Letter from the publisher: Best public schools within reach for Delaware

The Delaware Prosperity Partnership has begun its strategic planning process to figure out the best way to bring more businesses to Delaware and keep businesses here by helping them grow. One of the most effective tools they could have would be the ability to say that Delaware has the best public schools in the United States.

Of course, we don’t. A recent report by the Rodel Foundation, titled “2017-18 Public Education at a Glance,” is sobering. Statewide in 2017-18, 54 percent of Delaware public school students achieved proficiency in English language arts, and 45 percent in math. And in a measure of the state’s “achievement gap,” only 37 percent of low-income students achieved proficiency in English language arts, and 29 percent achieved proficiency in math.

That puts Delaware at or slightly below the national average in reading and math proficiency. We’re in the middle of the pack. The top performing public school system in the country is in Massachusetts. What if I told you we could overtake Massachusetts in five years?

The solution can be found in Dover — not at Legislative Hall, but at Booker T. Washington Elementary School, where a principal named Dale Kevin Brown was lured out of retirement in Maryland with the task of turning the school around. Armed with $250,000 in Race to the Top money, Brown transformed the entire learning culture at Booker T. Washington, starting in 2012.

The Booker T. Washington changes in numbers are startling by any measure. Students at Booker T. Washington, 66 percent of whom come from low-income families, achieved math proficiency of 70 percent, and English language arts proficiency of 71 percent — well above the state average. They were labeled one of five “equity bright spots” in the Rodel report — schools that “demonstrate higher levels of English language arts or math proficiency than their peers relative to overall school low-income population, and perform above the state average.”

Principal Brown’s methods included:

• Setting a culture of high expectations.

• Extending the school day. The new principal was able to pay the teachers to work another 2 hours per day four days a week.

• Using data frequently to drive instruction. Every day the teachers would get together and collaborate on which students didn’t get which assignments that day.

• Using small group tutoring. Those students that didn’t get the assignment that day would have small group tutoring sessions.

• Investing in teachers. A lot of the grant money went to training and developing the teachers.

It gets even better.

A national study by Roland Fryer, a professor of economics at Harvard University, supports Dale Brown’s methods. Fryer has done a lot of study on closing the achievement gap in public schools, and his research shows that public schools can succeed in closing the gap by doing five things: Extending the school day; using data frequently to drive instruction; having a devotion to high-quality teachers and principals; having a culture of high expectations; and using small group tutoring.

The need to boost public school performance in Delaware could not be more urgent. Delaware has already seen an exodus of taxpayers drawn across the border by Pennsylvania’s superior schools, and this trend has tremendous negative impact on Delaware business and economic development.

The good news is, we already have a solution to the achievement gap. If we can achieve what Booker T. Washington achieved in five years with our lowest performing schools, it will push the state averages to the point where we could say, “Delaware has the best public schools in the United States.”

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  1. Rob –

    Excellent article about a critical issue for Delaware.

    Now the question is how can we take the learnings of Booker T. Washington and implement them state-wide?

    Especially given the power of the mighty teachers unions.

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