The Coming K-12 Meltdown

by James A. Bacon

Educational achievement in Virginia schools is heading for a melt-down. The racial achievement gap will get worse, not better.  And Virginians will live with the consequences for decades to come.

Part of this looming disaster can be attributed to the COVID-19 epidemic, which compelled the Northam administration to make difficult decisions on the basis of incomplete and evolving information. But much of it will be entirely man-made. I will touch upon broad themes in this post, and follow up with more detailed blogging in the future. Here are the key elements converging to create a perfect storm.

The epidemic. Governor Ralph Northam, like governors across the country, made the decision to close Virginia schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The necessity of this move, made in an environment of media-stoked hysteria, is, to be generous, debatable: School children are far less vulnerable to contracting and spreading the virus than adults. However justified the school shutdown may or may not have been from an epidemiological perspective, the educational consequences are undeniable. Children lost two- to three months of schooling as many districts fumbled the switch to online learning. Moreover, kids from poor families, who are disproportionately African-American, were less likely to have access to home computers and broadband, and their parents were less likely to provide the necessary supervision to ensure they were doing their work. The disparity in lost learning likely has been exacerbated.

The new social justice regime The social justice movement had made significant inroads in Virginia schools long before the George Floyd killing and the outbreak of nationwide protests over policy brutality. Virginia schools have had several years now to implement a restorative-justice approach to school discipline, the result of which has been increased disruptions to classrooms and decreased learning. Black students were more likely to be exposed to disordered classrooms, their academic achievement suffered more, and the racial achievement gap grew in the last year that Standards of Learning exams were administered.

The impact of restorative-justice disciplinary policies now is being magnified by the institutionalization of leftist social-justice perspectives across the board. Race consciousness now infuses every aspect of K-12 administration. The underlying premise is that Virginia schools reflect the “systemic racism” of larger society. For the Northam administration the task is expunging racism (as defined by the Left) from schools and promoting equity (equal educational outcomes).

Writing in the EquityVA newsletter, Leah Dozier Walker, director of the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the Virginia Department of Education, sums up the new zeitgeist:

The work of equity, justice, and anti-racism begins with introspection within our communities. As educators we have an obligation to leverage our unique proximity to young people to articulate a clear commitment to addressing the racial trauma Black students are experiencing. It is our duty to amplify the voices of racialized communities and provide support to students and families impacted by racism.

When the mission of educators becomes indoctrination rather than education, everyone loses. It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out that already-marginalized groups, whose parents lack the resources to make up teaching deficits, lose the most.

Whatever value there may be creating awareness of racial injustice (real or imagined), fomenting a sense of victimhood and grievance will do nothing to discourage African-American students from skipping school, encourage them to do more homework, or induce them to pay more attention in class. To the contrary, social-justice consciousness may have the exact opposite effect. If minority students are taught that the issue is structural racism, why should they exert themselves more? A foreseeable consequence is that some black students will wind up learning less, and the racial achievement gap will grow wider.

No accountability. There will be no way to measure the consequences of Northam’s policies, however, because the educational establishment is far down the road of abandoning standardized testing. The Northam administration had already begun diluting Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs), before COVID-19 and the mass protests broke out. Then the epidemic provided the justification to scrap the SOLs altogether in the 2019/20 school year. Meanwhile, many higher-ed institutions are jettisoning SAT and ACT scores as criteria for college admissions. My fear is that educators, rather than do the hard thing of improving black educational achievement, will do the face-saving thing of watering down or even eliminating standardized testing. If there are no more tests, then the racial achievement gap can no longer be measured, and the massive failure of the social justice movement can rumble forward unexposed.