Youngkin’s Education Agenda — Raise Standards, Pursue Excellence, Help Those Who Need It

by James A. Bacon

Former Governor George Allen likes to say that the best social program is a job. One might suggest that a corollary to this proposition is that the best way for Virginia’s public school system to advance “social justice” is giving students the skills they need to get quality jobs in the 21st century knowledge economy.

That seems to be the philosophy adopted by the Youngkin administration.

“We are reorienting everything to how education is geared towards preparing people for the jobs of today and of tomorrow,” said Education Secretary Aimee Rogstad Guidera in a forum hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) last month. “Virginia needs to be the best place to learn…. So, everything we do in the next four years in the Youngkin administration will be guided by our North Star: to prepare every single learner for success in life, in our economy, our democracy, and our communities.” 

The Youngkin administration’s benchmarks of success will be graduates stepping into jobs that earn family-supporting wages, companies investing in Virginia due to the quality of its labor force, and a growing state economy.

In her presentation Guidera studiously avoided mentioning the policies of the Northam administration, which elevated social-justice issues to the forefront of the educational mission and injected race into curricula, guidelines and policies to an unprecedented degree. But she did refer obliquely to the forces backing the educational status quo.

She found “shocking” the reaction to the Governor’s goal of restoring excellence in education, she said. Legislators, educational associations, and the media extol Virginia as the best state for K-12 education but the data, she said, does not back up the belief. “We’re resting on our laurels and being deluded by averages that mask the stark disparities in the quality of education and in the results that we are getting across the Commonwealth.”

A cursory look at the data, Guidera said, will make it apparent that “we are not serving all students well.” The system is failing disadvantaged minorities, in particular.

Nationally, the COVID pandemic-related learning loss was two to three times greater than that suffered by school children in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she said. And Virginia is doing worse than the national average. Pandemic-related learning loss in math was 7% greater than the national average. More than 40% of Virginia’s students are not proficient in 2nd grade reading and math; the failure is most acute for Blacks and Hispanics. When Virginia students graduate, many are not prepared for life after school: 13% of Virginia high school grads going into community college require remediation in English, and 15% in math. New data from the College Boards shows that Virginia, which used to be No. 3 in the nation in the number of students scoring 3 and above on AP scores (indicating college readiness), is now down to 9th. “Every single one of our trends is going down,” Guidera said.

The Youngkin administration intends to reverse these trends through “an unwavering focus on creating the best-in-class education system from early learning and up.” That means prioritizing the children “who we know are furthest behind.”

Foundational beliefs

Guidera said the Youngkin approach to education is grounded in four foundational beliefs.

High expectations. In contrast to the widespread lowering of standards and expectations during the previous administration, Youngkin’s education team will raise them.

“Every student deserves to be held to high expectations,” said Guidera. Youngkin will “double down” on a standards-based approach to education, making sure that the Standards of Learning are aligned with the skill needs of the 21st century knowledge economy. Near-term, that will mean focusing on math and history because those subjects are coming up in the state’s seven-year review process.

In the review process, Guidera said, Virginia will benchmark against leading states and international efforts. The ranks of reviewers, who traditionally have come from the educational sector, will expand to include “customers” of the system such as employers, the military, and higher education, as well as subject matter experts. By way of specifics, Guidera suggested that consulting the leadership of Gunston Hall, home of Bill-of-Rights champion George Mason, or Fort Monroe, where the first Africans set foot in America, would benefit the fashioning of history standards.

Guidera also noted that Youngkin has signed the bipartisan Literacy Act, which is designed to base teacher education on the “science” of reading. Literacy coaches will be deployed across the commonwealth to train and re-train teachers and introduce new science-based curricula and tools. Reversing the decline in literacy is imperative, she said. “We are in a crisis.”

Parents matter. Reprising a major Youngkin campaign theme, Guidera said that parents are critical partners in the education of their children, and they have a right to be included in decisions about their child’s education, health and well- being. Everyone — and that includes parents — “needs to be focused on how to improve student achievement.”

Accountability. Accountability starts with a quality-assessment system that provides timely, actionable information. The Youngkin team will make sure that the cut scores (which determine the pass rates for proficiency) in the SOLs are “aligned with the requirements of the real world.”

“We will make historic investments to support quality teachers and professors,” Guidera said. “We will define quality as having a measurable impact on student learning.” The administration also acknowledges the need to recruit more teachers and create a more diverse educator workforce. One key initiative for addressing the teacher shortage will be reviewing licensing regulations to allow “content experts” to switch careers more easily to become teachers. 

Accountability also requires closing what Guidera called the “honesty gap” — the gap between Virginia’s educational standards and the national standards embodied in the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. Among the 50 states, Virginia had the lowest baseline proficiency standard in 2019 for 4th grade reading and math, and for 8th grade reading. While 75% of 4th graders met Virginia’s state standards for proficiency, only 38% met the NAEP’s. “We’re not telling the truth about where our students are, and that’s going to stop,” Guidera said. “We cannot afford to lose another generation.”

Innovation. “The status quo is not working for a growing number of our learners,” Guidera said. Virginia needs to evolve beyond a one-size-fits-all education model. Families should be able to choose the model of learning that best fits their child’s needs. She sees a future with more specialized online courses, more dual high school and community college enrollment, and more vocational/tech education pathways. Ideas are “pouring in,” she said for innovative partnerships with higher education, employers, industry groups and others.

The non-negotiables

Guidera also elaborated upon what she called the “non-negotiables” of the Youngkin administration education philosophy.

Safety and well being. Schools and campuses must be conducive to learning. They must be safe, they must be updated, and they must support physical and mental wellness. Schools are gripped by a mental health crisis that must be addressed. The administration is gearing up for a fall mental-health summit, which will have the goal of developing legislation for the 2023 General Assembly session.

Free speech. In a not-so-veiled reference to the infiltration of leftist dogma and indoctrination into public schools, Guidera said the Youngkin administration has “a stalwart commitment to free expression and the exploration of diverse ideas.” Schools must teach each generation “how to think, not what to think…. Our campuses must develop critical thinkers who know how to listen, debate, and engage in respectful discussion.” 

Discrimination. “Discrimination will not be tolerated,” Guidera said, alluding to the controversy over “inherently divisive ideas.” “We will not allow the ascribing of traits, beliefs or behaviors based on race, gender, political beliefs or religion. We will reinforce that every person has the right to rise, and that the role of education is to provide them with the tools and knowledge to do so.”

Admissions criteria for Governor’s schools and other elite programs will be based on merit. Virginia will double down on identifying promising students from under-represented groups and prioritize giving them the tools they need to be eligible, but it will not compromise the principle of a merit-based system.

High standards. Virginia will maintain high standards and “reinforce the message to our youth that hard work and results matter,” Guidera said. The administration will move to expand access to governor’s schools, AP courses, and lab schools by creating more of them and ensuring that more learners are prepared for success in them. But it won’t compromise standards.

“We can expand excellence and access,” Guidera said. “Our children deserve nothing less than a world-class education that prepares each of them for success in life.”