Only 68% of Virginia’s public schools met state accreditation standards based on Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores, the Virginia Department of Education reported yesterday, down from 93% two years ago. I suppose one could describe that as bad news. But I would contend DOE is telling us what we all knew anyway: that we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Everyone understands that the decline resulted from higher standards, not worse performance. And everyone seems to agree that the higher standards are worth striving for. I actually find it reassuring that Virginia’s educrats are confronting the problem honestly rather than sugar-coating the system’s failures.
Board of Education President Christian Braunlich said it well: “The SOL tests students began taking 16 years ago established a uniform floor across the state. Now the floor is being raised so all students — regardless of where they live, who they are, or their family’s income — will have a foundation for success in an increasingly competitive economy. These new tests represent higher expectations for our students and schools and meeting them will be a multiyear process.”
We all agree there’s a huge problem. As the economy becomes progressively more knowledge intensive, children who fail at school relegate themselves to the economic margins for their lifetimes — creating an immense human tragedy and economic burden. Across the philosophical spectrum, we all agree this is a fundamental issue that must be dealt with.
Unfortunately, we are nowhere near a consensus on knowing how to move forward. The reason is that the factors affecting educational performance are so extraordinarily complex, as recent posts on this blog and the responses to those posts make clear. How much of Virginia’s sub-standard educational performance relate to the stresses and pathologies of poverty? How much is tied to cultural values and priorities of different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups? How much can be blamed on broad cultural trends, such as the proliferation of video games or decline in the work ethic? How much can be attributed to the inequitable distribution of educational resources? How much can be pinned on teachers, principals and school teachers? And that hardly begins to exhaust the list of questions.
There are no clear-cut answers. The Virginia Department of Education makes more data available in searchable format than ever before. Yet the data is ambiguous enough that all of us can find support for our ideological prejudices. We debate endlessly. Thus, there is no clear way forward.
How do we achieve a clear path forward? Perhaps we need to ask that question before we start spouting remedies based upon ideological preconceptions. I would suggest two broad strategies.
First, experiment more. We learn from experimentation. Our public school system, governed
by overlapping federal, state and local bureaucracies, is not what anyone would describe as nimble or willing to take risks. We need to create an environment in which we take more small risks, which, if successful, we can replicate and, if failures, we can shut down.
Second, measure more. We can’t learn from experimentation unless we measure the results.
What should we experiment and measure? Everything! Test and measure new pedagogies, especially those that integrate computer and online technologies. Test and measure charter schools. Test and measure the impact of smaller or bigger classrooms. Test and measure different programs for rewarding teachers. Test and measure pre-school programs and the impact they have academic performance in later years. Test and measure the impact of programs like Communities in Schools, an organization that puts staff in schools to help kids at risk by finding matching resources among the multitude of government and not-for-profit programs.
If we don’t experiment and measure, we’ll continue as we have: arguing much and settling little. Applying the social scientific method can tell us what works and what doesn’t. We’ll still argue over the validity of the tests and the meaning of the results, but we’ll be waging debates within much narrower parameters more closely tethered to the real world. The alternative, to continue as we have been, will yield us more of the same — and that’s one thing, we all agree, we don’t want.
(This first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on September 17, 2014)