Tag Archives: Matt Hurt

Teachers Are Critical to Student Success

by Matt Hurt

Twenty five years ago, the demand for teaching positions was not sufficient to supply the employment needs of newly-minted teachers. It was common in many divisions for teachers to serve for at least a year or two in an hourly instructional aide position before finally earning the coveted teaching contract. For whatever reasons, the teacher pipeline has dwindled to a trickle, and divisions can no longer be as particular when hiring teachers. If the candidate has a pulse, passes the background check, and has a provisional license (or at least close to it), they’re handed a contract. In far too many instances, divisions cannot find enough folks who meet these basic minimum qualifications to fill all of their vacant positions.

Many prerequisites must be in place to ensure positive student outcomes, not least of which is a teacher in the classroom. As of October 2021, 2.83% of teaching positions in Virginia remained unfilled, according to statistics conveyed to the Board of Education on September 15, 2022. The image below was shown to illustrate how the unfilled teacher positions were distributed throughout the state.

The Virginia Department of Education recently launched a new data tool (Staffing and Vacancy Report Build-A-Table) which allows anyone to view the number of positions as well as the number of positions that were unfilled at the time the data were collected. This tool should prove useful to track this problem over time, as well as to measure the impacts that this problem has on student outcomes.

Based on the statistics provided in the staffing and vacancy dataset as well as the SOL Build-A-Table data from 2022, there was a significant, negative relationship between those statistics. The rate of teacher vacancies accounted for 22% of the variance in SOL pass rates among the divisions in Virginia in 2022. This was greater than the relationships that many folks typically think impact scores the most, such as economically disadvantaged enrollment (18%), black student enrollment (17%), and white student enrollment (19%- positive correlation). Continue reading

Virginia’s Student “Growth” Model Stunts Achievement

by Matt Hurt

Virginia’s system for accrediting public K-12 schools has engendered some concern since the release of  school accreditation data on September 19. While  students exhibited lower proficiency during the 2022 school year than in 2019, as measured by Standards of Learning test scores, the percentage of schools meeting the requirements for full accreditation barely budged.

Table 1 below demonstrates the rates at which Virginia schools obtained a Level 1 rating (the highest available in our accreditation system) for each of the key metrics. Table 2 below displays the overall pass rates in Virginia for each of those content areas. (The English accreditation indicator is a composite of reading and writing results.)

Note that the English and math SOL pass rates dropped from 2019 to 2022, but Virginia schools didn’t realize similar declines in accreditation ratings. English (a composite of reading and writing) pass rates fell 4.27% but schools awarded the Level One accreditation rating increased 0.83%. Math SOL pass rates plummeted 15.56% but schools slid only 0.88%.

Continue reading

Another COVID Impact: Bad School Data

by Matt Hurt

In a September 14th post, Jim Sherlock referenced some data points that were collected during the pandemic. Specifically he brought up the topics of chronic absenteeism and how the graduation rate didn’t seem to correlate with SOL scores. My intent here is not to refute any specifics; it is to inform readers that there were a variety of aspects that impacted the quality of data that we collected during that time.

First of all, to say that the 2020-21 school year was chaotic is the understatement of the century. Most school divisions began the year in a virtual setting. As the year wore on, students were allowed to come into the school at varying rates. Also during that year, families were ubiquitously allowed to decide whether their students would participate in person, given that was an option.

Many families changed their mind multiple times throughout the year. This by itself caused a great deal of chaos, and it was nearly impossible to accurately reflect each student’s method of instruction during that time period. Try to imagine how this worked out in schools. Johnny’s family chose to have him attend school in person. Then the COVID infection rates in the community increased and Johnny’s family decided that he needed to participate virtually. How hard is it to believe that many kids were marked absent incorrectly when they should have been marked as attending virtually? Continue reading

About Those SOL Numbers….

Matt Hurt, director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program coalition of rural school districts, provided detailed feedback on a recent post, “School Districts’ COVID Recovery Varied Widely.” His comments contribute significantly to the discussion of the impact of  COVID school closures in 2020-21 on Standards of Learning test scores in 2021-22, so, I republish them with minor modifications here. — JAB

by Matt Hurt

According to my calculations, 47% of the variance among overall division pass rate differences in 2021 was due to the amount of in-person instruction offered combined with the poverty rate of the division.

When I discussed this with our teachers and administrators, it seemed to explain a lot. The way that they put it, kids of affluent parents tended to have the supports in the home to make sure the kids attended to their work when they were participating in virtual instruction. Kids who live in poverty were much less likely to have anyone standing over them making them do their work. Given this situation, these kids found much more engaging activities in which to invest their time than school work. I suspect that the amount of in-person instruction in 2021 did affect the 2022 outcomes, but I haven’t had the time to calculate that yet. Continue reading

What Virginia Gets Right About K-12 Education

by Matt Hurt

Much controversy surrounded Superintendent Jillian Balow’s report (Our Commitment to Virginians) in May 2022. While I disagree with a few of the details included in the report, I agree with (and have written about) many of the main concerns that were presented. If we want to have the best educational program in the country, we need to increase expectations and accountability. Luckily, Virginia laid a solid educational foundation in the 1990s which provides the basis which can help us produce the most successful students in the country.  

First, Virginia developed (and continues to update) a set of grade-level standards which ensured a continuum of skill attainment from year to year. These standards were sequenced to build upon prerequisite skills from the prior year, are very well aligned vertically, and the skills expectations in each grade are reasonable for the vast majority of students to master. While some may argue that this system might hold some students back from progressing at a quicker rate, there is nothing in the regulations which states that schools can’t accelerate students through this progression.

Second, Virginia has supplied educators with curricular documents (curriculum frameworks) which fully communicate exactly what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do. Continue reading

Teacher Shortage and No End in Sight


by Matt Hurt

Twenty years ago in Southwest Virginia, PreK-6-endorsed teachers would apply at a rate of 5 to 10 applicants for each posted position. Fully endorsed teachers would sometimes spend years in hourly teachers’ aides positions waiting for their turn to get their own classroom and a full-time teaching contract. Then, a little more than ten years ago, the supply began to dry up. Now the flood of teachers produced by our colleges has dwindled to a trickle. As it turns out, all of this occurred prior to the current political unpleasantness.

During the pandemic, teachers really began to burn out. JMU soon is expected to publish a paper which describes this phenomenon. My understanding is that researchers found that during COIVD teachers felt like they were not able to help their students be successful. They got into the field not to make millions of dollars annually, but to help kids. The pandemic and school closures made this much more difficult. Now that so many kids are so far behind, many teachers find it difficult to believe they’ll ever be able to help them get caught up.

This year, I have listened to a disturbing number of administrators talk about teachers leaving in the middle of the year. This certainly happened prior to this year, but it was a very uncommon event. Now, it is all too common. Continue reading

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

by Matt Hurt

On January 29, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an op-ed written by the patrons of HB319 and SB616 (The Virginia Literacy Acts). In this article, the legislators wrote that we must implement strategies adopted by other states if we wish to improve the reading abilities of our students.  

While there is always room for improvement, one should always consult the data to determine to what degree our process should change in order to realize that improvement. If you’re at the bottom of the heap, you probably should change your approach dramatically. If you’re one of the top performers, maybe subtle tweaks are the more reasonable approach.

Consult the Data!

When it comes to early elementary reading, the most relevant dataset we have to compare our performance in Virginia to those of other states is the Reading 4 NAEP test. When we consider our results relative to the other 49 states, it appears that Virginia as a whole has performed admirably. Given that Virginia has achieved near the top very consistently, it is not apparent that we should make radical changes to our statewide reading program. Continue reading

The General Assembly to Enlist in the Reading Wars?

by Matt Hurt

A few days ago. Delegate Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, and Senator Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, submitted HB319 and SB616, both titled, “The Virginia Literacy Act.” These bills intend to codify instructional practices regarding the Science of Reading into Virginia law. While there are some widely acknowledged positives associated with the Science of Reading, it is not apparent to me that the bill will improve outcomes for Virginia students.

First, the reading wars have raged for more years than I have been alive. Initially the warring factions were the “whole language” zealots versus the phonics militants. Eventually the supporters of phonics won the battle. Soon thereafter, a rift emerged among the phonics camp about how much of the reading instruction should be straight phonics versus a blend of phonics and other activities, such as writing, word study, and etc.

Word count limits the ability of this essay to further investigate the reading wars, but suffice it to say that the smart money says these wars will rage long after I’m dead. While some educators may welcome the science-of-reading mandates, others will find them a bitter pill to swallow. Folks tend to spit out things they find bitter. Given our recent experience with the Critical Race Theory fury, it seems that mandating controversial things may not be a wise move, either practically or politically. Continue reading

Intelligence, Bell Curves and SOLs

This is the ninth in a series of articles about Virginia’s Standard of Learning assessments.

by Matt Hurt

A measure that has gained some credibility among psychologists is the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). IQ scores tell us nothing about someone’s intrinsic worth as a human being or their rights to equal justice under the law. On the other hand, most folks would agree that IQ does measure something real. Not every human being is capable of becoming a brain surgeon.

Whatever your opinions about the validity and usefulness of the IQ metric, it is important when thinking about educational policy in Virginia to understand that it does not measure the same thing as the state’s Standards of Learning (SOLs). SOLs are “criterion referenced” tests — that is, they measure how well students have mastered skills and content taught in schools, not their capacity to learn.

There is no question that academically gifted students find it easier to master the skills assessed by the SOL tests than less gifted students do. Yet it has been demonstrated repeatedly that less academically capable students still can acquire the skills they need to be classified as proficient and advance to the next grade level. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Educational Assessments: Too Much of a Good Thing?

This is the seventh in a series about Virginia’s Standards of Learning educational assessments.

by Matt Hurt

Widespread shutdowns of Virginia’s public schools during the COVID-19 epidemic last year resulted in a significant loss of instructional hours. To make up for lost ground, teachers need to spend as much time as possible with their students. Unfortunately, a new measure enacted with the best of intentions will take students and teachers out of the classroom for two more rounds of assessments, one in the fall and one in the winter.

While the extra tests might be suitable for some school districts, local officials should be allowed to decide whether the assessments best meet the needs of their students.

In 2017 the Virginia Board of Education implemented new criteria for the Standards of Accreditation, which determine if schools are performing up to snuff. Students who failed their SOL tests but demonstrated sufficient “growth” from the previous year counted the same for accreditation purposes as a student who passed his or her SOLs in the accreditation calculation. Under the growth system, students who failed a 3rd grade SOL test would be given four years to catch up and reach proficiency by the 7th grade — as long as they demonstrated progress toward that goal each year. Continue reading

Schools Need to Set Higher Expectations

This is the sixth in a series about Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments.

by Matt Hurt

Persistent gaps in educational proficiency for important subgroups — minorities, the economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, English language learners — have long preoccupied Virginia educators. One thing we have learned in our Comprehensive Instructional Program consortium regarding student outcomes is that when teachers, schools, and divisions set higher expectations, performance improves.

The Virginia Board of Education adopted more rigorous standards and more rigorous SOL tests, which were implemented in math and reading in 2012 and 2013 respectively. The SOL pass rates dropped precipitously in those years, but began to rebound immediately in math. The reading proficiency rates declined the second year, and then improved with the advent of retesting students in grades 3-8 who narrowly failed their SOL tests in 2015. High school students had the opportunity to retake tests years earlier. Continue reading

Making Educators Accountable for Student Outcomes

This is fifth in a series of articles about Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments.

By Matt Hurt

In 2011 the Virginia Board of Education added a new criteria, Standard 7 Student Academic Progress, for evaluating teachers and administrators. Previously, 100% of the criteria used to evaluate educators had consisted of inputs — lesson delivery, lesson planning, school improvement planning, etc. — with no consideration of student outcomes. A teacher who arrived on time, delivered a captivating lesson during the principal’s classroom observation, and submitted impeccable lesson plans each week could receive an exemplary evaluation — even if his or her students failed to pass a minimum-competency test of grade-level standards, the Standards of Learning (SOLs), at the end of the year. Standard 7 changed the game by giving 40% weight to student outcomes.

Even with the new measure of student outcomes, evaluations did not always correlate to student outcomes. Many divisions implemented a pre-test/post-test process, which was intended to measure student progress over the course of the year. The pre-test, consisting of content that would be covered during the year, was administered at the beginning of the year and the post-test at the end. As one would expect, students always performed better after being exposed to the material than after. Most divisions considered this improvement a sign of student growth.

The problem with the pre-test/post-test scheme is obvious — students could “show progress” but still fail to meet the standards required to advance to the next grade. An analysis of the relationship between teacher ratings and SOL outcomes found in one division, for instance, that 45% of the teachers who had exemplary evaluation ratings and 40% with proficient ratings had fewer students passing the SOL test than is required for the school to be accredited (75% in English and 70% in other core areas). Continue reading

How COVID School Closures Impacted SOL Test Scores

Table 1: 2021 In-Person Instructional Hours (and percentage of 990-hour standard) by Virginia educational region.

This is the fourth in a series of articles discussing Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments.

by Matt Hurt

The Code of Virginia requires school divisions to provide students a minimum of 990 hours of instruction yearly. During the COVID-19 epidemic, the Virginia Department of Education waived that standard, allowing local school districts to offer remote learning and hybrid remote/in-person alternatives as they found expedient. Local practices varied widely.

Earlier this year VDOE surveyed public school divisions to determine the number of in-person instructional hours offered during the academic year. The table above displays the results collected, broken down by region, race (Blacks and Whites only), and by disability status.

Some broad conclusions emerge from this data.

  • Statewide, only 40% of students experienced full in-person instruction. (No student experienced a full school year. Even divisions that offered in-person five days per week did so on an abbreviated school day.)
  • Southwest Virginia schools provided the most in-person learning (60%), and Northern Virginia schools the least (34.7%).
  • Statewide, Black students experienced far less in-person learning (338 hours on average) than Whites (439  hours) — a gap of more than 100 hours. Continue reading

How the Best Teachers Help At-Risk Students Succeed

This is third in a series of articles about Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments.

by Matt Hurt

Teachers play a central role in the education of our students. Therefore, it is important to identify the characteristics of effective teachers, especially those who demonstrate success at educating at-risk students.

Prior to the COVID epidemic, the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP), an independent consortium of mostly rural school systems, held fall meetings in which teachers shared resources and strategies, vented to peers, cried on each other’s shoulders, and generally supported one another. While some detractors believe that teaching is a pie job, nothing can be further from the truth. If teaching were easy, there would be no teacher shortage. Education is a people business, and people are messy. Teachers must effectively deal with problems their students bring into class before they can make sure their students attain the required skills. They must also deal with a host of organizational and school culture problems.

In these fall meetings, the teachers most successful at helping at-risk students, whether those who had disabilities or were economically disadvantaged, were called out in front of the group and asked how they helped their kids pass the SOLs.  In every instance, they would relate three things in common — curriculum alignment, relationships, and expectations. Continue reading