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The Urgency of Excellence: NDP K-12 Forum

By Mike Signer | March 8, 2012 | One Comment

At at time when government itself is under attack by a host of extremists in places like Richmond, it’s even clearer that improving public education goes to the very core of the Democratic mission.  Education is the most critical, sympathetic interaction many regular folks have with government.  It’s a key example of a core service.  And history shows that Virginia Democrats win when they stay on the offense on education, whether Chuck Robb, Doug Wilder, or Mark Warner.

But Virginia’s K-12 system is falling short for too many of our students, particularly those in socioeconomically vulnerable categories and areas.  NDPPAC took on this critical topic recently with a new Strategy Paper on K-12 reform titled “The Urgency of Excellence: Opportunity and Equity in Virginia’s K-12 System.”  We recently released this Strategy Paper in conjunction with a powerful panel of Virginia experts discussing these ideas.  The event was co-sponsored by the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

The panel included:

  • Abby Raphael, Chair, Arlington School Board
  • Dr. Kitty Boitnott, President, Virginia Education Association
  • Andy Rotherham, Partner, Bellwether Education Partners
  • Dmitri Mehlhorn, Chief Operating Officer, Students First.

You can watch video of the event here, and the Strategy Paper is below.


“Principles for Reform” Strategy Paper:

The Urgency of Excellence: Opportunity and Equity in Virginia’s K-12 System[1]

Introduction: The Virtue of Impatience

Virginia’s K-12 system deserves urgent reform.  Children’s lives depend on the schooling they receive in their formative years yet for too many young Virginians the system simply is not performing.  Just look at the facts:  In 2011, African-American students’ average reading scores were 22 points lower than white students—a gap that has persisted since 1998 despite years of remedial programs.  Latinos were 14 points behind in reading—worse than the eight point difference in 1998.  And, students who received free or reduced price school lunches were 26 points behind more well-off students.

These differences are not worthy of Virginia’s tremendous education heritage or our vigilant efforts to overcome the divisions and inequities of our past.  We need a strategy for how Virginia’s K-12 system can help our citizens, especially the youngest, achieve excellence now and secure our future success. We should begin from a crucial premise: all school systems in the Commonwealth, regardless of where they are located, should have the resources to provide the same level of educational quality to our children.  We need a new approach to K-12 education – an impatient approach that expects opportunity and equity now rather than later.

Principle #1:  Teacher Excellence

Teacher excellence is the single most important in school factor in children’s academic achievement and therefore in closing our achievement gaps.  Numerous factors help teachers succeed, including education, experience, and feedback.  But numerous factors hold them back including poor principals, inadequate compensation, underperforming colleagues, oppressive bureaucracy, and federal testing regimes.  New teachers can become more effective with the right levels of feedback and support.  Across Virginia, our school systems should enact effective programs for developing great teachers through creative, evidence-based methods.  These programs could include outside assessments of school environments rather than assessments based simply on test scores; limiting arbitrary rules such as restricting the number of minutes of class instruction delivered via high-tech media; and, focusing on holistic measures of student learning such as pupil engagement with and absorption of content as well as individual student improvement.

Teacher excellence is also held back by fiscal disparities across school systems.  Inequity in teacher pay by geographic location often results in the best teachers instructing the easiest students to teach while inexperienced or ineffective teachers struggle to reach the most challenging students.  Our teacher compensation structure must attract the best teachers in the country to teach Virginia’s children, regardless of geographic location or quality of the school system.

Our school systems should be enabled to hire the most qualified teachers, and we should honor and empower excellent teachers. To this end, we ought to consider programs such as Teach for America, which does not reach Virginia due to parochial and regional politics.  We ought to create a cadre of excellent, board-certified Virginia teachers supported by private and public donations and bonuses.  Finally, we should empower and train principals and vice principals to discipline and fire poorly-performing teachers during probation and regular evaluations, effectively eliminating so-called “tenure” in Virginia while avoiding the systemic bashing of these public servants.

Principle #2:  Expand Opportunity and Choice

We need to increase the diversity of Virginia’s school models.  Working with innovative leaders from around the Commonwealth and the country, we need to build a wide “ecosystem” of high-quality public options for students.  School districts need to look beyond in-school instruction to holistic, community-based programs that can help close achievement gaps and help children grow in healthy, safe communities so that their focus can be on learning when they are in school.

Charter schools are not a magic bullet for opting out of traditional schools.  However, we need an urgent and energetic discussion about the benefits of innovation and competition in Virginia’s education system.  We should consider expanding magnet schools across the Commonwealth.  They can disrupt the “neighborhood effect” where children are trapped according to their neighborhood’s socioeconomic status.  This will require working with local school boards to avoid parochial approaches that can stifle regional cooperation and institutional innovation.

We must also consider that some poorly-run schools need to be reformed or shut down.  Returning to some of the valuable lessons learned from Governor Mark Warner’s administration, we need to design systems and hire professionals that will enable the interventions necessary to turn around Virginia’s lowest-performing schools and districts.  Governor Warner’s emphasis on using “turn-around specialists” to target specific schools for short-term results should be revisited in light of new approaches, evidence, and fiscal realities.

Principle #3:  Innovate and Strive

Equality of opportunity means more than just closing the achievement gap.  A new regime of social and emotional learning (SEL) curricula can enhance the educational achievement of children while improving classroom management and decreasing the use of punitive practices such as suspensions.  Virginia should adopt SEL standards for all grade levels. Likewise, we should expand discipline reform programs, now employed in over a third of our school divisions, which reduce disciplinary referrals and suspensions and increase instruction.

We also must modernize the school day and school year.  The nine-month school year can stress low-income working families who don’t have resources for summer-month child care or learning opportunities, further setting children from these families behind in their educational attainment.  Studies show that increased instructional time, such as extending the school day and the school year itself, can offset the “summer slump” or “summer setback” problem among disadvantaged students.  Extended school-day or school-year programs also enable schools to focus on more in-depth learning and critical and creative thinking skills, rather than on test-centered learning.

Beyond allocation of resources, though, are successful pedagogical innovations.  These should be both macro- and micro-level strategies which may enhance the achievement level of all students or they may focus on individuals or groups. There are proven new systematic strategies and creative techniques that can be implemented including those based on new findings in brain chemistry and sociology.  For instance, recent research has found that constant rewards may decrease striving behavior whereas higher standards and a classroom culture of accountability can increase motivation.

Principle #4:  Beginning Early to Connect with Higher Ed

Currently, Virginia ranks 23rd nationally by attainment of bachelor’s degrees.  Virginia’s history is too proud to be in the middle of the pack. All Virginia children should have the same opportunities to pursue higher education—opportunities that begin before kindergarten and that are too often influenced by regional and socioeconomic disparities.  Northern Virginia has the highest rates of four-year college enrollment while Southwest Virginia has the lowest.  Promoting the linkage between K-12 education experiences and higher education options throughout the Commonwealth will increase opportunity for Virginia’s children.

Currently, many affluent school systems have college dual-enrollment programs while less-affluent school systems have technical-school enrollment programs.  All school systems, however, should offer a broad array of choices so that students can maximize their future potential in a variety of settings.  We should expand access across the Commonwealth to vocational and technical education, which in turn will create opportunities for highly-paid, high-skill jobs in growing tech sectors that do not require a four-year degree.  At the same time, opportunities for high school students to pursue dual-enrollment at the college level and technical courses will keep students engaged in education while developing career paths.

Finally, we should ensure that we are strategically equipping our students for the rigors of the 21st century, by expanding STEM education (Science, Technology, Education, and Math), and by linking these efforts with higher education and Virginia’s employers.  Wherever possible, we should strengthen the connection between STEM in K-12 and later achievement at the postsecondary level and adult employment.


[1] This paper was completed with the assistance of Mike Signer (writing and research), Valerie L’Herrou (writing and research), Mike Gubser (writing), Neal Modi (research and editing), and Catherine Hobbs (editing).


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One Response to The Urgency of Excellence: NDP K-12 Forum

  1. Linda Schulz says:

    The key points of this are well made and provocative. There is a huge hole in you suggestions, and that is universal pre-kindergarten and quality childcare/ preschool programs. Even with the highest quality teachers, curriculum, and intensified school year, we will still have large numbers of children who will fail to “make the grade” because they will not come to school ready to learn and will never catch up. Research shows that quality preschool education is associated with greater success in school, work and life. It is key to economic development and individual well-being.

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