2019-20 Year in Review
It would be easy to define this last year as the year of COVID-19. But as I have reflected on the work of the Department of Education over this past year, there was both work and recognition worth celebrating before COVID-19, and some of that same work has continued as we pivoted to address the support for school divisions here in Virginia during this global pandemic.
It might also be significant to reflect upon this past year as one where Americans here in Virginia and across the nation responded to the systemic racism that has long plagued our law enforcement agencies and all other aspects of American life. As a response, long standing monuments have been removed or are slated to become removed; schools and universities are changing names because of the history behind those names. This past summer protests dominated the news coverage as we each responded in our own way to the tragedy of lives lost. As I wrote back in July,
It is important that as education leaders we affirm our commitment to advancing equity in Virginia’s public schools and facilitate courageous conversations in our school communities on racism and its continued impact on students and families of color. Now is the time to double down on equity strategies and lean into courageous leadership.
More than ever the work of equity officers in our school division takes on new meaning as divisions prepare to return to learning in August and September. This time calls upon us as education leaders to embrace anti-racism and to strategically embed it into every part of the organizations we manage. While some may find discussions about race and racism to be uncomfortable and full of inconvenient truths, the problem of racism and its adverse effects on academic outcomes requires talking about it. No system can be eradicated if not fully confronted. At the Virginia Department of Education, we are committed to establishing concrete plans to dismantle any and all forms of systemic racism in Virginia’s public education system utilizing the principles of anti-racism. Anti-racist education leaders are critical partners in our efforts to advance our broader equity priorities including (1) developing a culturally competent educator workforce, (2) eliminating disproportionality in student outcome data, (3) closing opportunity and achievement gaps among marginalized student groups, (4) increasing access to high quality early learning opportunities, and (5) maximizing the potential of every Virginia student. I encourage you to join with us in this work by publicly affirming the contribution of education equity leaders across the Commonwealth as you join together to embrace becoming anti-racist educators and leaders in Virginia.
Over this past year VDOE began reaffirming our commitment to advancing equitable access and outcomes for all of Virginia’s students, especially those most impacted by the global health pandemic and systemic racism.
Virginia is for Learners
So much of the work by the Department over the past year has been woven from the thread of our new campaign, Virginia is for Learners. Originally launched in April 2019, we felt something was needed to engage students, parents, educators, and employers through a coordinated set of future-focused strategies to increase the momentum of major changes to public education made in the commonwealth.
These changes provided a comprehensive view of school quality while placing an increased emphasis on racial and economic equity with a goal to elevate expectations that schools will prepare all students to succeed in college or the workforce. But what started simply as a campaign has become the Virginia Department of Education’s brand and message to the commonwealth. On September 25, 2019, we celebrated Virginia is For Learners Day, and the Governor declared this day as VIFL day for the years to come.
Proposed Standards of Quality
The Board of Education began to review and examine the Standards of Quality (SOQ) after the 2018 overhaul of the accreditation system. These standards set the benchmark for school divisions in Virginia around minimum standards for foundational instructional programs and support services. The SOQ drives approximately 85% of state funding for local school divisions. The Board’s proposed standards (but ultimately unfunded at the time of this writing) were the product of a two-year review of the needs of public schools and of the evidence-based best practices necessary to ensure equitable opportunities and outcomes for all of our students and the supports for teachers, principals, and education staff. Their recommendations were focused on supporting equitable services and improved outcomes for all students. These include:
- A teacher leader program—providing additional compensation and time for teacher leaders,
- Staffing requirements for teachers of English Language learners amended to reflect the distribution of English proficiency levels of students across divisions,
- Setting specific staffing ratios for school nurses, social workers, school psychologists, school counselors, and building-level administrators to offer better student support,
- Providing funding for state-level and regional work-based learning coordinators to support internships with local businesses and employers for students,
- Creating a statewide principal mentorship program to strengthen the role of school leaders to support teacher retention and increased levels of student achievement.
The Board’s work in updating the SOQ also recommended the creation of an equity fund. This fund would be created by consolidating several existing programs and the distributions from this fund are based upon the percentage of students eligible for free meals. Additional funding would go toward supporting school division efforts to recruit and retain experienced and effective teachers and other professional staff in addition to providing additional intervention and remediation services for students. The Board will take up this work again in the next General Assembly session.
This year also saw an initiative by the Governor to meet the needs of our youngest learners. Far too many economically disadvantaged families with children five and under in Virginia do not have access to an affordable early childhood care and education option. To close the gap for underserved children, Virginia needs to increase access, build out quality support for public programs, and streamline state resources and policies to support early learning.
Although the Virginia Quality initiative is open to all publicly funded early learning programs, there is no mandate for participation and therefore no uniform way that quality is measured in Virginia. Without a consistent standard for comparison of early learning programs, it is difficult for families to understand their options and for communities to strengthen their local systems. Executive Directive 4, signed by the Governor in July 2019, was just the beginning of what has become a major transition to increase access, uniformly measure quality, and streamline state oversight of early childhood education in the commonwealth.
Building on the work conducted by agency staff and leaders under Executive Directive 4, the Governor introduced historic legislation and state funding to increase access, improve quality, and streamline state oversight of early care and learning programs in the commonwealth. During the 2020 Session the Governor proposed, and the General Assembly approved, a budget with more than $95 million in new state funding to offer more children an affordable, quality publicly-funded option. Unfortunately, much of that has been delayed due to the economic downturn from COVID-19.
Over the last year,we have laid plans for increasing the training and support educators need—especially in child care settings. Additionally, we have begun streamlining state oversight and accountability for early care and learning programs by beginning to consolidate early care and learning programs under the Department of Education and Board of Education. This includes transitioning child care licensing and the child care subsidy program from the Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS) to the Department, and granting the Board the authority to publicize and promote related regulations. We welcomed the first employees transitioning from DSS to VDOE on July 1.
Recognizing that all of our students come to our classrooms with different needs, it is imperative that we also address equity issues in our schools. While additional funding will now be funneled to our early learners and schools with the highest need because of achievement gaps and staffing, we must also look to how we can address systemic racism in our schools. For far too long, students in our communities of color and especially Black students have faced systemic racism in our public schools and in our broader community.
While we have begun the process in the leadership of our agency to build cultural competency and trainings that can impact the broader education community, that alone will not be enough. We must look at our policies, regulations, standards, resources, accountabilities, and all the tools available to us to hold ourselves and our school communities accountable to ensuring that race cannot be a predictor of student success and thus, that achievement gaps are eliminated from our schools permanently.
Culturally Relevant Teaching
In the last year, we have worked in tandem with the Governor’s Office to review Virginia’s history standards and the instructional practices, content, and resources currently used to teach African American history in the commonwealth. This work is being driven by the African American Education Commission, which was charged with making technical edits to and recommendations for enriched standards related to African American history, ensuring necessary professional development and instructional supports for all teachers to ensure culturally competent instruction, and creating a new African American history course for high school students. This course will be piloted during the 2020-21 school year and the digital content created for this course will also become accessible resources for students in numerous other history courses.
School is the place, if nowhere else, that we can raise a generation of students who have a more honest understanding of the history of African Americans in our nation. As a byproduct of a revised curriculum, we hope to develop committed citizens who see the value in equality and equity for every member of our society.
Students with Disabilities
The equitable provision of special education services is a core priority of the Department and we take our responsibilities to serve students with disabilities, equip parents and advocates, and to hold local education agencies (LEAs) accountable to the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) very seriously. The Department’s commitment to providing resources and supports that focus on supporting students with disabilities—including their parents, caregivers, and families—can be seen this past year through the resources the Department has used to support family engagement activities, collaborative partnerships and events focused on the provision of support to Virginia’s students and families.
For the last eight years Virginia has earned the U.S. Department of Education’s highest rating for improving outcomes for students with disabilities and for compliance with the federal IDEA. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) within the United States Department of Education conducted an on-site monitoring visit to the Virginia Department of Education on May 28-29, 2019. On June 23, 2020, the OSEP provided the final monitoring letter to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Prior to the receipt of that letter the Department provided a clarification response to OSEP dated June 19, 2020 and has since submitted a corrective action plan that demonstrates our strong commitment to serve students with disabilities and their families throughout the commonwealth.
The Department aims to ensure that innovation takes root across the commonwealth. We welcomed our second cohort of the Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network (VaLIN) that provides the support and venue for having discussions about solving problems of practice through innovation with division teams. This partnership with thirty-five school divisions provides the support for innovation at the local level through continual coaching and professional learning. The network’s activities are funded through a $170,000 federal Title II grant from the Department to James Madison University; a $110,000 grant to the Virginia School Consortium for Learning from Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit focused on broadening educational and economic opportunity; and a $125,000 grant to the consortium from philanthropist Ted Dintersmith.
In addition, the Department launched the long-planned #GoOpenVA portal for open education resources. When teachers plan, we know they utilize tools like a search engine for resources they can use in the classroom. Open education resources (OER) is the name given to freely available content. Over the past decade, a number of efforts have been made to produce OER that is as good as, or better than, commercially available resources. By creating a portal for Virginia’s teachers, we have created a one-stop location on the web for teachers and entire divisions to curate, rate, and align OER with the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL), providing efficiency in being able to locate high quality resources for used in lessons and units of study.
In January, at the Board’s direction, we revised the Guidelines for Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria for Teachers to provide increased flexibility in teacher evaluations. The main enhancement to the guidance provided school divisions the ability to rebalance the teacher evaluation such that standard 7 (student progress) is no longer forty percent of the summative rating. This improvement was widely celebrated by teachers and allows principals to apply a more holistic approach in evaluating teachers and to focus more on instructional practices and less on once per year assessment results such as the SOL as primary factors in the evaluation.
Building Literacy for All Children
In February the Department hosted a summit on literacy and reading in Charlottesville in response to declines in performance of Virginia’s students on state and national reading assessments. This event brought together instructional leaders and superintendents from across Virginia to focus on the research and practice behind quality reading instruction. This successful event placed a priority on developing the literacy potential for all children, in addition to the Department’s training efforts through workshops and web conferences. Breakout sessions included focus on instructional rigor and alignment with the English SOL, use of data and formative assessments to improve literacy, the equity of learning opportunities for multilingual students, building partnerships with school librarians, and integrating reading and literacy into science and history instruction.
At the heart of this work was the Department’s evangelization of the seven strategies for quality reading instruction that supports the use of phonics instruction as part of a comprehensive reading program.
Leading Through the Pandemic
Energy shifted in the spring around responding to the needs of school divisions amid the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States. We leveraged available funding to enhance the reach of Virtual Virginia so that school divisions could access the high quality courses not only for high school, but for younger grades as well. And we worked with partners from across the Commonwealth to develop our Recover, Redesign, and Restart guidebook. This document became a useful tool for school divisions in the planning to return to learning for the fall. We met weekly with superintendents this summer to relay the latest information we had on the science behind COVID-19, access to health data, and a number of waivers that we were able to enact to help get Virginia’s children back to learning. By waiving accreditation standards for 2021-22, we are hoping that leaders and teachers across the state will feel empowered to live the credo, to show all that Virginia is For Learners, even during this uncertain time.
In March I announced that we’d find ways for the Class of 2020 to graduate on time. We were able to grant flexibility for seniors around verified credits, for completing CTE certifications, and for required student-selected SOL tests. The General Assembly provided support for seniors who had not completed the first aid and CPR requirement, and for those who hadn’t yet completed a virtual course. We further supported the Class of 2020 through the Graduate Together effort, which included a multimedia celebration on national television. The videos we hosted on the Department website included contributions from Fluvanna, Hanover, and Louisa counties.
In April the Department partnered with Radio Poder WBTK 1380 AM—a Richmond Spanish-language station—to launch Virginia: Educación en Radio, the commonwealth’s first bilingual radio learning program. WBTK has worked hard to become the place in the community where Spanish-speaking listeners come for community information and we were proud to work with them to extend education services to the families who tune-in. The weekly half-hour program was simulcast through their website, potentially reaching listeners outside the Richmond metro-area. The Department also created Virginia TV Classroom in partnership with Blue Ridge PBS, VPM, WETA, and WHRO Public Media. The two hours of educational programming helped support the continuation of learning effort as schools sought to find solutions for pivoting fast with the closure of schools. This program was built on the long-standing partnership between the Department and public television to support teaching and learning across the state.
Virginia public schools received $238.6 million in federal funding under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Recovery and Economic Security Act (CARES). Ninety percent of the funding, totaling more than $214.7M, will pass directly to the commonwealth’s school divisions. The Department used its set-aside from CARES to help schools support vulnerable students, to make up missed instruction, and to protect the health and well-being of students. We then made grants available to school divisions to support school nutrition operations and virtual instruction for students in need of computing devices and broadband access.
The department worked diligently through the past year (and the work still continues!) on waivers and relief measures enacted after spring school closings and additional relief for the return to learning this fall. Some of the headliner waivers included waiving accreditation for public schools in 2020-21 based on testing data from 2019-20, and again, for the 2021-22 school year which would have been based on testing data from this upcoming school year. This waiver in itself does not eliminate SOL testing, but takes away the requirement of using SOL data to determine if a school is accredited by the Department. We also passed relief measures for teacher re-licensure and student attendance.
Leading the Nation
This year we completed work on a new strategic plan, Drive 2025, and the rallying cry, the vision for that plan, is to maximize the potential of every learner in Virginia. The focus on Virginia as a special place for learning has earned us recognition as we continue to work toward maximizing potential. Education Week’s Quality Counts 2019 report ranked us third in the nation in student achievement. USA Today ranked Virginia sixth of all states as the best to be a teacher. WalletHub ranks schools for quality and safety, and ranked Virginia fourth-best over all, fourth for quality, and third for safety.
Virginia also ranks first in the nation in CNBC’s 2019 ranking of America’s Top States for Business. In the ranking used by CNBC, education plays an important role in ranking states ripe for business opportunities, where Virginia tied with Massachusetts with the highest scores for education.
One initiative that sets us apart is the recent expansion of the Virtual Virginia program, which I’ve sometimes called “one of Virginia’s largest school divisions,” by offering every K-12 educator courseware to support virtual instruction in the coming year. In addition, using CARES funding, we were able to double the number of free student enrollments to 12,000 for our courses that come with the support of a certified teacher.
As we work together to maximize the potential of learners across Virginia, I know the work this year is different. School will be different and there’s not much anyone can do to change that during the pandemic. As careful as we need to be to protect one another from COVID-19, please know that our students need us—their educators—more than ever. If you’re in a division that is offering in-person or hybrid instruction, maximize that time to get to know your students and their families. The relationships we develop with students underpin the social and emotional supports we can offer throughout the year. The challenge changes if you start the year in a virtual environment. I know school divisions are coming up with unique and creative ways to introduce teachers to families, and know that all of that creative thinking will pay-off.
To the teachers, thank you for being an invaluable partner in the work we have before us this school year. Your dedication and the role you play in advancing our society at large has never been more important. For those of you teaching virtually (and at this point in time that’s a lot of you), we know that teaching virtually is different, that you more than likely never were taught how to teach within a virtual environment in college, and that some students will struggle with learning in a different way. But I also know you got into teaching because you like children, that you enjoy teaching, and you want to make a difference. Look for those opportunities to innovate, new ways to inspire your students, and remember that we are in this together. Use the relationships you have with one another to stay strong and continuously reflect and adjust.
To the support staff at our schools, including the custodians, bus drivers, teaching assistants, and other certified staff, thank you! You are invaluable in helping students and staff stay safe and healthy, and for helping keep our students fed.
To our nurses, thank you for your service in helping to ensure students stay healthy following approved protocols and preventative measures. The information you provide families is important as you work to keep others informed of how to stay safe.
I recently told a group of principals that this is probably the toughest year of their lives. I know it’s that way for so many. Thank you for your leadership and your calmness as we start a new year. Your energy and enthusiasm for learning will pave the road for all those served by your schools.
Parents are a child’s first teacher and the pandemic has brought that role back into the foreground as families struggle, I know, to balance work and family life with having their children at home. My greatest hope is that we all work together to support the growth of your students, that we all stay healthy, and that you and your school leaders establish strong bonds of communication. I have received a lot of communication, as has our division superintendents, about opinions of opening or closing the doors to your schools. I know the decisions made in your area may not be liked by all. But know that we have applied what science we know about COVID-19 in our return to learning plans, we have worked closely to provide your division superintendents reliable COVID-19 trend data from the Virginia Department of Health, along with guidance on hybrid and virtual learning scenarios. One of the hardest things to do during times like these is to remain optimistic, but I am convinced the more we embrace optimism the more we can help realize our Department’s vision of maximizing student potential.
I look forward to a new school year and remain committed to supporting each of you in the year ahead.