A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity for Delaware’s Schools

January 19th, 2011

Category: News

In 2010 Delaware staked a claim as a national leader in public education.  In 2011, our collective challenge is, can we deliver

Delaware’s first-place win in President Obama’s federal Race to the Top grants competition came with a promise of sweeping change and $119 million dollars.  It also came with the backdrop of increasingly steep competition in the international job market and one of the worst economic recessions in our lifetime.  The challenges to our schools are significant, yet the opportunity for change couldn’t be better.

The state’s education plan has been lauded by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and highlighted in every major news outlet from The New York Times to NBC.  Now, nine months later, the initial fanfare of Race to the Top is over and work is in full swing.  Much is happening under the radar, yet it is happening

The state is working hard to redesign everything, from how it measures student success to how it recruits, evaluates and trains every one of its thousands of teachers and hundreds of principals.  It is systematically identifying its lowest performing schools and working with local partners to redesign those schools from the ground up.  Delaware has just adopted world-class academic standards, so our students can compete with the world’s best students.  The state has moved from a one-shot, paper and pencil test (DSTP) to an online assessment given three times per year (Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System or DCAS), in order to better identify the academic needs of the state’s 120,000 students.  The state is reviewing proposals to bring new training supports to all its teachers from top providers within the state and nationally.  District and charter school leaders are looking across the state and the nation to see what’s working, and putting together plans for how they will transform their schools over the next 2-3 years.  (And if school board members or interested community members want to see some high performing schools to inform their thinking, please contact me at the foundation and we can help you find out more.)

Our teachers have seen waves of reform in the past.  They have been told to test more, to break big schools into smaller ones, or to drop everything and just focus on certain approaches to reading.  Yet, little has moved the needle on performance.  So it’s natural to ask, will this be any different?  Frankly one can’t blame a teacher for wanting to close his classroom door and simply hope that this, too, shall pass.

But I hope teachers and parents seize on the opportunity to work with their schools and districts to help shape those proposed changes so that they make sense for their students and are designed for the long haul.  Nothing of this scale and comprehensiveness has ever been tried in American education, and Delaware districts and charters are developing their Race to the Top plans right now, with formal submissions in April.  Go to your school board meetings and your district websites and ask how you can get involved.  The transformation will take time and there will be mistakes, but if done right, we can change the trajectory of thousands of children in this state.

Across the nation, from Florida to California, education is being framed as a key to rebuilding flagging economies. In Delaware, the stars are aligned as in no other state.  As one long-time Delaware civil rights leader said to me when reflecting on the unprecedented convergence of funding and political will for reform, “I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime and I may never see it again.” 

Delaware is better positioned than just about any other state in the nation to make good on the promise of true education reform.  While half of the country had gubernatorial transitions in 2010, we could potentially have stable leadership through 2016 with a governor who owns this plan.  The whole country is facing one of the worst economic recessions in history, and many states are cutting hundreds of millions from education, but Delaware has maintained education spending and looking to spend its current dollars smarter.  While many other states began building public-private partnerships in preparation for Race to the Top, Delaware has a history of collaboration and a five-year head start through the collaborative work of Vision 2015.  And while many states have hundreds of districts, we only have 19.

The question that many outside Delaware have asked me is, “If Delaware can’t do it, then who can?

Since my arrival at the Rodel Foundation in 2004, I’ve seen steady movement in education reform, but more has happened in the last 16 months than in the last 6 years.

Will all of this change benefit my three children and the other 120,000 public school students in this state, particularly those in our most challenged neighborhoods?  Can the state handle this level of change and not overwhelm the teachers and principals doing the work every day?  It’s a humbling challenge, but I’m hopeful.

When I see the consistently strong performance of the Indian River Schools, Seaford rebuilding its high school on a “new tech” model, Appoquinimink offering Mandarin to elementary school students, and Kuumba Academy working with the some of the most challenged students and producing some of the best math scores in the state, I can see how this state can move from pockets of success to a system of great schools.

Will every one of our schools be world-class by 2015?  Unlikely.  But designing a system that prepares our children to compete with the world’s top performers is possible.  Massachusetts, a state that was in the middle of the pack when I taught there in the early nineties, is now among the top performers in the world.  Delaware has all the ingredients to follow suit. 

I’d encourage all of us–in public, private, and civic sectors–to take full advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity as I’m not sure when we’ll see this confluence of resources and public will again.  Our children can’t wait.

This has entry been reposted from Delaware Online.

Paul Herdman




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