In learning his new job – governor of the commonwealth of Virginia – one would have thought Glenn Youngkin would learn something about public education.
Difficult though it can be, with, these days, the pandemic, woke-ism and jitters over safety turning classrooms into battlegrounds, education should be an issue on which parents, teachers, students and politicians can, at minimum, agree to try to agree.
This may sound like some naive notion found in a tattered civics book. Remember when they were issued to school kids?
Youngkin is onto something, even if he is stating the obvious, as he did Thursday in rolling out a troubling assessment of student performance: The classroom-clearing consequences of COVID-19 are most alarming for students who were in trouble before the plague struck in 2020 – low-income youth, many Black and brown.
Jess Nocera, education reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, spotlighted this in August 2021, three months before Youngkin was narrowly elected – in part, by harnessing parent fears and frustrations that the coronavirus, which had already disrupted their children’s lessons for nearly 1 1/2 years, would continue to do so.
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One measure of that upheaval: flagging results on mandatory competency, or Standards of Learning, tests for elementary and middle schoolers.
“The impact of more than 18 months of disrupted learning was most reflected in math and science pass rates, which dropped to 54% and 59% from 82% and 81%, respectively, two years ago, the last time students were tested. About 7 in 10 students passed reading exams last school year,” Nocera wrote.
“Those students most likely to suffer the impacts of COVID-19 — children of color and children from low-income households — also saw the greatest losses in test scores, a nationwide trend that exacerbates existing inequities.”
Nocera added, “Statewide, Black and Hispanic students scored significantly worse than their white and Asian peers. From two years ago to now, Black and Hispanic students’ passing rates dropped between 11% and 36% in all three subject areas.”
Rather than remove the filter through which he and fellow Republicans view education – that unionized teachers and nominally accountable school boards, in a fit of liberal-fueled white guilt, are surrendering classrooms to replacement theorists – Youngkin is doubling down, seemingly manipulating facts.
The effect, as a wave of outrage, much of it Democratic, over Youngkin’s latest claims of a collapse in student aptitude signals: education’s multiple constituencies, ever-changing as Virginia shifts from a heavily white to broadly multi-hued, are now further divided, with the governor seen as promoting finger-pointing instead of a fix.
In their account for The Washington Post on Youngkin’s announcement of a Virginia Department of Education study on student performance – a study that gives it anything but a passing grade – Hannah Natanson and Laura Vozzella included an analysis of the administration’s data that suggests Youngkin et. al are playing fast and loose with the facts, that they are comparing apples and oranges.
For example, the Post noted, the department study matched passing rates on the Standards of Learning tests on math and reading for fourth- and eighth-grade students in 2015, 2017 and 2019 with those for same cohort over the same period on another exam, the National Assessment of Educational Performance, which is scored differently than the state assessment.
The administration – attempting, figuratively, to depict schools as, candidate Youngkin did the strengthening state economy, “in a ditch” – said that lower grades on the national exam are evidence student achievement is tumbling, when, in fact, Virginia pupils, on average, are performing significantly higher than their peers in other states.
It’s no secret, Youngkin – a product of private education whose four children were sent to prep schools – is a data-driven fellow.
He amassed a fortune in finance drilling down on corporate data. Youngkin enlisted corporate execs in his 2021 campaign, enticing them with political data. He selected Aimee Rogstad Guidera as his education secretary because she believes in building school policy on academic data.
Funny thing about data, though: It can be manipulated to support a story that flies in the face of reality.
If Virginia public education is lousy – and, yes, the success of prosperous suburban schools magnifies the failure of cash-strapped urban and rural systems Youngkin aims to help with privately run, publicly financed alternative schools – his message is not be registering with the businesses that view classrooms as training centers for future employees.
From those classroom will emerge the kids who go onto the colleges and universities that will provide talent for the behemoths here, expanding or landing. In Henrico County, that includes Facebook, Genworth and Capital One. In Northern Virginia, with some of the best public schools in the nation, Amazon and Boeing will soon touch down.
In awarding – again – Virginia its best-state-for-business designation, CNBC last year said the commonwealth’s strongest category among the 10 on which the cable network bases its selection is education, where it ran a close second to Massachusetts, home to Youngkin’s business school alma mater, Harvard.
With a majority over Terry McAuliffe of a mere 1.9% – a bit more than 60,000 votes – Glenn Youngkin’s margins of error in politics and policy are narrow, to say the least. He should be looking for ways to make more friends. not more enemies. But that assumes Youngkin learns – in his new job – to stop campaigning and start governing.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.