The state of education in Virginia, according to Anne Holton

Secretary of Education Anne Holton wants you to know what we’re doing for the future of Virginians–and what we still need to do.

Little piece of advice: When Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton asks if she can get coffee with you to discuss some of the commonwealth’s education initiatives, you say, “It would be my pleasure, Secretary Holton.” With dignity. Which is what I should have done, instead of gushing about how she is an inspiring individual and how her TEDx talk was so great and how she should run for president.

Secretary Holton is graciously disinterested in speaking about herself as an individual. She would much rather we all focus on how education is changing and what we can do to help Virginia solve a lot of its problems. The Governor’s Cabinet is, lately, very interested in identifying those challenges and addressing them in both the short and the long-term. From preschool to higher ed, the state has a lot on its plate. Here’s where you can expect to see some real change, very shortly.

VPI Expansion

As you may have heard, Virginia received a federal grant of $17 million per year for four years1 to expand its extremely popular Virginia Preschool Initiative.

What this means, according to Holton, is more access (the new improved VPI would serve up to 18,000 kids) with higher quality. And it all begins this fall. “To get us to that scale would be a significant expansion, and we’ve got to figure out how to do a public/private partnership,” says Holton, regarding the interest that private preschools have shown in becoming partners in the program. “It’s allowed under the current structure, but it’s rare.”

Twelve jurisdictions are part of the grant’s expansion–including Richmond and Henrico. “Richmond is already working to find private partners. The K-12 systems don’t have the physical capacity to expand to meet the Pre-K need. We’ve got the private partners out there, if we can figure out how to get them plugged in.”


The controversial Standards of Learning program has made real waves since it was introduced in the mid-90s–and not always the waves it intended. “We’ve heard from parents, teachers, students–everyone!–that we’ve got to counter this over-emphasis on testing,” says Holton, who’s keenly aware that SOLs not only sap valuable resources in the form of time and manpower but also direct teaching in a way that may not produce the intended results.

Virginia has, in some sense, shot itself in the foot by being ahead of the curve in a lot of ways, she explains. Because we implemented more rigorous standards than other states, “We’re just finding that the pendulum has swung too far.” For instance, we do mandatory standardized testing in 29 subjects, when the federal requirement is 17. That sounds like Virginia was over-zealous, but the intent was to make sure that important subjects were not back-burnered in an attempt to make the grade for those 17 federally required ones. “If you’re going to emphasize testing,” says Holton. “The things you don’t test get left behind.”

Since then, we’ve brought our total down from 34, due to legislation pushed by Governor McAuliffe. “That was huge,” says Holton, who points out that McAuliffe has been committed to education initiatives since the get-go.

“We want our diplomas to mean something,” she explains. “If you get an advanced or even a standard diploma [in Virginia], it means that you have passed more than basic knowledge in a wide variety of fields.”

But, there’s a limit to standardized testing’s usefulness. Third graders currently take tests in 3-5 hour sittings, starting at 9:30 in the morning, breaking for a brief silent lunch, and then going back and finishing in mid-afternoon. How many eight-year-olds do you know who could perform their best under those kind of circumstances? I know plenty of 30-year-olds who would become bored in half the time and just start filling out bubbles in order to hasten their escape.

“The learning science people say it’s crazy, the educators say it’s crazy–and we’re working on it,” says Holton, who applauds the Standards of Learning Innovation Committee for their current efforts in to examine the current system and brainstorm recommendations for making everyone’s lives better. “We’re working in really exciting ways–the committee has educators, parents, business people, higher ed people from all across the commonwealth–making recommendations. The General Assembly listens to them. It’s bipartisan, because it’s a bipartisan issue.”

A school’s accountability often doesn’t reflect or acknowledge improvement. As an example, a school with “challenging demographics,” as she puts it, might move up from a 50% pass rate to 65%. According to the SOLs, they’re still just floundering in failure territory, but in reality they’ve done some major work to improve. Holton’s office has made some changes to the rules to account for progress and growth. “These are short-term steps. We’re now moving to thinking about what we want our high school graduates to look like, what skills we want them to have, what we want to impart to them, and what kind of accountability steps we need to have to encourage and nudge schools along to that endpoint.”

When I asked her what that would look like, she responded: “You’d end up with a pretty different system than we have–more emphasis on benchmark and growth, more growth testing at lower grades, more benchmark testing in the upper grades. Having a benchmark is supposed to be about how everybody should master this standard amount of knowledge, but everyone starts at different points, so that should be taken into account.”

What employers want

“We might measure accountability based on multiple measures of whole child success, how are you addressing student behavior issues. What’s attendance look like? What’s parent engagement and involvement look like? How are we handling soft skills?”

She flat-out tells me that she thinks we should have fewer testing requirements and more emphasis on oral presentations. Part of her job is to liaise with employers and find out what kinds of things they’re missing in their younger recruits. Lately, one of those things is oral skills–how young people present themselves, how they structure an argument, how they express their ideas verbally.

“We have schools that, despite being in challenging environments, are working on soft skills as early as kindergarten,” Holton says. She cites An Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News as a great example. “And these schools get no credit for this.”

And though education is a bipartisan issue, as she pointed out, “The not-so-bipartisan issues involve money–the financial investment in our children’s future.” Public education took a hit in the most recent recession, “But as things have gotten better, we haven’t really reinvested.” Holton feels that Virginia has been slower to bounce back in some respects, but she finds hope in the Governor’s understanding that solid education is crucial to Virginia’s talent pipeline.

“The challenges you see in Richmond from Council to School Board are about money–it’s partly an inevitable annual tension, but it’s gotten a lot worse because the state isn’t doing our share,” she admits. “We made tough decisions when we had to in the recession. But as things get better, we really need to look for opportunities to reinvest.”

“We will find ways,” she says, calmly and firmly. It’s tough not to believe her.

Parent involvement

Schools in some of Richmond’s struggling areas suffer from lack of parental interest or involvement, which most educators agree is essential to a harmonious and effective educational environment. “Part of it is helping the teachers in the schools understand the important of parent involvement,” says Holton. “The parent doesn’t have to be involved in the school every day–they’re juggling jobs!”

She lays out the two most important things you can do for your child’s education–have an open, honest relationship with your child’s teacher(s) and listen, talk to, and read to (or with) your child every day.

A dashboard

The General Assembly repealed a bill this year that would have rated our schools on an A through F grading scale. “It was very flawed in a lot of ways,” says Holton. “The notion that you can grade a school on a single letter–we’ve got schools that are serving widely different needs. Schools that have a high percentage of language learners, etc.”

Instead of the A-F system, the state board of education displays certain data on its website now, including a school report card. “It’s hard to use, its’ hard to read. And it’s narrowly defined testing data,” says Holton. “It was recommended to come up with a dashboard website approach that would contain a much richer, whole child, and might even include some local school climate information, like with Chimborazo Elementary and the IB program in its future.”

The future

So what’s education in Virginia going to look like in 10 years?

First, says Holton, we have to look at where it is now. “Despite the challenges we’ve been talking about, it’s pretty darn good! By almost any measure we’ve been discussing in K-12, we compare well in ACT, SAT, the NAEP, a cross-state measure of reading and math in 4th and 8th grades, even in international measures, we measure up pretty darn well.

“Likewise our higher education system is very, very strong, well above the national average. We’re not in a bad place to start with, but we do have huge challenges and, depending on how we address them, we’ll get better or worse.”

So our rosy 2025 future partly depends on how we handle the education gap–the space between the free-lunch kids versus everybody else. “I am convinced there are ways we can address it–high quality pre-K, getting the best teachers into the schools that need it most,” Holton says. “I think the business community now gets that if we don’t get the kids to the margin, they’re not going to have what they need for the workforce. So the fact that the business community is now telling me that education not just for elites but for everybody is important to them–that makes me optimistic that we’re going to move the needle. If we do that, we’ll be going from one of the top to the very top.”

All in all, Holton feels like we’ve come out better than we could have, however slowly. “[In the recession,] we’ve closed prisons, not schools. But how we address these achievement gap issues? How do we reform our accountability in such a way that we give our kids room to innovate? Or are we going to be bound to an outdated model?”

Our answers to those questions–and our implementation of those solutions–will be what move us forward.

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Check out Anne Holton’s op-ed in the WaPo that was published last week!

  1. AND it’s renewable! 
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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