Our Schools: Balancing Urgency with the Long View

August 15th, 2011

Category: News

This blog post was originally published on “Town Square Delaware” as part of its August education series.

My career in public education began in the classroom, teaching special needs students and working with a lot of students who didn’t see much of a future for themselves.  I think of those years often and about the impact I had, hoping that I provided the support and encouragement those kids needed for future success.  Through Facebook, I am glad to know that so many landed on their feet.  Today, 25 years later, my work in public education centers on policy and practice, which while a step removed from the classroom, is still very much about educational excellence.

These two experiences test my thinking about how to do the most for Delaware’s students.  There’s the immediacy and urgency of working in the classroom to give students what they need, right now, balanced with the longer view of ensuring that our public education system gives every student—not 30 but 120,000—the best chance at a great life for years to come.

The balance between these two needs is critical and hard to achieve. Yet, it’s likely that only Delaware—and perhaps a small handful of other states—can do this well in the near term.  We have committed leadership at the top, a better economy than most, and we are small.  Moreover, we have a strong sense of community here that shapes almost everything we do.   This rings especially true in education, where as head of the Rodel Foundation, I’ve been fortunate to work with hundreds of committed, passionate, and talented people.

After Delaware won Race to the Top and the accompanying $119 million dollars last year, a lot of people wanted to know how Delaware did it. To me, the answer is simple: we did it by staying focused and by working together.  In education, flashes of reform have come and gone with every change in leadership.  This effort to transform our schools took hold in 2005 and six years later, it has only grown stronger through transitions in leadership at every level.  Working together is an essential in Delaware, we’re too small not to.  To move a system as large and complex as this, there needs to be buy-in from a very diverse group including elected and appointed leaders, the teachers’ union, civic and community partners, and the business and philanthropic community.  The fact that we can sit face-to-face to debate and wrestle through these tough issues is part of Delaware’s secret sauce.

Our biggest ongoing challenge is to balance the urgency of the work—children in our schools get only one shot at a great education —with long-term planning to do what is right and sustainable.  Whether we can manage this creative tension will determine our ultimate success.

It’s a hard balance to strike, yet consider some of the things the state has accomplished in just a year.  We adopted the Common Core standards to align with the college and work expectations of a global economy; as a result, our children will be positioned to compete with the world’s best.  Our new student test, the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS), is an adaptive, online assessment that specifically tracks individual student’s strengths and areas for improvement, giving educators and families a much better tool than the old paper and pencil test that delivered results in the summer.    Our teacher evaluation system, the Delaware Performance Appraisal System II (DPAS II), will pilot this year (and roll out next year) a new student growth component of teacher effectiveness, a big step in the state’s goal of having a great teacher in every classroom.  Up and down the state, schools will get a level of support they have never seen.  And, Delaware has launched several new pathways that already have brought about 80 new, talented individuals to teach and lead in Delaware’s highest need schools.

These milestones and many more are the culmination of the work and dedication of so many in Delaware, not only in recent years, but over the past two decades.  Going forward, we will be navigating our path under an even finer microscope: We have Race to the Top commitments to keep; we have millions of dollars that must be spent effectively; we have new superintendents and school leaders in our districts and charter schools; and the political elections of 2012 likely will change many of the faces we have come to know, at local, state, and national levels.

So, we have an opportunity and a challenge ahead to give our children the future they deserve.  The opportunity we have to transform our schools isn’t once-in-a-generation, it’s once-in-a-lifetime.  The challenge is to keep focused despite all the noise and to keep talking even when times get tough. I believe this a moment that will not come again, and, together, I believe Delaware can lead the nation.

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Paul Herdman




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