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General Assembly approves grading of schools
An additional measure, also passed by both houses, spells out how failing schools will be dealt with.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
RICHMOND — Virginia schools soon will receive graded report cards and those that fail will transfer into a special school division under proposals that passed both houses of the General Assembly on Tuesday.
Much of the education debate this legislative session has focused on the two initiatives that are part of the governor’s agenda.
The first would translate accreditation standards and other criteria for measuring schools’ performance into an A-F letter grade. The idea is to make it easier for parents to understand how their children’s schools stack up, said Del. Thomas “Tag” Greason, R-Loudoun County , who carried one of the bills.
Eventually, the metric would give “extra credit” to schools that show improvement, allowing them to bump up their letter grades, he said.
The second proposal passed Tuesday would dictate what would happen to schools that fail to obtain accreditation by the end of the 2013- 14 school year.
They would leave the purview of their home districts and become part of a new statewide division focused on turning around failing schools. The Opportunity Educational Institution would have widespread authority to make staffing, curriculum and program changes and to contract with an outside “school turnaround” firm.
While the Virginia Department of Education already requires schools that don’t receive accreditation to partner with one of those companies, some aren’t seeing improvement because they’re not implementing all the firm’s recommendations, said Deputy Secretary of Education Javaid Siddiqi .
Six schools throughout the state would qualify for transfer into the institution, he said. One has failed to earn accreditation for 10 of the past 11 years.
“We’ve gotten to a point now where we can’t continue to stand by and in good conscience allow locals to say they’re going to do things and then not deliver,” Siddiqi said.
Supporters of the plan argue that a drastic change is needed to ensure students don’t languish in failing schools, many in poor and minority neighborhoods. By the time a school loses accreditation, it has failed to meet standards for five years, said Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, who patroned one of the bills.
“We’re talking about schools going into the division that have failed over and over and over and over and over,” said former Secretary of Education Jim Dyke, co-chairman of the governor’s K-12 Education Reform Summit. “These kids won’t get a do-over.”
Both ideas have drawn the ire of educators who say they will take away local control and stigmatize schools, many of which struggle with socioeconomic factors beyond their control.
Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax County , said the new grading system is akin to painting schools with a “scarlet letter.”
“The problem with labeling schools is just like labeling individuals, it never gives you the full picture of what’s going on,” said Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association. “It’s just a one-time snapshot and trying to simplify a very, very complex system.”
The VEA and other education groups also rallied against the Opportunity Educational Institution, calling it a “school takeover” effort that gives local educators no say in what happens to their schools. They also voiced concerns that the transfer could strip teachers of their continuing contracts and bleed per-pupil funding from already-struggling school divisions.
Also problematic is the lack of a deadline for the institution to return schools to their local boards, Gruber said.
Overall, Gruber said she would give lawmakers a C-minus for their work on education so far this session, but said she’s hopeful some things will shake out differently between now and the end of the session Feb. 23.
She applauded legislators, though, for approving a 2 percent salary increase for school employees, the first since 2007, and for signing off on a bill to streamline the grievance process for teachers. That proposal also would give school boards the ability to extend a teacher’s three-year probationary period for two years before deciding whether to offer a continuing contract.
Lawmakers also have approved bills to offer provisional licenses to Teach for America participants and to curb bullying by codifying a definition and mandating training for teachers.
They voted down the perennial push to allow schools to open before Labor Day and an effort to expand charter schools by allowing the Board of Education to approve their applications if denied by local officials.
The Assembly appears poised to mandate CPR training for teachers and students, and may require school divisions to provide information on eating disorders to parents each year.
Gruber said efforts such as those are well-intentioned, but further distract educators from their core responsibility: teaching.
“We’re putting more and more and more onto our teachers and our principals, but nothing ever comes off,” she said. “I used to call it a plate, now I’m calling it a platter because it’s gotten that much bigger, and the platter is now becoming overloaded.”
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