Seeking a Clear Way Forward

school_kidsby James A. Bacon

Only 68% of Virginia’s public schools met state accreditation standards based on Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores, the Virginia Department of Education reported yesterday, down from 93% two years ago. I suppose one could describe that as bad news. But I would contend DOE is telling us what we all knew anyway: that we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Everyone understands that the decline resulted from higher standards, not worse performance. And everyone seems to agree that the higher standards are worth striving for. I actually find it reassuring that Virginia’s educrats are confronting the problem honestly rather than sugar-coating the system’s failures.

Board of Education President Christian Braunlich said it well: “The SOL tests students began taking 16 years ago established a uniform floor across the state. Now the floor is being raised so all students — regardless of where they live, who they are, or their family’s income — will have a foundation for success in an increasingly competitive economy. These new tests represent higher expectations for our students and schools and meeting them will be a multiyear process.”

We all agree there’s a huge problem. As the economy becomes progressively more knowledge intensive, children who fail at school relegate themselves to the economic margins for their lifetimes — creating an immense human tragedy and economic burden. Across the philosophical spectrum, we all agree this is a fundamental issue that must be dealt with.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near a consensus on knowing how to move forward. The reason is that the factors affecting educational performance are so extraordinarily complex, as recent posts on this blog and the responses to those posts make clear. How much of Virginia’s sub-standard educational performance relate to the stresses and pathologies of poverty? How much is tied to cultural values and priorities of different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups? How much can be blamed on broad cultural trends, such as the proliferation of video games or decline in the work ethic? How much can be attributed to the inequitable distribution of educational resources? How much can be pinned on teachers, principals and school teachers? And that hardly begins to exhaust the list of questions.

There are no clear-cut answers. The Virginia Department of Education makes more data available in searchable format than ever before. Yet the data is ambiguous enough that all of us can find support for our ideological prejudices. We debate endlessly. Thus, there is no clear way forward.

How do we achieve a clear path forward? Perhaps we need to ask that question before we start spouting remedies based upon ideological preconceptions. I would suggest two broad strategies.

First, experiment more. We learn from experimentation. Our public school system, governed by overlapping federal, state and local bureaucracies, is not what anyone would describe as nimble or willing to take risks.  We need to create an environment in which we take more small risks, which, if successful, we can replicate and, if failures, we can shut down.

Second, measure more. We can’t learn from experimentation unless we measure the results.

What should we experiment and measure? Everything! Test and measure new pedagogies, especially those that integrate computer and online technologies. Test and measure charter schools. Test and measure the impact of smaller or bigger classrooms. Test and measure different programs for rewarding teachers. Test and measure pre-school programs and the impact they have academic performance in later years. Test and measure the impact of programs like Communities in Schools, an organization that puts staff in schools to help kids at risk by finding matching resources among the multitude of government and not-for-profit programs.

If we don’t experiment and measure, we’ll continue as we have: arguing much and settling little. Applying the social scientific method can tell us what works and what doesn’t. We’ll still argue over the validity of the tests and the meaning of the results, but we’ll be waging debates within much narrower parameters more closely tethered to the real world. The alternative, to continue as we have been, will yield us more of the same — and that’s one thing, we all agree, we don’t want.

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19 responses to “Seeking a Clear Way Forward”

  1. It’s a good thing when accreditation has been given if 70% pass. Think about that.

    here are the benchmarks:

    Fully Accredited
    Elementary and middle schools are Fully Accredited if students achieve all of the following pass rates:

    English – 75 percent or higher
    Mathematics – 70 percent or higher
    Science – 70 percent or higher
    History – 70 percent or higher
    High schools are Fully Accredited if:

    Students achieve pass rates of 75 percent or higher in English and 70 percent or higher in mathematics, science and history; and
    Attain a point value of 85 or greater based on the Graduation and Completion Index (GCI).

    but I still think Jim is looking everywhere but in the closet that has the 600 lb gorilla when he says the answers are “complex”

    This is a starkly simple thing if you look at it simply.

    ask yourself why in a given school district = some schools don’t achieve accreditation and some do – that have similar demographics.

    If all schools in a district failed accreditation – you’d know something was wrong with the way they did schools.

    If all schools in a district passed accreditation -you’d know the district was doing thing right.

    but what explains a mix and different schools with the same “values” and related demographics produce different academic performance such that one school attains accreditation and another fails?

    and you know what? the way we currently do business – do you know what is going to happen to the teachers in the schools that fail accreditation. The administration is going to go after the Principal and the Principal in turn is going to serve up some appropriate sacrificial lambs and “new” teachers will be hired… but in all likelihood – they’re NOT going to be experienced specialists but Newbies fresh out of college or from other low performing schools.

    Jim thinks the problems are “complex” and that’s why they won’t get fixed easily – but he ignores the schools that DON’T have these problems.

    I think the problems are simpler – for each school that fails accreditation – calculate the aggregate salaries and aggregate teaching experience and compare it to the district average.

    that’s exactly what was done here:

    Comparability of State and Local Expenditures
    Among Schools Within Districts: A Report From
    the Study of School-Level Expenditures

    GO to page 15 which has KEY FINDINGS:

    Comparing Per-Pupil Personnel Expenditures Across All Schools Within a District

    Per-pupil personnel expenditures often varied considerably across schools within districts, and nearly half of all schools had per-pupil personnel expenditures that were more than 10 percent above or below their district’s average. Some, but not all, of these differences were related to school grade level.

    so the very first thing we should do for districts with schools that fail accreditation is to REQUIRE an accounting of resources on a per school basis…

    My view is that if we don’t do this- we’re not really looking for answers.. we just look and look but refuse to look in the right places.

    1. re: disappointed

      well no .. doesn’t this sentence make you wonder about 46% of the schools:

      ” “At the elementary level, 46 percent of Title 1 schools had state and local personnel expenditures that were below the average for non-Title 1 elementary schools in their district,”

      if you say a correlation between these 46% schools and lower lower SOL scores would be think it’s not a big deal because 54% were higher?

      you’ve seen data between schools where some with the same demographics score widely from others with similar demographics.

      would you suspect a link?

      more than that – why would you dismiss this and instead focus on “values” when there are clear disparities between neighborhood schools – and clear evidence that 46% are being shorted resources?

      I would have hoped that 1. -you would want the disclosure
      2. – that you’d want to know if there was any correlatioin
      3. – before you got to talking about “values”.

    2. this is the kind of thing that rightly gives “liberals” a bad name – and they are their own worst enemies when it comes to trying to fix our education issues.

      Conservatives are equally bad in a different way when they attribute the problem to “culture” and other code words.

  2. I agree, we should do an expenditure accounting for each school. School districts should endeavor to spend money as equitably as possible.

    But I think you might be disappointed with the results of such an exercise. The study you quote does say this:

    “Within districts that had both Title 1 and non-Title 1 schools, more than 40 percent of Title 1 schools had lower personnel expenditures per pupil than did non-Title 1 schools at the same school grade level.”

    Sounds terribly unfair…. until you read the next sentence.

    “At the elementary level, 46 percent of Title 1 schools had state and local personnel expenditures that were below the average for non-Title 1 elementary schools in their district, while 54 percent were above the average for non-Title 1 elementary schools. At the middle school and high school levels, Title 1 schools were slightly less likely to have below-average personnel expenditures per pupil (42 percent and 45 percent, respectively). (My emphasis.)

    In other words, overall, schools with poor kids get slightly higher expenditures per pupil.

  3. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    My last comment was marked as spam???????

  4. By the way – for those who might have had trouble getting the accreditation data – here’s a link:

    look through this spreadsheet and you will discover that many school districts with pretty good overall records have schools that failed accreditation – including Fairfax and Henrico and there are 9 schools that have been denied accreditation including on in Henrico

    How would you explain this? with “values”?

  5. when schools fail accreditation due to SOL scores – the principal and the administration are looking at specific classrooms with specific teachers.

    the problem is if the school is not a desirable school for other teachers – the replacements are probably going to be newbies right out of college – which is probably how they got in trouble to start with.

    that’s the fundamental problem – tough schools are avoided like the plague by experienced teachers who will not get paid more to take the tougher assignments … and actually will leave and go somewhere else if forced.

    but you can bet the accreditation deal is going to directly impact people and jobs.

  6. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Yeah, man, we have no idea how much cultural values influence education outcomes. But obviously poor people value education so much less.

    Which is why as of ’05-’06 the bottom quintile spent 11 percent of their income on educational enrichment and the top quintile spent 5 percent.*

    *Using the mean income values for those groups.

    1. Interesting. Do you know what is counted as an “enrichment expenditure”?

      1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        Tutors, camps and private schools.

  7. you know…

    we don’t refuse to feed kids or get them medical care because they have
    bad parents or “culture” or “values” problems.

    most of us – including the adherents of “we can’t fix the problem because of “values” – would think it barbarous to deny kids food and medical care.

    but when you think about it by making excuses for why we won”t education them – we are essentially saying the same thing – except in a different way

    we”ll feed and care for them not – but not educate them – and then when they get older – we’ll sustain them with Food Stamps and MedicAid – as well as their kids…

    and before Jim or others characterizes this attitude as “liberal progressive” – please consider the cost-effectiveness aspects of this issue.

    how cost-effective is it – to not provide the education resources – That we KNOW WORKS – because it requires more resources than the easier-to-teach kids?

    it all ends up the same way – the kid becomes an adult – cannot get a job – and requires others to provide taxes to provide them with food and care.

    somehow we seem to pretend – that we”re going to cut entitlements – to get rid of food stamps or to get rid of EMTALA or MedicAid – but how realistic is such “dreaming”?

    the truth is that most Americans are not going to allow the country to turn into a de-facto 3rd world country. They’ll grump and wail and gnash their teeth and resent like heck having to provide entitlements but they’ll choose that over people dying on the steps of the ER or stealing food from stores or picking through the dump for thrown-out food.

    we have a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality on education in this country.

    we’d rather slit our wrists than admit we have inequities in neighborhood schools- that go back to the reason busing was ordered as a solution – then abandoned because people rebelled about sending their kids past their our neighborhood schools.

    we even passed a NCLB law – that said that if a kid went to a “failing” school, that he could go to a different school. What happened to that?

    For the 1/3 of schools that failed accreditation – does that allow those kids to transfer to another school?

    are we going to see a gigantic migration of kids from their failed schools to what? who chooses the schools they can go to? and what happens if the other school(s) are already at capacity and more students actually would super-size classes – degrading education efforts?

    so I ask Jim Bacon – what would you do for the schools that failed accreditation? seriously. what remedies would you choose ?

    You seem to advocate “experiments” but we already know that if you provide experienced and skilled teachers – that it works… that Pre-K, Head-Start and Title 1 do work so the only appropriate thing to do when you do experiment is to make that ADDITIONAL and not supplant the existing thing that do work.

    I do give CREDIT to Mr. Bacon – for his willingness to confront the issue – in many, many blog entries even as I do not agree with his basic “values” premise and continue to ask him about neighborhood school disparities in performance – for the same demographics.

    but as long as we can continue to dialogue and hammer the issues – and not commenters – then we , if nothing else, better understand each others views, and, in turn, appreciate why we have not agreed – as a society on what to do about it.

  8. one more thing this morning –

    I’d support vouchers. I’d support the state providing each kid – and requiring each locality to pay their share per kid – to go to a school of choice with a few provisos –

    1. – those schools have to meet the very same SOL standards OR perhaps COMMON CORE or NAEP or PISA/Timms but no “roll your own standards”

    2. – allow full flexibility in implementation but require adherence to benchmark metrics.

    3. – those schools ONLY get money for the kids that pass the SOLS
    but incentives paid for 90+% pass rates – (that allows getting money back for failed kids – but minimizes the failed kids).

    there will be no excuses about “culture” or “values” much less “genes”.if you don’t do the job – you don’t get paid – that’s how you justify using tax dollars.. you pay ONLY for performance.

    OR does JIM – TRULY FEEL – that “values” is such a powerful force that voucher schools cannot overcome it either?

    3. – transportation to/from the kids home and school IS PROVIDED, as well as breakfast and lunch… and dental, optical and basic medical care including immunizations, etc.

    the money to pay for this comes from the existing budget – for education. Right now – the state only provides money for on a per student basis for average daily attendance. For every voucher – the state gives the same dollar amount to the alternative provider.

    Now – I want to see Jim refer (once again) to what I advocate her as “liberal progressive”!


    I’ve said – all along – that I’m not opposed to vouchers or other schools – as long as they have to meet equivalent standards.

    what I oppose is giving them the money and not holding them accountable which for some reason seem to be what the typical pro-voucher folks support (which I never understood why but saw it as a fatal flaw).

    1. I think vouchers are great. I don’t talk about them a lot because I don’t think they have much political backing in Virginia. I’d also go along with your idea that to qualify for state-funded vouches, private schools would have to implement SOLs so parents could see how the voucher-funded schools compare to public school alternatives.

      1. My teacher friend advises me that I am a FOOL for supporting vouchers with standards because the pro-voucher folks will welcome my support then have the standards gutted in legislative committee..

        what say you?

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I could support the basics of Larry’s proposal on vouchers.

      1. My teacher friend supports charter schools over voucher schools because she says she does not trust the voucher folks and their true motives!

        So.. I would restrict this at least initially to ONLY those schools that do fail accreditation – similar to the NCLB rule that a kid can transfer from a failing school … I would NOT want to impose vouchers on currently successful schools and would fully exempt them from vouchers – limit the vouchers to the schools and kids that are in trouble.

        I support the state paying any educational provider the per-pupil SOQ money provided they meet the same standards … but they can use any method they want to achieve that goal…

        I would also support a new category of employee – called an “at risk teaching specialist” that receives a stipend (like a sports coach would) for agreeing to teach a class with at-risk kids – and I would pay on top of that – a bonus for achieving a goal of say 90% pass rate or equivalent.

        I acknowledge that not all can be successfully taught.. but I’m unwilling to agree that the number who don’t succeed can be anyway from 30-60% when we know that there are successful schools that come closer to the 90% goal.

  9. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    If culture is such an intrinsic part of why poor kids are bad students then why would the vouchers make a difference? And if the vouchers would make a difference couldn’t that result just as easily be made by bused integration along socioeconomic lines? You don’t support using public funds to subsidize public transportation or healthcare, but you do support it to subsidize the coffers of private schools?

    We already know charter schools don’t perform better than their public school counterparts. What experimentation can be run using them that can’t be accomplished within the traditional school setting?

    We know that merit pay encourages teachers to cheat.

    If poor kids perform worse than their rich counterparts because they’re not culturally motivated to perform well how would virtual learning help since there is even less external motivation?

    How about we just support and improve the schools we already have?

  10. Experimentation is important but vouchers are a Trojan horse for privatization which is in my view contrary to American ideals of equality and freedom. Experimentation should be at the school and teacher level. Most experimentation at those levels come.from superintendents, school boards and other politicians. We should free principals and teach.

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