West Point Leads the Way

West Point, a paper mill town in Virginia’s Tidewater, has achieved quite a distinction: Its school system had the highest percentage of students passing at least two of the three Standards of Learning tests this year: 95 percent passed the English tests, 95 percent passed science, and 94 percent passed math. It wasn’t a one-year fluke: West Point scored tops last year, too.

Located in King William County, West Point is not an elitest, white suburban enclave. Three thousand of the county’s 13,000 residents (2000 Census) are black. The county’s per capita income of $22,000 (1999) was 30th from the top, not bad, but not what you’d call affluent either. (I can’t find the K-12 budget numbers because the Department of Education server seems to be down, but I’m willing to bet that King William isn’t throwing extravagant sums of money at its schools. Interestingly, one fifth of West Point’s students live outside the town, often in neighboring counties, and pay a tuition of $2,250 to attend — not exactly a king’ s ransom.)

So, what’s the secret?

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, School Board member Larry Dillon attributes the school system’s success to “a culture that focuses on the basics.” Said Dillon: “You set the tone at an early age, and by the time they get to high school, the high expectations are embedded in them.” No whining. No excuses. No finger pointing and evading responsibility. Just setting high expectations and sticking to the basics.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    So why aren’y more school boards statewide looking into this success and re-creating it?

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    I noted the below refreshing comment from their Superintendent of Schools. I wonder if she might be available to run one of our floundering NOVA school systems who’s leaders can seem to do nothing but complain about SOLs, No Child Left behind, and the constant need for MORE MONEY…

    “Massey Redd doesn’t see the standards tests as a barrier to teachers or students. To critics of the system who say SOLs tempt educators to “teach to the test,” she points out that the tests change each year and the specific questions are not known in advance.

    “We don’t have the tests,” she said. “Nobody has the tests. SOLs are simply objectives to determine what students need to know at a certain grade level””

  3. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Sure, they’re doing well on SOLs, but do they know how to put a condom on a banana? How’s their self-esteem? Are they getting enough free time to pursue their individual creative urges? West Point has got to be cutting something critical.

  4. Not Larry Sabato Avatar
    Not Larry Sabato

    I don’t understand Will, why do they need to learn to put a condom on a banana?

  5. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Just a scenario, NLS. You might be more familiar with using a cucumber ….

  6. Not Larry Sabato Avatar
    Not Larry Sabato

    At Thomas Dale, we weren’t pretencious about it. We just put it on each other.

  7. Chris Porter Avatar
    Chris Porter

    There are some facts that throw your analysis completely off.

    Take a small rural school system that with really good demographics, throw in a large taxpayer, fund the schools in the top 25 statewide, and throw in 20% of students whose parents self-select them to attend another school system, and you’ll get a good SOL score.

    West Point Schools are completely separate from King William Schools. West Point funds its schools separately, and King William residents can’t attend w/o paying tuition.

    West Point demographics are very unusual.
    $23,230 per capita income (more like 25th?)
    3000 residents
    80% white
    17% black
    1% asian


    As you pointed out, there aren’t many private schools nearby, and many parents in surrounding counties send their kids to West Point. This creates a huge “self-selection” effect. These students will almost assuredly pass.

    As for funding, the town kicked in $7.3 million into the school system. The paper mill is a HUGE taxpayer for such a small town.

    2004-2005 System Budget: $7,684,313
    Per Pupil: $9,367.54


    I think that puts them in the top 25 in per capita expenditures.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    BTW that per pupil expenditure is much less than most of NOVA counties and West Point has much higher test scores. If FFX County had offered my child a basic education like described above for $2500 a year, without all the extraneous BS they throw in, I would have paid them happily for it.

  9. Comparing the expenditures per pupil cannot be done meaningfully unless the data used is normalized, and I don’t know if the state does that. For example, each locality may have a different pay scale, which in turn is a function of local competition for teachers and the local COL. If one compares the COL between say, West Point and FFX, one might see that housing costs twice as much here than there –I haven’t checked into this but it is easy enough to do. Therefore, a teacher may be happy making $30k down there, but will need $45k here to have the same standard of living. Offer $30k up here and you’ll get the teachers DC wouldn’t hire. It also may be more expensive to build the school, buy land, hire local contractors, etc. here in FFX. We in FFX are in part victims of our affluence. (My nicer house in the midwest cost $200k less than my FFX one.) I agree that I would like to see all non-basic “education” paid for a la carte by the parents, especially expensive sports programs. But when I look at my kids’ school, the facilities are barebones in nature. After one year, it seems our local school is better than two highly rated schools in Alexandria VA and suburban Minneapolis. All that said, all this type analysis is difficult to do because family income and education strongly correlate with kids’ academic achievement. Many studies show that. Hypothetical — you may find a school in, say, Prince William whose scores bite, but then some developer throws up 200 McMansions nearby and the scores soar. That’s more than hypothetical — when we were looking for housing last year we had to factor that in. Sometimes school boundaries change because of population shifts and the scores change drastically too. Same teachers, same expense per pupil. (That obviously doesn’t mean there is no expenditure/teacher skill/achievement correlation.) I don’t see how one can knock FFX schools, though. Overall it has really good schools — how many counties have a Thomas Jefferson? Or a Chantilly? The counter argument to that is — well, hey, that’s just because the adult population here has a very high level of academic achievement. One thing is clear — this is a very complicated subject.

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Chris, I agree with much of your analysis. You provided key information missing from my post – the per-student spending in West Point, which is in the top quartile in the state. You also make a valid point about the kids who attend the schools from outside West Point; given their parental interest in their educations, they are almost certain to pass the SOLs. Clearly, West Point is not “disadvantaged” socio-economically or monetarily. If we take Sage’s comment into account — adjusting spending for local Cost of Living — West Point might wind up even higher in the per-student spending rankings.

    So, I’m willing to accept that West Point is not “defying all the odds” to give its school kids a sound education. But there are other school systems that spend just as much money, and even more, with poorer results. My point was not to argue that the philosophy and traditional pedagogy practiced at West Point explain everything about the school system’s success, but that they do contribute to it.

    One more point: I find it fascinating that one fifth of West Point’s students come from outside the town. Certainly, it costs more than $2,250 to educate those kids. I’m sure that state and federal dollars must follow those students. Still, West Point would not accept those students if it were losing money on them. It amounts to a form of school choice within the public school setting. If politicians and liberals are opposed to using vouchers to promote private school competition with public schools, perhaps they would consider this more limited form of competition between public schools themselves.

  11. Jim:

    Vouchers and tax relief are always going to be political poison for many because people are going to be able to argue that only those with substantial incomes can take advantage of them, unless you want to send your kid to a dumpy private school. Giving a family a few thousand a year isn’t going to cut it for most. School competition within the public school system is an excellent idea, although there probably need to be some rules. There is a bit of competition allowed in the current system. Magnet schools, such as Jefferson, have competitive entry. My academic life was saved by transferring out of a terrible district when I was a kid, from a school system where less than 10% went to college to one where the college prep high school sent almost everybody to college. My dad had to pay 185 dollars, or $1 per day, but this was 1966. Under The Your Child Has A Big Behind Act, if the school fails you can go to another school. That happened in Alexandria at an elementary school called Maury. They dismissed the entire staff too, if I recall correctly. I’m not sure you can let there be a free-for-all — in Alexandria the parents would have staged a riot to get their kids into one of the two good elementary schools. But then if you let, say, the top 10% transfer as a reward, the academic achievement imbalance gets greater. Maybe if one charged a compensatory fee to transfer? I don’t know a way out of this box. Do we need more magnet schools in the system? There’d be the A school, the B+ school, then the rest. This might not accomplish much in FFX, where there are a group of good schools, and even within the poorer ones there is competition — if you’re smart enough and work hard enough you take advanced classes. One final thought — one reason housing prices are higher in the suburbs, and thence property taxes, is because of the school systems. People slog into work each day on I-66 so their kids don’t have to go to DC public schools (well, and the crime too). Ask any realtor. There’s a big premium in house price if you live in a good school district. I think the realtors estimates our house in the good MacArthur school district got about a 10% boost from being within the boundary. Anybody know any data on that? Sorry to be so disjointed.

    (Side thought — what’s the record on tuition expenses versus school performance for private schools? Does more money buy better? Four years ago my neighbor was going to send her 5 year old to a private school kindergarten for $14k a year in Alexandria! Does their play-doh cost that much?)

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