An Anniversary, a Conference, and a Lot of Work Ahead

October 28th, 2011

Category: Early Childhood Education, News, Policy and Practice

This is a guest blog post by Marvin N. “Skip” Schoenhals, chairman of Vision 2015 and WSFS Bank in Wilmington, DE, for which he served as president and CEO from 1990 to 2007. He is a member of the Delaware Business Leaders Hall of Fame.

Five years ago, Vision 2015 set out to transform the education that we were offering to our public school students.  We sought input from hundreds of Delawareans across the state…individuals working in our schools and colleges, community organizations, and businesses. Together, we looked for—and found—the problems that were plaguing our system. We wrote recommendations to remedy those problems. We then took those recommendations to the state Department of Education, to our legislators, to our schools, and to our communities.  To all of them, we vowed to help improve our schools, because we owe it to our children and to generations to come.

We also set a goal—world-class schools for every Delaware student by 2015…no exceptions, no excuses.

At last week’s Vision 2015 conference, we examined what has been accomplished so far and what we need to do in the months and years ahead to reach our goals.  So where are we today? We have new standards, a new student assessment system, a 22-million-dollar investment from the governor and General Assembly for early childhood education, and more than one-hundred million dollars in federal funds from our Race to the Top win.

What do we need to do next? The key, I believe, is to balance urgency with sustainability—a fancy way of saying “get it done…but get it done right.” It’s a delicate balance to strike, yet crucial for the future of our state. While it is important to exercise careful deliberation while moving forward, it’s the moving forward itself—and the courage it requires—that makes the difference.

In the business world where I come from, we rely on qualified Delaware graduates with the skills and critical thinking abilities required for an increasingly connected world. Colleges want students who have a first-class high school education who are ready to do college-level work. Companies are looking for better qualified students because jobs are more complicated. So it’s no longer just what you know that’s important, it’s what you can do with what you know.

Many of our schools in Delaware are already making this fundamental shift by making classrooms more interactive and project-based, and many more teachers are placing emphasis on critical thinking.  And we have other examples of how Delaware is leading in best practices.  Our Vision Network schools, for example, are using new ways to increase student achievement by including teachers in many of the decisions that normally are made by principals alone. And Partnership Zone schools are starting to redesign leadership and instruction so teachers and administrators can focus more on student performance.

At the heart of all of these efforts are Delaware educators—the dedicated professionals who go into classrooms every day to support, challenge, coach and nurture our students to be the best they can be. Their job is the hardest of all, as well as the most important.  In every school, in every classroom, the teacher is the most important person to our students—and the most influential in helping each student reach their unique potential. We need to continue to listen to them. They are the ones who know their students—they know what works for students and what doesn’t. They know when students need to be pushed and when to change their approach.  It’s easy for those of us outside the classroom to talk about “reform” and “implementation,” but it’s the teacher’s job to make it happen. Their task is not an easy one—they are the ones shouldering much of the weight of change. But it is our job to support them and to give them the resources and flexibility they need to do their job well.

And as we move into 2012 – which will be focused on politics at all levels—we know we will face considerable scrutiny, as voters and elected officials demand evidence of success in how Race to the Top resources are being spent.  We have a lot to show already.  Education is too important to become a political football, so we must remain true to our vision and its implementation.

We’ve accomplished much in the last five years, and I look forward to the next five. Race to the Top is a proud moment in our state’s history, but the time will come when Race to the Top is over and the federal funds are spent. Where will we be then? What will our schools look like, five, ten, or twenty years from now? In my mind, the answer is clear— Delaware’s schools will be among the best in the world, no exceptions, no excuses.  Because that’s what we set out to do.

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