Middle School Mess

We have noticed that Richmond’s elementary schools have performed fairly well but our middle schools have not.

(Well, at least that was true before the new math tests in 2012 and the new reading tests in 2013 whacked both Richmond’s elementary and middle school pass rates.)

This suggests a question: Is it all those hormones affecting middle school students or are Richmond’s middle schools unusually awful?

We can get a look at the situation by following class performance of the same group of students from year to year.

For example, here are the reading pass rates for Richmond and the state for third graders in 2006, fourth graders in 2007, etc., up to eighth graders in 2011.

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Hmmm.  Hormones or not, it looks like Richmond took fifth graders who performed just below the state average in elementary school and dropped them by ten points in the sixth grade.

Here is the same graph, following the 2007 third graders.

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And the 2008 third graders.

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This last graph paints much the same picture (well, actually middle school performance was deteriorating), except that the new tests in 2013 lowered the state average for this group by seventeen points but clobbered the Richmond pass rate by thirty-three percent.

The math data show similar patterns, except that the new tests came in 2012 when the 2007 third graders reached the eighth grade.

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Thus we see that the pre-teen and early teen years have left reading performance essentially untouched and math performance somewhat reduced in Virginia but brought much impaired performance in both subject areas in Richmond. 

The obvious explanation: It’s not the kids; Richmond’s middle schools are particularly awful.

But, then, we already suspected that.

Mr. Federal Fixit(?)

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included $3 billion for School Improvement Grants.  Of course there’s an acronym, “SIG.”

The program awarded grants to states that agreed to implement one of four intervention models in their lowest-performing schools: transformation, turnaround, restart, or closure.

We now have a report (pdf) from the Federales that evaluates the effect of those funds.  In short:

  • Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG-funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.
  • When we compared student achievement gains from different models in elementary grades (2nd through 5th), we found no evidence that one model was associated with larger gains than another. For higher grades (6th through 12th), the turnaround model was associated with larger student achievement gains in math than the transformation model. However, factors other than the SIG model implemented, such as baseline differences between schools implementing different models, may explain these differences in achievement gains.

Is it any wonder, then, that our Board of “Education” does not know how to fix Richmond’s awful schools?

Educational “Leadership”

I have pointed out that our Board of “Education” knows how to identify broken schools but does not know how to fix them

We get confirmation, and a partial explanation, in the Times-Dispatch this morning.  The former President of the Board writes:

The solutions offered in the past have been new teachers, new principals, new math programs, new reading programs, leadership development and more. None of them have (sic) worked.

There you have it in microcosm: This former leader of the Board understands that the Board has failed but does not understand subject-verb agreement. 

(For a contrary view of “none have” see this.)

No wonder they can’t fix anything.

Final(?) Accreditation Results

Just a week ago, VDOE announced that the accreditation data for Bellevue, Franklin, and Patrick Henry had been recalculated and that the three schools were fully accredited. 

So we got to redo the Richmond reportAgain.

The latest data are here.  The totals disagree slightly with the table on the VDOE Web site; I’ll bet you a #2 lead pencil that they updated the spreadsheet but not the table.

In any case, here are the data.  On the revised count, we have 2.5% of the schools in Virginia, 17% of the 93 schools rated “Accreditation Denied,” and 8.4% of the 333 schools that were not fully accredited.

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Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be MiddleSchoolers

REPOST: Some Fool neglected to include Henderson data in the post earlier today.

The estimable Carol Wolf was amused by my pass rate graphs for Petersburg and asked if I could do the same for Richmond’s appalling middle schools.

Well, I supplied the adjective there.  But, in any case, Excel makes graphs easy.

First, the reading data.  For reference: The accreditation level for the reading tests is 75 and VDOE’s mystery “adjustments” will raise most pass rates by a few points.

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Next, math.  The accreditation level is 70.

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Looks like something good is happening at Boushall.  The numbers still are far from acceptable but the trends are righteous.

It’s hard to parse out the by-grade variation from those graphs but Excel is glad to rearrange the data:

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Pity the middle schoolers (partial exception for Franklin Military) whose parents can’t afford to move to Hanover.

Bedden Takes Out an Insurance Policy

Richmond’s public schools have a spectacular record of failure. 

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Before the new math tests in 2012 and the new English and science tests in 2013, the Richmond pass rates were merely awful.  Since then, the rates have been perfectly appalling.  Indeed, since the advent of the new tests, only Richmond’s reading scores have improved vs. the state average but even the reading pass rates remain behind by 19.9%.

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The history & social science scores have dropped, both before and after the new tests in the other subjects.

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Our new Superintendent had a chance to shine in 2015: His predecessor had failed to align the curricula to the new tests.  Simply by doing his basic job, Superintendent Dana Bedden had a chance for a bounce in the scores. 

Bedden started here in January 2014, so we can look for the Bedden Bounce in the ‘14-15 numbers.  The data above perhaps show a bounce in math that year, undone by a drop in 2016; otherwise no bounce.  More details here.

Bedden points out that change is disruptive and, in the short term, the disruption will look like failure.  For sure, the current numbers look like failure. 

This year, Bedden suggested and our (soon to be former) School Board requested a “division-level review” by the Board of Education.  That Board granted the request.

To place that request in context, we should notice that our Board of Education has a spectacular record of failure in achieving compliance with the Standards of Quality

The paradigm is Peabody Middle School in Petersburg.  Peabody has been failing since at least 2002; Petersburg has been operating under Memoranda of Understanding with the State Board since at least 2004 (video of 9/21/16 at 1:48:30).  Peabody still is unaccredited. 


The Board of Education has the authority to fire a superintendent for cause and to sue a school district for failure to meet the Standards of Quality.  It has never done either, even in Petersburg.

We now know why.  Consistent with their record of failure, they don’t know how to fix broken schools (Sept. 21, 2016 video starting at 1:48).  If they were to sue, they would have to tell the judge what the school division must do to meet the standards.  Since they don’t know, they wisely don’t sue.

Thus, Bedden’s brilliant ploy.  There are two possibilities here:

  • I.  Richmond’s schools improve and the division achieves accreditation.  Bedden takes credit for getting needed help and fixing our broken schools.  He demands a raise.
  • II. More likely, Richmond’s schools continue to fail.  Bedden points out that even the State can’t fix our awful schools and he’s done everything humanly possible.  He demands a raise.

That’s a win-win situation. 

Good move, Dana!

Starting at the Beginning

In conversation on October 6, our Superintendent remarked that fixing the Richmond public schools will be disruptive and, in the short term, the disruption will look very much like failure.

Said otherwise, things will have to get worse before they can get better.

He shared with me a document that supports his argument.

Superintendent Bedden started here in January, 2014.  That November, at his request, the Council of the Great City Schools sent a “Strategic Support Team” to audit the RPS Human Resources Dep’t. 

(First things first: If you don’t have good people, you can’t have an effective organization.)

The six-member team visited Richmond in November and issued its report in December, 2014. 

The report takes a third of a page to make four “Commendations” (e.g., HR staff are “hard working and dedicated to their assigned tasks”). 

Then it spends just over five pages listing the problems the team found.  The first two items set the tone:

The leadership of the HR Department has not established a vision or direction for the organization and there is a general lack of foresight and planning.

The department appears to suffer from a culture of complacency, stifles new ideas, and protects the status quo, all of which is compounded by a defeatist attitude that suggests that RPS is the “employer of last resort,” as one interviewee put it.

The recommendations then go on for another two+ pages.  Some samples:

1. Re-structure the HR Department to reflect the employment life cycle of on-boarding (recruitment, selection, hiring, and placement), retention (servicing, development, and promotion), and discharging (retirement, termination, and out-placement).

6. Ensure that HR functions have qualified people, with applicable skill sets, in the appropriate positions.  [Ouch!]

7. Require and hold HR leadership accountable for establishing a vision and direction for the organization and changing the departmental culture to one focused on the successful achievement of goals and objectives.

The entire report is a dispassionate and detailed memorial to the awful leadership of the previous superintendent(s). 

To the point here, it also testifies to the Brobdingnagian task facing our current Superintendent.  I’m beginning to think that he’ll need more than the three years he’s had to clean up the mess that is RPS.

It’s Good to Stop Blaming the Victims

Back in 2015, our Superintendent fell into the old Richmond trap of blaming the kids for the lousy performance of our schools.  Well, to be fair, he just talked about the high rates of poverty, the large numbers of handicapped students, and our growing ESL population.  His meaning was clear, however.

To his credit, we haven’t heard much of that from him since then. 

As part of my project to learn (altogether too slowly, I think) to use Excel to examine the performance of our schools, I have revisited data that support such restraint. 

Let’s start with the pass rates of economically disadvantaged (“ED”) students in Richmond and statewide, compared with the non-ED population.  In these graphs, “No” indicates students who are not classified as economically disadvantaged, “Yes,” those who are.

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(Notice the score decreases from the new, tougher reading tests in 2013 and the new math tests a year earlier.)

We know that standardized test scores decrease with increasing ED, so it’s no surprise to see the ED scores lower than the non-ED, both in Richmond and statewide. 

To the point here, Richmond’s economically disadvantaged students are underperforming their peers statewide.  Likewise, our students who are not economically disadvantaged also are underperforming the state non-ED students.

(Hint: This suggests that poverty may not be the problem with the low test scores in Richmond.)

Next, the students with disabilities.

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Pretty much the same pattern.

Last, the immigrant (search for “limited English proficient”) students.

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Without dwelling on the data on the pre-2012 tests (and Richmond’s wholesale cheating there), we can extract a clear message: Economically disadvantaged or not, disabled or not, immigrant or not, Richmond’s students are underperforming their Virginia peers. 

You can choose your explanation: Either there is a stupidity virus that infects children’s brains inside the city limits or Richmond’s children are being afflicted by a lousy school system.  Actually, there’s only one explanation: That stupidity virus is the Richmond Public Schools.

Where Have All the Students Gone?

The VDOE database provides fall enrollments by year for Virginia and for its school divisions and individual schools.  The Richmond data tell a sad story.

To start, here are the 2016 data by grade, expressed as percentages of the 9th grade “membership” (that’s educratese for enrollment).

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The ninth grade bump in enrollment is a national phenomenon, brought on by schools that hand out social promotions until the kids hit high school and start flunking courses that are required for graduation.  Virginia has a modest ninth grade bump; Richmond, a huge one.

We can tease out the grade-on-grade changes from these data.

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The statewide enrollment is close to flat until the ninth grade bump.  Then the dropouts reduce the numbers in the higher grades.

In Richmond, the enrollment decreases in every grade except the 9th and 12th.

We see an 11% drop after the first round of SOL testing in the third grade.  Then the parents who recognize the quality of or middle schools and can do something to avoid those schools produce a 12% drop after the fifth grade. 

The 5% per year enrollment erosion then continues through middle school.

In Richmond, the ninth grade bump produces an enrollment increase of 23% over the 8th grade number.  Then the dropouts reduce the (already inflated) enrollment by 21% in the tenth grade and 11% in the eleventh.

In Richmond, the 12th grade enrollment increases slightly, probably representing students who hang on past twelve years to pursue a diploma.

What does it take to improve the Richmond numbers?  Easy:

  • Improve the elementary schools so the onset of SOL testing in the third grade does not drive out ill-prepared students;
  • Improve the (awful) middle schools so the parents of rising sixth graders can stay in Richmond and students entering high school can do the ninth grade work; and
  • Improve the high schools, with an emphasis on reducing dropouts and helping our students graduate.

Well, easy to say.  Impossible to do, at least for our current school board.

For more details, see this.

Elkhardt-Thompson: A Place to Send Your Enemy’s Kids

The middle school for our neighborhood was Thompson, now Elkhardt-Thompson.  This is a “new” school, produced by combining two awful middle schools.  In 2014, Elkhardt was warned and Thompson was denied accreditation.  In 2015, the combined school was conditionally accredited as a “new” school.   This year, it was warned in English, math, and science.  Data are here.

The VDOE database no longer reports pass rates for Elkhardt and Thompson; there only are data for the combined school and only for this year.  Those few data do not paint a pretty picture:  In reading, writing, math, and science, the high pass rate was 50% in 7th grade reading; in every other case more than half the kids flunked.  The low note was 7th grade math, with a 31% pass rate, i.e., a 69% failure rate.

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Recall that the benchmark for accreditation in English is 75%; for the other subjects it is 70%.

VDOE does not report a pass rate for history at this school.  But they found one somewhere to produce an accreditation score:

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Elkhardt-Thompson gets three years of warning before it can lose accreditation.  That is, it gets four years to deny a decent education to children from South Richmond before the State steps in. 

Unfortunately, both history and admissions of the Board members (Sept. 21, 2016 video starting at 1:48) tell us that the Board of Education Fecklessness does not know how to fix such awful schools, so it’s hard to see an end to this assault on our children.

Your $22.3 million tax dollars per year at “work.”