Stronger school discussion comes to Cape

by Michael Short on February 24, 2011

By Michael Short

Cape Henlopen High School hosted the most recent and final state conversation about “stronger schools” on Tuesday, Dec. 21.

Governor Jack Markell and Delaware Education Secretary Lillian Lowery were at the high school to promote Delaware’s plans to revamp its’ education system and to get public input on how to prepare Delaware students for a wildly different job market.

The  governor told the audience of teachers, community members and several state representatives that many Delaware companies have roots elsewhere. ING, for example, is based in Holland. Astra Zeneca is based in England.

“This is the new world,” he said.

Delaware’s attempts to revamp education have focused on several areas. One of the most significant is raising the bar when it comes to the state testing standards, meaning that more will be expected of Delaware students.

Those new test results will make it seem that Delaware students are doing worse. But Markell and Lowery said that is not the case. “Our kids have been practicing basketball essentially with an eight foot basket,” Markell said, searching for an analogy to explain the difference. “When the game is based on a ten foot hoop, then our kids are going to be in trouble.”

For  example, 76 percent of Delaware fourth graders are  now considered proficient at reading. But on the new test, that is expected to drop to only 48 percent.

The lower results are expected to be unpopular and to, at least initially, make Delaware students appear to be doing poorly. “It doesn’t mean they know one thing less,” Markell said.

In addition to tougher standards, Delaware is also revamping its’ testing system to allow students to take the test more than once, removing some of the all or nothing pressure associated with the previous system.

The testing will also be designed so that it can better show student progress, rather than getting results too late to help a student achieve more, Lowery said.

Markell stressed that educators have a place at the table and are listened to. It’s not like other states where teachers and state officials are often at odds, he said. He even went so far as to call the situation in New Jersey “a holy war.”

Data coaches to help teachers interpret data and efforts to target low-achieving schools for improvement are other elements of Delaware’s plan. Those  low-achieving schools must develop plans for improvement.

Audience members raised several issues at the end of the tenth and last “Conversation About Stronger Schools.”

Dr. Roni Posner of the Cape Henlopen School Board asked about the use of textbooks and technology and was told that for some students, a textbook worked best. For others, a book that could be read on a computer screen may be a better teaching tool.

Posner agreed both are needed and said we need to “listen to teachers crying out for books in their classrooms.”

Other audience members asked about financial accountability for state funds, raised concerns about losing librarians  and broached the subject of extending classroom time.

One parent called for more creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, saying that should not be sacrificed for better test scores.

Markell agreed that creativity must not be sacrified, saying “the U.S. continues to be the best in innovation.”

“People came, spoke their minds and shared their thoughts about our move to raise student standards on what’s considered proficient in math and reading and our efforts to tie performance more closely to results. What teachers, business leaders and administrators, parents, students, school board members, senior citizens and senior officials all made clear is how critical teamwork is in making real reform possible,” Markell said about the Stronger School meetings.

“The holidays will soon be over and kids will be headed back to class,” he continued.  “While the presents their parents worked so hard to get and so hard to wrap for them may be forgotten-if our conversations keep going and we keep making progress together-what out kids learn when they are back in the classrooms will keep on giving to them and to the state’s economy for years and years to come.”

“For our state’s long term economic health and prosperity, it’s clear the most critical thing we can do is make sure we have some of the best public schools in the country,” he said last fall. “We need to know our kids are graduating ready to compete and  ready to win-against anyone in the world.”

Feedback and ideas are welcome, according to a handout at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting. Those ideas can be shared at http://ideas.delaware.gov. There’s a special section deveoted to strenghening schools.

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