Welcome, Secretary Guidera and Superintendent Balow

By James C. Sherlock

Aimee Rogstad Guidera, Virginia Secretary of Education

I dedicate this as a welcome to our new Secretary of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction.  Both are very accomplished and we are lucky to have them.

I find it upon occasion useful to review for myself the facts on the ground when dealing with Virginia K-12 education reform.   They are daunting.

Some of the most challenging include:

  1. Our state constitution assigns responsibility to both the state and to local school districts for school quality.  The state sets standards but has no effective authority to hold the school districts accountable for meeting them.  That cannot work, and does not.
  2. Fierce and important culture war issues now tend to obscure information about fundamental student learning.  They set people who should be allies in improving basic learning at odds with one another about fundamental questions concerning the definition of what should be taught, learned and how.
  3. Many in education, like much else in public policy in Virginia, appear viscerally opposed to emulating proven best practices (New York’s astonishing successful urban charter school networks) from other states, or even considering them as possibly applicable in Virginia.  See Note*
  4. Virginia’s graduate schools of education aggressively stoke the culture wars from the left.  Indeed, many have proven to be opponents of the foundational standards of Western civilization. That will stir a debate every time.  Many have proven to be opponents of setting objective, measurable standards for K-12 learning and of employing standardized tests for school accountability.
  5. Statewide all-student SOL averages in our public schools hide the tragedy of the failure of many children of the urban poor to learn what they need to know to have a fair chance in life.  We don’t live in Lake Wobegone.  Consider English reading SOL results from 2018-19. 
    • Twenty-two percent of all kids failed English Reading SOLs.    
    • Thirty five percent of kids reported as economically disadvantaged failed those same tests.
    • Black (35%) and Hispanic (34%) children failed at nearly exactly that same rate as the economically disadvantaged.  Failed.  Could not read at grade level.
    • To the degree that children must read to learn, which is true in every subject starting in 4th grade, they cannot learn.  And do not.

6.  COVID has proven to be a huge disruptor to a flawed system.

    • Virginia’s worst school districts kept their doors closed the longest for COVID and had an abundance of poor kids, so their students have by the evidence nationwide presumptively suffered the worst learning losses from the worst 2018-19 starts.
    • We currently must use the 2018-19 SOL results to gauge where our schools were at that time and extrapolate the learning losses since then.  The disruptions of COVID have either denied (2019-20) or corrupted by selective participation (2020-21) SOL results since COVID appeared.  The Board of Education in 2020 changed the cut scores (number of questions, out of 40, answered correctly to achieve a passing score) for English reading SOLs by lowering them, making year-to-year comparisons going forward difficult.  A passing grade in Grade 3 English reading is now 22 out of 40 questions answered correctly.  Yes, 55% is a passing grade.  And we will not be able to compare these results directly to 2018-19 when we get usable results.

Virginia’s conflicting constitutional requirements. The requirement that children be provided good schools in which to learn is a solemn obligation embedded in our state constitution

The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained. (emphasis added.)

Unfortunately Virginia, unlike most states, has found itself blocked by recent interpretations of that same constitution from enforcing standards in problem districts.

The supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board, to be composed of members selected in the manner, for the term, possessing the qualifications, and to the number provided by law. (emphasis added.)

That has been interpreted to mean that the state has no authority to take over and run the worst of its school districts.  It can only set standards and encourage school division to meet them, not “ensure” that they do so.

Thus State law requires:

Local school boards shall also develop and implement programs of prevention, intervention, or remediation for students who are educationally at risk including, but not limited to, those who fail to achieve a passing score on any Standards of Learning assessment in grades three through eight or who fail an end-of-course test required for the award of a verified unit of credit.

That directive of course is addressed to the same divisions under whose instruction the child failed the first time.  The required results of those “programs of prevention, intervention, or remediation” are not specified.

The law does not require even a student who fails every SOL in a grade to repeat that grade.

Federal law.  Federal law requires states to identify schools for comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) and those that will receive targeted support and improvement (TSI).  Federal funding that can exceed $1 million per school follows those designations.

The Hunt Institute in 2016 published a useful summary of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and low performing schools. States are required:

  • to establish indicators of student achievement and success,
  • incorporate those indicators into a system of meaningful annual differentiation, and
  • use that system to identify schools in need of improvement.

ESSA replaced No Student Left Behind (NSLB) and importantly shifted to the states the lead in defining both standards and solutions.

Virginia is in compliance with ESSA.  It has published its list of Schools Identified for Support and Improvement since 2018-19 as required.  The federal money is distributed every year.

The total number of such schools is capped by the feds at 5% of the total schools in the state.  Once identified, such schools receive as much as a million dollars or more a year each in dedicated federal funding for improvement and support.

The Virginia list currently identifies 87 public schools total.  Thirty-nine of them have been determined to require comprehensive support and improvement.  Of those 39:

  • Sixteen are in Richmond;
  • Seven in Norfolk; and
  • Three in Danville, which only operates ten schools total.

Are Richmond Public Schools “Struggling”? In a recent article, Dick Hall-Sizemore suggested that Virginia:

try to help those divisions and schools in which students are struggling to implement those approaches, attitudes, and policies that have proved successful elsewhere.

That suggestion – “try to help” – aligns with the constitution.  But I dealt earlier with “elsewhere” and Virginia’s aversion to solutions from other states.  And I find “struggling” to be an interesting word in this context.

Richmond Public Schools (RPS), which I have studied in detail for years, in 2018-19 had only 20 if its 44 schools fully accredited by the state.  Accreditations have been suspended since then due to lack of data because of COVID restrictions.   But the federal money continues to flow.

RPS for its part has published “goals” to get its schools accredited and raise student standardized test scores as measures of learning.  Such projections are required to be submitted in annual plans in order to get federal funding.  They are never met.

There is no evidence that I have seen that the goals need to be achieved.  Just regularly reiterated.  The state is charged by the federal law with setting and enforcement of standards, but blocked by the state constitution from effective enforcement.

There is also no evidence that any of the adults running these schools have paid any price for the failures of their schools.  Not the Division, not the principals, not the teachers.

For a previous column, I tracked and reported on the teachers and staff of the worst performing middle school in Richmond.  I showed that personnel turnover was almost non-existent over the most recent three year period.  It is a closed shop even before union negotiations.

Finally, blaming COVID, RPS kept its schools closed to in-person instruction longer than any other division in the state, a full school year longer than Catholic schools in Richmond.

So RPS already employs the people it wants to work there regardless of past failures.  Indeed the RPS School Board recently voted to allow unionization to lock in lack of employee accountability.  The system is run unambiguously for the adults that work there.  And that school division does what it wants to do utterly unconstrained by the state or federal government or, often, by the wishes of the parents and the mayor.

How is that the definition of a struggle?

Money has not proven to be the solution.  Extra federal money starting with NCLB has not budged the performance of the worst schools in those urban areas.  In fact, by every objective measure, they have tended to produce worse results in the past few years.  And that is before we measure COVID effects on learning.

What to do?  So I suggest that while we need to talk about all of the poor performing schools in the state, including those that fail to educate only their poor kids, we start with the Divisions that are sources of most profound problems.

Change must come from outside those districts.

I would like very much for the state under a constitutional amendment to get and exercise the authority to take over the worst performing school divisions.

In the meantime, which may prove to be forever, I have suggested that the state create charter divisions run by the best charter management organizations to compete with failing urban divisions.

I think that solution can both work, as it has elsewhere, and pass Virginia constitutional muster.

We won’t know if it is never tried.

Note *: I have seen the exact same thing in health care (Maryland’s Health Enterprise Zones) and flood control (Louisiana’s post-Katrina flood control efforts).  Some will not readily concede (or have not considered) that successful solutions from other states can work here. Or that federal laws can usefully inform Virginia’s.  

The Code of Virginia and the Virginia Administrative Code would each be both far more efficient and effective and much shorter if federal laws and regulations were adopted by reference where applicable and only Virginia exceptions added.  Healthcare, education and the environment, dominated as they are by federal standards, are among the most prominent examples.