The old plan for schools didn’t work, so let’s try something new: a Bold Plan

Ron Russo
Ron Russo

By Ron Russo

Contributing Writer

Education is about much more than producing capable, productive kids.  It is all about the cascading multiple effects of producing such kids. Education is about everything we value in our communities and desire for our citizens.  It is about economics, real estate values, population shifts, crime rates, community development, retaining and attracting business, responsive work-force improvement, lifelong personal growth and citizen participation, environmental issues, and the list continues.

Over the past 20 years much has been done in Delaware to improve public education.  We have experienced Races, Visions, Committees, and Task Forces. These efforts have been well-intentioned with some good outcomes.  However, significant improvement has been elusive as reflected in these fundamentals:  NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) reports that more than 60 percent of Delaware’s high school graduates were below proficiency in reading (African-Americans 80 percent).  Delaware colleges report that 53 percent of incoming Delaware freshmen need remediation (73 percent of African-Americans and 69 percent of low-income). There are no shortages of other metrics that support the proposition that after 20 years, Delaware public schools, in general, have been a disappointment.

As we seek an explanation for these results, we can eliminate funding as a problem source.  In 2013, NAEP ranked Delaware 10th in the nation for per-pupil spending at $13,833. It’s not money. Tall Oaks Classical School near New Castle produces great students for $9,000 per year. It’s not money.

Education has a dual nature. The obvious feature is that it is a profession, similar to other professions like the legal and medical professions.  The second feature is where the opportunities for success are found. Education, that is the administration of education, is a business, and this business is primed for a transformation that has been shown to produce impressive results very quickly – in a matter of a few years, not 20.    

In 1995, the Delaware Department of Education, with the support of the business community and the Governor’s Office, proposed a pilot project for a systemic change in the way the administration of education was conducted. The change was tested with the creation of the Charter School of Wilmington under the supervision of six of Delaware’s most prestigious companies and business leaders. These companies were DuPont, Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), Hercules (now Ashland), Delmarva Power, Christiana Care, and Zeneca (now AstraZeneca). Today, this pilot program, the Wilmington Charter School, has a national reputation for success.  The pilot program was based on one principle: autonomy at the school principal level and accountability at the board of director level. 

The original draft of charter regulations stated: “Reliance on bureaucratic decisions would be a thing of the past.” “… empower local communities to try new, unique solutions to problems that are facing their own schools…”  “parents and teachers are less restricted by decisions made at a district or state level.”  “… empower local communities further with additional decision-making authority.”  “… try new approaches to learning without bureaucratic restrictions.” 

The pilot plan’s goal was to learn and scale success. “Charter schools weren’t meant to duplicate the traditional public schools.  They were to be a lever for change …” That change included how traditional schools operate.  The Delaware Department of Education stated that the charter reform was based on local control and accountability.

But the change to the traditional schools never happened.  There has been no sharing. Recently, the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee commented on the disconnect between charter schools and district schools. This disconnect can change and it should. It’s not difficult.

The evidence is clear and compelling, not only in Delaware but globally. In April 2014, the Rodel Foundation brought Andreas Scheleicher, a recognized international education expert, to Wilmington. He presented data showing that a school’s performance would be improved by giving the school greater autonomy coupled with involving teachers in the decision-making process – a distributive leadership model.

Gov. Markell has embraced this model in his proposal for fixing the six priority schools in Wilmington. The original Memorandum of Understanding offered to the Wilmington priority schools would have given the priority schools authority over employment decisions, developing and implementing their own budget, deciding curriculum and instructional practices, school calendar, scheduling, and they would have autonomy from any district requirements not mandated by state or federal law. 

If the drafters of this MOU and Gov. Markell believed that greater autonomy and accountability would improve student performance in the priority schools, why wouldn’t we give it to all public schools?  The answer, of course, is we should and this is exactly what is now proposed – the Bold Plan.

This Bold Plan of autonomy and accountability leads to local control of schools.  That means our public schools will be customized, not standardized.  One size does not fit all; therefore, we can focus on meeting the unique needs of the individual communities being served.  The Brookings Institution pointed out that decision-making authority must be transferred from school boards and bureaucracies and placed in the school buildings run by CEOs – Chief Education Officers, formally known as principals.  Bottom up … not top down.

While some principals are “ready to go” most will require training and a transition that will take place over time as cadres of building principals are prepared and mentored to assume their new roles as CEOs.  As individual schools wait for the conversion they will operate as they currently do.  This will permit the transition to be as seamless as possible and provide for controlled growth. 

CEOs will be responsible for operational issues – hiring, budget preparation, financial expenditures, curriculum, continuous improvement, etc. – with the assistance of teachers.  Boards and district officials will approve initial budgets, major capital projects, and will collaborate with CEOs to formulate goals.  They will review appeals of CEOs’ decisions, evaluate the performance of schools and CEOs, facilitate meetings of CEOs for the purpose of sharing ideas and experiences, and provide operational support in areas such as finance, legal, personnel, planning, marketing, etc. as requested by the CEOs.

Just as the principals (now CEOs) will require training for their new responsibilities, the boards will require training and reporting technology to fulfill their accountability role.  As schools customize for their communities and for specialized curriculum for targeted student populations, “dashboards” to track each schools customized success metrics will be developed and refined by the accountability boards. It’s reasonable to anticipate a new student transportation model as families decide on schools that might not be in their neighborhood.

Research shows “that although families are not required to live near the school, the child’s school exerts a significantly stronger attraction than parent workplaces. This result may have important implications for mitigating urban sprawl, fostering urban renewal, and promoting sustainable real estate development” – Dr. Bart Danielsen et al., “It Makes A Village: Residential Relocation after Charter School Admission.”

This could reasonably mean that the new Freire Charter School will “cascade” new families moving into center city Wilmington for Freire has half of its students coming from outside the city limits.  This Wilmington campus of an established charter school network is scheduled to open in September, with a waiting list of 35 students. It’s located in the former Blue Cross-Blue Shield building and the smart money bets that housing prices in and around that neighborhood will increase as a result.

The success of this systemic change is achieved through A&A – Autonomy and Accountability.

The Bold Plan does not replace or add to the efforts of Races, Visions, Committees, and Task Forces. If a program like vocational training is additive to School A’s mission, adopt it.  If it is outside School B’s mission, don’t use it.  This is the CEO’s decision. 

Using A&A, the CEOs will establish a culture of success which will permeate the entire operation of the school (policies, practices, demeanor, expectations, curriculum, teachers, parents, students, etc.) and everything and everyone will align with it. The Charter School of Wilmington and the Newark Charter School attribute much of their success to the development of a positive culture.  In a 2012 speech delivered at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce dinner, Marvin N. “Skip” Schoenhals, chair of Vision 2015 and WSFS Bank, credited the improvement at WSFS over a fifteen year period to a change in the bank’s culture.  He said public education had to do the same thing.

If parents have to choose between good schools and poor schools there will be winners and losers.  If their choices are among only great schools, then regardless of their selection, all students will be winners along with Delaware. 

I know that we can do this because I was the first principal of the Charter School of Wilmington.  I lived this experiment. Successful examples of the A&A model are found in many of Delaware’s charter and private schools.  They are operational and the best practices are transferable and scalable. It is time for us to look to the wise decisions of 1995 and implement them quickly within the entire public school system. Let’s be BOLD. 

(Ronald R. Russo is a senior education fellow with the Caesar Rodney Institute and the founding president of the Charter School of Wilmington)

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