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EDU FAQ #001: Where do we even start?

We’re breaking down the state of education, one problem at a time. And it may take awhile, because those are a lot of problems!



Photo by: ruberti

Spend any amount of time talking to folks with children, and it won’t take long to realize that no one agrees on what the most pressing issues facing public education are in Richmond.1 What everyone can agree on is that there are problems, big ones, and they are scary.

Unfortunately, most of these conversations devolve into vague ponderings about really large issues that overwhelm even the savviest educational experts. Trying to appraise the state of education at a macro level will send you spinning in a million directions, and the hopelessness that ensues will inevitably force you to consider homeschooling2 or never having children in the first place. But even if kids aren’t your thing, or yours have left the nest, paying attention to education is a necessity for the success of the region’s continued revitalization. Those who graduate from Richmond Public Schools enter the workforce as employees, entrepreneurs, and leaders and having this type of highly educated citizenry has a substantial impact on crime rates, property values, health care costs, economic development, and the future workforce.

But even if kids aren’t your thing, or yours have left the nest, paying attention to education is a necessity for the success of the region’s continued revitalization.

Yet, the issues are vast. Experts tirelessly research and debate them all of the time. Every day, it seems, an article is published discrediting the findings of the last published research that touted the most effective way to do all of the teaching things! What was hot today is inevitably not tomorrow. It leads to confusion, frustration, and a sense of despair.

For those facing education decisions now or in the future, those decisions can be paralyzing, especially when you don’t have the time or energy (you have kids! maybe? jobs! friends! hobbies! who has time and energy?) to do the real reading and research to truly understand the scope of the issues that contribute to quality education. For those without kids, they feel education discussions don’t apply to them, while others wait until they have their first kid to start considering their options, only to find that an investment in education had to start well before the kids arrived if they hoped to impact changes before their kid entered school.3

So, let’s break it all down. Within each of the major categories that affect education, there are many branches we can explore. For example, people accuse struggling school systems of having second-rate teachers. Yet, when pressed, many cannot differentiate between highly qualified teachers or quality teachers in terms of their effectiveness.4 Few outside of the education field can actually quantify what it is about teachers that makes them more or less effective.

No one can solve the “education problem” until they untangle the factors and start targeting the problems at their roots.

Additionally, if our only matrix for judging teacher quality is student achievement, we have failed to look at the effects, both positive and negative, of teacher preparation, professional development, building and district support, resources, and federal and state policies.

We all know education decisions are important and much like voting, should be informed. It is unrealistic for those outside of education, and sometimes even inside, to fully grasp the range of what is happening. There are simply too many things that influence the effectiveness and direction of public education.

The major issues fall, categorically, into:

  • Funding — This covers everything that requires money, including teacher salaries (first up, since Bedden has made it a priority in the FY 2017 budget), Title I, community partnerships, and the budget process (which seems elusive, but really shouldn’t be).
  • Policy — In other words, all the acronyms. We’ve got the ESSA, ESEA, IDEA, NCLB, CCCS, VDOE, SOL, AMO. Confused? Don’t be. I’ve gotcha covered.
  • Student Learning — Anything and everything that affects student learning. Curriculum and instruction. Teacher quality, effectiveness, retention, and training. But also safety, high stakes testing, poverty, school climate, achievement gaps, head start, and the list goes on…
  • Facilities — Really, this is anything that isn’t human. Books, technology, furniture, and buildings.

The reality is that these issues are not mutually exclusive, and no one can solve the “education problem” until they untangle the factors and start targeting the problems at their roots. And untangling is most likely an unrealistic goal, since most of these issues are inextricably intertwined. To save you from poring over the data, the reports, and the research because…kids, jobs, life, etc…I’ll do all the dirty work for you and present the big issues in succinct and informative ways so that the next time you find yourself in that dreaded education conversation you can come to the table full of clarity about what is really happening.

And, I’ll tie it back to RPS to make it meaningful to the decisions you have to make as you navigate educational decisions for your family now, or the one you may plan to have in the future, you know, if you’re into that kind of thing. And even if you don’t plan on kids or yours are grown, if you care at all about the city’s continued growth and revitalization, it wouldn’t pain you to listen up.

  1. There are debates about what to “fix” first in Richmond and how to fix it. Everyone has an agenda. Superintendent Dana Bedden is taking a stab at it in various ways. His FY 2017 budget proposal is attempting to decompress teacher salaries and secure funding to repair and rebuild deteriorating buildings. The RPS Academic Improvement Plan isolates five areas of improvement and eight performance targets to measure growth. While Bedden has seen a large amount of support since coming to RPS, that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with his methods. 
  2. Not poking fun! We have lots of amazing homeschool friends. I also recognize this isn’t a viable option for everyone. 
  3. Ask me whether I have personal experience with that one. And I’m a teacher. 
  4. The federal government defines highly qualified teachers as having: 1) a bachelor’s degree, 2) full state certification or licensure, and 3) prove that they know each subject they teach. Highly effective is determined by the teacher evaluation system in each district that is aligned to state teaching standards. 

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