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The State: Correct Vision

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Paul Herdman of Vision 2015’s executive committee believes Delaware is especially well suited for a revolution in public education. “The political orientation is conducive to working together,” he says. “The state is small enough to get things done.”
Photograph by Luigi Ciuffetelli
www.luigic.com

Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals told the Vision 2015 steering committee last year that its work in public education was about a revolution.

“I said this was not about fiddling around the edges,” says Schoenhals, chair of Vision 2015 and the chairman, president and CEO of WSFS, “but about making dramatic change over a long period of time.”

The plan, driven by business leaders, is nothing short of a new way for Delaware’s public schools to educate students.

Committee members intend to blow up the old factory model of educating a workforce for manufacturing lines, replacing it with a new system that fosters independent, creative and innovative thought.

The intended result: an educational environment that will look unlike anything in this country.

So in January, with its plan complete and an implementation committee formed, Schoenhals sought $34.5 million in state funds for rollout of the plan. Though Governor Ruth Ann Minner’s 2008 budget called for $1.1 billion for public schools, none was allocated to Vision 2015. At the time, Minner said that the plan was too preliminary.

Schoenhals may have been disappointed, but he understood the rationale.

“It is a tough year for state budgets, and there simply was no money available for new programs,” he says. “We could have accomplished a lot with that $34.5 million, but there is enough private money available to make a good start on implementation.”

Nevertheless, the governor is on board, announcing in June formation of the Leadership for Achievement in Education Committee to support Vision 2015. And leaders from the Delaware Business Roundtable have spent $3 million in private funds to get started.

That money was used to identify and designate 10 “network” schools, announced in August, to implement Vision 2015 goals this year. Initiatives include benchmarking curricula against international standards, developing student gain measurements, adding hours to the school year, funding more early childhood education, attracting teachers to high-need schools and subjects, and creating a principal training institute.

While Minner’s budget did not identify funding for specific Vision 2015 initiatives, almost $4 million is consistent with Vision 2015 goals, including additional investment in early childhood education, $2.5 million for programs to support high quality teachers, and more than $600,000 for programs designed to recruit, retain and develop quality teachers in high-need subject areas such as math and science.

Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation, a member of the Vision 2015 executive committee, believes Delaware is especially well suited to achieve the revolution.

“Delaware has a history of educational reform, and the political orientation is conducive to working together,” says Herdman. “I believe the state is moving in the right direction and is small enough to be able to effect significant change.”

Those insights are what drew Herdman to Rodel in the first place. “The Buddinger family (Rodel’s founders) disdains the norm,” he says. “The family was looking for someone who could help make Delaware’s public schools the best in the country.”

Upon taking his job at Rodel, the first thing Herdman did was to up the Buddingers’ ante. “How could being the best in the country be good enough if the United States was already losing ground to the rest of the world?”

So it became the decision of the Department of Education, school superintendents, unions and the State Chamber of Commerce’s Business Roundtable to make Delaware’s public schools not just the best in the country, but the best in the world. Rodel put up the money to get it underway.

Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff believes Vision 2015 is the right thing at the right time. Some districts, she says, have already been working toward goals identified by the committee, such as increasing autonomy for principals. Some of the other changes needed may be mere changes of attitude.

The steering committee determined its goals by examining best practices of schools around the world. Appoquinimink School District superintendent Tony Marchio was especially impressed with changes in the Edmonton, Alberta, school system in Canada.

Administrators there had spent 80 percent of their time on administration and only 20 percent on management of the classroom. “Edmonton essentially reversed those percentages,” effectively putting the focus back on teaching and learning, Marchio says.

Another thing Vision 2015 has learned is that there must be a system of “differentiated” instruction to meet the differing needs of students, Marchio says. “We must teach kids, not subjects.”

Inclusion of all major stakeholders in public education is one of Vision 2015’s strengths, especially inclusion of the Delaware State Education Association, the state’s teachers union.

“By being included from the beginning, we realized we were major players,” says DSEA president Barbara Grogg, a member of the Vision 2015 steering committee. “That meant we immediately went looking for additional ways to support the Vision’s agenda.”

The DSEA sees many benefits in the areas of virtual schools, changing the structure of professional development and enhancing the role of the principal.

“These initiatives are not only beneficial to our teachers but, more importantly, benefit our students, which is the ultimate goal for all involved in education in the state,” Grogg says.

Still, the DSEA is taking a wait-and-see approach in some areas, namely what the new role of principals will be, as well as changes to compensation plans.

“We want to make sure, first of all, the empowerment of principals will still mean decisions are made on a site-wide basis with all parties involved in the process,” Grogg says. “As far as improving teacher salaries, we want to ensure that the career ladder offers opportunities for salary growth beyond just moving into administration. Not every teacher wants to be an administrator.”

Perfecting the education system is half the loaf. Connecting students to colleges and the workplace is the other half.

“What is needed for college success has to begin early, as early as pre-K,” says University of Delaware provost Dan Rich, of the Vision 2015 executive committee. “We’ve been working on these objectives before Vision 2015 through the state’s P-20 Council, with the objective of preparing our state’s young people to compete globally.”

Rich sees Vision 2015 as an expediter. “The key for us at the university level is to secure proper alignment of the curricula, so that high school graduates are ready to meet the challenges of college curricula.”

Rich says such alignment is the key ingredient to the University of Delaware’s Commitment to Delawareans, an academic roadmap for success in college. For admission to UD, students must demonstrate up to four-year proficiencies in math, science, English, foreign language, history, social studies and one college prep elective.

“We’ve already mailed the roadmap to the parents of every eighth and ninth grader in the state, informing them if their children follow the roadmap, there will be a place for them at the University of Delaware,” Rich says.

But will there be a place for them to work in Delaware afterward? “The alignment of academics is exactly what businessmen say they are looking for when recruiting in the workplace,” Rich says.

Enter Ernie Dianastasis, managing director for CAI, Inc., another Vision 2015 executive committee member. Through his First State Innovation, a non-profit entity founded to increase Delaware’s entrepreneurial activity, he sees the United States regaining preeminence in the world economy by developing a new workforce of entrepreneurs and innovators.

“The United States has always been a leader in innovation, but the rest of the world is catching up,” says Dianastasis. “We need a whole new level of thinking on skills, curriculum and languages in our schools in order to accelerate the growth of entrepreneurialism in our economy.

“In our schools, we have to move from training students to be workers to teaching them to think and create,” he says. “The commodity-type jobs we’re currently losing to overseas employers will likely continue and probably should. We need to be looking for the next big thing, which includes bio and nano technology and advanced materials development.”

So what’s next? Or should we ask what’s first? For this school year, everyone is watching how network schools implement Vision 2015 initiatives. As they are revised, they’ll be rolled out across the state.

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