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Plenty to Celebrate

Virginia’s public schools are getting the job done.

By Tom Allen

Here are some things that are true about public education:

    • It’s the foundation of our democracy and the path to opportunity and success for all our citizens.

    • It is very difficult, complicated and often frustrating work.

    • We can’t do without it.

    • To make it work well for everyone, it takes everyone’s help.

Now, here are two more things that are also true about public education:

    • It is under attack from a variety of directions and has been made a scapegoat for many of society’s problems.

    • Many people have been led to believe that public schools are “failing.”

And finally, here’s one last thing that’s true about public education:

    • Our public schools are not failing; in fact, in Virginia they’re doing outstanding work every day. Already among the nation’s best, our state’s schools continue to get better.

VEA President Meg Gruber is first in line to give kudos to the Commonwealth’s public schools and the dedicated educators who work in them. “In the past decade, we’ve asked more and more of our schools and the teachers and support professionals who serve Virginia’s students,” she says, “and we have risen to the challenge.

“We’re seeing significant increases in the graduation rate and smaller numbers of dropouts. Virginia students are out-performing students in other states on tests such as the SAT, the ACT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The state is increasing the difficulty of the Standards of Learning tests, but 93 percent of our schools remain fully accredited. We’re doing the job, and we’re doing it well.”
But you don’t have to just take the word of the president of the VEA about it: Virginia is looking good on a number of other, independent indicators, too.

The Board’s On Board
Let’s start with the “Annual Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Public Schools in Virginia,” issued by the state Board of Education. It notes that that 86 percent of our third-graders are reading on grade level; over half of our eighth-graders are taking Algebra I or a higher math class before they leave middle school; over half of our high school graduates are earning advanced studies diplomas; and that the three-year trends in each of those categories show a continued rise.

In addition, the Board’s report shows that the state’s on-time high school graduation rate has climbed to 88 percent, a rise of 7.2 percentage points since 2008. Graduation rates have also risen among Black and Hispanic students, each now topping 80 percent.

Three-year trends are also growing in the number of National Board Certified Teachers in the state; the number of at-risk 4-year-olds being helped by the Virginia Preschool Initiative; and the number of career and technical education students earning Board-approved credentials.

It’s not just organizations and individuals here in Virginia that are liking what they see in our public schools, either: For 2012-13, the Commonwealth’s public schools have been deemed the fourth best in the nation by Education Week, the premier national journal on schools, which does an annual “state of the states” analysis in a report called “Quality Counts.”

“Quality Counts” takes into consideration six broad areas of each state’s education efforts:  a “chance for success index” looking at links between education and a person’s outcomes throughout life; how teachers are trained, licensed and evaluated; K-12 student achievement; education funding; quality of academic standards; and school, college and career readiness.

Virginia’s schools earned a score of 82.9 and a grade of B, trailing only Maryland (B+), Massachusetts and New York (both also B’s). Our Commonwealth also ranked 9th in the country in the “chance for success” scoring.

Part of the beauty of these accomplishments is that they’re happening even as our schools fulfill their mission to educate every child that shows up. This isn’t always the way it works in other countries. Becky Austin of the Washington County Education Association had an opportunity to tour some schools in China last summer, and was told by a middle school principal there that about two-thirds of the students in her school would not go on to high school. There, only the top students get the chance to further their educations.

“In Virginia and across our nation, this is not true,” says Austin, who chairs VEA’s Instruction and Professional Development Committee. “We strive to not only educate every child but to remind them daily of the many wonderful opportunities that are available for them. I cannot imagine walking into one of my classrooms and telling my students that only 30 to 40 percent of them would be allowed to continue their education. Rather, I strive every day to remind every student that he or she has the potential to achieve great things and, through their education, they’ll find so many wonderful doors open for them.”

We Aced the Tests
Educators know that standardized tests are only one way students should be evaluated, but there’s no denying that test scores nonetheless play a huge role in the perception of schools today. So how do Virginia’s students stack up on test scores?

Rather well, it turns out.

Every student who wants to attend college knows about the SAT. In Virginia, the average SAT reading score in 2012 was 508, 17 points higher than the national average. The average math score for our students was 510, 5 points higher than the national average, and the average writing score was 492, topping the national average by 11 points.

On top of that, Virginia students in every ethnic group tracked by The College Board (American Indian, Asian, African American, Hispanic and White) outscored their peers nationwide on all three parts of the SAT.

The results are also impressive on the Advanced Placement (AP) tests: Virginia has the third highest percentage in the nation for its high school graduates taking AP exams and scoring a 3 or higher. The Commonwealth also stands 10th in the country among states that have achieved the highest positive change in the percentage of graduates participating in AP exams and succeeding on them.

In addition, 12 Virginia school divisions made The College Board’s 2012 AP District Honor Roll, which salutes localities that have increased access to AP tests and, at the same time, increased the percentage of students who earn at least a 3.

Is the “Virginia students outscored their peers nationwide and even more are now taking the test” mantra becoming a bit familiar? Well, that’s the thing about a mantra: it gets repeated a lot. It’s also true of our students and the ACT. The Commonwealth’s students’ average composite score tops the national average and, in 2012, more than 18,000 of our graduating high school seniors took the test, an increase of more than 5 percent.

Let’s leave our high-schoolers for a bit and consider some of Virginia’s younger students. Here’s a quote from a document published recently by the Virginia Department of Education (VDE): “A U.S. Department of Education analysis…shows that Virginia students have larger vocabularies and stronger passage-comprehension skills than their peers nationwide.”

That statement is based on the results of reading tests created by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and given to state fourth- and eighth-graders. VDE went on to point out that in only one state, Massachusetts, did fourth-graders perform statistically better than in Virginia.

Our eighth-graders were outscored by only three other states on the same tests.

While this is all well and good, most educators look far beyond testing.  “In the end, I’m not concerned with a test score,” says Sandra Barnstead, a middle school math teacher and member of the Spotsylvania Education Association.  “That’s just a number and it cannot possibly measure the impact I have on my students.  I know I make a difference in their lives—it shows years later when they come back to visit, tell me about all the things they’ve done, and how something I said or did helped them. I know I’ve made a difference when I see former students excelling in something, or when they tell me how they used to dislike math, but now they like it. I know I make a difference in my students’ lives when I watch them grow up and become better able to handle the problems, mathematical and social, that are thrown at them.”
Riley O’Casey of the Prince William Education Association agrees.  “I tell my students every year that if they pass my SOL test, I’ll be happy,” the middle school civics teacher says. “Even if you don’t pass my SOL test, but you walk out of these doors on the last day of school and remember that you have a voice and it’s okay to use it, I’ll still be happy. If you keep informed of current events and realize there is a huge world out there, I’ll be ecstatic. If you understand the importance of voting, register to vote, and actually do vote, my job is complete.”

Public schools and educators also must rise to meet the unique challenges of students with special needs, and Virginia is getting that job done, too. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Virginia is reducing the dropout rate for students with disabilities; exceeding the state goal for students with disabilities to take state assessments; and exceeding the state objective for increasing involvement among parents of special education students.

Beyond the Numbers
All of these feathers in the Commonwealth’s cap are very data-driven, and that’s great. It’s good to have different measures of our progress. But perhaps even more important is the anecdotal evidence of the work we’re doing that flows out of our schools every day.

“How do you measure a school?” asks Austin. “It’s simple. Walk into a classroom and watch the faces of the students during a science experiment which astounds them. Enter an English classroom and be transported to another world with simple words from fantastic stories created by budding authors.  Step back in time as you visit Ellis Island as an immigrant seeking a new home in a hands-on history lesson.  Attend a band or choral concert.  Come to a ball game and cheer for children learning the game as well as those who have mastered the skills to be wonderful athletes.  Join us for breakfast or sit with a group at lunch. Everyone will tell you how great their school is. They’ll talk about their favorite teachers and their least favorite subject.  Listen to what they say and you’ll know the only way to measure a school is the success of each child.” 

There are hundreds of stories across Virginia that happen every time the buses pull up in front of our schools to kick off a new day—the little breakthroughs, the new understandings, the conversations, the relationships formed, the obstacles overcome, the stretching, the growth and the tastes of success. These things are more significant to educators than any test scores or national rankings, and are the reasons we show up for work every day.

“It takes a special kind of person to be an educator,” says Barnstead. “You have to have the ability to inspire and motivate, while also having high expectations for students to succeed. It seems that even though we’re working so hard to make a difference every day, we’re still facing public criticism telling us we’re not doing their jobs. And the truth is, Virginia educators are doing our jobs and doing them extremely well.”

What makes the job our teachers are doing even more impressive are the circumstances they’re doing it under. Funding provided by the Commonwealth for our schools has been cut some 20 percent since 2009. As a result, Virginia now ranks 38th in the country in per-pupil funding contributed by the state, despite being the ninth wealthiest state in the U.S. In addition, our teachers’ salaries fall more than $7,000 below the national average.

“Virginia students, schools and educators deserve the appropriate funding to sustain the excellent work that is being done across the state,” says Barnstead. “Yes, educators work miracles every day, but there will be a time when we’re unable to keep spending our own money, time and resources to get the job done.”

 O’Casey thinks at least one group of stakeholders could use a reality check. “Those who are essential to our continued success, our legislators, have very little idea of what educators do every day,” she says. “I challenge our lawmakers to step into an educator’s shoes—one day will introduce you to public education; one week will change your life!” 

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.

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