There’s Something in the Water, Part II

West Point High School and Middle School

by James A. Bacon

Yesterday I held up the town of West Point school district as a possible model for other Virginia school districts. West Point students consistently rank among the top of all Virginia districts for the rates at which they pass their SOL tests. Socioeconomically speaking, there doesn’t seem to be anything special about the town, which is literally built around a paper mill. Certainly the students don’t share the affluence and high education levels of Virginia’s affluent suburban districts. So, what gives?

Could it be a matter of demographics? West Point may not be rich, but it has a slightly lower percentage of poor and free-lunch students than the state as a whole. Could that be a factor? No, not an important one. Adding the average pass rates for reading, writing, history, math, and science SOLs yields a composite score for economically disadvantaged West Point students in the 2018-19 school year of 413 — compared to 334 statewide. In other words, West Point’s disadvantaged students are way out-performing their disadvantaged peers nationally. A related observation: The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged kids in West Point is 52 points. That compares to a 103-point gap statewide.

Does West Point devote more resources to its students? According to Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) numbers for the 2015-16 school year, West Point spent in line with the state average — $11,893 compared to $11,745. West Point’s spending premium is miniscule.

Perhaps West Point allocates its resources differently. Drawing on 2018 data, John Butcher points out that West Point spends about $500 per student on instruction than the state average but less on transportation (busing), food, summer school, pre-K and other education. (West Point also spends slightly more per student on administration and significantly more on operations & maintenance.)

One place West Point economizes is on teacher salaries. Across the board, the school system pays its principals, assistant principals, and teachers less than the state average.  The differential is vast. Average salaries for West Point’s 102 teachers were only 56% that of the average salaries for 103,000 teachers statewide. A portion of the pay gap likely can be attributed to a lower cost of living in West Point and surrounding King William County, but only a portion. Something else must be at work. (See update on salary figures below.)

There is a chronic teacher shortage in Virginia. How can West Point get away with paying so little (even adjusted for the cost of living)? Non-pecuniary factors likely come into play. I would hypothesize that job satisfaction is significantly higher. Teachers tend to be idealists; they’re not in it for the money. But they do crave recognition and respect — from administrators, from their students, from parents, and from the community. As former West Point parent Maria Paluszay observed in a comment in a previous post, West Point teachers do enjoy respect.

Outside of teacher surveys, there is no metric for respect. However, there is a proxy metric — school discipline data. VDOE reports the number of disciplinary infractions in Virginia schools. While a few infractions are severe, most reflect routine interactions in the classroom. Fewer reported infractions suggests that students are better behaved and create fewer disruptions — in effect, they show their teachers more respect.

West Point scores well by this metric, but not off-the-charts well. Using 2018-19 data from the Safe Schools Information Resource student offender reports, I calculated the number of students charged with infractions as a percentage of the student body. The lowest in the state was Lexington with zero infractions, followed by Falls Church with only 1.2% of its student population disciplined. Petersburg city schools were at the high end at 21%. Fairfax, the state’s largest school district, came in at 2.8%. West Point’s ratio was 4.4%, ranking it 26th among 132 school districts. Good but not stellar.

There is one complicating factor, however, that limits the usefulness of this metric. Small numbers of disciplinary infractions can mean one of two things: (1) fewer disciplinary problems, or (2) a lower rate of reporting disciplinary problems. If West Point reports all infractions while other school systems suppress the reporting of incidents — perhaps to show that they are making “progress” toward restorative justice goals — the school system may be even better than it looks based on raw numbers. But there is no way to tell from the statistics themselves if such a thing is taking place.

If there are any conclusions to be drawn from the meandering analysis in this and the previous post, it is that no single factor can explain West Point’s success. One factor that I have not yet mentioned (because the numbers are too small to break out separately) is that West Point apparently has few English as as Second Language (ESL) students, a variable that depresses test scores. Spending per student does not seem to be a significant factor, although Butcher’s data suggests that the allocation of that spending might be. The lower-than-average teacher salaries are worth a closer look in order to answer how West Point pays so little yet retains such good teachers.

Other possibilities to ponder: Does the small size and geographic compactness, allowing kids to attend what amounts to neighborhood schools, play a role? Do West Point schools have a different pedagogy? Do West Point teachers and administrators set higher expectations — and do parents share them? Statistics won’t yield answers to these questions. Perhaps one day an enterprising education reporter will visit West Point to take a closer look.

Update: Reader Jim Weigand supplies different figures for West Point teacher salaries based upon data submitted to the Division of Legislative Automated Systems in January 2018. In that document, the average West Point teacher’s salary in the 2017-18 school year was reported as $41,507 compared to $56,855 for all school divisions, or about 73%.

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19 responses to “There’s Something in the Water, Part II

  1. So, if you want to point out West Point as a better performing school AND the implication IS that if West Point can do it that other schools ought to be able to also – by emulating the things that West Point does that directly results in a better performance.

    If all that is done is to speculate about what those factors might or might not be – AND then you look at a under-performing school like Richmond AND you just do a similar thing – point out what you THINK are reasons why then basically – you’re treating the two schools as unique with factors that cannot really be replicated.

    I don’t think just picking and choosing various data that seems to correlate is a good way to understand. Too many correlations are actually the result of other factors – they just reflect that – there is no cause and effect unless and until – you can demonstrate that across many schools – not just one.

    If we really can’t identify the specific factors about West Point that are actually the things that result in better performance – then what we are saying in effect is that we don’t know and whatever “works” for West point cannot be sufficiently identified that it can be used as a model to improve other schools like Richmond.

    This is a lot tougher than repeatedly dinging Richmond and repeatedly pointing out schools that do much better and talking about subjective things like “respect” or worse – trying to correlate “respect” with “discipline” a total speculation without a factual basis.. that really just argues that whatever West Point is doing – Richmond cannot or refuses to do – and that’s their real failing.

    I think we’re moving closer on the dialogue – but we still have a ways to go… at least we’re looking at various factors.

    I’m willing to be if we try to correlate SES with SOL scores – we’ll see a correlation – a much stronger correlation than “discipline”.

  2. May I ask why we are rating academic success by SOL scores? As a parent I could care less about my kids’ SOL scores. I want them to be able to read well, write properly and expressively, know their history, understand their math, and generally be able to process and express intelligent thought. How do we go about rating actual student success?

    • Well because we are trying to measure academic performance as a way to have accountability over the effectiveness of instruction.

      We measure knowledge and capability. SATs, ACTs, and licensing, doctors, police, EMS, engineers – all have to pass a test.

      we can – and do argue on what to measure and how – but most folks who fly – they want their pilots to be qualified. They want their pilots tested to demonstrate they know how to pilot!

      It’s not what the parent believes – it’s what other folks who depend on that grown-up child to do as a profession.

      So we test and certify for competence based on standards beyond what a parent believes.

  3. SES – socialeconomic factors are represented by real data that is or could be collected.

    For instance, a child has to qualify for “free and reduced” How does that work? What’s the criteria for “free”… “reduced”?

    What’s the education level of the parents?

    Do schools have this data?

    If they do – then why do we primarily differentiate SOL academic performance by race rather than by SES?

    If we did it by SES – race would be removed from the conversation for most except those who would insist it’s really about race instead.

    If you compared Richmond with other schools on an SES basis – could you then identify non-racial factors at better performing schools?

    Neighborhoods are defined by SES more than a lot of other things and a major factor for school systems like West point – is that SES neighborhood bifurcation is not a factor at all – like you WOULD SEE in systems like – say Henrico where SES plays a major role in the neighborhoods and their nearby schools.

    • Under the U.S. Constitution, race is a suspect category. We are not supposed to make decisions about people based on their race. Larry’s suggestion to focus on SES avoids constitutional questions and looks at low-income students. I support that as a better approach to analysis.

  4. SES is not, in my opinion, the major factor in my current school district, York County, which is well known for its schools – except for the one my daughter goes to. That, however, was not my point. What exactly in the SOLs speaks to academic or educational success? The ability to do well on a standardized test does not. Performance on a test that is designed to be a baseline for failure does not – it speaks to failure, not success. SOLs as far as I can tell have no link whatsoever to the ability to perform a past-entry-level job. Therefore, I do not believe that SOl pass rates are an acceptable measure of academic or educational success.

    • The VDOE goes through an elaborate process to determine what children need to learn in each subject and grade, and how many questions they need to answer correctly in order to “pass.” Essentially, as I understand it, the question in the back of the minds of the teachers and experts who set these standards is, “What do children need to know in order to be able to progress successfully to the next grade?”

      If your child is a top performer, these standards probably will be irrelevant to him/her. But the tests are not devised for the benefit of top performers. They were established to help ensure that the vast majority of school children acquire the minimum skills they need to advance in school and graduate with a high school degree.

    • Jim –

      I think you might be missing Maria’s point. Your definitately miss my belief expressed here many times. The value of SOLs is extremely limited. Many, myself included, believe that teaching to SOL, or any other standardized test, does far more harm that good, indeed interferes with the proper teaching and learning of students.

      Another way to express this is that this standard you describe:

      “The VDOE goes through an elaborate process to determine what children need to learn in each subject and grade, and how many questions they need to answer correctly in order to “pass.” Essentially, as I understand it, the question in the back of the minds of the teachers and experts who set these standards is, “What do children need to know in order to be able to progress successfully to the next grade?””

      This standard of learning and teaching is by and large a bogus standard. What the experts here are trying measure can neither be legitimately measured nor taught.

      This is why so many of schools fail teach their students well, and their students fail to learn much at all.

      Why?

      Much pedagogy today is trying to pretend that teachers teach knowledge. They do not and they cannot. All they can do, for example, is teach their students the basics of learning to read, and then they must give their kids the space, books, ethics, and motivation to learn on their own by reading good books on their own. Great teachers teach very fundamental learning skills, then act as team leaders inspiring kids to do what most dearly want to do instinctively, and will d0 on their own. Be Voracious learners driven by their humanity. Kids are natural learning machines. I’ve said this many times on this blog, and referenced seminal explanations found in fine books on this subject.

      • Reed, I don’t disagree with you. There is definitely a downside to “teaching to the test,” as you eloquently explain. But let me ask you, how would you propose holding public schools accountable? Without SOLs there would be zero accountability in many schools, and what kind of learning would take place then?

        • Let parents whose kids attend that school hold the principal of the school responsible. Only parents will do this. That is why private schools are typically so good, because they are responsible to the marketplace, the kids parents. Public schools typically are not, so they do any and all things necessary to hide their failures. Perfect example was here a few posts back where Virginia officials claimed great progress when tests showed more kids were college ready. It was a flat out lie. The system watered down the test, so the numbers would show better, but they were bogus numbers. We need to break this corrupt monopoly. Like West Point apparently has.

      • SOLs are a next best solution. Before SOLs, too many people judged the quality of schools based largely on how much money was spent and which prestigious schools some graduates entered. SOLs are a target, a measurement. Perfect? No but better than where we were.

        A good way to hold schools accountable for educating kids on basic knowledge and skills would be to require a school district (any school receiving state tax dollars) to reimburse a college, university, community college, trade or professional school for the costs of providing remedial education to any student that: 1) needed remediation; and 2) graduated from the high school receiving state money. The money would come out of the school’s budget and would not be made up or otherwise reimbursed. Then leave it to the school to ensure that its graduates have mastered the subjects taught.

  5. Then what do you think instead? I’m just pointing out that you are not a good person to estimate what standards a police officer or an airline pilot must meet to be qualified. Why do you think you are qualified to do that in general?

    After your children grow up – they are going to have to meet performance standards set by others not you. That’s the real world that schools are trying to prepare kids to become successful adults in.

    The SOLS speak to competence in reading, writing, math and science and to a certain extent critical thinking – the skills that are needed to find good jobs in the 21st century.

    We can – and should debate how best to do that but no one person – no one parent really is qualified to set such standards for the most part and if you put these questions to all parents to decide – I’m not at all convinced they would come up with something better than the SOLs, and, in fact, many argue not only against the SOLs but the entire concept of measuring academic performance – with any method.

    Parents who do have good jobs in the 21st century economy – certainly would have good input but parents who do not – may well not be the best choice to set standards – for kids – once they become adults.

    I’m all for setting standards to measure academic performance to basically validate that whatever we are doing for education – is working – with regard to finding employment in the 21st century.

  6. I am going to be away for a few hours or a day – on my way to eat crabs with some friends but will get back when I am able and address comments and thoughts about what schools should measure or not and whether or not testing shows a correlation between academic performance and SES.

    I know and understand how parents feel towards their OWN KIDS but this is really about all kids – who do grow up – no longer are “children” in the bigger world sense – children of their parents – yes – but adults in the 21st century economy who have to make their own way – be financially capable of caring for themselves and their own kids – AND those who cannot be responsible for their own needs and others are asked to step in and help. We want to minimize that – by more and more kids growing up to become self-supporting adults. That’s what parents should want for their kids in my view.

  7. Who would be more qualified to judge students’ success than parents? I am not proposing non-parents are not qualified – all members of a society have a right to their input – but I fail to see how being a parent makes one less qualified.

    Your assumption that I base my opinion on my expectations for my kids is incorrect. My opinion is based on the overall education provided by the schools whose students and graduates I interact with on a daily basis not as students but as members of my community. I want more for all students than for them to grow into self-supporting adults. That is the bare minimum I expect. This must be where your SES comes in – the expectation should never be the bare minimum of being self-supporting. A successful adult contributes to his or her community.

    Perhaps we need to differentiate between SOLs, the academic requirements, and SOLs, the test. The spiral curriculum in the SOL design provides a logical framework for expanding on a knowledge base. If teachers use it as that – a base from which to expand – then the SOL design could be a benefit to the school systems. I stand by my belief that SOL tests are not a measurement of academic success. The tests evaluate the bare minimum knowledge required to graduate. That is certainly not academic success, that is academic minimum standard. A passing SOL grade most definitely does not demonstrate enough education to obtain employment that would support oneself, and therefore is not a measure of academic success.

  8. I agree with Maria regarding the SOLs. I know the argument for them and I don’t have a good, objective alternative to holding the school responsible. The key is the principal, but that gets subjective. I feel that the SOL tests have taken over the curriculum to the expense of good teaching. The emphasis on testing was one of the factors that led my daughter to home school her children.

    On another note: Jim notes that the economically disadvantaged students in West Point school did better than their statewide counterparts. That could be related to a factor discussed at length earlier on this blog–the advantage of mixing economically advantaged and disadvantaged together in the schools. I am assuming that West Point has only one school for each level–elementary, middle, and high school. Just saying.

    Another factor that probably leads to respect for teachers, both from administrators and students is that, in a small town, everyone knows each other. In my first elementary school in rural Virginia, my fourth grade teacher lived next door to us. (She still gave me a C on conduct!) The fifth grade teacher was her sister. My parents knew the teachers. The same was largely true for high school; there was one high school for the entire county.

  9. Referring to my comments above, and many others here, is the fear of many that in teaching to standardized tests that are defined as the benchmarks of teacher’s success or failure, the lure is too great to expect the typical public school system to give their students the real skills and learning they need to educate themselves in school under inspiring teachers, and carry that learning over into the entire lives.

    What sort of real learning is that, and what philosophy and style of teaching accomplishes that goal, for all students of all talents, aptitudes, and backgrounds, including disadvantaged ones?

    That I suggest is the real question. The best answer in one place that I have found starts here found in earlier comment.

    “As I have stated on this blog many times, I believe the answers lie in forcing our educational systems to return to cultural literacy so elegantly defined and argued by UVA professor E. D. Hirsch, as parroted by Wikipedia to be “the ability to understand and participate fluently in a given culture. Cultural literacy is an analogy to literacy proper (the ability to read and write letters). A literate reader knows the object-language’s alphabet, grammar, and a sufficient set of vocabulary; a culturally literate person knows a given culture’s signs and symbols, including its language, particular dialectic, stories,[1] entertainment, idioms, idiosyncrasies, and so on. The culturally literate person is able to talk to and understand others of that culture with fluency, while the culturally illiterate person fails to understand culturally-conditioned allusions, references to past events, idiomatic expressions, jokes, names, places, etc.”

    See all Hirsch’s Books, incl.
    Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know Paperback – April 12, 1988

    See now too Natalie Wexler’s new book, The Knowledge Gap: The hidden causes of America’s broken education system—and how to fix it. This book is discussed in my comment today found at:

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/vcu-study-jumps-to-unsubstantiated-conclusions/

    I’ll try to come back to this to elaborate with more earlier commentary on this blog.

    • Let me add for now that this is real learning, this enables real achievement in a range of K through 12 subjects and properly calibrated this teaching gives all kids their best chance to get the education they and their talents deserve. And the education is easily and accuracy measured, year by year, and it is remediated where necessary, while also it can be advanced ahead of the norm where the opportunity within children allow. So this way we are giving all kids their best and fullest chance, penalizing none for the sake of system playing to false tests, or with inbuilt and unfair low expectations.

      Unfortunately, in my view the public educational establishment has failed so miserably and chronically for so long (since the 1970s at the least), that changing the current system will require a sea change from the ground up that breaks up today’s entrenched ever more centralized and unaccountable power. So, to start we must turn our schools back to their neighborhoods, and to the parents whose children lives and futures depend on those neighborhood schools. The wreckage of our kids education today must be stopped, and the entire system overhauled form its top to its bottom.

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