Category Archives: Education (K-12)

How Long Must Parents Wait?

Vernon Johns Middle School in Petersburg — new building, same sad results

by Chris Braunlich

In a recent news release, Governor Terry McAuliffe heralded the fact that 86 percent of Virginia schools were fully accredited – “a record high” for his administration and a five point improvement over last year.

He neglected to mention that 88 schools failed accreditation – a 203 percent increase in unaccredited schools over last year, and more unaccredited schools this year than in the previous ten years combined.

In a new poll by Christopher Newport’s Wason Center, the most important issue most voters want the next Governor to work on is “improving K-12 education.” Improving educational quality for the children in those 88 schools ought to be a top consideration.

Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary School. New building, same old education.

Thirteen schools have failed accreditation for three years or more. Despite throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra “Executive Leadership” funding at Petersburg, the students of Vernon Johns Middle School are attending an unaccredited school for the twelfth consecutive year. Despite a new $44.2 million school building, the child who entered first grade six years ago at Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston Elementary has now spent her entire school career in an unaccredited school.

If anything, this year’s accreditation list points up two things –

First, the divide in education is growing. Good schools on the right track with the right leadership are getting better. Poorly performing schools without the right kind of leadership continue to decline. And continued geographic concentrations of poverty and wealth have all too often meant different tracks for the schools those children attend.

The second is that the state seems powerless to do anything to help the children in these schools. And while that may seem like an excuse, the reality is that the Virginia Constitution requires that “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.” Worse, past court decisions have given local school boards nearly unfettered control over buildings, budgets, curriculum, and personnel – even if they run it into the ground.

To its credit, the State Board of Education’s proposed new regulations ratchet up the consequences for non-performing schools and school divisions, including the threat of withholding a limited amount of state funding. But the process is long, case by case and thin gruel compared with the dramatic and decisive action so badly needed. Besides which, “state takeovers” have a spotty track record — partly because states rarely take the time to rebuild school culture.

One alternative is to authorize new quality public schools run by successful educators, but outside the traditional system. And there are such schools defying the “demography is destiny” mantra. The problem: They aren’t in Virginia.

Today, 7,000 public charter schools serve 3 million students. While not a panacea, their track record with low-income children is striking: According to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), after four years in a charter school, urban students learn 50 percent more per year than demographically similar students in traditional public schools.

In New York, 95 percent of Success Academy’s students are children of color whose families have an average income of $32,000 per year. In math, 95 percent of them passed the state exams and 84 percent passed reading, outperforming every school district in the state, including those with median family incomes of $290,000.

KIPP Academies educates 88,000 students in 209 schools – 95 percent of them black or Latino and 88 percent of them on Free and Reduced Meals subsidies. Eighty-one percent enter college and they graduate college at a pace four times the rate of their peers.

But these and other successful charter schools won’t come to Virginia, citing the Commonwealth’s “restrictive charter school law that limits autonomy and makes it impossible for high quality charter schools to fulfill their mission.” And without alternatives, parents will never be able to send their children to a public charter school opening the doors of opportunity for Virginia’s neediest students.

A measure earlier this year might have cracked that door a bit, had it been signed into law. It would have allowed the State Board of Education to authorize a new school board – an overlay of sorts – that could only target areas with one or more schools that repeatedly failed accreditation.

And while it would not have touched existing schools or local funding, it would have empowered the State Board to meet its own constitutional responsibility for the “supervision of the public school system,” taken steps toward the constitutional aspiration of “an educational program of high quality,” and helped several thousand low-income children who now have no quality choices.

Sadly, the bill was vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, shooting down educational justice for the children of places like Petersburg, Norfolk and Newport News.

As the voters who place a premium on K-12 education think about the issues, they should consider this: The parents of children in high-performing schools are rarely concerned about choices: They’ve already made theirs.

But how long must the parents of children in persistently low-performing schools wait to have better opportunities for their child? Four years? Six? A dozen years? How long?

Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute and past president of the Virginia State Board of Education. This column was published originally in The Jefferson Journal, and a version of it in the Virginian-Pilot.

Bacon Bits: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Source: 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Report. (Click for more legible image.)

U.S. still globally competitive. The United States has climbed past Singapore  to become the world’s second most competitive economy — second only to Switzerland, according to the 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum. U.S. strengths are its technological progress, capacity for innovation, and sophistication of its business enterprises — all private sector attributes, I might observe. The nation’s weaknesses are primary education, healthcare and “macroeconomic environment,” which reflects the sustainability of government finances. Tax rates are cited as the most problematic aspect of doing business in the U.S. The weaknesses, I might add, are all government failures.

Worst traffic jams in the country. The Washington metropolitan area has the sixth worst traffic congestion in the country, according to INRIX Roadway Analytics, but the single-worst traffic hot spot anywhere is a southbound stretch of Interstate 95 between Washington, D.C., and Fredericksburg, reports the Free Lance-Star. I totally believe it — and the northbound lanes aren’t much better.

Richmond still leads in dropouts. John Butcher at Cranky’s Blog takes a look at the Virginia Department of Education’s latest statistics on high school dropout rates. While Richmond with its predominantly African-American student population has the highest dropout rate in the state, 18.0%, the rate for overwhelmingly white Lee County in the heart of Appalachia is 17.9%. As usual, Butcher is unhappy with the way the state calculates its numbers.

Update: Wow, Cranky is on a tear. A new post, “Lies, Damn Lies and Graduation Rates,” shows how school districts can game the statistics on graduation rates to look good.

Dear Virginia, Higher-Ed Promotes Economic Development

W. Taylor Revely IV

W. Taylor Revely IV, president of Longwood University, posts a shrew op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today. I say “shrewd” because the op-ed takes the form of an open letter to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, which is seeking a site for a second headquarters employing 50,000 people and paying average salaries in the six figures, but it delivers a powerful subliminal message to the older, literate segment of the population that reads newspaper editorials.

The overt message to Bezos, who likely will never see the op-ed, is this: Invest in Virginia because we have “the best assortment of public and private colleges in the country — in fact, on the planet.” The subliminal message can be read in the headline that accompanied the column: “Higher ed makes Va. the best choice for HQ2.” In other words, higher-ed supports economic development. I don’t know if the op-ed was a formal part of the P.R. roll out by GROWTH4VA, which is pushing for higher ed-friendly budgetary and legislative reforms in the 2018 General Assembly session, but it delivers the same bottom-line message.

Reveley’s argument can be broken into two parts. First, Virginia has the best system of higher ed anywhere:

Consider the latest US News & World-Report college rankings. The commonwealth is home to two of the top six public universities nationally (W&M and the University of Virginia), and the only state besides California with two public universities among the top 35 overall. Among the top nine public regional institutions in the South, four are in Virginia. … Virginia’s public universities rank among the nation’s leaders in retention and graduation rates.

Also, Revely argues, the state’s decentralized higher-ed system provides a broader of educational settings than other higher-ed systems, giving students a wider assortment of environments from which to choose and thrive.

The second part of the op-ed focuses on the value of a liberal arts education, which his university, Longwood, provides. Virginia’s colleges are especially strong in the liberal arts, Revely contends, and Amazon needs a steady supply of employees with strong backgrounds in the liberal arts and sciences — not narrowly trained technicians, “but people with imagination, who can think critically, solve problems, work with and understand diverse groups, and effectively communicate.”

“So, Jeff, please consider Virginia,” Revely concludes in his op-ed. But to his broader audience, the message ostensibly addressed to Bezos appears buried in the column: “Virginia’s strong higher education landscape, with broad bipartisan support, is a key reason why in an age of great division, our state’s political culture remains remarkably civil, and the state itself is arguably the best-run in the nation.”

Thus, subtly, while avoiding self-serving and off-putting rhetoric, Revely appeals to Virginians’ better angels of bipartisanship, civility and aspirations for a stronger economy. By inviting readers to make the link themselves between higher-ed and economic development, he shapes the rhetorical battlefield for the higher-ed debate to come.

I will discuss the Virginia-has-the-best-public-system-of-higher-ed meme in the next post, and address the connections between higher-ed and economic development in future blog posts.

Gaming the SOLs: Roanoke Edition

Roanoke School Superintendent Rita Bishop

Virginia allows elementary and middle school students to retake their Standards of Learning exams if they narrowly miss passing or have other extenuating circumstances. In the eyes of Roanoke Superintendent Rita Bishop, almost every excuse that crossed her desk apparently qualifies as an extenuating circumstance.

Bishop approved all but 19 of 470 requests this year to retest elementary and middle school students, according to documents obtained by the Roanoke Times under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Among the qualifying circumstances: students forgetting their glasses, witnessing or experiencing trauma at home, or having test anxiety ranging from sweating to vomiting. The test re-takes came with additional tutoring. 

“I care about these kids deeply,” Bishop told the Times. “If anybody thinks that what was done was in any war harmful, what we did was we made kids believe in themselves.”

What the Roanoke school district also did was improve the accreditation ratings of its schools. Writes the Times:

Most of the students who retested attended schools whose accreditation appeared at risk. At those schools, once internal reporting showed enough of the retested students had passed, testing stopped.

When the state announced school accreditation ratings this month, Roanoke had earned full accreditation for all but one of its schools and made enough improvement at the remaining school to keep its partial accreditation status.

It’s the district’s highest achievement since the 2012-13 school year. …

Current and former Roanoke district educators said there was so much pressure from central office to retest students that the forms to request a do-over felt like a rote exercise with approval all but certain.

They claim when teachers refused to fill out requests, central office staff did so despite the teachers’ objections. Other times, they said, teachers weren’t consulted or even told their students would be retested.

Bacon’s bottom line: Do I even need to add a bottom line? The story speaks for itself. (Hat tip: John Butcher)

Does School “Accreditation” Mean Anything in Virginia?

Here’s how K-12 accountability works in Virginia. School districts administer Standards of Learning (SOL) tests to measure school children’s mastery of basic skills and concepts. Schools that meet minimum state standards for student achievement — 75% adjusted pass rates for English, 70% for math, science, and history — are deemed to be accredited. Schools that fall short can be designated with a variety of partial accreditation classifications, and they must demonstrate that they are making progress. De-accreditation is a good stick for motivating schools. Although schools don’t lose money, they do lose status, endure the scorn of their communities, and suffer VDOE oversight and meddling.

Just one problem: Schools are motivated to improve their scores, which is not the same thing as improving the academic achievement of their students. The operative word in the paragraph above is “adjusted.” Schools must achieve adjusted pass rates.

Almost no one in the established Virginia media, to my knowledge, has tried to penetrate the logic of VDOE accreditation policies. I could never do it. I am not equipped cognitively or temperamentally to decipher the dense, inscrutable verbiage of VDOE regulations. Outside of the state and the school districts themselves, I know of only one man who has made the effort, and he is a lawyer accustomed to reading impenetrable prose: John Butcher, publisher of Cranky’s Blog.

This graph shows how much “adjusted” SOL scores improve over actual SOL scores. Graphic credit: Cranky’s Blog. 

The numbers for the 2016-17 school year have come out, and Butcher has been digesting them. In the graph at left taken from this post, he compares the actual scores on the 2017 math SOLs to the adjusted scores. In nearly every case, the adjusted scores improve — sometimes significantly so. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally), large adjustments tend to kick in around the 70% pass mark — enough to shift a school scoring a 68 or 69 percent pass rate into 70+ territory.

As Butcher notes: “There are 37 schools with 69% math pass rates but only five with that adjusted rate.  The average adjusted rate for those 37 schools is 74%.”

How about that.

In a follow-up post, Butcher hones in on his home town, Richmond, and finds that adjustments pushed eight schools over the 70% mark for math SOLs. The average bump was four percentage points per school. One school, E.S.H. Greene Elementary, received a 26 percentage-point boost.

In yet another post, he drills down to the E.S.H. Greene data. Greene, with a largely Hispanic student body, has appallingly low SOL scores. But thanks to massive adjustments for English as a Second Language students, Greene is classified as accredited.

Concludes Butcher: “This official mendacity gives Greene bragging rights while failing to teach nearly half its students to read or reckon. … More fundamentally: Accreditation — or lack of it — is meaningless.”

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.