Virginia’s Educational Objectives?

by Matthew Hurt

If one were to ask Virginians whether we wish to have the best educational system in the country, the answer would be a resounding “Yes!” However, if “What does that look like?” were to be the follow-up question, we would get quite a wide variety of answers. It appears that we have not gained consensus on this question, even among the key decision-making bodies in the state. If we don’t have a commonly held definition of what constitutes successful schooling, how can we ever accomplish that goal?

During my leadership journey I have learned a number of important lessons that are critical to the success of any organization. First, the organization must identify desired outcomes and ensure those outcomes are measurable. Second, progress toward those outcomes must be monitored regularly. Third, if acceptable progress is not realized, impediments to that progress must be identified and mitigated. Fourth, the organization must maintain a disciplined focus on the desired outcomes and not be lured into investing in extraneous initiatives. Fifth, if not everyone in the organization is lined up and pulling in the same direction, the organization will not be able to achieve the desired outcomes — therefore it is imperative to get a critical mass of folks on board.

Recently the Board of Education has been entertaining different ideas of how to update our state accountability system. Renewed focus has been placed on this due to declining proficiency on state Standards of Learning assessments (even prior to the pandemic) and significant declines in Reading 4 and Math 4 results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests relative to other states. It seems pretty clear that most constituents are not satisfied with the current accountability provisions, and they have not yielded success for our students.

The Virginia Board of Education (BOE) is required by state code to adopt “a statewide comprehensive, unified, long-range plan based on data collection, analysis, and evaluation.” The current plan was adopted on November 16, 2017, and was to drive policy from 2018 through 2023. This document outlines the following priorities that were adopted by the Board:

Priority 1: Provide high-quality, effective learning environments for all students.

Priority 2: Advance policies that increase the number of candidates entering the teaching profession and encourage and support the recruitment, development, and retention of well-prepared and skilled teachers and school leaders.

Priority 3: Ensure successful implementation of the Profile of a Virginia Graduate and the accountability system for school quality as embodied in the revisions to the Standards of Accreditation.

Hopefully, before the BOE makes decisions to revise our accountability measures, they will first revise their Comprehensive Plan. This plan should drive our efforts to improve outcomes for our students, and everything should be aligned to that plan, including accountability measures.

A review of the current Comprehensive Plan yields no stated measurable student outcomes. Given that the output of a public educational system is educated students, desired student outcomes should be the goal. While Appendix A (found on page 17) does list a number of student outcome metrics, nowhere in the document does the Board adopt any such metrics as goals.

A number of metrics could be used to prioritize our collective educational efforts, including, but not limited to, SOL results, NAEP results, graduation rates, number of dual enrollment credits earned, and number of industry certifications earned. The Board should carefully consider what its desired outcomes are, and carefully adopt measurable student outcome targets which are precisely aligned to those desired outcomes.

Should the Board adopt measurable objectives based on student outcomes in the next Comprehensive Plan, there would be metrics to help drive educational efforts in Virginia. The Board could also implement the five-step process described above to keep these objectives in the forefront, and ensure consistent and sustained effort towards meeting those goals. These metrics could be folded into school accountability as well as educator evaluations to ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction. Think about what benefit could come from the entire PreK-12 apparatus in Virginia aligning efforts through shared goals based on student outcomes.

If somehow the Board could gain consensus on these objectives with a majority of the General Assembly members, theoretically the two bodies could work in tandem to improve outcomes at a greater rate. Hopefully, leaders will emerge who understand the critical nature of education and how cooperation yields more success to ensure this happens.

Matthew Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program, a coalition of non-metropolitan school districts.