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Ironically, the VDOE Accountability Listening Tour Lacks Both Transparency and Accountability

VDOE Accountability Listening Sessions: Make your voice heard by April 19th

The session had the sheen of input, but lacked the rigor and transparency of true public engagement.

Report on the 4/4/24 VDOE Listening Session

Last Thursday, 4 Public Education President Cheryl Binkley and I drove an hour out to Manassas during rush hour traffic for the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) Accountability Listening Session. We hoped to learn about planned changes and provide much-needed input, particularly after reading Board Member Anne Holton’s call to arms. Instead, we learned that we need to keep a close eye on this process, and it may already be too late.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind on the VDOE efforts to change accountability and accreditation measures for public schools, but there are too many red flags, which we will delve into, including: 

  • A lack of transparency (e.g. What data points are being changed?)

  • Inadequate measures

  • A lack of awareness (or interest in) of the role that equity plays in school success

  • Use of education reform consultants

  • A reliance on data from school privatization outfits

  • A rushed process that has deterred and diminished Virginia stakeholder engagement and input

VDOE Superintendent of Instruction Dr. Lisa Coons and her staff were organized and knowledgeable; nevertheless, I came out of the meeting more concerned than ever about VDOE plans and potential deleterious impact on our public schools, student opportunity, and teacher retention. The rushed process made it clear that the performance measures were immature and far from adequate to measure growth, readiness, and excellence of our students or schools. 

Before discussing my concerns, first I must make a pitch for everyone to be involved in this process:

  • Attend the Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) business meeting on Thursday April 25, 2024. Sign up here to address the Board, submitting no later than 5:00 p.m. the day before the scheduled business meeting. VBOE business meetings will be held in the James Monroe Building, 101 N. 14th Street, Richmond, VA 23219 beginning at 9 am.

  • If you cannot attend, fill out a public comment form. They have no video component to respect the needs of a working parent or someone who cannot travel to Richmond from great distances. Feedback is due by COB 4/19.

Lack of Transparency

The funny thing was that “transparency” was the word of the hour at the VDOE meeting. If it had been a drinking game based on the number of times VDOE used the word “transparency” related to the accountability efforts, all three dozen of us would have been drunk within the first 10 minutes of the Accountability Listening Session.

Despite the overuse of the word “transparency,” the meeting lacked transparency on two key issues: 1) What were the old measures versus the new suggested measures, and 2) Why were the old accountability measures considered to be inadequate? In my previous life, I did change management to create more efficient and effective processes. My first step was always to understand the current process and how it worked before I suggested changes. Unfortunately in the VDOE Listening Sessions, we were not given that information, thus it was hard to understand the old system of measures versus the proposed new system of measures. 

What were the old measures, which measures changed, and why were those measures changed? I would have liked those answers during the meeting, because it would have given me confidence that change was necessary and that the changes recommended were positive changes.

I did a little digging to find where the current system is located, and found that school quality profiles are available and that they provide significant amounts of information that is entirely transparent, including school-level information. Repeatedly, VDOE said certain information just wasn’t available, but I found the current system had school profiles that provided lots of illuminating tabs filled with critical accountability information. Unfortunately, I found the ESSA School Quality Indicators Summary tab to be pretty incomprehensible; however, I think that it is a data and organization issue and not a content issue that requires a complete overhaul, as recommended by VDOE.

Inadequate Measures Lacking Equity

Most comments in the 4/4 Listening Session were concerned that new measures ignored equity and other indicators of student learning in Virginia public schools. For example, it is known that schools with high percentages of students who live in poverty struggle with standardized test scores, attendance, and access to rigorous higher-level curricula, yet these were recommended by the VDOE as the key measures of success for schools! 

VDOE Accountability Listening Session Example for Elementary Schools

The indicators (see above and slide 17 in VDOE presentation) for Middle School readiness produced some interesting discussion. One new indicator is a performance task, separate from a traditional SOL, to test student abilities using critical thinking, communication, collaboration, citizenship, and creativity. This generated excitement over the 5 Cs, but also great concern that such a student product would be analyzed and graded by artificial intelligence. It is important to note that this would be tested in 5th grade, since VDOE considers middle school to be grades 6-8.

VDOE Accountability Listening Session Example for Middle Schools
VDOE Accountability Listening Session Example for High Schools

To make matters worse, readiness in middle school and high school (see above and slides 19 and 21 in VDOE presentation) was based on taking courses ABOVE grade level. Why is readiness for high school is based on taking high school level courses, many of which often aren’t available in rural and smaller schools? For example, courses like Algebra and Geometry may routinely be available in Northern Virginia (i.e., Region 4) middle schools, but may not be available in smaller, more rural districts. Also, evaluating high schools based on how many students take Advanced Placement (AP) courses or pass AP and IB exams, both of which cost money, shows a troubling lack of consideration of school districts that are unable to provide such higher level courses due to lack of resources, students and teachers. 

Repeatedly, public input focused on the need to recognize differences among schools, including how these revised accountability measures would have negative impacts on schools with large numbers of immigrant, lower income, and English language learning students.

One of the measures receiving the most criticism was the chronic absenteeism measure, which few schools are able to meet at this time. Even well-funded schools might find it difficult to meet the chronic absenteeism threshold in that measure. Dr. Coons stated that a school could lose accreditation on chronic absenteeism alone in the new system, which means many of our schools could lose accreditation overnight. Not cool at all.

Some accountability ideas that sparked interest in the crowd included those that might measure civic engagement; however, we did not have time during our session to discuss these fully or identify measurable student civic or learning activities to quantify for such a measure. 

Involvement of Education Reformers and Privatizers

I am just a parent, so I’m not well-versed in the history of education reform which has impacted K-12 public education; however, I have witnessed privatization movements push to take public funds from our public schools and put them into experimental charter schools or private schools. What is the real goal of new accountability measures and how will they hurt or help our schools?

Thus, I always look into who the consultants are who are managing the process: are they really pro-public schools, or do they lean toward privatizing public education? With the VDOE, I’m wondering how they hired these consultants (e.g., by competitive bid) and what is the success rate of these consultants? 

I had trouble finding much on the primary consultants working on this, the Hunt Institute. Their web pages do not ring alarm bells, but they don’t allay my concerns either. One major concern is that they are not actively partnering with the National PTA, a grassroots organization that has existed for over 125 years and has over a century of knowledge and partnerships that would be useful. Instead, the Hunt Institute partners with National Parents Union, a four year old group with dubious funding sources and questionable motives regarding public education. 

Additionally, the VDOE is relying on data and recommendations from the Fordham Institute, a well-known school privatization “think tank” based out of Ohio. By the way, Ohio is 19th in school ranking, while Virginia is 4th, which makes recommendations from Fordham doubly suspect.

Diminished Virginia Stakeholder Engagement and Input

We attended the Region 4 session which represents 19 counties, 131 school districts, and 2,258 schools/centers. This means that the listening session represented the interests of 472,241 students and untold employees and parents/guardians–i.e., 37% of the public school student population of Virginia. How is it possible that the 29 people in the room could possibly represent the interests of 37% of the public education students, never mind the parents, teachers, administrators, and taxpayers?

If only 29 people attended the Listening Session, that means their voices represented the voices of nearly a half-million public school children and millions of other stakeholders. Yet, the audience had very few parents, only one school board member (shoutout to FCPS’ own Melanie Meren!), stakeholders from nonprofits, the President of Virginia PTA, school principals, and teachers. There were even two Moms for Liberty attendees who made no comments and left early.

Types of feedback requested by the VDOE on Accountability

There was little time for input, and repeatedly Dr. Coons had to rush through questions to ensure that we reviewed the entire VDOE presentation. We were told what input they didn’t want, but it was hard for most of us, especially a novice parent like me, to understand what they wanted. Slide 9 (above to the right) showed the types of feedback the VDOE wanted from the public: performance task or specific courses under middle school advanced coursework, weights of the specific indicator bullets within each category, etc.

Additionally, I sensed a scolding tone from Dr. Coons in response to some questions, particularly from Cheryl and me. At first, I thought this was because I wrote last week’s blog, but they wouldn’t have known that. Then I thought it was because I used the word “equity” in my comment, which may be forbidden after Youngkin just closed the Equity Office. Cheryl informed me that it was likely because of our yellow 4 Public Education shirts, which have become well-known at VDOE and VBOE meetings during public input. Nonetheless, the responses didn’t feel friendly or respectful. I felt like Youngkin’s VDOE had no intention of listening to any parents, except maybe cherry-picked parents whose comments are more aligned with VDOE’s plans.

Finally, the lack of a VBOE member felt like a slap in the face to the largest region in the Commonwealth. I also have questions about how our responses will be documented and forwarded to the VBOE, since there were no cameras in the room. I would hope that Youngkin’s strong opinions about Loudoun County School Board video requirements would mean that he would ensure full documentation of public input at his own meetings. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the lack of video from last year’s History SOL input from hundreds of Virginians, I suspect that Youngkin doesn’t feel his own agency’s need to follow sunshine rules.

What Can You Do?

Despite all of these concerns, I do want to emphasize that the VDOE staff were polite and the meeting was well-run. We were welcomed upon arrival, and were given handouts and a QR code for feedback. I liked that they used a microphone, which makes things more accessible for all. Big TVs with presentations, combined with handouts also increased accessibility and comprehension. For the most part, they listened patiently, except when they hurried us up with our comments and questions because the 1.5 hours allotted for the meeting was nowhere near enough even with the tiny crowd. 

I don’t know who is responsible for the deficiencies outlined above. Is this a Youngkin directive? Is this coming from the VBOE or VDOE? I have no idea as the origin was not provided. But the fears I expressed before I attended the session were realized during the 4/4 VDOE meeting, and I’m not sure what we can do except show up, provide clear input, and keep records of how this effort is proceeding. So, please consider signing up to address the VBOE on 4/25. If you cannot attend, fill out a public comment form by 4/19. Check out the full VDOE presentation here to understand major concerns outlined above and others, including:

  • Cost of implementing these new measures, particularly with adding testing and data gathering.

  • Lack of equity and understanding of different school populations.

  • Expectations of middle and high schoolers to do above grade level work

  • Heavy weight and negative effects of SOLs and chronic absenteeism.

  • Low weight of on-time graduation.

  • Concerns that the new accountability/accreditation standards won’t actually help schools perform better, but will rate them nonetheless.


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