By Jane Brady and Ron Russo
As most parents know, the last year has been a disaster for our children’s education. Much has been done to try to provide students with alternative educational programs during these stressful times, but still our kids have lost ground academically, socially, and emotionally. It is time to get them, and our educational systems, BACK ON TRACK! To give our students a chance to catch up on their academic proficiency, and our systems to move, not back to the old normal, but to a new and better level of productive and accountable performance.
Even before the pandemic caused so many students to fall behind in core subjects, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that two-thirds of Delaware’s public school 8th graders tested functionally illiterate in reading and math, and that about 60% of our high school graduates were below proficiency in reading. The results for black students were even more disappointing. We have an opportunity to design and implement a summer program as a forerunner of the action needed to improve our failing public school system.
We are proposing that, for the next two summers, schools offer an in-person, voluntary, 8 week program on core courses, such as reading, writing and math, to help our kids get BACK ON TRACK educationally. We think many parents will jump at the chance to help their children improve and be ready for the next school year. Of course, schools will need to determine the number of participating students so that adequate staffing, supplies, food service and other resources could be provided. Financial resources are available either from savings this school year (secret – it costs less to educate remotely, it turns out) or from the previous or soon to be received COVID relief packages passed by Congress.
To minimize transportation costs, students should be permitted to attend a neighborhood school or school of their choice for the BACK ON TRACK program, and the Districts should work cooperatively to implement this approach. Individual schools would be responsible for assessing the needs of the students, determining the curriculum, class schedules, and teacher and student assignments. Nationally normed testing should be made available and encouraged at the start of the program to assess student needs and placement, and grade and age criteria should be disregarded in favor of the need of the student for academic assistance.
Placing decision making at the local school level is not a new idea. Michael Ferguson, State Superintendent in the 1990s, wanted to “…empower local communities to try new, unique solutions to problems that are facing their own schools.” “…try new approaches to learning without bureaucratic restrictions.” Steve Jobs, a man who knew how to make success happen, once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to.” Our teachers and building administrators are smart people. Give them the authority to get the job done and then hold them accountable. We must customize our schools, not standardize them.
This proposal should be of interest to anyone who lives or works in Delaware. You don’t have to have children in Delaware’s public schools to be affected by the public school system. If the system is failing, it becomes a liability to the state. We will not be able to attract or retain businesses and our economy will decline. That means fewer jobs, a poorer economy, population shifts across state lines, lower property values, higher crime rates, unstable taxes, and more. Every Delawarean has an interest in the quality of education we provide our students.
In a speech he delivered at a Delaware State Chamber of Commerce dinner, Marvin N. “Skip” Schoenhals, then Chair of Vision 2015 and of WSFS Bank, credited the improvement at WSFS to a change in the bank’s culture. He asserted that public education had to do the same thing. Let’s take this opportunity to foster a public school culture of success. We can start with a summer school proposal that offers parents options and empowers local school professionals to do the job they were hired to do – educate our kids. Such a program could be a precursor of a system turnaround.
The Honorable M. Jane Brady was appointed to the Superior Court in 2005. Judge Brady served as Attorney General from 1995-2005, the first woman to serve as Attorney General of the State of Delaware. Judge Brady’s term ended December 7, 2017. Jane was elected to Chair the Republican Party in 2019. Judge Brady also serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the Delaware Law Related Education Center.
Ron Russo, founding president of the Charter School of Wilmington and former principal at St. Mark’s and was a Senior Fellow with the Caesar Rodney Institute. Ron is active in the community and advocating for improving our schools for all children.
*Photos from the March 15th, 2021 Reopen Our Schools Rally.