighted the finding that many rural schools, especially in SW Virginia, are top performers statewide in SOL pas rates. CIP is why.)

    Check out my article here:, written almost a year ago.

    The CIP initiative arose from an informal collaboration of Southwest Virginia school superintendents who met regularly to discuss common problems. In the 2013-14 year, the bottom dropped out of SOL pass rates after the state had instituted new, tougher standards, and Southwest Virginia had been no exception. Meanwhile, the General Assembly had been slashing state support for K-12 education, and the SW Virginia superintendents didn’t see any help coming from Richmond. They decided to pool resources and share best practices, and they hired [Matt] Hurt to drive the Comprehensive Instructional Program forward. …

    Local school districts pooled resources to do three main things: (1) identify the most successful teachers across the region; (2) share their instructional materials and other best practices; (3) set high expectations, and (4) measure what works. Five years have made a significant difference.

    Despite a higher percentage of disabled and economically disadvantaged students, 82.8% of Region VII students passed their math SOLs compared to 77% for the state, and 81.2% passed their reading SOLs compared to 77.2% for the state. While pass rates declined this year statewide, they increased slightly in Southwest Virginia.

    The barriers to reforming urban/suburban schools are political and ideological. The ideology emanates from the ivory tower. If we want your social scientific approach (which I agree with) to have a chance, we need something like CIP for urban school systems.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      I agree, but telling the university presidents to disenfranchise their education schools is a bridge too far. It would destroy the entire initiative. The words I used were as close to the bone as I thought I could cut. The President of Hampton University can discard the nonsense. If this happens and I am asked to testify, you can be sure that I won’t spare the guilty.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        We don’t want the university’s programs or ideological beliefs, we just need the college kids to come back and help reteach the little guys in K-8 grade. That one on one help with the basics of reading, writing, math, and science would go a million miles.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Just to point out once again – that Henrico did better than SW Virginia at some of it’s schools.

      Why is that not a better model?

      1. sherlockj Avatar

        The answer lies in the colossal differences between the economic status of the kids who attend those specific Henrico schools and the district itself when compared to the state’s poorest school districts.

    3. sherlockj Avatar

      I just reread what you wrote. I was unfamiliar with CIP. I don’t know how many of the school districts I measured implemented it, but clearly those are some of the techniques that will surface in any current assessment. Dick’s idea below to get the Superintendent of Public Instruction to implement changes might be a better one if he can do it.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s some SOLS from Henrico above the 77%

    Springfield Park Elementary 82.61
    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

  5. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    Ya know, we could get the colleges involved. If only we had State supported higher education. If only we taxpayers would support higher education, lowering tuition, widening access, and giving reason to colleges to shape the K12 approach to build a better educated population.

    Oh well, we used to have State colleges.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    This may be a niggling thing to point out: Hampton University is not a state-supported school.

    1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

      At 6%, neither is UVa.

      BTW, Pres. Harvey also didn’t build a parking garage on HU’s waterfront property.

      1. UVA gets more money from the state in appropriations per in state FTE than any other schools in the state other than Virginia State and Norfolk State. To say UVA is not state-supported is to say all those other schools are not state supported. The medical center has always been predominantly funded by patient fees. Auxiliary enterprises (room, board) are also not funded by state general fund.

        1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

          Yeah, okay, but the State supplies only 6% of its budget, period.

    2. sherlockj Avatar

      Dr. Harvey is the best person for the job. Doesn’t have to be from a state supported institution.

  7. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I disgree on the establishment of a task force. We have had task forces on many things and the results are usually disappointing. What Jim Sherlock is proposing is basic and DOE should be able to do it. I agree with Jim Bacon that it would be a bad idea to use higher ed. How they are training their teachers may be part of the problem. DOE needs to look at the school districts in which things seem to be working, identify why they are working, and then try to duplicate those methods in other areas. If some of the fault lies with teacher training, that needs to be communicated to the eduction schools, so they can modify their curricula. Superintendent Lane indicated last year that he was going to do this, but then the pandemic hit and overwhelmed everything in the world of education.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      Fair point. Might work better than mine. The counterpoint is that this will let the colleges participate in solving their diversity problems in a way that is enduring and not counterproductive.

    2. sherlockj Avatar

      I just sent it to Dr. Lane

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