RPS needs data

My friend and fellow academic Craig Larson published an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this month. His simple claim is that Richmond Public Schools administrators are missing something essential when educating the city's kids: data. According to Larson:

What is needed are good intentions based on knowledge — knowledge of what works (and what hasn’t worked) — and this can’t be accomplished without research.

Earlier in the year, I pointed out to a School Board member that Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden’s Academic Improvement Plan (AIP) did not appear to be based on any research. The superintendent’s office ultimately sent us both a list of bullet points and notes culled from various educational experts — but with no data or analysis. With a $271 million annual budget, RPS should be doing more substantial research.

Coincidentally, the day after Craig's op-ed was published, the Mayor came out and essentially blamed the City Council for breaking the city's budget by throwing money at schools. By shifting money for hiring to schools instead, Jones argued, the city is now having trouble with basic services like trash pick-up. Council member Chris Hilbert called it a "manufactured crisis," and of course Jones should not be pointing fingers about finances considering the city's recent track record. But it raises the question how RPS is using the money, and whether the school system has any idea of what best practice might be.

One of the best -- and ONLY -- sources of data we have on RPS is John Butcher's Cranky Taxpayer blog. Butcher has been doing this for a while (see this 2011 Style Weekly profile), but he seems as ignored as ever. I don't necessarily agree with Butcher's assumptions or approach. He emphasizes test scores too much for my liking (see here for a few million reasons why that's a problem). But in his defense, that's the data we have, and at least Butcher is looking at it. Of course, his results aren't good for Richmond's schools.

So RPS needs more data. This is exactly the kind of opportunity that a smart academic -- or academic center -- could take advantage of, because it's the kind of thing we do well. There are experts in education and education practice that could conduct this research - or even just disseminate the research from other localities that might seem applicable. (I'd ask for the job myself, but my gig is politics.)

Another blow to Mayor Jones

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones is having a rough go of it lately. His downtown stadium proposal is in limbo, as members of the City Council outmaneuver him at seemingly every turn.

This past weekend provided another blow: Petersburg Delegate Rosalyn Dance won the Democratic primary for a special election to replace retired state Senator Henry Marsh. Dance will face an independent in the general election, but the heavily Democratic district should stick with her by a comfortably margin.

Why is this bad for Jones? The Mayor, who is also the state's Democratic party chair, endorsed Dance's opponent, Delegate Delores McQuinn. Dance's win had a lot to do with the Senate district, which includes both Petersburg and parts of Richmond. The Richmond contingent in the district, including the Mayor, backed McQuinn, so this election can be seen as a reassertion of the district's Petersburg roots.

But as Bearing Drift's Norm Leahy notes, you could also describe this election as Dance beating back the Democratic establishment, including Jones, Marsh, and even Joe Morrissey, who backed a primary challenge to Dance last year. (The machine is pushing back, as a state Democratic committee is floating the idea of voter fraud to see if they can delay certifying the election results. Stay tuned.)

This is especially damaging for Jones. Not only did his candidate lose, damaging his credibility as a Richmond power broker. But his endorsement of McQuinn came in the form of late-race robo-calls, in violation of general practice that state chairs should not publicly endorse in primary battles. Plus McQuinn was a stadium backer; it's not clear if anyone voted against her because of it, but it's yet more evidence that the Mayor's stadium proposal is at least not a obvious vote winner. It all adds up to another political defeat for the Mayor.