When Will Public Schools Get Better?

Though aspects of public education have improved in recent years, action on some of the most significant needs may be a long way off.

Ask Paul Herdman about the status of school reform in Delaware, and he delivers a blunt and direct assessment.

“I’m probably more bullish than some,” the CEO of the education-oriented Rodel Foundation says, “but I’d say we got more done in the last 10 years than we had in the previous 30.”

The previous 30 were years that many Delaware parents and educators were quite pleased to put in the rearview mirror, as those three decades encompassed the turmoil of court-ordered desegregation in northern New Castle County followed by feelings of disappointment or “I told you so” when the hoped-for academic improvement of low-income children failed to materialize countywide. The period culminated with a near return to an older, still-unacceptable state of affairs through laws that mandated neighborhood schools and choice programs.

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In that context, it was easy to find hope, if not optimism, in 2006 when Rodel was part of a coalition of education, government, business and civic leaders that created a school reform plan called Vision 2015 and a group called the Vision Coalition to nudge it forward. 

Since then, students and educators have confronted a dizzying array of acronyms associated with improving and assessing educational performance. It started with NCLB, for the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind. Then came RTTT—Race to the Top—an Obama administration competitive grant program that brought $119 million to Delaware. And now there’s ESSA, for the Every Student Succeeds Act, another federal initiative for which the state is now completing yet another big-picture plan.

On the testing front, there was DSTP, the Delaware State Testing Program, followed by DCAS, the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System. With adoption of the Common Core academic standards, students are adjusting to a new testing program called Smarter Balanced as a new acronym has moved to the fore. WEIC, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, is now pushing not only to improve education delivery in the state’s largest city, but also to increase funding to serve the neediest children throughout the state.

Over the past decade, the Vision Coalition has hung around, but its Vision 2015 has been superseded by a plan called Vision 2025. 

The conclusion is obvious: Some goals were achieved, but others were not.

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Back in 2006, Herdman says, “the aspiration was to move on six big areas. Some moved really well, some didn’t go as well as we had hoped, and some moved not at all.”

The three areas where next to nothing happened—reforming the state’s school funding system, designing plans to transform poorly performing schools and developing new career paths to make teaching a more rewarding profession—remain on the table. And, with the state facing an estimated $350 million budget gap and its elected officials unwilling to endorse raising taxes to address these needs, it is likely that solutions will have to wait another year—most likely more.

“The imperative for advancement in education has never been greater,” Gov. John Carney stated at a recent WEIC meeting. But Carney, throughout his first four months in office, has consistently said that the budget gap not only makes it highly unlikely the state can afford to act on the funding improvements WEIC seeks, but also threatens the state’s ability to continue some of the education initiatives launched by his immediate predecessor, former Gov. Jack Markell.

In the short term then, the next steps in education reform will likely occur on a smaller scale. “I want people focused on the hard work of raising student achievement at the classroom level,” Carney says. Susan Bunting, the former Indian River School District superintendent who Carney chose as his secretary of education, cites improvements she made at Indian River to benefit English-language learning students as she urges districts to innovate without waiting for green lights—and lots of green—from the state. “We need a change of attitude and perspective at the local level,” she says.

Susan Bunting, state secretary of education, says school districts need to innovate without a lot of help from the state.//Photo by Brandon AuFiero

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This reluctance, inability or unwillingness—choose your own word—at the highest levels of government to push boldly forward has created much impatience down below, where numerous interest groups reside. But those groups, whether they represent low-income students, Latinos, teachers, charter schools or some other entity, have not bonded as a unified force to exert pressure on the top. WEIC has emerged as the organization with the broadest base, but the corporate leaders and businesses that say they support the commission’s goals, and insist that better schools mean a better business environment, have thus far declined to push the governor and General Assembly to boost spending for critical education needs. 

Looking back, Herdman and others note several significant accomplishments.

Improvements start with early learning. The combination of Markell’s advocacy and federal grants for training providers and improving facilities has resulted in an increase of low-income children who receive quality care from 5 percent to 70 percent of that demographic, which puts them on a better footing as they start their formal educations.

The state has established K-12 curriculum standards in English/language arts, math, science and social studies. “That’s a positive,” Herdman says. “Districts and charters had been doing their own thing in teaching math or English—some of it quite good, some not so good—and there was even inconsistency within districts.”

In addition to raising the academic bar, Herdman says, higher uniform curriculum standards bring two benefits: If students move between districts, they will know what is expected of them as they transfer, and both districts and the state can standardize their professional development programs for teachers.

At the high school level, the state and individual districts have developed a variety of initiatives to make graduates college- and career-ready, which has helped to boost the graduation rate from 78 percent in 2011 to 84 percent in 2015.  Through partnerships with Delaware Technical Community College, the University of Delaware and Wilmington University, more than 2,700 high school students are now earning credits for taking college-level courses. The state now picks up the tab for all sophomores to take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) and for all juniors to take the SAT. 

Another innovation, especially beneficial for students who might not be headed for a four-year college, are the new career pathways programs, which give students classroom instruction and on-the-job training in fields with high upsides for employment. They include advanced manufacturing, biomedical sciences, engineering, hospitality and culinary arts, information technology and computer science and finance. The pathways, developed in conjunction with businesses and colleges, enable students to earn professional certifications that qualify them for entry-level jobs and to move directly into two-year college programs in their chosen field. More than 5,000 students are participating in 55 pathways programs at 29 high schools this year.

Touting the potential career benefit of the ability to converse in two languages, Markell launched a dual-language immersion program in the 2012-13 school year. Twenty-two public schools in 11 districts currently offer immersion programs: 18 in Spanish and five in Chinese, with one school offering both. Ten more elementary schools will introduce immersion programs during the 2017-18 school year: eight in Spanish and two in Chinese. Roughly one in seven kindergarten students will be enrolled in one of these programs next year, according to the Department of Education. As students advance into middle school, they will continue with a modified immersion program before taking Advanced Placement exams in their language in ninth grade. After that, current planning calls for them to take college-level language classes throughout their high school careers. 

Taken together, those advances have broadened opportunities, raised expectations and, in some cases, triggered improved academic performance. But there are few exceptions to a pattern that has existed for more than a generation: Districts and schools with lower proportions of low-income students—Appoquinimink, Cape Henlopen and the Charter School of Wilmington, for example—tend to perform better on standardized assessments than those with larger numbers that fit this demographic, like Christina, Capital and several schools whose charters have been revoked.

Meanwhile, little progress has been made on the toughest reform issues and, to the extent that they carry a price tag, it’s unlikely that any will come soon.

Transforming underperforming schools, reforming what many consider an outmoded funding system and consolidating school districts whose boundaries have not been altered for 50 years, at least in Kent and Sussex counties, remain hot-button issues. And those topics, with many others, have been on the table for the past three years, since Markell created the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee, which is now the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission.

Just over a year ago, after months of research and prolonged debates with the State Board of Education, the commission produced a multifaceted report that made two key recommendations: that responsibility for Christina District schools in Wilmington be transferred to Red Clay Consolidated School District, and that the state adopt a weighted funding system that directs extra money to schools that serve high percentages of low-income students, English-language learners and children with special education needs in kindergarten through third grade. The WEIC report described special needs of these demographic groups—some educational, others falling into the realm of health and social services—but recommended that school officials work out the best ways of meeting those needs after the funding and redistricting issues are resolved.

Significantly, the commission noted underperforming schools are an issue across the state, so the need for additional funding for children who face significant barriers to learning is not confined to Wilmington.

Indeed, several years ago Markell and the state Department of Education touted Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Dover as a shining example of how a school could transform itself through its use of Race to the Top funds. The principal, Dale Kevin Brown, established an extended day program that provided extra class time in basic subjects and enrichment areas. Student achievement steadily improved. Then, when the grant money ran out, the program was cut back, leaving the staff to hope that the enthusiasm they had created would endure and continue to push the children forward.

Likewise, at Stubbs Elementary School in Wilmington, Jeffers Brown arrived as principal in the final year of Race to the Top funding. When the grant disappeared, so did the extra staff hired to reduce class size and give students more attention. “It stalls you,” he says. “You make progress and then you run into a wall. You have to take a step back.”

The General Assembly approved the redistricting plan last year, but said it would not go forward without adequate funding. Funds weren’t provided last year. Markell put $7.5 million for transition work into the proposed budget he drafted before leaving office in January, but Carney and lawmakers have expressed doubt that those funds would remain in the version of the budget the General Assembly votes on in June.

“One of the real values of the whole WEIC experience has been forcing people to pay attention, to sit down and have challenging conversations—paying attention to funding needs and what goes on in the classroom,” says Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association.

The conversations are continuing, but there’s far more talk than action.

WEIC has revived a decade-long debate on reworking the state’s unit system of school funding, a format created about 70 years ago. The system provides districts with base funding for teacher and staff salaries and building maintenance based on the number of students enrolled in each grade. (For grades 4-12, for example, 20 students make a unit. Smaller numbers of students constitute a unit in various special education classifications.)

The problem, WEIC contends, is that, though the system provides a measure of equity in funding by grade level, it does not take into account changes in student demographics over the years.

As a result, Delaware lags behind most of the nation in two key areas. It is one of only four states that do not make special allocations for English-language learners, and one of about 15 that do not make similar allocations for low-income students. Though the state screens infants to determine whether they might require special needs later, the unit system does not provide special school funding for these children until they enter fourth grade.

WEIC says the state needs a weighted funding system to better serve students in these categories. It is advocating for a phased-in implementation, starting with Christina and Red Clay in New Castle County and one district each in Kent and Sussex as pilots.

As an alternative to the unit system, which places dollar values on groups of students and requires districts to follow mandated staffing formulas, there has been some talk of developing a system that would place a dollar value on the cost of each student and give the districts flexibility in spending decisions, but no one has ventured to develop an actual proposal. Education Equity Delaware, a coalition of 24 organizations that includes the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, the state PTA, the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, the Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Delaware Charter Schools Network, and groups representing Hispanic and African-American families, offered a bare-bones outline of such a system in a letter to the General Assembly last May. 

Should supplemental funding be approved, it is important for schools to have flexibility in how they use the money, says Brown, the Stubbs Elementary principal. “A warm body doesn’t help you,” he says. “You need someone who is qualified and experienced.”

State Rep. Earl Jaques, the Bear Democrat who heads the House Education Committee, says he doesn’t think the unit system will change. “I get a lot of resistance to that,” he says, noting that district officials, especially the finance officers, are comfortable with how the system works. And Jenner, the teacher union leader, says the overall system ensures stability in school finance—a stability that she says helped prevent significant teacher layoffs during the recession of 2009-2010—though she acknowledges that classifications in the system “need augmenting and updating.”

Rodel’s Herdman expects change to come eventually, though perhaps not until the state solves its recurring budget problems. He envisions a phased-in strategy, as was accomplished in South Carolina, that would ensure that wealthier districts do not see reductions in state funding as the transition to a new system occurs.

District consolidation, like funding reform, seems too big a challenge for anyone in the state to tackle right now. The WEIC proposal—moving the Christina schools within Wilmington into the Red Clay district—would be a minor change in a big picture. In Wilmington alone, there are now three traditional school districts and a vocational-technical school district serving city students, plus seven public charter schools within the city limits and eight others in nearby suburbs that accept Wilmington residents. 

Statewide, other than the consolidation of 11 districts in New Castle County into four as the result of court-ordered desegregation, there have been no changes in the 26 districts created by the Educational Advancement Act of 1968. The current 19 districts, and 20-plus charter schools, enroll 137,217 students—less than the total in some countywide districts in states like Virginia.

According to Jaques, school finance professionals consider 22,000 students an ideal district size. By that standard, Delaware ought to have only six or seven districts.

But most superintendents and board members oppose any consolidation. “They don’t want to break up their 19 little kingdoms,” Jaques says.

Bunting, the secretary of education, is open to hearing consolidation ideas, but she suspects “you may have as many ideas as you have people in Legislative Hall.” 

She also would be willing to consider test-driving a merger of several smaller districts for a few years, to see whether it would save money and broaden curriculum options.

Educators and lawmakers caution that consolidation might not be a money-saver, even if it resulted in the elimination of some administrative jobs. They point to the desegregation experience in 1978, when teachers’ salaries were “leveled up” to the highest points on the previously existing pay scales.

Neither funding reform nor consolidation, both unlikely in the short term, address another pressing need – successfully transforming schools with weak academic performance, a problem that concerned some State Board of Education members as they considered the WEIC proposal last year. Approaches tried with the $119 million in federal Race to the Top funds had only mixed success, Herdman says.

Though educators haven’t found the secret sauce for successful transformation, they tend to agree that a stable staff headed by an effective principal in a building with strong support systems is an essential component. “People stay where they’re happy, and the culture of a school is set 100 percent by its leader,” says Laurisa Schutt, executive director of the Delaware office of Teach For America, which places recent college graduates in teaching positions in high-need urban and rural schools. 

Teacher retention rates are lower in high-need schools. Only 38 percent of teachers in high-need schools stayed for three years between 2011 and 2015, compared to 71 percent in other schools, according to the state Department of Education.

Race to the Top-funded bonuses offered to highly regarded teachers to transfer into high-need schools drew few takers, but paying bonuses to teachers who stayed did have an impact, says Angeline Rivello, associate secretary in DOE’s teacher and leader effectiveness branch. “Teachers do not always say money is the driving factor. Additional professional development is also important,” she says.

At Stubbs, Brown says teacher churn hasn’t been a problem, but he acknowledges that it’s not unusual for teachers to use their seniority to seek positions in schools with less stressful environments. With more teachers staying longer at the school, he says he has seen progress in establishing a positive culture—one that both parents and staff are buying into. “A positive and welcoming  environment” goes a long way toward minimizing the loss of both teachers and students, he says. 

One reform that will occur this year—more of a repurposing than a reform—is in the operation of the Department of Education itself. In the past decade, with the emphasis on Race to the Top, standardized testing and evaluating school performance, the department became less of a support agency and more of a regulator. It made rules, attempteded to enforce them and monitored schools for compliance. 

Bunting, at Carney’s direction, aims to bring the department back to its prior role. “We will be more of a coach than a catcher,” she says.

For all the talk about the need to continue education reform in the state, one big question remains: Who will push to change the status quo?

Neither the governor nor the General Assembly has shown an inclination to advocate for new programs in the face of tight budgets. The education establishment is wary of the consequences that might accompany consolidation or changes in the funding formulas.

Atnre Alleyne, a former Department of Education researcher, recently founded DelawareCAN, the Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now, as part of a growing national grassroots network. “Our primary focus is students first,” he says, with an emphasis on transparency in reporting on school performance, improving teacher quality and reforming the funding system.

The group is small right now—with about 350 names on its email list—but he wants it to unite parents, educators, civic leaders and anyone with an interest in providing better education in Delaware.

“Without a grassroots presence,” he says, “we are not going to see the type of change that Delaware needs.”

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