Back To School

Photo by Bill Pike

When I was a kid, summer seemed endless. In August 1975, I entered the teaching profession. For the next thirty one years, I learned that summer doesn’t last forever.

In Virginia, it is good that school systems are starting classes before Labor Day. Who knows maybe our push away from an agrarian calendar will nudge school system leaders to develop year round schools.

One of the best things about schools opening before Labor Day is back to school sale ads end. Those ads can be annoying like political ads.

On Thursday, August 18, the Virginia Department of Education released the annual results from the Standards of Learning tests that students take each year. Release of the scores always generates media headlines and comments from appointed and elected officials.

It should be no surprise that for the second consecutive year, student performance was down when compared to results before school systems were slammed by COVID-19. This was despite efforts from school systems to maintain learning by switching from in person instruction to virtual instruction.

I believe it will take students, their families, and teachers years to recover from this significant disruption. Unfortunately, the family and technology infrastructure needed to make virtual instruction successful was not always in place.

Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, stated on Thursday: “We were addressing an achievement gap before the pandemic and now we have even more ground [to make up] today.”

Why are we always trying to recover ground related to achievement gaps in Virginia?

In 1998, Virginia’s students started taking SOL tests. What have we learned from twenty four years of testing data? Are we better equipped to understand students, their families, our communities, schools, and teachers?

For example, during the pandemic in single parent homes does the data capture the impact of older siblings missing multiple middle and high school classes to assist younger siblings?

Does the data uncover the effect disruptive students have on their learning, and the learning of classmates?

Does the data reveal the consequences of prolonged achievement gaps?

Are these gaps grounded in our inability to solve malignant challenges related to family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity?

Does the data capture the morale of teachers who everyday attempt to deliver quality instruction in challenging environments?

If we hope to recover instructional ground and close achievement gaps, we must commit to the hard work of answering those questions and more.

Continuing to place blame for unsatisfactory SOL test results on the shoulders of teachers and school system leaders by appointed and elected officials is misguided. Maybe a week shadowing a teacher in a challenging school could change some minds.

Since we are quick to blame disappointing SOL scores on teachers, I wonder if Governor Youngkin’s “tip line” saw an uptick in calls when the results were released. Additionally, I wonder if the “tip line” contributed to the current teacher shortage school systems face?

Truthfully, school systems always scramble to fill teaching positions before school opens. In 1975, I was a last minute hire.

We have witnessed many changes since 1975. Sometimes in immeasurable ways, students are affected by disruptive changes in their families and communities. Despite these changes, teachers are continually asked to handle our societal challenges while still delivering instruction.

Politicians babble about improving pay and benefits for teachers.

Yet, teachers consider respect and support just as critical as the pay and benefits. Interestingly, respect and support are essential for struggling students and their families too.

If we truly want to improve SOL test scores and close achievement gaps, we need to move beyond predictable political finger pointing.

With urgency, we must commit to a deeper dive into the troublesome data. In troubling data is a struggling student. We can no longer ignore the multiple needs of these students.

Understanding how the academic potential for these students is impacted by family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity is pivotal. If we fail to make this discovery for every struggling student, then we will see no improvement in SOL scores, nor will we close gaps in achievement.

Maybe this quote from Hidden Figures author, Margot Lee Shetterly, says it best: “You don’t get the good without the bad, but you really do have to see it all in order to make progress.”

In Virginia, if we are going to make progress with SOL scores and achievement gaps, we must work together “to see it all” for every student.

Author’s note: If you know a school teacher or someone connected to public education no matter the location, please consider sharing this piece with them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s