Virginia’s K-12 Reform Initiatives

Published 9:06 am Friday, November 29, 2013

Editor’s note: This op-ed piece initially was published in The Lynchburg News & Advance, and is being reprinted with permission from the governor’s office.

Most Virginians agree that a great education is fundamental to the pursuit of the American dream. Over the last year, our administration’s All Students Education Reform Agenda has put in place common-sense polices to help ensure that all students, regardless of their background or ZIP code, receive the world-class education the Virginia Constitution guarantees. These student-focused reforms are important steps forward in providing every student in Virginia the opportunity to learn.

We have a good start. Virginia students are scoring higher on pre-college entrance exams than they have in nearly a decade. Our on-time graduation rate is nearly 90 percent. Education Week’s 2013 Quality Counts survey ranks Virginia schools fourth-best in the nation. In every core subject — math, science, reading and writing — in fourth and eighth grade, Virginia students outperform the national average on standardized tests. However, our scores still lag many countries with whom we compete economically, and that means we must continue to raise standards and challenge our students more.

The old adage remains true today: To get a good job, you need a good education. The future of our economy depends upon the present success of our education system. That’s why we’ve made bold K-12 reforms in the areas of empowering excellent teachers, innovation and accountability, college and career readiness and turning around struggling schools. If our students aren’t college or career ready when they graduate high school, we’ve failed them.

We must do more to recruit and support great teachers. Great teachers in great schools produce great citizens. This year we provided our teachers with their first pay raise in five years. We established the Strategic Compensation Initiative to reward high-performing educators with merit pay. We generated new incentives for STEM-H teachers. We reformed the teacher contract system to protect good teachers and to promote accountability for under-performers. By creating the Governor’s Teacher Cabinet, we provided a direct method for teachers to advise the Governor on education policy. We established the Governor’s Center for Excellence in Teaching to give exemplary teachers a renewed enthusiasm for improving quality instruction and outcomes.

To encourage innovation, we provided for local charter school approval, new virtual school programs, and laid the groundwork for college laboratory schools. We passed Red Tape Reduction legislation allowing local school boards to request waivers from certain state regulations to provide greater staffing flexibility at the local level. Our tuition tax credit scholarship legislation will give school choice to low income children.

We also created transparent school report cards with an easy to understand A-F school grading system. The objective is to recognize schools for challenging all students to reach high levels of achievement and to help schools facilitate more parental and community involvement.

Reading proficiency by third grade is an important predictor of high school graduation and career success. For this reason we ended social promotion to fourth grade by requiring reading at grade level to be promoted and provided millions of new dollars for targeted, effective third grade reading remediation programs. We provided new reading specialists and brought to Virginia the Reading is Fundamental pilot program and the Earning by Learning program in Richmond to help improve reading achievement for students.

I cannot overstate the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. Since taking office, we have doubled the number of Governor’s STEM Academies from 8 to 16, with 6 more on the way. These academies expand STEM literacy and critical skills and credentials that prepare students for high-demand, high-wage careers in Virginia, where we have the highest concentration of technology workers per capita in the county.

The time is now to end the excuses for chronically under-performing and unaccredited schools. This year we took decisive action to challenge the status quo. We created the Opportunity Education Institution (OEI) to turn around failing schools and provide high quality alternatives for these children. We also passed legislation to bring Teach For America to Virginia to focus on closing the achievement gaps among students in low-income areas.

We must continue to implement innovative ideas to strengthen our public education system. Education is the gateway to opportunity. Equal education opportunity may well be the civil rights issue of the day. Every child in Virginia deserves the opportunity of a world-class education, and it’s what our commonwealth needs to remain competitive and prosperous in the years ahead.

Bob McDonnell is governor of Virginia.