Virginia’s New School Chief: Raise Standards, Fill Teacher Vacancies

Lisa Coons. Image taken from Virginia Department of Education YouTube clip.

by James A. Bacon

Dr. Lisa Coons, Virginia’s new superintendent for public instruction, has been on the job for only two weeks, but she has clear priorities for reversing the slide in educational achievement in Virginia’s public schools: raise standards, get chronically absentee kids back into the classroom, and address teacher shortages.

Recruited from her job as chief academic officer for the Tennessee public school system, Coons filled the vacancy created by the resignation of Jillian Balow. She granted Bacon’s Rebellion her first media interview. I started with an open-ended question: What are the greatest challenges facing Virginia public schools today? Her gut response: Recruit more teachers.

“We have to get a high-quality teacher in every classroom in the state,” she said. “Remove the barriers and challenges to processing licenses. Create plenty of pathways to bring people into the [teaching] workforce.”

Raising teacher pay is one obvious strategy for reversing the brain drain from schools. Lawmakers have funded significant pay hikes for Virginia teachers, but the raises have lagged cost-of-living increases. Improving working conditions is another approach. Virginia teachers consistently cite disciplinary issues, unsupportive administrators, and lack of respect from students and parents as morale busters. But those issues are inherently local and not amenable to top-down action from Richmond. Rather, Coons is focusing on changing state-level regulations with the goal of enlarging the pool of teachers.

“We have great people who want to be teachers” — paraprofessionals, people with provisional licenses, and the like, she said. The Youngkin administration’s goal is to create “no cost/low cost” pathways to give people the opportunity to be long-term, career educators. Pilot projects are underway, she said, but more innovation in creating alternative pathways is needed.

Finding reading teachers is the top priority. “We know much more today about reading and the teaching of reading,” Coons said. “We need to teach the science of reading, the scientifically based methods. We know the best practices.” It doesn’t matter how people gain the core competencies — through a master’s degree program or earning micro-credentials — just as long as they get them.

I took the opportunity to ask her opinion of the role of Virginia’s schools of education. Some education schools now define their mission as not just teaching teachers how to teach but teaching them how to be agents of social change. Are teachers these days mastering the particular competencies they need to be effective?

Coons side-stepped the education-school issue. Having been on the job only two weeks, she has focused on visiting schools and she hasn’t yet met anyone in higher education. She said simply, “Our job is to prepare students [for the future], and to prepare teachers to do that for our children.”

Taking a high-altitude perspective, Coons reiterated a core tenet of the Youngkin administration: much of the backsliding in educational achievement, which showed up in the metrics before the COVID-related school shutdowns accelerated the collapse, can be attributed to an erosion of standards. The key to boosting achievement is to raise the standards and then to hold schools accountable for meeting them.

Coons described a three-step process, or a “triangle” — first raise the standards in the Standards of Learning, then adopt curricula that provide the instruction to meet those standards, and then inform teachers, students, parents, schools, and districts if those standards are being met. While the state has a bureaucratic accreditation process for holding schools accountable, she suggested that parents will apply local pressure for improvement. The Youngkin team will put SOL data in the hands of parents in a form that they can use. 

Raising standards creates an institutional ripple effect that ultimately results in higher performance. “If we set the SOLs high,” said Coons, “that sets the core instruction program, and raises the floor of the program, and the expectations that are measured.”

Grade inflation is a real concern in many schools and districts, I observed. Some districts have mandated that students be given no grade lower than a 50 (on a 1-to-100 scale) even if they don’t submit the assignment.

Coons acknowledged the problem. “Say you’re a classroom teacher and you give an A to a student,” she said. “The student’s family thinks that A means he’s doing a good job. If you lower the bar [for getting the A], you’re saying the child is doing well but they’re actually not. Raising the bar on what students really need to know [to be successful in life] is being honest to parents and schools.”

I raised the issue of school discipline. Coons immediately focused on the issue of school attendance, which she says has reached a “crisis level” across the state. Pre-COVID, kids skipping school was mainly a high school phenomenon. Her sense, based on national data, is that the problem has spread to Virginia’s elementary and middle schools. She has asked for current-year data but hasn’t gotten it yet, so she cannot yet say if the school-attendance problem is more pronounced in some regions, school levels or demographic groups than others.

However, she finds the prospect of younger children failing to attend school especially alarming. Attendance is not likely to improve as the kids get older. Said she: “If we take our elementary [school] cohorts and project forward, we have significant concern.”

The grim reality of school violence did not arise in the interview, and I did not think to press her on it. Coons did not raise flashpoints like Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Critical Race Theory, or disparities in racial achievement until I brought them up. In our conversation, she declined to view educational issues through the prism of race or ideology. Rather, her goal is to lift all students. All students.

“We have to ensure that our children have the support, the education and the opportunity to become competitive citizens, not only in Virginia but in the nation and the world,” she said. “We have to focus on the children and what they need so they can be productive citizens.”