Sometimes Schools Need the Carl Smith Treatment


Reader Larry Gross wants to know why John Butcher (aka Cranky) is always picking on the city of Richmond. In the previous blog post republished from Cranky’s Blog, John shows the yawning gap in educational performance between Richmond schools and schools statewide. The problem isn’t just that Richmond schools are educating so many kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. He breaks out the SOL scores of disadvantaged kids and non-disadvantaged kids and compares them to their peers statewide. There’s a chasm in performance for each, which suggests to John that something is amiss in the Richmond city school system, not the kids themselves.

Larry is displeased with the negative tone of John’s posts. He thinks people should use data to help schools improve, not to “castigate the current system.” He adds, “I continue to point to places like Henrico which is an affluent county with some of the better public schools in Va but also with an astounding number of schools denied accreditation or in danger of being denied accreditation. I’d like to see Cranky and Jim do some similar data-looks at Henrico to see if we learn anything… how about it?”

Wish granted. In the chart above, the two blue lines compare the performance of “non-disadvantaged” kids in Henrico school and schools statewide. The performance is almost identical: Henrico matches the state average.

The yellow/orange lines compare the performance of disadvantaged kids. Henrico exceeds the statewide margins by a narrow margin. There is no yawning chasm in performance, as there is with Richmond. That suggests one of two things to me: (1) the disadvantaged kids in Henrico and Richmond are different somehow, or (2) Henrico schools do a better job of teaching disadvantaged children.

I don’t believe that disadvantaged kids are much different in Henrico and Richmond. Henrico has schools with concentrated poverty just like Richmond does. Perhaps Henrico just does a better job of running its schools, even though it spends significantly less money per student than Richmond does.

Yes, I suppose someone could describe this as negative, scolding, harping analysis, but I don’t look at it that way. I can’t speak for John, but I’ll explain why I highlight his columns on this blog: You can’t begin to solve a problem until you properly define it. And you can’t begin to solve the problem of Richmond schools’ atrocious under-achievement as long as you define the problem as “too many poor kids” or “not enough money” or “decrepit, run-down school buildings you wouldn’t use as a dog house.” The more someone wiggles and squirms and tries to evade responsibility, the harder you have to try to pin them down.

I used to work for coal-industry entrepreneur named Carl Smith. Now deceased, he was president of the AMVEST Corporation in Charlottesville. (The University of Virginia’s Carl Smith Stadium was named after him). He could sniff out B.S. a mile away, and when someone tried to bluff an answer to one of Carl’s questions, Carl had a way of relentlessly pinning him down. Carl didn’t yell. He didn’t even raise his voice. He just followed up remorselessly with question after question until he reduced the dissembler to a quivering mass of jelly. Sometimes you’ve got to give schools the ol’ Carl Smith treatment before you can get to the root of the problem.

Update: Cranky has created an amazing spreadsheet that allows you, with a click of a single button, to reproduce the statewide/local comparisons between advantaged and disadvantaged students for 2016-17 SOL pass rates. Click here to download the spreadsheet, and select the jurisdiction you want to view as seen below. Cranky’s spreadsheet does the rest.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

3 responses to “Sometimes Schools Need the Carl Smith Treatment

  1. THANKS!

    re: ” Larry is displeased with the negative tone of John’s posts. He thinks people should use data to help schools improve, not to “castigate the current system.”

    ……….. ” I’ll explain why I highlight his columns on this blog: You can’t begin to solve a problem until you properly define it. And you can’t begin to solve the problem of Richmond schools’ atrocious under-achievement as long as you define the problem as “too many poor kids” or “not enough money” or “decrepit, run-down school buildings you wouldn’t use as a dog house.” The more someone wiggles and squirms and tries to evade responsibility, the harder you have to try to pin them down.”

    Well.. I don’t think this is “constructive” criticism … especially when it degrades further into relentless excavation of more data to “prove” just how bad the schools are.

    For instance, how many schools in Richmond actually meet the SOLs? I know that more than a few do not.. but not unlike Henrico in some respects – you have schools that are doing “okay” and ones that clearly are not.

    Is that something specific to Richmond alone?

    Is there something uniquely BAD about Richmond compared to say Henrico when it comes to schools that are not meeting accreditation standards?

    WHERE is Buchers and Jim Bacon’s commentary do we see this so that we know their motives are not just to “castigate” … selective targets?

    There is NO QUESTION that Richmond has some big problems not only with academic performance but as Jim points out with money.

    But I still say this: If Henrico has schools that suck at accreditation – what is the difference between Henrico and Richmond when it comes to “bad” schools”?

    Don’t both of them have not dissimilar issues with their “bad” schools?

    How long has Bucher been pummelling Henrico over their “bad” schools in chapter and verse and data out the wazoo?

    How about Jim? shaking that lecture finger at Richmond so long and hard you’d think it would fall off but when does he point that finger at Henrico and shake it with the same vigor at Henrico County School administrators for their “failing” schools?

    No.. I do not think either Bucher nor Bacon… perhaps we should call them the Bucher/Bacon cage fighting duo? .. but I digress… big time..

    no I do not think Bucher/Bacon have to provide Silver Bullet solutions to the problem.. but it does get annoying… to smack away at selective things like race and “bad” teachers, parents, and govt… with “data”… chart after chart without so much as a “How about those Highland County schools!” .

    starting to blather here.. and Haner will notice and say I’m getting too “excited” – again…and that’s not good either!

    • Education has become a jobs program for administrators and administrative personnel. Many Fairfax County school board members will fight tooth and nail to the point of reducing classroom resources to save non-instructional jobs. Job cuts generally tend to be long-vacant positions or cuts are delayed until another administrative position can be found. I don’t think things are that much different on other school divisions around the state.

      Interestingly, during the 2015-16 school year, FCPS had about 200 teacher vacancies. I was told by a senior teacher that no staff members with teaching experience volunteered to go back to the classroom. Even if this a bit off, it speaks volumes about employee priorities and system management. Show me some administrator blood, lots of it. Then I’ll listen more closely about resources.

  2. Hey – How about a list of the schools that did not meet accreditation this year?

    not only the ones who were denied but those who are classified as TBT or “warned”, etc ?

    and then… on that list – the ED and non-ED SOL scores – per school ?

    the point? my suspect is that if you look at this on a per school basis that the schools that don’t meet SOL benchmarks probably don’t have a whole lot of difference between ED ad non-ED… that in a “bad” school , not even the non-ED kids do well.. the rigor is less in order to cater to the low performers and the teachers themselves are newbies or less skilled…

    But here’s the big question… if you have “bad” schools in Henrico (and other places) – does it mean there is a problem with the School Administration?

Leave a Reply