What Virginia Gets Right About K-12 Education

by Matt Hurt

Much controversy surrounded Superintendent Jillian Balow’s report (Our Commitment to Virginians) in May 2022. While I disagree with a few of the details included in the report, I agree with (and have written about) many of the main concerns that were presented. If we want to have the best educational program in the country, we need to increase expectations and accountability. Luckily, Virginia laid a solid educational foundation in the 1990s which provides the basis which can help us produce the most successful students in the country.  

First, Virginia developed (and continues to update) a set of grade-level standards which ensured a continuum of skill attainment from year to year. These standards were sequenced to build upon prerequisite skills from the prior year, are very well aligned vertically, and the skills expectations in each grade are reasonable for the vast majority of students to master. While some may argue that this system might hold some students back from progressing at a quicker rate, there is nothing in the regulations which states that schools can’t accelerate students through this progression.

Second, Virginia has supplied educators with curricular documents (curriculum frameworks) which fully communicate exactly what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do.

Many states do not explicitly define these expectations, which allow for learning gaps that in turn prohibit higher levels of student success. If we as educators align our instruction and expectations with those curriculum frameworks, we will ensure very high levels of student achievement. Our most successful teachers of our most at-risk students consider these curriculum frameworks as their educational Bibles, which is one of the means by which they ensure success for their students.

Third, Virginia has developed a very robust assessment program (Standards of Learning tests) that are very well aligned to the curriculum frameworks. This program has proven reliable in both the administration of online tests as well as the data it produces. Educators can use this data to drill down to find specific issues in need of improvement and it serves as a basis for year-to-year improvement planning. In general, educators in Virginia have greater faith in these assessments than educators in many other states.

Fourth, Virginia has a very good accountability system (state accreditation) which is more robust that the current federal accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Many states do not have their own accountability model, and solely rely on federal accountability. With the 2017 Standards of Accreditation, Virginia further enhanced state accreditation to include indicators for subgroup performance. This latest update is critical as it forces educators to be accountable for the learning of all students, not just those who have traditionally experienced success.

Virginia’s SOL system of standards, assessments, and accountability provides the structure and incentives to promote student success. Nothing in this paper is intended to convey the idea that everything is perfect in Virginia’s K-12 educational system, as there are certainly improvements that are sorely needed.  However, we are fortunate in our Commonwealth to have the foundations in place that will allow us to make sure our students are the most successful in the country. 

Matt Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program based in Wise.