History of Public Education in Delaware During Past 50 Years

The Learning Curve: From the end of school segregation to Vision 2015, the state’s public education system has faced constant reform over the past 50 years.

It was 11 o’clock at night. The board of the Lake Forest School District had listened to Dr. Pascal “Pat” Forgione Jr., the state’s new superintendent of education, pitch his “New Directions” plan to raise student achievement. He was asking their support for creating high benchmarks to measure knowledge and skills; he wanted to develop curricula that challenged students to meet the new benchmarks and to exceed past expectations. Delaware’s scores on standardized academic tests had been hovering around the national average for too long. “Average,” he declared, “is not good enough.”

But Forgione didn’t seem to be winning hearts and minds that night in Kent County. Then, just as he was about to leave, a student spoke—the board included ex officio student members. The Ivy League college-bound senior talked about having to pass tests for Advanced Placement credit and college admission, and she said she thought the superintendent’s standards were a good idea. In a 1 a.m. vote, New Directions got a narrow three-to-two thumbs up from the board, and over the next few months, gained the endorsement of every one of the state’s school districts.
That was in1991.

In 2011, Delaware was the first state to receive a competitive Race to the Top grant of $119 million from the U.S. Department of Education to boost K-12 achievement over the next four years, and it was one of only nine states awarded an Early Learning Challenge grant of close to $50 million for infant, toddler and pre-school programs. A vote of confidence from the feds, it’s proof that education reform is still ongoing, and it’s a process that’s been unfolding for more than 50 years.

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Turn back the clock to the late 1950s. School segregation had already been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and in Delaware the age for compulsory education had been raised from 14 to 16 in 1952. Our Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, had launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, raising doubts that the U.S. education system might not be the best in the world. Even when we put a man on the moon ahead of schedule in 1969, we were not reassured.

There were positive signs, however. Delaware’s per capita income was among the highest in the country in the 1960s, and chemical giant DuPont employed some of the most innovative minds in the industrial world. The state’s last all-black public high school closed in 1967. In 1968, public kindergarten was mandated, and the Delaware General Assembly passed the Education Advancement Act, forcing consolidation of smaller school districts and equalizing funding for poorer districts. The federal preschool Head Start program debuted mid-decade, along with Title I funding for poor schools.

School officials complained that it was difficult to recruit teachers. Their salaries ranked ninth in the country, but neighboring states were paying more. In high schools, business and agriculture courses were popular electives.

No one worried publicly about bullying, but a corporal punishment incident at a high school in Laurel made headlines in 1963, the same year that Elsmere parents protested a probing psychoanalytical questionnaire for their 7th-graders. Then, six years later, sex education came under fire.

But these were minor issues compared with the challenge of changing demographics, especially in New Castle County, where more than half the state’s population lived. Beginning in the 1960s, race was once again defining schools above the C&D Canal.

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In 1968, Wilmington High School hired its first black principal, and a majority of the city’s board of education were African-Americans. By the mid-1970s, Wilmington’s schools were 90 percent African-American.

To achieve racial balance, in 1978 the federal district court ordered the city school district combined with 10 surrounding suburban districts in New Castle County (Appoquinimink was exempt) and authorized busing students across city boundaries.

With more than 60,000 students, the new district became one of the largest in the country. Public school enrollment declined—the largest drop in 20 years for grades 7-12—and private schools flourished.

“There was pushback,” remembers Helen Foss, former head of the local National Conference of Christians and Jews and chair of an ad hoc group that was concerned with a smooth return to integrated schools. “People moved to Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey.” But there was no major violence in the schools, she says. Foss is now president of the ACLU of Delaware. 

Pay and curriculum issues arising from the consolidation led to a teachers’ strike in 1981, the year the mega-district was divided into four new districts. The desegregation order was finally lifted in 1995, but busing is still a fact of life for most students today.

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Concerns over quality education resurfaced when the federal Department of Education issued its report, “A Nation at Risk,” in 1983, warning of “the rising tide of mediocrity,” and governors across the country shifted into school reform mode.

Delaware’s dropout rate peaked in the 1980s: 8.1 percent in 1980-81 and 7.3 percent in 1988-89. In recent years, it’s been between four and six percent, but up to nine percent for Hispanics and Latinos, who are now the second largest minority group in the state. The per pupil expenditure in 1981 was $2,574, about a fourth of what it was in 2010. Teachers’ salaries in 1983 ranked 22nd in the nation, rising to 13th by 2009.

In 1991, under Forgione’s New Directions agenda, committees of teachers from each district, business people, researchers and university educators were organized. They developed new standards for every grade level in math, science, social studies and English language arts and had independent experts evaluate them. “There have been many years of hard work since then,” notes Forgione, who is now in Austin, Texas, serving as executive director of the Educational Testing Service’s Center for K-12 Assessment & Performance Management, “but we laid the foundation.”

Delaware was among the first 33 states to voluntarily participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standardized test, the so-called “Nation’s Report Card.”

By 1996, when Forgione left Delaware, the state was preparing to open its first two charter schools, and school choice was an option for parents, making it possible for children to move out of underperforming schools.

There are now 21 charter schools. A viable alternative to traditional public schools, they offer programs that target a specific interest, such as math and science, dual language learning or business skills.

The most recent push for education reform came in 2006, when the nonprofit Rodel Foundation of Delaware organized Vision 2015, a coalition of leaders in business, government and education whose stated mission is “to provide an excellent education for all of Delaware’s children—no exceptions, no excuses.” Many of its recommendations have been incorporated into the current education reform plan, and it’s one of the reasons the state captured the Race to the Top grant.

The group has supported the new Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS) of rigorous computer-based tests, which are administered throughout the school year, as well as nationally recognized Common Core Standards that are being adopted by many states to guide curriculum development in core subjects like math and reading. Together, with better data collection and teacher training and support, officials hope to see “superior” replace “average” and “proficient” replace “failing.”

Vision 2015 has also invested in a STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) residency program that trains outstanding teachers to engage students in hands-on problem solving in the classroom. Its Vision Network, a voluntary group of schools in all three counties that work together to boost student achievement, is yielding positive results. Last year, one of the schools, Delcastle Technical High, had a greater gain in its 9th grade math and reading proficiency than the state as a whole.

Never have public schools offered so many options for learning: from TV production or auto repair to running the in-school branch of a consumer bank or learning Chinese and Japanese, in addition to the myriad extracurricular activities, including arts and service projects.

And now all Delaware high school juniors take the SAT college entrance exams on school time, making higher education an option for some who might not have considered it. Three public schools have already met the International Baccalaureate standards, which emphasize global learning, and another, Seaford High, is working toward that distinction. Agriculture classes are still offered in some schools, and Delaware teens have earned national awards in that area, too.

Yet, there remains more to do. Vision 2015’s fifth anniversary report last fall showed that only 82 percent of Delaware students graduate from high school, and the performance gap between whites and African-Americans is more than 22 percent—17 percent between whites and Hispanics—and only 59 percent of students are enrolling in college.

“Changing to a culture of achievement takes time,” Gov. Jack Markell told the annual meeting of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce in January. His administration has given an additional $22 million to early childhood development programs.

Keynote speaker, WSFS Bank Chairman Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, Vision 2015 chair, characterized the academic landscape as “islands of excellence, surrounded by a murky ocean,” where two-thirds of the state’s youngsters are not ready for kindergarten and an equal percentage in all grades do not read at grade level. “We are not changing the culture of achievement fast enough,” he said. Both speakers agreed that Delaware graduates must be ready to face not just local but also international competition for jobs.

Delaware’s Secretary of Education, Dr. Lillian Lowery, who serves on the Vision 2015 implementation team, has acknowledged the state’s challenges. But, she says, with all the groundwork done, the state has made “a commitment to implementation.” Along with other states, Delaware has applied for extended deadlines to meet proficiency standards and requested more flexibility in assigning federal dollars where they are most needed.*

It’s hard to know who’s quoting whom when both Markell and Lowery say, “There are great things going on in Delaware schools, and if you don’t think so, you haven’t been in a Delaware school lately.” They could also add, “Keep looking, there’s more to come.”


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