The Size of the VDOE Rock

by James C. Sherlock

We postulate that elections have consequences. And they do.


But Sisyphus, sentenced by Hades to try and fail for eternity, never got the rock to the top of the mountain.

Yesterday Dick Hall-Sizemore provided an excellent deep dive into the last couple of months of Board of Education meetings.

He reported that the pace of change since the new majority appointed by Governor Youngkin took their seats on July 1 has been glacial.

He noted that for the Board:

there is often material to be reviewed in preparation for upcoming meetings.

Therein lies the rub.

They are pushing a very heavy rock.

The process.  The Superintendent of Public Instruction, her deputy superintendents, assistant superintendents, and the Board of Education each get to review what they are presented by staff. They can and do require changes, which then go back to the bureaucracy for correction.

And then further review.

The Superintendent works this every day. I suspect that she is starting to get what she wants.

The Board does it for one day eight times a year.

In the case of the VDOE bureaucracy support to the Board, I wish Superintendent Balow godspeed in getting her troops onboard with helping reverse policies that the same staffers spent eight years helping put in place. Enthusiastically.

A task worthy of Sisyphus, hopefully with a better result.

The Virginia Department of Human Resources Management Standards of Conduct are vague and can be in conflict.

Among “minimum expectations for acceptable workplace conduct and performance” is “Work cooperatively to achieve work unit and agency goals and objectives.” Good start. Agency goals and objectives are set by appointed leaders.

Support of the “best interests of the agency” and “the mission,” included as well, are in the eye of the beholder. The bureaucracy is the biggest beholder.

The size of the rock. In December of last year, the Board of Education published its 2021 Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of Public Education in Virginia.

From that document, we can see a few parts of the legacy of the McAuliffe/Northam-appointed Board and the two years of total Democratic dominance in Richmond of which the Board on which President Gecker proudly reported:

During the last Standards of Quality (SOQ) review cycle in 2019, the Board developed a comprehensive package of prescriptions, which were informed by education data and trends — particularly as they relate to student demographics, equity, staffing, resource allocation, nationally recognized best practices, and current prevailing practice in local school divisions.

In March, the Board approved revisions to the Guidelines for Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria for Teachers, considered Phase Two of a more comprehensive overhaul. Most notably, these revisions updated research, revised the four-rating levels for summative evaluation and created a new performance standard, Culturally Responsive Teaching and Equitable Practices.

In July, the Board approved several revisions to the Model Guidance for Positive and Preventative Code of Student Conduct Policy and Alternatives to Suspension to include Standards for Dress and Grooming and the Standards for Reducing Bias in the Enforcement of Student Code of Conduct Policy.

The Board approved the Guidance on Cultural Competency Training for Teachers and Other Licensed School Board Employees in Virginia Public Schools as required by House Bill 1904 and Senate Bill 1196 from the 2021 General Assembly at the November meeting.

The guidance document provides a statewide definition of cultural competency and establishes micro-competencies for teachers and school principals and administrators across four domains: culturally competent reflection; culturally competent pedagogy and practice; culturally competent learning environments; and culturally competent community engagement.

Each of these SOQ prescriptions were thoughtfully aligned to the Board’s Comprehensive Plan to promote educational equity (Priority 1) support educator recruitment, development and retention (Priority 2), and support the implementation of the Profile of a Virginia Graduate and the revised school accountability system (Priority 3).

Priority 1 equity. Not quality. Quality did not make the top 3. It has played out in the steady collapse of school performance starting in 2018.

Then there are the six Board of Education advisory committees appointed by the Board itself.  Members are each appointed to three-years terms.

That is quite a ship that the new Board majority must turn around. Without the help of the legacy board members. Daniel Gecker, on the BOE since 2015, is still President. The Vice-President is also a holdover.

My observation. In my years of reporting on VDOE staff support of the Northam-era initiatives, I viewed a hundred staff presentations to the BOE.

That support was unfailingly enthusiastic and often went much further than the laws that the regulators were tasked to implement.

In my 40 years of experience in government, bureaucracies will at best slow-walk anything of which they disapprove. In the best interests of the agency and its mission, of course.  As they see them, not necessarily as seen by the appointed heads of agencies, who come and go.

I don’t doubt the good intentions of the VDOE bureaucracy that supported the Northam-era changes. But I don’t question their human nature either. They were demonstrably enthusiastic about policies they are now asked to overturn.

Superintendent Balow, both for the Governor and in her post as secretary of the Board of Education, is pushing a huge rock. She is a proven leader.

She will need all of her skills.

Updated Oct 28 at 10:20

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19 responses to “The Size of the VDOE Rock”

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    I said the word last week- passively. Passive aggressive behavior is the worst.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    She seems to be using her skills to slow walk the History and Social Science standards. (Even some of the Youngkin appointees pushed back on her extended review schedule.) The top priorities of the administration in education so far have been delaying those standards and coming up with a new policy on transsexuals. As far as action has been concerned, accreditation, SOLs, and how to improve reading scores seem to have taken a back seat.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Given that Virginia’s fall in education test scores was the worst in the country I guess the new folks have nowhere to go but up vs. the McAuliffe / Northam fiasco.

      Luckily for the new folks, the old folks set the bar very, very low.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        The thing is, even with the “fail” and it truly is, we are STILL better than half the country.

        We still are better than:

        1. how_it_works Avatar

          Larry, I learned math before I moved to Virginia, and I only see 17 states on that list, which is more like “one third”, not “half”.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            You are correct. I overstated and I stand corrected.

          2. how_it_works Avatar

            It’s interesting that Mississippi isn’t on that list. We aren’t better than Mississippi, which is usually dead last in just about every measure?

          3. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            Mississippi made a strong commitment to literacy and has famously succeeded.

          4. LarrytheG Avatar

            AND Mississippi DID IT with changes to publics schools, and without Charters or Choice:


          5. how_it_works Avatar

            There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

          6. LarrytheG Avatar

            and a model for Virginia IMO, much better than charters or choice….


            Public Education is NOT a “failure”!

          7. how_it_works Avatar

            Sometimes I think the local culture of a given area is not conducive to the success of public schools. Or much of anything else, for that matter.

          8. LarrytheG Avatar

            It looks like the Mississippi thing was state-directed/led/mandated not that much unlike some of the stuff VDOE dictates like accreditation, SOLs, model policies…etc.

            What impresses me also about Mississippi is they ….

            instituted statewide “early literacy programs and professional development (Cowen & Forte), faithful implementation of Common Core standards (Petrilli), and focus on the “science of reading” (State Superintendent Carey Wright).

            But one key part of Mississippi’s formula has gotten less coverage: holding back low-performing students. In response to the legislature’s 2013 Literacy Based Promotion Act (LBPA), Mississippi schools retain a higher percentage of K–3 students than any other state. (Mississippi-based Bracey Harris of The Hechinger Report is one education writer who has reported on this topic.)

            The LBPA created a “third grade gate,” making success on the reading exit exam a requirement for fourth grade promotion. This isn’t a new idea of course. Florida is widely credited with starting the trend in 2003, and now sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have a reading proficiency requirement to pass into fourth grade.

            But Mississippi has taken the concept further than others, with a retention rate higher than any other state. In 2018–19, according to state department of education reports, 8 percent of all Mississippi K–3 students were held back (up from 6.6 percent the prior year)”

            I think these things could well work for Virginia if the State requires all divisions to do it.

            It is better than charter and “choice” because it involves ALL the kids not some percentage who manage to win a lottery.

            Every kid gets the resources they need most of all the economically disadvantaged AND they hold them back, and do not socially-promote them!

            good stuff in my view and worthy of a BR blog post!

          9. James McCarthy Avatar
            James McCarthy

            What is the total student population of the 17 of national total?

          10. LarrytheG Avatar


    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      to this point, it’s been clear what the PRIORITIES of Youngkin are and are not.

      There has been no “slow walk” on transgender, nor the tip line, CRT, “grooming” and “divisive concepts”.

      If he had LED with the SOLs and accreditation -got that up front and in motion, he would have gotten substantial support – even bipartisan support, even support from Dems and GASP, even some “liberals”.

      He chose the culture war path and “parents are in charge” to lead with.

      Now comes the much harder part and the excuses and whining about BUREAUCRACY are flying like acorns in the wind! No problem at all with BUREAUCRACY with the culture war stuff even accusations of de-facto “deep state”. Not the talk of people who are serious about doing stuff.

      REAL change gets people on board to go forward and you do that by compromise and collaboration with all players,

    3. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Dick, we can’t know from where you and I sit what has been under development at VDOE or what stage it is in.

      Or what has taken a “back seat” if anything.

      As for “slow-walking” the 400 page draft of the History and Social Science Standards, that is nonsense.

      You must have missed her October 17 message to the Board, for whom she is secretary by job description. See

      You will note that she was responding to the concern of the five new members for what they had seen in a draft. Her words: “We must not settle on a standards product that falls short of our best because of strict adherence to a timeline”.

      The revised schedule for the standards and implementing curriculum frameworks is provided in the linked reference. You will notice she discusses listening to “new voices” in finalizing the standards. That means people not groomed by the ed schools. Everyone without a Ph.D. or Ed.D. in education. Which is nearly everyone in the Commonwealth.

      If that is a slow walk we need more of them.

      You neglect to mention how they are addressing the critical issue of teacher shortages. See Turning the Tide: Addressing the Educator Shortage in Virginia developed starting in January and in place today. For strategies that cost significant funding strategies, which they have established, those must wait until the GA funds them as you know.

      What they have done, and it is huge, is for the first time (unimaginably) established a web site where any teacher or special ed teacher can go and find what appear to be all of the open jobs in Virginia. And everything else needed by a teacher wanting to teach here. See I wrote an article about the lack of that resource during the Northam administration and nothing happened.

      So your cynicism is noted. I don’t believe it is supported by the facts.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        You are right–from where I sit, I can’t know what is under development. However, one would think that, as far as the Governor’s top priority, raising the SOL cut scores, was concerned, there would have been at least a mention of this issue in the “Superintendent’s Memo” for Board meetings. In fact, with the Governor saying that he wants the highest threshold in the country by next spring, I would have thought that a special committee of the Board would have been appointed by now to start work on it.

        As for the other issues you raise, one should discuss only so much in one article. I intended to limit this one to the issues of accreditation and SOL cut scores. I am aware of, and have read, Balow’s memo you linked to (that is the one I discussed in my previous article) and I have listened to the Board discussion about it. I intent to comment on it at some length soon.

        As for the strategy to hire more teachers, I agree with you that DOE has done some good work in this area.

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