Torturing the Data: Richmond Schools Edition

If you want an explanation of why the Richmond Public Schools (RPS) are such a mess, start with the fact that the Richmond educational establishment is in a state of denial, unable to acknowledge reality. Unless Richmond educrats cast off their the false premises under which they operate, the school system will continue to fail the thousands of children, mostly minorities, that it purports to educate.

Richmond educators blame everyone but themselves for the abysmal standardized-test outcomes of its students — racism, not enough money, and in particular the high poverty rate of its school population. We have busted these claims on this blog, but John Butcher at Cranky’s Blog shows how the most recent budget plan perpetuates the self-serving narrative by twisting the data.

Using the free-and-reduced-lunch population as a measure of poverty, the RPS budget notes that the city has the 9th highest free and reduced lunch population, which it documents in the following graph that compares Richmond to “neighboring” jurisdictions:

By this reckoning, Richmond has a higher percentage of poor students than any of the jurisdictions to which it compares itself.

The graph, Butcher observes, stops at FY 2014 — four years ago. Why would that be?

Furthermore, RPS uses a narrow definition of poor students. By contrast, Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) classifies students as “economically disadvantaged” if they are eligible for free/reduced cost meals, receive TANF funds, are eligible for Medicaid, or identify either as migrant or homeless. Why would RPS use a narrower definition?

Perhaps because if RPS made the data current to FY 2019 and used the VDOE definition of “disadvantaged,” it would produce a graph that looks like this:

“Do you suppose the School Board’s graph stopped at 2014 because they were just too lazy to update the graph?” asks Butcher. “Or, perhaps, because that was the year that showed Richmond’s largest free/reduced percentage?”

Also, it’s worth noting, The School Board’s graph avoids showing that Norfolk schools have had a higher poverty rate in several recent years.

As Butcher goes on to document in his blog post, compared to other school districts, Richmond schools under-perform in educating both disadvantaged students and those who are not disadvantaged — a point he has made many times before yet has been studiously ignored by RPS officials. While it is true that economically disadvantaged students experience more obstacles to learning, it is also true that they do even worse in Richmond schools than in comparable districts.

The Richmond public school bureaucracy, it appears, has a penchant for shifting blame and refusing to take responsibility for its failures. Until the school board and superintendent acknowledge that a toxic organizational culture is likely part of the problem, nothing fundamental will change.

Update: Cranky has just published a take-down on RPS claims that the high percentage of disabled students is a valid excuse for the system’s academic performance. See his piece here: Mendacious Excuse II.

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10 responses to “Torturing the Data: Richmond Schools Edition”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    There are now at this moment 15 posts (articles) up on the Bacon’s Rebellion front page board. Notice how these articles so often get beneath the surface of the news, to explain what is really happening beneath the headlines, instead of the surface appearance of events. Is this not what good reporting is all about?

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    More good work, Cranky! I continue to suspect that Richmond’s low-income school population is so much higher than those other cities in part because the Richmond region private school scene is so competitive with so many choices and widespread acceptance of that option, compared to those other cities (which all BTW have large military populations, one key demographic difference with Richmond.)

    But I do not disagree that RPS seems to fall short when compared to similar districts with similar challenges.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I think like Steve. RPS is obviously a system in distress and the people dealing with it are not “fixing” it.

      I think the data to compare schools still exists at VDOE and it’s worth getting that data and comparing RPS to other urban schools including Lynchburg to confirm it’s much worse than the others – or not.

      Finally – the blame game does not impress me unless the blamers also are saying “we should be doing this instead”. Otherwise, it’s just invective and we have plenty enough of that already.

      We need to look ahead – to acknowledge our problems and focus on improving.. the hate and blame game may be what some enjoy but not I.

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Of John Butcher’s many interesting graphs, one stands out for me–the one dealing with reading pass rates. If I am reading the graph right, there is one jurisdiction that has a school population that is almost 60% economically disadvantaged, yet that division’s average reading pass rate or educationall disadvantaged students was higher than the state linear average pass rate for non-economically disadvantaged students with that sort of mix. I wonder what jurisdiction that is? It would seem that the state should figure out what that jurisdiction is doing right and get others to emulate it.

  4. Dick,

    You read it correctly. That’s Highland Co. with 65% ED (59% in the tested group), an ED pass rate of 85.96, and 97.44 for the Not ED students. Either they are doing a terrific job or they’re cheating ferociously.

    Others with ED rates above 80%: West Point, 87.5; Scott, 82.65; Washington, 80.92; Wythe, 80.82; and Poquoson, 80.28. All with Not ED pass rates in the 90’s. As well, there are another sixteen divisions with ED reading pass rates >75.

    Looks to me like some schools have figured out how to teach reading.

    Shoot an email (john{at}calaf{dot}org) if you’d like a copy of the spreadsheet.


    1. djrippert Avatar

      How does the tiny city of Poquoson (Pop approx 12,000) have over 80% ED?

      “The median income for a household in the city was $86,611, and the median income for a family was $96,419. Males had a median income of $71,025 versus $43,864 for females. The per capita income for the city was $37,988. About 2.9% of families and 4.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 6.5% of those under age 18 and 6.5% of those age 65 or over.”

      1. I was not clear enough: Those are pass rates. The Poquoson %ED taking the reading tests was 18%.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Thanks, John. Like Larry, I am not sure that Highland County with a total population of about 2,300 is a good comparison with Richmond. Just to be clear, I don’t think you were doing that, but you do make a good point about some rural schools doing a good job of teaching reading. It would be interesting if some of the researchers at the state Dept. of Education or some of the schools of education took a good look at those jurisdictions to see if they are doing anything different that could be transferred to other jurisdictions.

    3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Thank you Again Cranky. And thanks Dick for raising reading component. Don asks: “How does the tiny city of Poquoson (Pop approx 12,000) have over 80% ED?”

      Somebody needs pay the “tiny city” a visit, and find out. Thomas Sowell and E.D. Hirsch Jr. also might suggest the answer is:

      Direct Instruction.

      Then they might say: Critical reading is the key to education in school. But teachers cannot teach students how to read with broad and adequate comprehension. If they say they can, and try to, then they are playing God. Since they are not God, they are wasting students’ valuable time pretending to do what they cannot do. Thus, in so trying, they will be thwarting their student’s chance to learn to read well enough to succeed in their culture, much less read with the critical discernment they will have to have if they are to learn well in college. But what teachers can do is to teach kids how to decode works – read letters off a page, gain very basic word definitions, and simple meanings of simple phases. That’s all a teacher can really teach reading wise. But kids properly supported can do all the rest. Why? Because God made them that way.


      After that (the decoding) the student must do most all of the work himself, that is read, read, and read and do it reading good well written knowledge on the page, if student is to read well with ever increasing nuance and comprehension. That requires disciplined students. It requires giving student books that are worth reading, and putting students in a place they can get to work reading for themselves and keep reading for themselves, places that teach the disciplined reading student the truth of what is going on in the real world around him or her, and that teach how to get along and navigate through, and succeed in, the culture, their culture, the one that they must live in, that is the culture that must jump up out at them from that book. This is what E.D. Hirsch Jr. might call solving the Celia Problem.

      Then both of those educators would probably tell us how hard it is for students to read well enough to graduate with a good high education. And how much harder than that, it is to graduate from high school with the ability to read at the freshman college level. Then both might tell us what the basics are that they must learn through that reading to succeed in their culture generally, and what additional materials and ideas they need to learn by high school graduation so as to be able to learn by reading in college. And how best to structure a program in lower and upper schools to get kids there.

      See also

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Highland and Poquoson both have good SOLs for reading – and math – it’s true but they are very different than urban schools in a number of ways.

    Richmond is more like Lynchburg, and Norfolk/Portsmouth and even some parts of Henrico that border Richmond.

    What Butcher COULD do is actually directly compare these poorly performing urban schools to demonstrate that it’s not a Richmon-only problem and that RPS is not good – it’s not that different than other similar schools – and that’s because the problem itself is endemic to high populations of generational poor that are the product of slavery, then jim crow then Massive Resistance then racist criminal justice that has seriously damaged people.

    We have teens without parents and a decent education – having kids and depending on welfare to survive. More than half of all births are paid for by MedicAid.

    This is NOT a “school” problem. If you brought the teachers in Highland to Richmond to teach – they would fail also.

    The problem with some folks today is that they want to assign blame for things we do have wrong – like Richmond PS.

    There is no question RPS has serious problems but laying out the data and assigning blame does not solve the problem then on top of that, they accused of nefarious and dishonest conduct.

    So then what? what’s the point of the one-side blame and invective?

    what is achieved? This is not going to get solved using techniques like they use in Highland or Poquoson – which by the way – do better than most predominately white schools with low free & reduced ….

    I think John B could put his data skills to much better use than primarily as a weapon to condemn RPS.

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