by Matt Hurt
In a previous paper (Tales of Student Success in 2023) the successes of four of the top five divisions that realized the greatest improvement in SOL pass rates in 2023 were highlighted. Since then, I was afforded the opportunity to visit Greensville County, the division that realized the greatest improvement in Virginia. During this visit teachers and administrators outlined the aspects in their division which they felt lead to these significant improvements. These stories mirror those in the other divisions previously discussed.
Table 1: Top SOL Pass Rate Improvement Divisions from 2022 and 2023
The educators in Greensville County attributed their significant improvement in student outcomes to a number of factors. They felt that the increased focus on relationships, expectations, leadership, and focusing on the positives helped them to ensure more success for their students than in the past.
Teachers related that they had invested more heavily in relationships with their students over the last few years. As in some other rural areas, these teachers reported that they were mostly from the county, but may not have lived in the same communities as their students. Through discussion with peers, teachers began to consider that some students live in situations that are significantly different from their middle-class experiences. Some of the teachers were familiar with these situations and shared this perspective with others.
Teachers reported that when they began more purposefully building relationships with students, their students responded very positively. Students were more likely to try hard in class. Since these relationships helped teachers to understand their students better, they were able to proactively address situations that would have caused behavior problems, so that they could spend more of their class time in instruction rather than in disciplining students. Administrators reported fewer disciplinary referrals, which back these observations.
The educators all noted a very significant paradigm shift in expectations over the past couple of years. They came to the realization that if they didn’t hold students accountable for grade level work, the students would never be able to achieve on grade level. Instead of assigning student work below grade level, they insisted students be instructed on grade level standards. Instead of discounting kids who they thought didn’t have a chance of working on grade level content, they kept working with those kids until they could. Instead of discussing the reasons why kids couldn’t be successful, they collaborated on how they could ensure their success. SOL pass rates were explicitly included in teacher evaluations to adequately convey expectations, which is a rare practice in Virginia.
A few years prior to the significant improvements in student outcomes, division leadership determined that it was necessary to employ different strategies to meet the needs of all students. They resolved to improve student outcomes and began systematically evaluating their instructional efforts across the division. Whenever practices or structures were uncovered that were not consistent with improved student outcomes, they were effectively addressed. Throughout this process, staff were not micromanaged, but were led through the process which helped them to embrace the changes.
In Greensville County, educators began focusing on the positives, no matter how small. When students begin to show progress after struggling with a skill, they are praised to a significant degree. When teachers show even incremental gains on their assessments throughout the year, administrators make a really big deal about it. Teachers and principals report that focusing on any improvements, regardless of size, really incentivizes more of the same behavior. They shared that early smaller successes snowballed into bigger successes over time.
In conclusion, these strategies are not novel, as they have been implemented in other successful divisions that are tasked with educating high percentages of at-risk students. Unfortunately, not enough divisions in Virginia have employed these practices. Any division that would like to improve student outcomes would find it productive to employ these same strategies.
Matt Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program. The Comprehensive Instructional Program is a consortium of sixty-two public school divisions that work together to improve outcomes for students. This consortium was founded in 2014 by the superintendents in Virginia’s Superintendents Region VII which includes the nineteen divisions in far southwest Virginia. Since the founding of the CIP, educators in Region VII have leveraged their collective efforts to produce the best Standards of Learning pass rates among all regions in Virginia since 2017.