School Systems: The Loveliest and the Ugliest

Here we go, round three on the performance of Virginia school systems. In round one, we ranked the school systems based on the percentage of students who passed the Standard of Learning exams in all grades. In round two, we looked at the performance adjusted for the percentage of poor kids. Now, in round three, we’ll rank school systems by how far they deviated from the trendline.

Here we show the top over-achievers and under-achievers in the English SOLs, those showing a full standard deviation or more from the trendline shown in the previous post. (To view a ranking of all school systems, click here.)


The smaller, rural school systems show the most variation, both for good and ill. Highland County has the smallest school system in the state — so small it is not a viable fiscal entity. Yet, adjusted for the poverty level of its student population, it out-performs every other school system in Virginia in terms of passing English SOLs. On the other hand, rural Charles City County is the greatest under-performer.

Note also how the urban-core school districts — Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, Manassas — stand out. They are severe under-performers. School board members for the bottom dwellers should take heed. You can’t blame the poverty of your student population for all of your sub-par performance. You have to look to other factors: funding per capita or, my guess, poor management.

Thanks again to John Butcher with The Cranky Taxpayer for cranking the numbers.


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29 responses to “School Systems: The Loveliest and the Ugliest”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    The entire Highland County School System (K-12) has 200 students. Fairfax County has about 185,000 students.

    I wonder whether variance from the mean is possible when dealing with a very large sample size.

    If I flip a coin three times there is a 12.5% chance of getting three heads. If I flip a coin 100,000 times the odds of getting all heads is virtually nil.

    I am not completely sure I have this right but it seems that small sample sizes are inherently more likely to exhibit more variation than large sample sizes.

  2. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    The analysis is interesting but a little incomplete. Last year the SOLS were changed so in effect it was a new test. It would be interesting to go back three or four years and run the same analysis and then at the end of this academic year to see if the same trends hold. I was amused to see that neither Henrico or Chesterfield stood out.

    1. Indeed, none of the suburban school systems stood out — with the exception of Roanoke County.

  3. The SOL reading got harder last year and dropped scores across the state and greatly in some places.

    what grade are these SOLs?

    The other thing to be aware of is called Title 1. Title 1 is Federally-funded teachers to schools based on the demographics and the numbers of low performers. You can have only part of a school designated as title 1 or you can have the whole school designated as Title 1.

    Title 1 teachers usually are explicitly identified in school budgets whereas SOL teachers are not usually. Title 1 and related usually are the 1K in funding that the Feds provide to schools.

  4. the thing to be aware of is that what are known as “highly qualified teachers” have their pick of where to teach and two places they often do not pick or urban poor and rural poor schools.

    They usually go where they can get a good salary with good benefits.

    The state SOQs dictate the positions that must be hired and the state kicks in a certain amount of money and the locality much match it – but it does not guarantee that the salaries for top notch teachers is going to be competitive with other jurisdictions.

    The urban schools in poor areas have such overwhelming demographic challenges that even a good teacher is likely to be put under great pressure to deal with a situation that is much more difficult than they’d have to deal with in less challenging school districts – even poor rural ones but certainly more urban/suburban schools with more typical demographics.

    Teachers are humans. They just want to have a career and do good – most are not out to be heroes but the ones that do reading for at-risk kids are dedicated.. not dumb enough to fall on their swords for a lost cause.

  5. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    These are useful articles. I am not sure where they are leading us. But there is one thing I am quite sure about. That it is not the fault and failure of our kids. It lies with all of the us, the adults, all of us adults. I see it everywhere, up and down the scale of those living in our world.

    I also suspect, although I am less sure about this, that more money will not solve the plight of our kids. I strongly suspect that, more likely than not, spending more money belonging to other people and us too, is part of the problem. It allows some of us adults to falsely absolve our guilt at our own and/or others expense, not least at the terrible expense of our children.

    Indeed, such failures on out part allows some others of us adults to feed off of the plight of our children, finding ways to line our own pockets with that money stolen on the heartbreak of our children by those falsely pretending to help and care for and educate them.

    Perhaps these are some of the dragons we all need to slay.

  6. in terms of school costs – in the Fredericksburg area – a private school charges more than $9500 a year for grades 9-12 and this does not include bus transportation or any major sports and the electives curricula, sports and extracurricular activities are skinnier than a public school.

    If you look around and I’m sure DJ can affirm this, private schools are not cheap, in fact many are pricey – and many do not have the services that are provided for at-risk/difficult to teach kids unless tutor service is paid for.

    The school I reference here has a reputation as a pretty good school but there is no real way to compare it’s academic performance with public schools – especially for the harder-to-teach, at-risk kids nor to ascertain the qualifications and performance of the teachers.

    you can pretty much bet that choice/charter/private/voucher schools are going to not be that much cheaper, has less services and curricula offerings.

    If public schools slimmed down on the same things absent from their “competitors”, they’d likely be no more expensive either.

    The same is true of OECD schools. Their focus is tighter on core academics and more rigorous critical thinking/problem solving with less overall other types of services and offerings… and that keeps costs down also.

    When you think back – on US schools – if you are 50 and above and went to a rural school – many schools 40,50,60 years ago in this country were also more basic in their offerings. I remember my school offered one foreign language and a whole lot less electives that schools do now.

    Over 80% of school costs are salaries. The more teachers you have – the higher the costs. The more electives you offer – over and above what is minimally required for diploma – the higher your costs.

    If you want highly qualified teachers in K-6 – and believe me – you do – then you don’t skimp on salaries or staff positions at that level – it’s pound foolish.

  7. Why is “we have a large number of poor children” an excuse for poor performance? Many Virginia school divisions spend mega-millions on special programs for poor children. Fairfax County has classes with 15 students or so in low-income areas, while allow classes for the same grades at “affluent” schools to balloon to 35. The County also adds special math and reading teachers in lower income schools. I suspect other counties/cities do the same.

    Are these expensive, extra measures effective? Shouldn’t they be producing results (poor kids passing SOLs at a rate comparable to those whose families have higher incomes)? If not, why do we fund these extra measures year after year?

    Electives. We need to move to more Internet-based and distance learning. We are paying extra on our phone bills to extend broadband access in schools. They need to take advantage of it by offering some courses at the high school level on the Internet and/or with distance learning.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      I believe it is fair to say that study after study strongly suggest that it is the chronic failures of parenting on the part of the parents of many of these disadvantaged children that are a primary cause of their disadvantage. And that once such a disadvantage sets in at an early age, it because harder to erase the longer it continues in the growing up of the child.

      This, of course, suggests that ways need to be found to deeply involve these failing parents in the upbringing and education of their children. And enabling them with sufficient tools and sense of responsibility to do so.

      How might that be done? That is a big question.

      1. It’s a chronic failure of parenting of people who themselves have crippled educations… and not only have trouble themselves getting jobs but have no clue about the real educational needs of their kids – beyond their own personal life experiences which are minimal.

        the question is – how do you break this cycle? You don’t do it by blaming the parents.. If you have a minimal education, you have no idea what your kids needs…. it’s irritating as hell for the others who have to pick up the slack – but what’s the alternative? every kids that fails – becomes an entitlement and incarceration burden to the kids that succeed.

      2. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        Virginia’s PALS program appears to be a strong one. Is it working? If not, why not? Because on its face it appears too serious not to work. If and/or when it works it should be pushed hard.

        In my experience, there’s a program that does work if done right, one that might complement (not replace) PALS. Privately run, it was designed to reinforce public schools in poor neighborhoods. This program that I am speaking about was designed to better insure that kids got good habits, a structured, caring and safe house outside school, plus a good solid chance at a decent education. And also a better shot at having their parent(s) involved in, and caring about, their child’s upbringing and education. The latter effort was low key. Subtly it encouraged parents to get involved and support this safe house learning.

        After school, it took the kids off the streets, into the safe house. It offered them caring adults, and it offered them caring mentors, the latter were often older accomplished safe house kids, or proven Alums.

        One goal was to reinforce public school learning after school (homework done with best practices). Another was to provide alternatives for ‘free time – entertainment, sociability, games and activities.

        So this sort of program offered was a kind of home away from home. It also encouraged parent involvement. Parents often got involved in ways highly positive to their children and themselves, and carried these skills and pride home with them to their real “better” home at home.

        The safe house after school program can reinforce the public school, and individual teachers working at the public school. The safe house be an effective bridge, one that help kids, parents, and teachers there work at things better. One that advocates for the child and parents and for the teacher too. And likely it can supplement and reinforce some of the publicly funded help programs talked about on this website.

        It’s often said that the government (including its schools) cannot make a home for a child, or become a parent for a child. That I believe is true. But the safe home concept can help fill the gap, helping public schools and parents do better amid challenging circumstances.

        I suspect there are many such programs out there. Like with everything, dedicated, imaginative, flexible, and determined people are needed.

        1. what PALS (and STAR) is – is NOT a high-stakes standardized test.

          what it IS is frequent assessments at granular levels to see what parts of “reading” the kid has mastered and what parts he has not – and THEN to get him/her further assistance in the areas they are not mastering.

          You can have all the supportive environmental things – and the kid may well have an intellectual or cultural block.

          The problem is that the parents themselves are not well educated and themselves don’t know what their own kids do not know.

          Even educated parents may not know if they do not know the sub-categories that PALS deals with.

          This is sort of like thinking that a parent can be a lawyer or a doctor if they try hard enough.

          I don’t care if the venue is public, or private or quasi-public – it’s the same situation when the kid has issues and the parent – even a well educated parent, but certainly one that is not – is simply not a professional and folks who think that any parent can do what any professional instructor can do are deluding themselves.

          More than all of this – if you don’t measure – if you don’t want to measure you cannot possibly know where the shortfalls are – much less address them.

          the point is to NOT provide the environmental things and ignore the realities.

          1. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            “what PALS (and STAR) is – is NOT a high-stakes standardized test.

            what it IS is frequent assessments at granular levels to see what parts of “reading” the kid has mastered and what parts he has not – and THEN to get him/her further assistance in the areas they are not mastering.”

            That is why PALS which you brought to my attention so impressed me. This assessment then monitor approach is hugely important. I suspect its the key to teaching kids. It allows teachers to teach the Kid – not a sea of thirty-five snotty kid faces.

      3. So how big of a responsibility does society have for the families that screw up their own kids? If we offer additional educational resources to the kids, most especially in the lower grades and drug rehab for the parents, does society owe more? At some point, personal responsibility must take over.

        There have been many people throughout American history that went well beyond what their family history would predict for them.

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          I appreciate your point. Here, in this instance, I saw this operation work, saw its tiny budget and saw its results, saved lives that would otherwise be lost. I suspect that government far too often cannot do what I saw done. Folks here didn’t work for government pay, and hard flesh and blood lives were their only goal. Done right, a little tug might leverage up a big cumbersome ship. Perhaps that is naive in many circumstances. So what? Just move on, find the right circumstances.

          1. It’s naive in my view to think that someone who is not trained in teaching reading – can, in every case, do better than a teacher that is educated in that discipline.

            Remember – we are talking about a LOT of kids here… and the failure to be successful will result in thousands of people who will receive entitlements or worse – end up in prison.

            there are no easy answers.

            we own the problem and we cannot paper it over.

        2. How much do you want to pay or have your kids pay in entitlements and incarceration?

          Notice the OECD countries do not seem to have this problem whether it’s Sweden or Japan or Australia.

  8. TMT has excellent questions – but if we fail we cannot walk away – we must keep working to get it better/right – and there are schools that are successful at accomplishing it and they can be seen because NCLB requires the schools to break out the pass rates for the economically disadvantaged – which you can see if you go to your school scores – and I can provide links if people want them.

    The problem is that the school system has to prioritize resources to these kids in terms of professional staff and that’s problematic in some schools.

    Believe it or not, some schools put their new teachers on this – and it’s a disaster. Other schools in urban and rural poor areas simply cannot attract the type of competent teachers that are needed to do this work. It cannot be done by the lesser-skilled teachers as well.

    Schools respond to the most vocal parents and the disadvantaged often do not even realize that it’s THEIR kids that need these services and what the schools hear is from well-educated parents who want MORE for their non-disadvantaged kids – more programs for the gifted.. more different kinds of electives for their kids headed to college, etc.

    It’s relatively easy – comparatively – for a school to cut elementary personnel staff and/or hire much cheaper entry level teachers than to fight to keep the more expensive, but better equipped professionals who DO know how to teach disadvantaged kids.

    and of course, for me, the bigger question is, if we know that disadvantaged kids take more resources and better teachers, what assurances do we have that choice/charter/private/voucher schools would actually prioritize their resources in that way – and how would you know of their academic performance compared to public schools?

    what’s going on now in the better lower elementary schools is more frequent, assessments rather than less frequent high stakes testing.

    and from those assessments – which are more granular, the specific areas of need are identified and then targeted to receive help from professionals who specialize in these areas.

    Poor rural and poor urban schools have greater difficulty in attracting top-notch help in these areas of expertise and it’s not unusual for new people to take these jobs and as soon as they get a couple years under their belt, take job in a more affluent area that pays 5, 10K more per year – or more.

    Again – I do not see how a non-public school is going to attract better qualified help any better than public schools in they are also in the poor areas.

    there are no quick fixes to this. The Fed through the Chapter 1 program will pay more than the locality will for specialized teachers but it’s not enough at schools where the entire school is trying to serve that disadvantaged demographic – unless the locality itself steps up.

    there continues to be a frustration – that I share – but the sound-bite response is essentially to abandon the efforts… which I think would be even more disastrous…

  9. There’s also an anti-standardized testing movement starting to evolve:


    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      SHAME –

      People afflicted with a deep sense of shame and guilt will go to great lengths to avoid confronting it. This forces them also to go to equally great lengths to hide their shame and guilt from others.

      Hence parents will opt kids out of standardized tests. This deepens their shame and it also spreads their shame and guilt into their kids.

      These instincts of shame and guilt and the need to hide them are primal. Great care is required if one is be dealt effectively with these emotions. This care includes how the results of tests are handled publicly and privately. If those results are not handled right the problem only gets buried deeper. And its spread wider and wider, rippling thought generations and cultures.

  10. I don’t blame them for opting out – to be honest.

    but it does go to a more substantial issue of – should we want to know how much the kids have learned – no matter whether they are in public, or private or hybrid schools?

    are frequent assessments better than twice a year high stakes testing?

    there are two levels here I think.

    One is political – i.e. what is the performance of the schools?

    but the other is – is the child getting an education sufficient for them to grow up and become a taxpayer rather than an entitlement taker?

    is the second a political goal? should it be?

  11. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Larry said: “we own the problem and we cannot paper it over.”

    I couldn’t agree with Larry more.

    At the end of my 5th Year at school, I was given a comprehensive spelling test. I spelled one word right – the word was “it.” Its a vivid memory.

    By the end of the morning my whole class knew. By the end the next day the whole school knew, or it sure feel that way, and that was not helpful.

    But most importantly my parents and a few teachers owned the problem and did not paper it over. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here typing these posts.

    I fear that millions of kids today are lost because their parents and much of our entire educational system today papers over problems like mine back then. This is despite the heroic efforts of a far from insignificant group of parents and teachers who fight to save all the kids they can. It’s a great tragedy that far too often so few of these heroes get real meaningful help, despite the vast sums of money allegedly spend on the problem.

    Where does all this vast amount of money go? Why are the results so meager versus their cost. It’s not the kids. Our culture is broken.

    A superintendent of schools in DC was dismissed because she had her kids scores on a dramatic rise. That was papered over too. More evidence that our culture is broken. And I mean all of it, top to bottom, is broken.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      PS – Actually, it was the principal who administered the test. And that Principal, a formidable woman named Miss Everett, didn’t paper stuff over.

    2. warning: It is NOT my intent to ‘lecture” here…. If it comes across that way – my apologies in advance…. and would appreciate feedback if it is felt to be that way.

      having said that……. my view and perspective is –

      We have kids – who have parents – who are not well educated themselves, don’t have a culture of knowing that education is vital but even if they did, are so seriously deficient themselves that they not capable of understanding specifically the nature of the deficits their kids might have. Keep in mind how many people in previous years dropped out – 25% or got a diploma but were, in fact, functionally illiterate – these folks go on – to become parents.

      that’s a reality – that sometimes we seem to forget when talking about “irresponsible” parental behaviors. One might argue that they should not have had kids – fine – but the reality is they did – and not the must be educated – and if we fail – the cycle continues – their kids will grow up to need entitlements and to have kids of their own.

      we can continue to “blame” – out of frustration or whatever – but doing so – or worse – working to undermine what public schools are doing (even if not enough) – will not make things better.

      Even educated parents may not know specifically what the problem might be if their kid is having problems…. for instance.. some kids with “good parents” grew up dyslexic because their parents did not know, lacked the skill to recognize it – and the schools did not test for it.

      some parents don’t know their kids need glasses until a note comes home from school…. even now days.

      Now schools test for a variety of potential deficts – but parents still are not the professionals the school testers are in recognizing it – much less myriad other things that may affect the child.

      My point here is that it’s sound-bite easy to believe than any/all parents can, if dedicated, figure out how to properly help their kids – and that’s simply not the case any more. The only parents who are truly capable of this are parents who themselves are professionals in reading/language/comprehension diagnostics.

      We have descended into almost a Luddite perspective of education these days where we blame teachers at the same time we consider it a task that anyone can do . Take my word for it – you cannot teach reading to any kid if that kid is having problems and you do not know how to diagnose it or the techniques needed to assist the kid in learning.

      Makes me wonder out loud if the choice/charter/private/voucher schools will have this same ability…. do we care if they do or don’t? How do we think that kind of thing would be paid for?

      And this is a problem at urban and rural poor schools that cannot attract competent professionals in that arena – either because of low pay or because the person simply does not want to live or work in that kind of area.

      I’ll finish by repeating once again – that I FAVOR competition but I think it needs to be intelligent competition not a sound-bite excuse for abandoning public education and ignorance of the many services that they do provide in diagnosing and helping kids who need it.

  12. re: frequent assessments verses high stakes testing

    I’m totally in favor of the frequent assessments – but they do take time away from kids that are not having issues.

    At that point – you actually have to pull the kids to be assessed out of class – get them help – get them back into class – and then help them catch up…

    it gets complicated… and that’s even before you get one or two little hellions who will disrupt the entire class and require the teacher to stop teaching – AND assessing… and deal with the miscreants who almost always are defended by the parents as ” he’s ALL boy or I can’t do a thing with her”.

  13. they need to add to the report card with a direct copy to parents and principle.

    ____ was disruptive on [date] requiring the teacher to stop all ongoing tasks to deal with the disruptive behavior. As a result every other kid in class was denied __ minutes of instruction. If the behavior continues – other parents will be notified of the ongoing issues in the classroom due to their kid.

    It’s funny, we talk about “bad” teachers – defined as teachers who fail to adequately education the kids in their class – without regard to class size, how many of the kids are at-risk and need additional attention, nor disruptive kids.

    So if a teacher gets a large class size with a lot of at-risk kids – and several disruptive kids – and the class is adversely affected on academic performance, we classify the teacher as a “bad teacher” who is being “protected” by union thuggery…..

    What teachers want is a level playing field on these issues. Who in this world wants a job where things are done to undermine their performance, cause them to be rated as under-performing -and subsequently harm their career?

    What does a teacher do – when this happens to her/him? They leave when it is clear that no matter how hard they work – the work requirements are so challenging that they will likely fail – so they find another job where the work requirements are more fair.

    Approximately 1/2 of all entry level employees will leave within 5 years.
    Some will just get out of education. Others will seek schools where the class sizes are not huge, and/or the school does not have a large number of at-risk kids , etc.

    this is basically what happens to poor urban schools… it’s a down spiral…that is institutional.

  14. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Larry –

    I think you’ve done a great job describing some of the challenges today’s parents and teachers face working with the current system we have.

    If you take the Safe House concept and match it up with the challenges you list, you’ll find I think ways that the Safe House model can help any school system (most especially teachers, parents, and kids within them) confront those challenges. To take only one example, in the case of parents who were very challenged educationally themselves, how such a safe house system can help work such parents into the care and education of their kids.

    As to the big picture, I always think back to my three days spent with Colin Powell during the Summer of 2000. It was the time of the Republican Convention. On the second day, he was likely the must sought after man in America. Calls were coming in from all over. That evening the General was scheduled to give the Keynote Address to the Convention. Everyone who was anyone there at the Convention, and many of those not there wanted to know, but didn’t know, what he was going to say to the Convention.

    Around 1 pm that day, after Colin Powell had finished polishing his speech in the Green Room down in the bowels of the Convention Center, we headed to poor neighborhood in Philly for a prearranged interview with Charlie Rose. It was to be held in the middle of an athletic field built through the efforts of America’s Promise. The agreed purpose of the interview was to talk about the need for more such fields for all of America’s children. On our arrival, the General’s aide, an Army Colonel, went out into field to speak with Rose and confirm the prearranged subject matter of the interview. He returned to say no dice, Charlie Rose wanted to talk about the substance to the General’s upcoming Keynote Speech.

    The General and I got out the car and walked over to Rose and his camera crew out in the field. Within the space of that “2 minute chat”, I saw first hand why this particular “Four Star” had been the senior “Four Star” in the American Military. The tones in his voice, the language in his body language, and the words he spoke said it all – a performance complete with the light touch of the woodwinds, the rising beat of the drums, the growing chorus of brass, all leading into a full orchestra of views.

    We were walking back to the car, leaving Rose slack jawed and open handed, when the General looked at his watch and then at me asking, ” got 30 minutes free now – did you see that elementary school five blocks back on the left? Let’s spend it there, at that school.

    Back at the car, the calls were piling up wanting to speak to the General – including names known round the world – they’d all have to wait.

    Minutes later the General arrived at the elementary school unannounced. For the next 40 minutes he talked to kids – them sitting in their little chairs around a table open in the center with the General going from child to child, swatting down alongside each each one, talking to each child one at a time, as if they alone were the only thing in the world that mattered.

    Had Charlie Rose, who’d chased after us and who now stood stewing outside in the hall, had the good sense to quietly film the scene, he’d have gotten a far greater story than the one he’d wanted but didn’t get. He didn’t have the sense so ended up with nothing but his own misplaced frustration.

    Those events that day seem to me a metaphor for much that is going in on this country right now.

  15. HillCityJim Avatar

    Not sure why larryg chose Australia, Sweden and Japan as countries to compare with, and not wanting to sound racist but their black children are in minuscule percentages of the total population. And I expect they have a higher percentage of children living in 2 parent households, something that is very lacking here.

    Old enough to remember A Nation at Risk, when we were told that unless we spent more money on education, the Japanese would take over the world, I find it ironic that, as a percentage of GDP, we now spend about 50% more than Japan.

  16. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Regarding the daily drop out rate of America’s students see upper right hand side of front page of America’s Promise found at:

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