Category Archives: Education (K-12)

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.

It’s Performance, Not Poverty

by John Butcher

The popular sport in the Richmond “education” establishment has been to blame the kids for the awful performance of our schools. We particularly hear about our less affluent (the official euphemism is “economically disadvantaged”) students.

We have some data on that. Again.

Here are the average reading pass rates by grade of the economically disadvantaged (”ED”) and non-ED students in Richmond and the state.  “EOC” indicates the End of Course tests that generally must be passed to receive “verified credits” that count toward a diploma.

Both in Richmond and on average, the ED group underperforms the non-ED group.

To the point here, the Richmond ED students underperform their peers in the state averages, as do the non-ED Richmond students.

We can calculate the differences between the Richmond groups and state average to measure that underperformance.

Here we see Richmond’s ED students underperforming their peers by about 7% in elementary school while our non-ED students average some 9% below that group statewide.  In middle school the difference increases to roughly 19% for the non-ED students and 25% for the ED group.

The math test results show a similar pattern.

These data tell us two things:

  • Richmond students, both ED and not, underperform their statewide peer groups on average; and
  • The average SOL performance of Richmond students, ED and not, deteriorates dramatically in middle school.

As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the large percentage of ED students in Richmond (64% in 2017) does not explain our low pass rates.  So we are left with (at least) two possible explanations: Either Richmond students are less capable on average than students statewide or our schools are less effective than average.

If Richmond’s students were just less capable, it would explain the low elementary school scores but not the drop in pass rates after the fifth grade.

The plummeting performance of our students when they reach middle school tells us there’s a (big!) problem with our middle schools.  And there’s every reason to think that the school system that has terrible middle schools might also have problems with its elementary schools. Continue reading

About the Reading Scores for Limited English Proficient Students…

As always, John Butcher (aka Cranky) is keeping a sharp eye out for the multifarious ways in which schools and school districts game the Standards of Learning tests.

One way to chisel the scores a few years ago was to exempt Limited English Proficient (LEP) students from taking the SOLs, requiring them to take the Virginia Grade Level Alternative (VGLA) test instead. Schools used the locally graded VGLA to boost SOL scores until the rampant abuse was corrected by General Assembly action. The Virginia Department of Education restricted use of the test in 2013, but scores remained high, ranging between the 90% and 95% pass rate — considerably higher than the pass rate for the SOLs.

After reviewing the data Cranky has suggested three possible explanations “for these “phenomenal” post-2013 pass rates:

  • Most of the LEP students are from Lake Woebegon;
  • The LEP tests are very easy; or
  • Schools have been misclassifying kids as LEP (or cheating in some other manner) in order to boost their pass rates.

Read John’s blog post. You’ll be asking the same question.

Virginia Students Out-Perform on ACT College-Readiness Test

Virginia students traditionally have out-performed their peers nationally in  ACT college-readiness tests, but the margin widened for 2107 graduates, according to data released this morning by the Virginia Department of Education.

The gains applied to public schools, private schools, and home schooled students across the board. Virginia public school students achieved an average composite score of 23.7 on the ACT, compared with 21.0 for graduates nationwide. The composite score for all Virginia students, including home schoolers and private school grads, was 23.8. The highest possible score is 36.

“Nearly twice as many Virginia students take the ACT today than ten years ago, making it an increasingly important indicator of how well the commonwealth’s public schools are preparing young people for the future,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples said in a press release. “The latest results continue a long-term trend of higher achievement and increasingly well-prepared graduates.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The improved scores of Virginia students is impressive, especially against the backdrop of flat scores nationally. Somewhere, somehow, Virginia is doing something right for its college-aspiring students. Given the fact that the gains applied to public schools, private schools, and home-school students alike, it’s not clear who or what deserves the credit. In any case, the ACT scores apply only to the 29% of the Virginia student population that takes the tests, not to the other 71%.

The VDOE press release did not break down scores by racial/ethnic category. However, a Wall Street Journal article today notes that so-called “underserved” student populations — low-income, racial minority, or first-generation college student — continued to perform poorly nationally.

More than four of five test takers who had all three of those “underserved” characteristics, as ACT calls them, showed college readiness on one or none of the exam benchmarks in English, reading, math and science. Only 9% met the benchmark in at least three of the four areas. That compares with 54% for test takers who didn’t mark that they had these characteristics.

Given the fact that a similar gap persists as measured by other indicators, it is likely that similar racial/ethnic gaps would show up in Virginia ACT scores. Perhaps VDOE didn’t have access to that data on a statewide level. Or perhaps the department chose not to report the data because it didn’t look good. The public needs to know if the problem is getting better (which would suggest that what we’re doing to address disparities is working), or is getting worse (which would suggest that what we’re doing is not working).

“This Isn’t About Monuments. It’s Much Bigger.”

Governor Terry McAuliffe may want to remove the Civil War statues from public places, but I’ll give him credit for this: He’s not dogmatic. He acknowledges the conflicting principles at work. Speaking at WTOP yesterday, he acknowledged that removing the statues in Richmond could cost the city a big chunk of change.

When asked who should pay the cost of removing the statues, he said:

“Well, that’s a great question. So when I say the cities — my good friend the Mayor of Richmond, he’s come out on this issue as well, and he as mayor is facing five to ten million dollars if you want to move the statues. He, meanwhile, has got to make sure he’s providing money for education. So, that’s a great issue, and that’s something that these communities — and that’s why I say the local — the cities ought to make that determination.

(Listen to the interview here.)

Aside from the cost of dismantling the statues, removing them would harm real estate values along Monument Ave, selected in 2007 by the American Planning Association as one of the 10 Great Streets of America. The Washington Post quoted Bill Gallasch, 74, president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society and a former real estate appraiser, as saying that removal of the statues could cost the city $3 million a year in lost revenue.

McAuliffe doubled down on his message on the Jimmy Barrett Show on WRVA radio this morning:

If I’m the mayor of Richmond or I’m on the City Council I’m faced with a tough decision. Do I spend, I don’t know, five to ten million dollars taking something down when I got schools – I’ll tell you my first priority has got to be schools because I got to get people employed. Richmond has to deal with the issue that a lot of folks, young millennials are here, but then when they have children they sort of move out to the neighboring jurisdictions for education. We got to keep everybody right here in this beautiful city. And that’s their biggest challenge. So I would agree with Valerie, let’s go ahead and put some context to these things and move forward. This is going to be a debate that’s going on for a long time. But what I try to get back to, and everybody likes to latch on to this monument – this isn’t about monuments. It’s much bigger, it’s much broader, and I got to fix education and we got to work on the things, Jimmy, to give everybody an opportunity.

As I’ve said previously, taking down the statues doesn’t help one African-American school child get a better education. Indeed, as McAuliffe makes clear, reality is complicated. The politics of symbolism carry a cost.

Update: According to the T-D, the $3 million estimate of lost property revenue is likely excessive, Gallasch derived the figure by assuming a 10% loss of property value not only of houses along Monument Avenue but in the adjoining Fan and Museum districts. Other appraisers dispute such a widespread impact.

Bacon Bits: The Latest in Government Ineptitude and Short-Sighted Thinking

It’s Hard to Teach without Teachers. With a week to go before the start of the new school year, the Richmond Public Schools still has about 90 teacher openings, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Why the shortage, which seems to be a chronic issue? Perhaps the school conditions are so terrible that no one wants to work for the city schools. Or perhaps the school administration is dysfunctional that it can’t execute basic tasks. Whatever the case, I’ve seen no reporting to suggest that any other locality in the Richmond region has a comparable problem.

Hopewell the Next Petersburg? The City of Hopewell is now 21 months behind completing its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, and that has some City Council members broiling, as reported by the T-D. One city official points to a $51.8 million in year-end cash and investments as proof that the city’s financial position is OK. But an auditor said he had uncovered about 90 instances of money being transferred without documentation — the same practice that preceded Petersburg’s fiscal meltdown.

What Hurricane Harvey Portends for Hampton Roads. Flood damage in the Houston area will run into the tens of billions of dollars. Much of the cost will be covered by an under-priced, under-funded federal flood insurance program that subsidizes construction in flood-prone areas. (Much of the balance will be covered by an under-funded federal government that will have to borrow the money.) According to Politico, about one percent of insured properties have sustained repetitive losses, accounting for more than 25 percent of the nation’s flood claims. So far, Congress has resisted serious reform, but the program is fiscally unsustainable.

Thought experiment: What would happen to Hampton Roads if federal flood insurance charged actuarially sound premiums? What would that do to property values?

A related question: Who insures infrastructure? Presumably rate payers cover the cost of maintaining electric lines. How big is that subsidy? I’m guessing that state and local governments have no insurance for roads and highways. What is that potential exposure? And how about the implicit subsidies for water and sewer service? People who choose to build and live in vulnerable locations — this now effects me, because I now am a co-owner with my brother and sister of the family beach cottage — should pay the full cost of their locational decisions.

Will that ever happen? Probably not.

Petersburg’s School Cheating Scandal

As if the City of Petersburg didn’t have enough problems recovering from its fiscal meltdown, now it has a school cheating scandal on its hands. The Virginia Department of Education discovered a suspicious pattern of answers in Standards of Learning (SOL) tests indicating that test-takers were coached to switch from incorrect answers to correct answers. Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Some students at A.P. Hill Elementary School in Petersburg had to raise a hand after answering questions on state accountability tests last spring for a proctor to check their work. If the answer was correct, they could move on to the next question. If it was not, the students were told to check their work.

Others made rapid-fire corrections to wrong answers within minutes before submitting computerized tests, data show.

Five staff members who administered the tests have lost their jobs. One employee, who begged to be removed from testing duties, likened the test results rigging to the Atlanta cheating scandal.

Bacon’s bottom line: Needless to say, Petersburg school children are not well served when people believe they are performing better than they actually are. The only beneficiaries of cheating are the school staff, who win accolades for improved test performances.

Now, let’s go back to the previous post about the decline in the percentage of African-American students enrolled in America’s most prominent universities, and the explanation offered by the New York Times:

Experts say that persistent underrepresentation often stems from equity issues that begin earlier. Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities….

That’s the standard narrative, and it is woefully misleading. I discussed in the previous post how the biggest disadvantage suffered by African-American students is the much higher probability of being raised in fatherless families. All too often, they suffer a double handicap in attending failing schools. But why are their schools failing? Is it a matter of racism, discrimination, or unequal distribution of resources?

Petersburg, which I believe is the poorest-performing school district in Virginia, spent $11,179 per student on average in 2010 (the most recent data I could find), just a hair shy of the $11,316 state average. Of course Petersburg has more than its share of disadvantaged and special-needs students, but it’s not as if the school district has been living on a penurious budget.

If Petersburg students have less experienced teachers, fewer advanced courses, aging school buildings, and lesser-quality school materials, could one of the reasons be maladministration? We know the city government is a fiscal disaster. We know there’s staff-organized cheating in the schools, and that the cheating was caught by the Virginia Department of Education, not the school administration. Is it not possible that Petersburg has a severely dysfunctional school administration, and that inept management has compounded the challenges of poverty?

These are the questions we should be asking. Instead, we’re focusing on the statues of Civil War generals. Tear down every Civil War statue, you won’t help one Petersburg school child. Tear down the statues of every slave holder, and you won’t help one Petersburg school child. Tear down the statues of all those who held views that would be considered racist today, including Abraham Lincoln, and you won’t help one Petersburg school child. The obsession with statuary reflects a doubling-down on the paradigm of irredeemable American racism even Great Society institutions crumble around us. Innocent black school children are the most tragic victims of this blindness.

Can This New School Deliver a Quality Education for $8,750 a Year?

John O’Herron

John O’Herron has a job as an insurance defense attorney at the ThompsonMcMullan law firm, but he also has five kids at Saint Benedict’s, a single-sex Catholic high school in Richmond that charges an average tuition of $18,500. Distressed by the high cost of private school, he co-founded the Cardinal Newman Academy, which will open this fall with an entering class of three students.

The business plan is to recruit families whose kids attend Catholic elementary schools but find the cost of attending the three Catholic prep schools in the region to be unaffordable. A 2015 feasibility report, O’Herron tells Richmond BizSense, “showed us a lot of things, the most prominent thing was the level of dissatisfaction with high-school options. It was for varied reasons, but a big driver of that was affordability.”

Cardinal Newman’s tuition this year is $8,750 — half the price of Benedictine and Saint Gertrude’s, cheaper even than $13,843 per student spent by the City of Richmond in the 2017 school year, and even less expensive than the roughly $9,600 per pupil spent by Chesterfield and Henrico counties.

To keep tuition affordable, the school is keeping a tight rein on costs. The school is renting space from the Bon Air Baptist Church. Also, says O’Herron:

“We’re not offering the amenities other private schools offer. And we’re proud to stand up and say that,” he said. “We’re not going to have a football team, or a swimming pool, or a golf course or a tennis court.

“We are about educating young people. And we’ll have extracurriculars and athletics, and offer a high-school experience. But every decision as we grow will be made with affordability in mind.”

The academy’s curriculum has six core courses: English, history, mathematics, theology, foreign language and science. Fine arts and physical education are offered as additional courses.

The plan is to start with a ninth grade class, and then to add a class each year for the next three years. O’Herron would like to grow to 30 to 50 students within five years, and to between 300 and 500 in the long term. “Realistically, starting a new school with a small student body, your incoming revenue is really low,” he says. “It allows you as an institution to navigate, learn from mistakes and strategize.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I’ll be interested to see how Cardinal Newman fares. I am totally sympathetic to the problem of runaway private-school tuition, especially at elite prep schools, which, in their never-ending quest to erect new buildings, expand sports programs, and enrich the student experience, are becoming increasingly unaffordable to the middle-class. Private education needs a stripped-down financial model that stresses academic preparation and the inculcation of values. Natatoriums and rock-climbing walls are frivolous luxuries. If Cardinal Newman can provide a superior education at the $8,750-per-year price point, it might even serve as an example to Virginia’s public schools as well.

Virginia’s public schools are mired in bureaucracy and politics. Virginia’s elite private schools are running on the same race-for-prestige treadmill that afflicts the nation’s elite universities. Middle America yearns for an alternative. Cardinal Newman, or something like it, just might be the answer.

SOL Scores Flat This Year

Student achievement in Standard of Learning (SOL) test scores tread water in the 2016-2017 school year compared to the previous year, according to new data by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). Slight gains in English writing were offset by a slight slippage in math and science.

“Students continue to perform at substantially higher levels on the commonwealth’s rigorous assessments in mathematics, English and science than when these tests were first introduced in 2012 and 2013,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples said in a press release. “This long-term, upward trend is far more important than a snapshot for a single year and reflects the hard work of thousands of teachers, principals and other educators and their dedication to helping students meet high expectations.”

Traditional disparities in academic achievement persist, with Asian out-performing all other racial/ethnic groups, followed by whites, Hispanics and blacks. Among the classifications followed by VDOE, “students with disabilities” fared worst, followed by English learners, and economically disadvantaged.

Update: Here’s John Butcher’s cranky view on the Richmond school system SOLs: “Bedden Blew It.

Why Do Taxpayers Subsidize Public Colleges?


True, state support for higher education does constitute a subsidy for the upper middle-class. Think of it as a tool to recruit and retain human capital.

Why do taxpayers subsidize public colleges? Dimitrios Halikias and Richard V. Reeves with the Brookings Institution ask that question in a new paper. Four-year colleges, they noted, are dominated by children of the upper-middle class, who can afford the cost of attendance better than most. Why should states expend scarce resources to benefit the well-to-do?

One justification for the subsidies, the authors suggest, is that higher education provides public benefits in addition to the private returns that accrue to the students themselves. They identify two benefits in particular. Universities act as ladders for social mobility, allowing students from less affluent families to improve their lot in life. And they function as laboratories for research, expanding knowledge in ways that benefit the higher population.

A stronger case can be made for public support of institutions that provide one of those two benefit, say Halikias and Reeves. Institutions that do both, they call Leaders. Institutions that do neither, they term Laggards. Those that out-perform in providing mobility, they dub Ladders, and those that excel in research they refer to as Labs.

Drawing upon data from Mobility Report Cards, which rank colleges by their ability to attract low-income students and push them up the income ladder, and university research prowess based on the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Educationthey assigned each of the nation’s 342 selective, four-year, non mission-oriented universities to one of the four buckets. (They exclude Historically Black Colleges and Universities, liberal arts colleges, and military-oriented institutions. The University of Virginia, which I would classify as research institution, does not appear on the list. Neither does the College of William & Mary, which they presumably count as a liberal arts college.)

According to this methodology, Virginia has three Leaders — and not the ones who usually appear on lists of top universities. As can be seen in the table above, in order of social mobility, they are Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University. These institutions admit relatively large percentages of students from the lower-income quintile and relatively low percentages from the upper income quintile.

Particularly questionable from the Halikias-Reeves perspective are the low-mobility, low-research laggards: Christopher Newport University, Radford University, Longwood University and James Madison University. Indeed, LU and JMU have the distinction of ranking the lowest in the country by this measure.

Bacon’s bottom line: Regardless of what you might think of the authors’ methodology — it has its weaknesses, as I’m sure administrators of LU and JMU would be quick to point out — but it does raise a really important question. Why do states subsidize college tuition for all? If states must be in the game of subsidizing higher education, why not make all dispensations means tested?

I’m of two minds. As one who espouses libertarian principles, I see no justification to subsidize higher ed. Insofar as there is merit to the logic of the idea of social benefits to the subsidies, then one might make an argument for means-tested financial aid. On the other hand, I’m a taxpayer. I’ve paid large sums to the Commonwealth of Virginia over my lifetime, and a reduced-cost education first for me and then for my children is one of the few perks I’ve received in return (other than benefits like roads, state police and state parks available to anyone.) So, color me conflicted.

There is one important argument, however, that Halikias and Reeves neglected — at least in a Virginia context. Access to a superior system of higher education is a big draw to anyone considering moving to Virginia. If we want to attract human capital, there are few things more enticing than good K-12 schools and affordable, quality colleges. We give tax breaks and subsidies to businesses to lure them into the Old Dominion. Likewise, we subsidize higher education in order to recruit and retain the smartest and best educated employees… who, incidentally, pay the most in taxes. Unlike incentives for out-of-state businesses, Virginia citizens have been paying taxes all along — some for their entire lives.

Virginia often is criticized for spending less on higher-ed subsidies than the national average, and considerably less than our neighbor to the south, North Carolina. In an ideal world, no state would subsidize higher education, colleges would do a better job of controlling their costs and keeping tuition low, and private philanthropists would donate more money to scholarships. But we live in the world we live in, and eliminating state support for higher-ed would severely undercut Virginia’s economic competitiveness and its prospects for economic growth.