This is an exciting time in the school reform movement — and not only because of teacher quality reforms happening in Tennessee and other states. Throughout the country, parents — especially those from poor and minority households — are starting to do battle with defenders of traditional public education and pushing to take their place at the head of the table of education decision-making.
In California, the parents who are members of Parent Revolution are battling school districts, affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and even the state board of education in order to lead overhauls of the Golden State’s worst failure mills. The effort by the majority of parents at McKinley Elementary School to replace the Compton Unified School District as managers of the school — now tied up in litigation — is particularly pleasing because it is the first use of the state’s Parent Trigger law giving families the ability to actually shape how schools are overhauled.
Meanwhile in Connecticut, Gwen Samuel and the newly-formed Connecticut Parents Union is challenging the state to actions such as April’s arrest of homeless mother Tanya McDowell, who was charged with what can only laughingly be called stealing education, and demanding that the Nutmeg State offer parents school choice if it won’t hold districts accountable for student achievement. (Your Dropout Nation editor is an advisory board member for the organization.) The work the CTPU is doing — including imploring the state legislature to pass a law banning the use of reverse seniority, or Last In-First Out, rules in teacher layoffs (particularly in the worst-performing urban districts receiving federal School Improvement Grant dollars) — should inspire all of us to fight harder for every child, especially our own.
But as wonderful as this may be, there are still far too many states in which parents have not fully rallied to push for school reform. And one of those states is Virginia, which has long been perceived to have many of the best-performing districts in the nation. That perception, however, is not reality. And Virginia’s parents will have to fight as hard as — if not harder than — parents in other states just to push reform ahead.
Based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis of federal and state high school data, the Old Dominion’s five-year graduation rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) has barely budged, from 84 percent for the Class of 2005 to 86 percent for the Class of 2009, trailing the progress made by more-aggressive school reform states in the region such as Tennessee (from 74 percent to 84 percent) and outside of it (New York State, for example, which went from 72 percent to 77 percent in that time). And this doesn’t consider the fact that Virginia’s kids are being given mediocre math instruction (rated C by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) and the overall curricula is not even close to world class. Add in the fact that 5 percent of graduates are earning so-called “modified standard” and “special” diplomas (which allows their schools to avoid teaching them Algebra I and other state-mandated requirements), and that the pace of improvement in reading (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) has slowed compared to states such as Florida, and the Old Dominion is falling behind.
Once one digs deeper — and looks at results over the past five years — the reality gets more depressing. Just 61 percent of young black men in eighth grade attending Richmond’s public schools in the 2004-2005 school year were promoted to their senior year five years later, only slightly better than the rate for 8th-grade black men who were in the exiting graduating Class of 2005; the Promoting Power (or Balfanz) Rate for Latino males and Latino females declined, respectively, from 50 percent and 67 percent to 44 percent and 19 percent in that five-year period. In Alexandria, the Balfanz Rate for black males in the Class of 2009 was 73 percent, not much better than for the Class of 2005; for Latino males, it had declined from 70 percent to 68 percent (rates for Latino and black females have improved, from, respectively, 71 percent to 92 percent and from 93 percent to 97 percent). While some districts in the state (notably the Henrico County district outside of Richmond and Augusta County in the Shenandoah Valley) have done better, and the state has had some improvements, it doesn’t mean all is well. Some of the relatively low levels of attrition, for example, can be easily attributed to the state’s otherwise strong population growth. But when one looks at other metrics of student performance, it is clear that children — especially those from poor and minority families — aren’t being well-served at all.
Yet the Old Dominion’s education traditionalists and many of its political leaders are unwilling to get off the snide. This was clear last year when the state board of education decided to not adopt Common Core State Standards in reading and math even though it is clear that much of what’s in place — particularly in math — falls below the rigor of what they have rejected. Even more of this shamefulness was on display earlier this year when black politicians in the Old Dominion’s state senate voted to kill a school choice plan that would have allowed poor and minority parents to keep their kids out of the worst American public education offers. Over the past couple of years, those politicians, along with the NAACP branch there, the state school board association and the NEA’s affiliate, have fought tooth-and-nail against expanding the number of charter schools in the state and other overhaul measures. While some parents have tangled with these education traditionalists — and in the case of long time state Sen. Henry Marsh, have even called out them out — there hasn’t been a mass movement for reform from parents.
In some ways, this isn’t surprising. When it comes to school reform, Virginia is the place where such efforts die. Even in a state that is home to some of the most-influential movers in the national school reform movement, neither the state’s newspapers (including the supposedly august Richmond Times-Dispatch) nor its business leaders — often the prime movers in pushing for reform — have taken up the cause in the way their colleagues in states such as Indiana have done. The lack of strong grassroots reform groups on the ground who can actually inform families about the low quality of teaching and curricula in traditional schools and also agitate for robust, thorough data systems, has also been a problem.
Meanwhile the leadership on the gubernatorial side of the statehouse has been absent. While Gov. Bob McDonnell did successfully push to abolish some restrictions on the growth of charters (and backed this year’s school choice plan), he has otherwise been AWOL on reform. Same for Gerard Robinson, the former president of Black Alliance for Educational Options, who now heads the state education secretariat. Although it can be argued that Robinson has little mandate to push for reform, it’s hard to tell if he’s even built it up in the first place. Given his school reform credentials, Robinson could easily use his bully pulpit to rally parents, business leaders and grassroots activists to push harder and faster on behalf of the children in the care of the schools he oversees.
But Virginia’s parents can’t despair about the unwillingness of state leaders or even national organizations such as the NAACP to pursue systemic reform. There are plenty of school reform outfits — many right across the Potomac in Washington, D.C. — who can play their part. There are also the growing number of Parent Power groups, including Parent Revolution and the Connecticut Parents Union, who can offer advice on how to leverage the voice of families for action. There is even the lessons that can be gleaned from the civil rights movement and efforts by earlier generations of parents in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood that can guide efforts in the Old Dominion. And, of course, your editor is also willing to offer advice to any Virginia parent activist ready to take up the charge. Especially since this is my home state (and one of several states I always maintain a particular interest).
Virginia’s children deserve better than mediocrity and failure. And only an army of families can force the reforms that must happen now.