Virginia State Superintendent Patricia Wright to retire in May


File: Patricia Wright, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Virginia (Jeffrey MacMillan)

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright Tuesday announced that she will retire May 1 after six years in the state’s top education job and nearly three decades with the state’s Education Department.

Wright was appointed as superintendent in 2008 by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, and reappointed two years later by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. She also served as an acting superintendent under Gov. Mark R. Warner.

After the legislative session ended this month, Wright, 61, said she met with Gov. Terry McAuliffe to discuss future plans. “It was a mutual agreement that it’s time for me to move to the next chapter of my life,” she said in an interview.

In a statement, she said, “It has been a great honor to serve as state superintendent and collaborate with so many outstanding educators across the commonwealth.”

Her tenure as schools chief was consumed by a major revision of the state Standards of Learning and corresponding tests to make them more rigorous and better aligned to the expectations of colleges and employers.

But her influence on what Virginia’s students learn dates back to 1985, when she became the state mathematics supervisor and oversaw the first major revision to the standards, which were then only four years old and some of the first in the country.

“I was part of every revision after that,” she said. She helped add “more teeth” to the standards by designing an accountability system around them, with a testing program, school report cards and accreditation standards that schools are required to meet.

“Few have made a greater difference in the lives of Virginians than Pat Wright has, and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure in the students and colleagues she mentored and inspired,” McAuliffe said in a prepared statement.

As years passed, Wright helped toughen the standards, tests and accreditation requirements as the economy changed and the demand for what students need to learn changed.

“Her most lasting legacy, in my view, will be the drive for higher expectations and higher standards” said former Board of Education president David M. Foster of Arlington County, whose term expired in January. “She took the standards from a low floor to a more challenging floor across the board.”

The accountability system has come under scrutiny in Virginia, as similar systems have around the country, with teachers and parents protesting the number of tests and the high stakes attached to those tests for schools and teachers.

But many state leaders are proud of the impact that the state’s standards and accountability system have had. Virginia students routinely surpass national averages on measures of achievement, including the SAT and ACT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

That widely felt pride in Virginia’s standards, along with significant investments in updating them to meet career and college expectations, led Wright to make a pivotal recommendation to the Board of Education in 2010 not to adopt the Common Core state standards that 46 other states have signed on to.

“Looking back, I remain convinced that this was the right decision for our students, teachers and schools,” she said, noting that students are continuing to make steady progress with the more challenging standards.

The decision had repercussions. It led McDonnell to pull Virginia’s application for federal Race to the Top funding, which took the state out of the running for hundreds of millions of dollars in educational funding.

“I did not make that recommendation lightly,” she said. “Leadership requires bold decision making. And I pride myself for never shrinking from those decisions.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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