Category Archives: Education (K-12)

McAuliffe Acts to Stem Teacher Shortages

Governor Terry McAuliffe is worried about unfilled teacher positions in Virginia, which numbered more than 1,000 two months into the 2016 school year and has increased 40% over the past 10 years.

Accordingly, the governor has proposed a number of palliatives to address the problem, including an executive order allowing Virginia universities to confer four-year education degrees. Currently, prospective teachers require a year of graduate school.

Other measures include putting $1.1 million in the biennial budget to automate the paper-based teacher licensure process; $1 million to recruit and retain principals in Virginia’s most challenged school districts; $225,000 in FY 2020 for tuition assistance for students pursuing a teaching degree; $100,000 over the biennium to cover the cost of tests and test preparation for minority students; and making students eligible for up to $20,000 in loans if they agree to teach two years in school districts with 50% poor kids.

“The teacher shortage is a growing crisis that we have to stop and reverse if we are serious about the Commonwealth’s economic future,” McAuliffe said in a press release. “High quality teachers are the key to unlocking the potential in our children, our Commonwealth, and the new Virginia economy and these steps will help us recruit and retain them across the state.”

“Given the cost of higher education and the severe need for additional teachers,” he said, “I believe changing [the M.A.] requirement will encourage more Virginians to pursue careers in education and will help supply more future teachers to meet the growing needs of our public school system.” 

Bacon’s bottom line: Good for McAuliffe. Once upon a time in Virginia, teaching required no more than an B.A. degree. At some point, based on the logic that more education would turn out better teachers, Virginia began requiring M.A. degrees. I have seen no evidence to suggest that a fifth year improves teacher quality. However, the five-year requirement demonstrably has imposed a major additional burden upon would-be teachers. It should surprise no one that the $25,000-or-so cost to attend college for a fifth year, plus an extra year of lost wages, depressed the number of students interested in entering the profession.

All foes of gratuitous and counter-productive regulation should cheer the governor’s executive action. As for his budget recommendations, the $1.1 million expenditure to automate the teacher licensure process sounds like an investment in more efficient administration. The other budget proposals may or may not prove to be useful, but they will cost in the aggregate less than $1 million more.

Here’s what I would like to know: Are the teacher shortages spread uniformly across the state, or are they worse in areas of concentrated poverty? Actually, I know the answer, but it would be helpful to know the details. Teacher shortages are worst at schools where poverty is endemic, and poverty is strongly associated with student behavioral issues. Young teachers get burned out teaching in classes with disciplinary problems they can’t solve, and they leave the profession in high numbers. Addressing the teacher shortage likely requires addressing the discipline problem as well, but that’s not something McAuliffe can accomplish with a stroke of the executive pen.

Update: Charles Pyle, communications director for the Virginia Department of Education, notes that state guidelines enacted in the late 1980s led to more teachers with M.A. degrees but did not eliminate four-year eligibility. Many education schools still provide undergraduate degrees as seen here (U = undergraduate).

One of Three Virginia Children Unready for Kindergarten

Source: Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission

Roughly one third of Virginia children lack the social, self-regulation, literacy or math skills needed for kindergarten, finds a study on early childhood development released by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC).

(That estimate was derived from a representative sampling from 63 of Virginia’s 132 school systems, so a comprehensive statewide survey might yield a different percentage.)

Factors such as poverty, low birth weight, and maternal substance abuse place childrens’ early development at risk and strongly influence whether they will be ready for school. The scientific research is clear, says the JLARC report:

Very young children who grow up in — or are regularly exposed to — safe, language-rich, and healthy environments, with caregivers who support their curiosity and learning, are likely to enter school ready to learn. Conversely, children not exposed to such environments are less likely to be ready for school and are more likely to be held back, enrolled in special education classes, and perform poorly in later grades. Those same students are more likely than their peers to commit crimes, become teen parents, and rely on public assistance as they grow older. … Each of these outcomes can carry significant financial costs to government, including the state.

Virginia has 13 “core” early childhood development programs, including seven voluntary home visiting programs for expectant mothers, the Virginia Pre-School Initiative, the Child Care Subsidy Program, and two Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs. The state spent $144 million on early childhood development programs in FY 2016; total federal, state and local spending amounted to $359 million.

An opportunity exists to improve the effectiveness of the state’s spending commitment without spending more money, JLARC concluded. “Careful attention is needed to whether programs are well designed, implemented as designed , and perform effectively.” But there is insufficient data to evaluate which programs are delivering the most bang for the buck. 

Bacon’s bottom line: By all means, we should evaluate the efficacy of Virginia’s early childhood development programs and reallocate resources to programs that deliver the most value. But such fine-tuning of the existing system amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when one out of three Virginia children is unready for kindergarten. Virginia appears to be experiencing what can only be interpreted as a slow-motion societal collapse.

Lagging childhood development is strongly correlated with poverty and other phenomena such as low birth weight and maternal substance abuse that are also strongly correlated with poverty. The percentage of Virginia’s population in poverty at present runs about 11%. Yet one-third (subject to revision if we could obtain statewide data) of children are unready for kindergarten. Why the three-to-one disparity? A big portion of the problem, I submit, is demographic: Mothers in poverty have more children than middle-class mothers do, and they have children at much younger ages.

At 64 years of age, I’m about to become a grandfather for the first time. My eldest daughter, whose baby is due in literally one or two days, is 32 years old. Like her 30-year-old sister, who wants to have children but is waiting until her family’s career and finances are in order, and like the vast majority of middle-class Americans, she waited until she completed her education, found a job, got married, saved money, and achieved financial stability. Poor people don’t hew to the same family planning logic. Although the number of teen pregnancies is declining, poor women tend to give birth at a much younger age than their middle-class peers do, and they tend not to be married. (This proclivity, by the way, applies to all races and ethnicities.)

Given the strong correlation between poverty and low literacy levels, substance abuse, single-parent households, child neglect and a host of other pathologies, it should come as a surprise to no one that the percentage of Virginia’s young children ill equipped for kindergarten is increasing. And it should surprise no one that the percentage of teenagers ill equipped to graduate from high school is increasing, and that the percentage of young adults ill equipped for college is increasing. The same problem is manifesting itself on every step of the educational ladder.

Yes, we need to treat the symptoms of this systemic problem by, among other things, helping prepare young children for kindergarten. But the same pathologies that hinder readiness for kindergarten also hinder progression to 1st grade and beyond. In the long run, the most important thing we can do is to persuade teenagers and young women that they can improve their lives by adopting bourgeois values — deferring gratification, staying sober and delaying child bearing until they have completed their education, formed a stable marriage, and found a stable job.

Is the Big Problem at Richmond Schools Decrepit Buildings or Teacher Turnover?

Linwood Holton Elementary School in Richmond. Richmond has several beautiful new schools. What difference have they made?

The City of Richmond is debating proposals to spend $740 million to $800 million to modernize the city’s school buildings after years of neglect. The latest new wrinkle reported by the Richmond Times Dispatch is that the Richmond School Board has delayed a vote on the grounds that it needed more time to ponder the plan. The main concern expressed so far — where on earth would the money come from? — is valid. But there is an even more fundamental question: Will modernizing school buildings do anything to reverse the school system’s atrocious under-performance?

No question, many school buildings are aging and sub-standard, with crumbling tiles, broken toilets, wheezing HVAC systems, and leaking roofs. They are an embarrassment and a disgrace, and they need to be fixed. But that should cost a fraction of the sums being discussed.

Based on the conviction that creating a better physical environment can improve academic performance, Richmond has built several expensive new school buildings in recent years. As part of their deliberations, School Board members should examine whether those buildings have made any difference in educational achievement of the children who passed through their doors.

Here’s what I hear. While new buildings provide a better physical environment, poor children from broken homes in inner city neighborhoods bring the same emotional and disciplinary issues to school. Young, inexperienced teachers are shocked and dismayed by the environment, they get burned out and they leave. The Richmond school system has such a horrendous reputation among teachers in the metropolitan area that it couldn’t hire enough to fill its classrooms this fall, meaning it has had to rely more heavily than ever upon substitute teachers, some of whom probably shouldn’t be teaching at all. Prediction: Richmond’s teacher shortage will get even worse in January when burned-out teachers decide after Christmas Break they don’t want to return.

Once basic health and safety standards are resolved, Richmond schools have more urgent priorities than building fancy new school buildings. Above all, the system needs to address the problem of school discipline and teacher churn.

The New Look of Virginia High School Grads, Circa 2030

Lots of good data coming out of the retreats of the House and Senate appropriations committees yesterday and today… The chart above appeared in a presentation by April Kees, legislative fiscal analyst, to the Senate Finance Committee.

By 2030, whites will constitute a bare majority of high school graduates in Virginia. The percentage of blacks will shrink slightly, while percentages of Asians and Hispanics will soar.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is what college administrators are talking about when they allude to a challenging demographic future. The percentage of Hispanic students graduating from high school and populating the potentially college-bound population will grow by six percentage points, offsetting the seven-point decline in the percentage of whites. Insofar as whites tend to come from more affluent families, to attend better schools and to be better academically prepared than Hispanics, colleges are bracing for student bodies that need more remedial work and financial assistance.

On the other hand, Asian students tend to come from more affluent households and to be better prepared academically than all other ethnic groups, including whites. They could prove to be a mother lode for institutions looking for students with high SAT scores and no need of financial assistance.

Teenagers and the New Taboos of Race


When a handful of white Short Pump Middle School football players in Henrico County engaged in a racial bullying — simulating anal rape upon black peers in the locker room and posting video on social media — the community understandably erupted in outrage. The behavior was reprehensible. It had to be chastised.

It’s not clear from media reports what punishment, if any, the perpetrators of the acts themselves have suffered. As minors, the boys are entitled to privacy protections. But let’s make one thing clear: The bullies were responsible for the actions, and they are the ones who should be punished for their behavior, not their teammates.

But the Henrico County Public School system was not content to merely punish the offenders. School authorities canceled the rest of the team’s season, thus affecting kids who did not participate in the bullying. Instead of attending practice the team assembled for mandatory discussions on racial tolerance and ethics. Also, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, one football coach is said to no longer work for the county. The reason for his departure is unclear, although we are probably safe in assuming that it was related to the bullying incident.

It’s one thing to punish individuals who deserve it. It’s another thing to punish the collective (the football team), sweeping innocents into the net. Now Henrico schools are using the episode as an excuse to bureaucratize the enforcement of the dogma of the day on matters of race.

The T-D reports today that Henrico schools are creating a new office of equity and diversity, and in January will hire a director to oversee it. The goal of the office will be to implement short- and long-term cultural diversity plans. Also, the schools are planning an equity and diversity task force made up of students, parents, community members, and district staff members.

Super. Now the higher-ed practice of creating diversity bureaucracies is spreading to K-12 school systems. That’s worked out so well for colleges — they’re such beacons of ethnic tranquility these days — that I’m sure it will turn out just dandy for Henrico, too. Not.

This is just a suspicion, and I hope I’m proven wrong as Henrico rolls out its new programs. But talk of racial tolerance (a good thing) is all too often accompanied by talk of “white privilege” and guilt-tripping of white students (a bad thing). In the current environment, no one can veer from the party line without being judged a racist, so people shut up. And keep their opinions to themselves. And vote for Donald Trump.

One last thought: The United States is undergoing a redefinition of taboos. For many generations, the use of profanity was banned from the public domain. Beginning in the 1960s, it became hip to transgress against bourgeois norms of propriety. A half century later, the norms against profanity have been obliterated. Vulgar language is ubiquitous in our society today. But the old taboos have been replaced by new taboos, largely based on ethnic, gender and sexual identity. Most famously, the “N word” has replaced the “F word” as something that simply cannot be uttered publicly. (To prevent any misunderstanding, I’m OK with the taboo against the “N word.”)

When I was a teenager, it was cool and edgy to use profanity. Kids used the transgressive language of the day as a form of self-assertion, a way to cultivate an air of rebelliousness. Now, it seems, nobody outside of Sunday school cares much about profanity. So how does a teenage kid, especially a white teenage kid, stay edgy and rebellious? By transgressing the new taboos…. which these days involve racial and sexual identity.

I don’t know what drove those white middle-school football players to bully their black teammates the way they did. But I would caution against jumping to the conclusion that their parents didn’t raise them right. The kids may be acutely aware what mainstream American society considers right and wrong in matters of race — and they may be transgressing the new taboos precisely because they are taboo.

I am not making an academic distinction here. If you want to prevent a behavior (in this case racial bullying), then you need to understand the origins of that behavior. And, until I see evidence that settles the matter, I will continue to ask if Henrico school administrators are enacting initiatives based on a profound misunderstanding.

Justice for Whom?

The Legal Aid Justice Center, which has released another report decrying differential rates of suspensions and expulsions in Virginia public schools, is described by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as an organization that “works to fight injustice.” I have no doubt that the Legal Aid Justice Center sees itself on the side of the angels, but I’m surprised that the Times-Dispatch accepts the group’s self definition so uncritically. I’ve never heard of an organization anywhere claiming to fight for “injustice.” It’s really a question of whose justice is being fought over.

In this case, the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights for “justice” for black students who commit offenses that get them suspended or expelled. Making an issue out of the fact that blacks were suspended in Virginia about four times as often as Hispanic or white students in 2015-16, the LAJC calls for sweeping changes in school disciplinary policies and, of course, more money to implement them.

The LAJC is not fighting for “justice” for black children whose classrooms are disrupted by trouble makers. While the organization goes to great pains to measure the rates of suspensions and expulsions by race, it makes no effort whatsoever to measure the race of those whose educations are deprived by the ne’er-do-wells. Indeed, its report, “Suspended Progress 2017,” shows no interest in their plight whatsoever.

The front-page Times-Dispatch article quotes extensively and uncritically from the LAJC report. The reporter doesn’t quote anyone else who has studied school disciplinary issues, nor does he quote anyone from the Virginia Department of Education or local school districts. The reporter never informs the reader that parents — including many black parents — are often dismayed by the lack of discipline in many schools.

The report found that Virginia schools issued over 131,500 out-of-school suspensions to over 70,000 individual students in 2015-16, an increase in the overall suspension rate for the second year after several years of declines. Virginia schools use “exclusionary” discipline with very young students at an “astonishing” rate, states the report. And the majority of suspensions were issued for minor offenses — “approximately two-thirds of all suspensions given [were] for behavior offenses, such as possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language.”

Perhaps most disturbing is that Virginia schools continue to disproportionately suspend African-American students and students with disabilities. The suspension rate for African-American students was 3.8 times larger than for Hispanic and white students. Students with disabilities were suspended at a rate 2.6 times larger than that of their non-disabled peers. When examining the effects of race, sex, and disability, the results are especially troubling: African-American male students with disabilities were almost 20 times more likely to be suspended than white female students without disabilities.

The authors never talk to anyone in the educational front lines — the people meting out the discipline — to get their perspective on what’s happening. The authors assume from the get-go that racial disparities in disciplinary actions are in and of themselves evidence of injustice — no other explanation needed.

The LAJC never pauses to consider that the reason why African-American male students with disabilities are disciplined at a higher rate is that they are committing offenses at a higher rate than white female students without disabilities. Given what we know of the breakdown of the family, the geographic concentration of poverty, and how many poor single mothers lose their children to “the street,” it should not surprise anyone that behavior problems are rampant in poor communities generally and poor African-American communities specifically.

This chart, which appears in the “Suspended Progress” report, shows the school districts where the highest rates of suspensions occur. Every one of these has high percentages, often majorities, of African-American students. Let’s take the City of Richmond, with which I have some familiarity. Most teachers are African-American, most principals are African-American, the superintendent is (or was, before he was canned for political reasons) African-American, and the school board is predominantly African-American. It defies reason to think that anti-African-American bias is permeating Richmond school disciplinary practices.

The real problem is that teachers and administrators in Richmond are grappling with large numbers of students who come from exceedingly challenging environments like housing projects riddled with violence, drugs, crime, and murder where the norms of bourgeois behavior have utterly collapsed. Eighteen percent of the student body was suspended because 18% of the student body committed offenses against school rules.

The LAJC engages in a classic case of defining deviancy down by declaring that cell phone possession, disrespect, and “inappropriate language” as “minor” offenses. We didn’t have cell phones when I was a kid, but I can assure you that being disrespectful to teachers and using profanity assuredly would have warranted disciplinary action at my school. The phrase “inappropriate language” sounds inoffensive, but I question whether students are suspended for using the occasional profanity. As for cell phone possession, the LAJC’s own data shows that the number of students disciplined for that offense is a minor cause of short-term suspensions and a negligible one of long-term suspensions.

The biggest causes of disciplinary action are disruption of classrooms or campus, defiance of authority, disrespecting teachers. Some offenses may seem “minor” if viewed in isolation. But we have no sense from these numbers how often similar offenses are routinely ignored, and we have no sense how often students have been lectured or given second or third chances before finally being slapped with a disciplinary action.

I find especially noteworthy the LAJC’s observation that after two years of supposedly improving statistics that suspensions and expulsions have increased for two years. How do we explain this? Have teachers and administrators become less rigorous in their adherence to the protocols imposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Obama administration justice department? Have they become more biased in their attitudes against African-American (but not Hispanic) students? Or has discipline gotten worse under those protocols? Have the supposedly “proven alternatives” like “restorative practices, multi-tiered systems of support, and emotional learning programs” failed to maintain discipline? Indeed, do misbehaving students, perceiving that they are less likely to suffer adverse consequences from their actions under the new regime, felt freer to act disruptively?

Locked into its mindset that views every racial disparity as evidence of a social injustice, LAJC never asks those questions. But Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters and editors should not accept social justice warrior dogma without question. In fact, if the Times-Dispatch were truly interested in social justice, it would conduct its own inquiry into how LAJC-inspired disciplinary policies are working out.

Reform the SOLs, Don’t Kill Them

Cranky begs to differ with the Big Bacon.

Honorable Sir!

Your Jeremiad on the Standards of Learning testing makes five basic points and concludes that it’s time to “scrap the SOLs and move on.” I’d like to mostly agree with your five points and suggest some different conclusions.

SOL Results Have Guided Home Purchase Decisions, With the Effect of Harming Low-Performing Schools

That is almost certainly true.

There is a plethora of Web sites dedicated to reporting score results – even one from the Department of Education. And surely one reason there are few school-age children in my Richmond neighborhood and many in your Henrico enclave is the quality of the schools.

Would you then have parents rely upon word-of-mouth rather than actual data in selecting a place to raise the family?  Would you conceal the performance of this appalling middle school from the parents who are paying the taxes to support its gross failure to educate their children?

It’s not the job of parents to harm their kids by sending them to an awful school in order to improve the school. It’s the job of the school board and the Board of Education to fix the awful schools. And it is far past time to hold the school, the school board, and the education board accountable if they don’t deal with problems such as the example in the link above.

To do that we must have a quality measurement. As one of your commenters pointed out, the education establishment loves to measure inputs: money, facilities, credentials. But those things don’t measure productivity. For sure the SOL is imperfect but it’s the only productivity measure we have at hand. We should be thinking of ways to deal with the imperfections, not relapsing to a system where the only quality measures do not in fact measure quality.

The SOL Penalizes Poverty

It’s clear that children from economically disadvantaged households underperform their more affluent peers on the SOL tests. It’s also clear that some school systems with large ED populations perform better (or worse, e.g., Richmond) than others.

Thus, the bare SOL pass rate is not a fair measure of school quality.

Should we then abandon measurement of educational quality or should we look to improve the measure?

If fact, we have a better measure that is essentially unaffected by economic disadvantage, the Student Growth Percentile. The State tells us:

A student growth percentile expresses how much progress a student has made relative to the progress of students whose achievement was similar on previous assessments.

A student growth percentile complements a student’s SOL scaled score and gives his or her teacher, parents and principal a more complete picture of achievement and progress. A high growth percentile is an indicator of effective instruction, regardless of a student’s scaled score.

And a low SGP tells us that the kid didn’t learn much in comparison to the other students who started in the same place. See this for a discussion of the way the SGP illuminated the awful productivity of some of Richmond’s teachers.

Yet our Board of “Education” has abandoned the SGP.  See this (scroll down to Part F) for a discussion of their bogus reasons.

Bottom line: We know the SOL is unfair to less affluent kids. We know how to correct for that effect but our Board of “Education” doesn’t want to use the tool that does that.  Is that a problem with the SOL or a problem with the Board?

Cheating

There is a long and ugly history of Virginia schools cheating to improve SOL scores. See this for a particularly cynical example. Go here and search for “cheat” to be inundated with data on the subject.

But is this a problem with the SOL testing or with the schools and the Board of Education?

If we take it that it’s crucial to have a measure of educational output, then we’ll have to be prepared to deal with attempts to skew the data. The (unacceptable) alternative is to forget about measuring teaching quality and to let far too many children be harmed by inadequate teaching.

Teaching to the Test

You, and others, condemn the SOL because it encourages teaching to the test. In fact that is not a problem; it is part of the reason for having the SOL. Continue reading

Scrap the SOLs and Move On

Maybe it’s time for Virginia to scrap the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

The SOLs arose in the mid-1990s as a way to provide feedback to the community on how well local schools were performing. It was a worthy experiment. Despite massive increases in spending in preceding years, the quality of education in United States was widely seen as deficient. Backers hoped that transparency would provide teachers, principals, school boards, parents and citizens data they could use to work toward the betterment of their schools.

As with so many reforms enacted with the best intentions, this initiative has gone terribly awry. There is little evidence that SOLs improve anything. Indeed, insofar as the standardized exams encourage teachers to “teach to the test” — more on that in a bit — they may do actual harm.

In short order after their enactment, the SOLs morphed into a means to hold schools “accountable” for poor performance. Schools with low levels of academic achievement were highlighted in local media reports and shamed for failing their students. Newspapers published SOL data for schools within their circulation zones, and parents used the data to guide home purchasing decisions. As parents voted with their feet, affluent households displaced poor households in “good” school districts, and poor households gravitated by default to the “bad” schools. In sum, the tests arguably had the unintended effect of aggravating residential inequality and making it harder for poor schools to improve.

Comparing schools with one another was problematic anyway because educational achievement is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status, the mix of affluent and poor children varied widely by school, and average scores reflected socioeconomic status as much as the quality of the teachers and staff. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) possessed the data to adjust scores for socioeconomic status so as to not unfairly penalize low-income schools but, for reasons that remain obscure to me, the department stopped publishing it.

Meanwhile, many teachers, principals and school boards learned how to game the system to dress up scores and avoid the shaming. John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, and I have chronicled numerous scandals around the state — the relaxed test standards, the teacher coaching, the classification of sub-performing students as disabled, and sometimes the outright cheating. Newspaper accounts tend to treat these phenomena as isolated instances that happen to occur in their back yard, but they are in fact commonplace.

Perhaps the most insidious gaming of the system involves teaching to the test. As has been explained to me, the SOLs do not test students’ comprehensive knowledge in a particular subject. Rather, they sample knowledge in sub-topics and assume that if a test-taker gets the answers right for those sub-topics, they will demonstrate the same mastery across the board. Over the years, teachers have learned, to pick an example, that the math SOL will address regular polygons but not irregular polygons, so they spend more time teaching regular polygons and perhaps even skip the irregular polygons. Thus, insofar as teachers teach to the test, meaning that they emphasize certain topics over others, SOLs actually may encourage educational malpractice.

As the emphasis has shifted to holding schools accountable for poor performance, VDOE began using SOL scores to declare schools accredited or unaccredited. (There are various flavors of being unaccredited, depending upon whether schools are deemed to be making progress.) While the state can declare a school “unaccredited,” under the state constitution, schools answer to their school boards. The state does negotiate “Memoranda of Understanding” with chronic laggards but, as Butcher has documented, MOUs consist of educratic mumbo jumbo and are useless in turning schools around. At the end of the day, and not for any lack of trying, accountability remains elusive.

Virginia has doggedly tried to make SOLs work for more than twenty years now. We have enough experience under our belts, I would argue, to draw some broad conclusions. SOLs are deficient as a means of measuring students’ academic achievement; if anything, the teaching-to-the-test phenomenon hurts students. SOLs are useless as a means for improving schools’ academic performance or holding administrators accountable for results; teachers and principals are endlessly creative at gaming the system. And, by influencing people of means to buy houses near “good” schools, SOLs arguably have become an unwitting driver of socioeconomic and racial segregation.

I’m not saying that things will miraculously improve if Virginia did away with the SOLs. They exist for a reason. But we must acknowledge that tweaking and nudging a broken system won’t work either. I don’t have any great suggestions for what we put in place of SOLs. I can say that reform should be bottom-up, not top-down, and it should encourage creativity and experimentation. Failed experiments should be shut down, and successes should be replicated. We cannot afford more business as usual.

School Accreditation Process Violates State Law

Some unfortunate Virginia Department of Education administrator will be tasked with the job of poring through the public responses to proposed rules for granting and denying public-school accreditation. I would pay good money to watch his hair catch on fire when he reads the comments submitted by John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog. Here’s how John summarizes the accreditation process:

“VA. Code § 22.1-253.13:3.A provides:

“[The Boar of Education’s] regulations establishing standards for accreditation shall ensure that the accreditation process is transparent and based on objective measurements. …

“The current accreditation process is in wholesale violation of that law:

  • The Board increases pass rates at some high schools based on the performance of students who do not attend those schools;
  • The Board fails to adjust accreditation scores for a major factor known to affect test scores, poverty, and the Board has abandoned its measure of academic progress, the Student Growth Percentile, that is not affected by poverty;
  • The Board’s indifference to misclassification of students as “disabled” and the abuse of relaxed testing procedures for those students continues; and
  • The Board’s opaque and byzantine ‘adjustments’ increase accreditation.”

Read the short version of his comments here. Or read the full and unadulterated version here.

New Cause for Alarm: Too Many White Teachers, Not Enough Black

Source: “Report on the Recommendations of the Taskforce to Diversify Virginia’s Educator Pipeline.”

Seeking to close the educational achievement gap between whites on the one hand and African-Americans and Hispanics on the other, the Virginia Department of Education has found a new focus: an insufficient number of “teachers of color.”

Even as the number of minorities in Virginia schools now equal the number of whites, Virginia’s teachers are becoming “less diverse over time,” states a report of the Taskforce to Diversify Virginia’s Educator Pipeline made to the Virginia Board of Education. “Demographically, minority students make up 48.7 percent of Virginia’s student population, but only 21.4 percent of the state’s teachers are minorities. Research indicates that a racially representative mix of teachers and administrators can be directly correlated to positive educational outcomes for minority students.”

In Virginia’s school system, diversity has become an end unto itself. “All Virginia students benefit personally and intellectually when they learn from education professionals with a variety of racial, ethnic, socio-economic and religious backgrounds,” states the report. “We believe there is value in all students learning from teachers with diverse backgrounds; and we simultaneously recognize that research indicates there is a unique role teachers of color play in improving the lives of students of color.”

The task force says Virginia should endeavor reduce the gap between the percentage of minority students and the percentage of minority teachers, now 27%, to 15% by  by 2040.

There are two problems, states the report. First, according to national statistics, teachers of color leave the profession at a higher rate than whites: 18.9% per year turnover in 2012-13 compared to 15% for white teachers. Second, the percentage of minority students enrolled in education schools is declining. “Minority enrollment in Virginia’s teacher preparation programs has fallen from more than 50 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to only 33 percent in 2016-2017.”

The task force’s proposed solution is to remove barriers to minority students seeking to become teachers. The conventional pathway to the teaching profession entails a five-year program for a B.A. and M.A., during the course of which the average Virginia teacher will have accrued $50,879 in debt. States the report: “When combined with low teacher pay, the high cost of training is a powerful deterrent for young people considering a future in the teaching profession.”

The state should revise its criteria so that students can become teachers through development of a four-year undergraduate major. Also, Virginia should provide financial assistance for minority teaching candidates, give student teaching stipends to low-income students, and devise innovative ways to provide compensation to student teachers during their student-teaching experience. Other solutions include encouraging minority high school students to become teachers and making more of provisional licensure.

Bacon’s bottom line: Wow. It’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the bedrock assumption that “diversity” among teachers is a meaningful determinant in the educational outcomes of students. I’d like to evaluate the “research” that stands behind this proposition as well as any that might contradict it. If the ethnic identity of teachers and students is so crucial, I’d especially like to see how the research explains that Asian-American students consistently out-perform whites academically even though the number of Asian-American teachers is a tiny percentage of the whole.

But let’s accept the report on its own terms, including the proposition that the ethnic identity of the teacher matters. One might ask why minority teachers leave the teaching profession at a higher rate than white teachers. Do we know why they are leaving? Has anyone asked the minority teachers why they are leaving? The Task Force does not consider option of reducing teacher turnover, choosing to focus exclusively on the supply of new students.

Interestingly, the Task Force might have a point about the educational pathway for new teachers. Perhaps the requirements are too high — not just for minority teachers but all teachers. After all, as the task force notes, the problem schools have recruiting minority teachers is just a sub-set of the difficulty they have recruiting teachers in general. Who put these barriers into place? Did the Virginia Teachers Association play a role? Assuredly, the justification proffered for instituting more demanding standards was to improve the quality of teachers, but according to public choice theory, the hidden purpose was to restrict the supply of new teachers. Labor shortages give teachers more power to mau-mau state and local government for higher salaries and  benefits. If the Task Force prompts legislators to take a look at the entire system of teacher credentialing, it might have done us all a favor.

The high cost of getting a teaching degree also circles back to a perennial issue of interest to Bacon’s Rebellion — the excessive cost of education. Why is it so expensive to teach students how to teach? What is going on inside Virginia’s schools of education? Should not part of the solution be to bring tuition back to  reasonable levels?

The Task Force addresses none of the broader issues, and that’s a missed opportunity. Among all the factors that influence academic achievement among African-Americans and Hispanics, I would be willing to bet that the ethnic mix of teachers is secondary at best. I would be amazed if closing the ethnicity gap between teachers and students has any measurable effect whatsoever. Indeed, the obsession with racial bean counting strikes me as part of what is wrong with public education today.