How well prepared are Virginia’s high school graduates for what comes next in their lives, whether it’s college, community college or a job? Virginia’s top education officials began asking that question in 2015, and they explored the topic with 24 stakeholder groups, from parents and school counselors to college admissions staff and university deans.
“We went 0 for 24,” Steve Staples, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, told the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) earlier today. Every stakeholder group said that most high school grads are ill prepared for the world that awaits them. A common sentiment: Schools are “working on the wrong stuff.”
Virginia’s public school system is geared to teaching content, said Staples and Billy Cannaday, president of the Virginia Board of Education, in a joint presentation. Knowledge of content, as measured by multiple choice tests, is a necessary part of the K-12 education but it’s not sufficient. Content, they said, must be supplemented by the ability to communicate, collaborate, think critically, think creatively, and solve problems.
The presentation by Virginia’s two top K-12 officials followed by a lengthy discussion was a first for SCHEV. Senior K-12 and higher-ed administrators rarely talk in formal settings. Indeed, although both work in the same high-rise building in downtown Richmond, they take separate elevators to their respective offices. But both camps acknowledge the need to build bridges, and the outreach to SCHEV may portend greater cooperation between the two education systems in the future.
Virginia’s high school system was designed in the late 1800s for a manufacturing-dominated economy. That system is not working for the 21st-century economy, said Cannaday. New skill sets are needed.
The Standards of Learning (SOL) tests assess students’ mastery of content in narrow silos — mathematics, English, history, science, etc. Students are rarely taught how to integrate those disciplines. Calling for a “deeper learning,” Staples said schools need to “blend disciplines.” He gave as an example a school in Southwest Virginia that linked English, history and civic engagement by assigning students the book, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and coupling it with interviews of veterans in the community.
The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is early in its reappraisal of Virginia K-12 education. High-level goals have yet to be translated into concrete action. The first step, said Staples, is to establish what should get done. The second is to figure out how to get it done. “We’re still working on that.”
The response of SCHEV board members was uniformly positive, although the obvious question came up: Does VDOE have the resources to pull off changes of the magnitude outlined by Staples and Cannaday?
“This vision isn’t all about resources,” said Staples. “It’s about allocating those resources in a different way.” One strategy might be to scale back state directives to local school districts. For example, the state requires schools to hire a library aide. Maybe the school principal says he’d rather hire a career coach. Another approach: Schools may have to re-think the way teachers allocate their time: five classes, 30 students per class, five hours a day. Maybe teachers need more flexibility.
“I am somewhat of an anarchist,” Staples said. “We need to re-define high school expectations that drive change throughout the system.”
In response to questions, both Staples and Cannaday said they were open to implementation of quality pre-K programs, which can have measurable impact on pupils’ academic achievement for years, and also to charter schools — although charter schools need to be held accountable for performance just like other public schools.
An essential component of K-12 reform will be defining what is expected of high school graduates, and that requires dialogue with higher education. Said Cannaday: “We have an opportunity to talk about not only K-12 but how it connects to what comes next: college and the workplace.”