Searching for Solutions in the Shadow of Tragedy

April 27th, 2016

Category: News

Suchat Pederson/The News Journal

Suchat Pederson/The News Journal


In the shadow of Amy Joyner-Francis’ death last week, there have been countless posts on social media, all searching for the right thing to say. What can we possibly say to explain this? Can anyone’s words serve as a balm for the pain? As the father of a sixteen-year-old, I doubt any words can do either.

That said, as the head of a nonprofit looking to make a difference in our schools, the unspeakable tragedy pushed me to think even harder about what we can do to help prevent this from happening again in the future. What are the underlying issues that led to the events at Howard High School last Thursday morning?

As I look at our work in Delaware, I think our state has made tremendous—and necessary—strides. We’ve seen concrete gains in early childhood education, clearer and expansive college and career options for young people after high school, and thousands more are accessing college.

But the net K-12 gains between those two poles has been patchy. Every year, pockets of schools or districts make clear gains above the norm, but as a state, we have yet to break the link between where a child lives, their race, and their academic performance. And while we have held our own on national measures, we have not yet created the separation from the national average that we aspire to—and I believe we can attain.

Do I still support the push for higher standards and measures to determine how each of our children is doing against those standards? Yes. Delawareans should be proud of the policy work that’s been done to raise student expectations, improve teacher efficacy, early learning, and college and career access.

But as an old friend, Paul Reville, former business leader, Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, now Harvard professor, puts it: The “engine” for education may just be too small to do the job. Massachusetts is arguably the highest performing state in the country and Paul has been a champion of the standards-based reform efforts there for more than two decades, but his point is that traditional public schooling only addresses about 20 percent of a child’s time and we need to think more creatively about how to broaden the supports outside of the schoolhouse and how we better use technology to meet young people where they are.

That is: What we’ve done to date has been necessary, but woefully insufficient in addressing the broader set of challenges facing a growing number of young people. (A deeper national analysis of this global challenge can be found here.)

This sentiment is shared by another person I respect and appreciate—Harriet Sanford, the president of the NEA Foundation, who echoed Reville’s assertion that we need to look at the baseline issues of health and safety that often overshadow a young person’s ability to focus on algebra.

This is a long way of saying we all need to own some part of what happened at Howard last Thursday morning. We all have some soul searching to do. The world of education can be very polarizing. My hope is that this tragedy helps this community come together around solutions.

Thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of Ms. Joyner-Francis, and to the Howard High School community.

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Paul Herdman



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