Delaware cannot delay on education reform

I enrolled Column in 2018 About Dale Kevin Brown, who came out of retirement in 2012 to transform the learning culture at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in the Capital School District.

Rob Martinelli
Today Media Inc.

A study published by the Rodel Foundation just before I wrote the column described Booker T. as one of five “rays of hope for justice…schools that demonstrate higher levels of English/linguistic arts or math proficiency than their peers in the Compared to the total population of the schools, they are low-income and above the national average.”

I thought of Principal Brown as I reviewed the dismal results in both math and reading of fourth and eighth graders from Delaware in the “testimony of the nation” published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Delaware fourth graders experienced the largest drop in math scores nationwide, and our eighth graders had the second largest drop in the nation.

In fairness, U.S. students in most states and almost every demographic have experienced startling setbacks in both math and reading, according to the NAEP, which has tested fourth- and eighth-graders every two years since the early 1990s.

But here’s the catch: Delaware now ranks in the bottom five states in both reading and math scores. Only 18% of 8th graders from Delaware demonstrated math skills and only 24% of 8th graders from Delaware demonstrated literacy skills.

It would be easy to blame COVID-19 for the results, but we had seen worsening results before.

Principal Brown left Booker T. after a few years, but his leadership will no doubt continue to benefit the district as its students prepare for college. I think he would be appalled by these results, as would we all.

What’s next?

We have the new Wilmington Learning Collaborative formed by the school boards of Christina, Brandywine and Red Clay. Gov. John Carney praised the agreement, but could have used his statement to address the findings directly, rather than just saying, “This is just the beginning of our collaboration to ensure we serve educators, school leaders, families and communities with a laser.” Empower Focus on doing the right thing by children in Wilmington…Now the hard work begins.”

I would have preferred something along the lines of newscaster Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) iconic “I’m as crazy as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” line in the 1976 film Network.

We need a concrete plan.

I would love to see the business community and its leaders speak louder about the importance of our public schools in bringing more business to Delaware and keeping existing businesses here. A lot of effort goes into staff development these days, and that effort is much more difficult when we have a steady stream of potential employees coming out of high school ill-prepared. Not to mention the long-term impact on crime and poverty for underperforming students.

I wish the Delaware Department of Education was far more transparent about how it’s using $600 million in primary and secondary school emergency relief (ESSER) funds to help manage the impact of COVID and what it’s doing with the rest becomes.

Dale Kevin Brown created a culture of high expectations and we need to revisit his achievements. Principal Brown lengthened the school day by paying teachers to work two extra hours four days a week; used data to assess which tasks confused students; had small group classes for these students that day; paid to have more social workers in schools and invested in teachers using a portion of the $250,000 Race to the Top grant for training and development.

Last year we passed important legislation to promote literacy and reading. Delaware is working to address the teacher shortage, with Delaware State University putting a special focus on attracting black male teachers to the classroom and encouraging professionals from other walks of life to enter the classroom. But we also need to hold our lawmakers and school board members accountable for the recent findings.

I agree with DelawareCAN Executive Director Britney Mumford, who believes we need funding formulas that focus on student resources rather than adults; universal access to government-sponsored high-dose tutoring programs and educational enrichment activities; and quick solutions to the significant learning loss experienced by our children.

It is a chasm that we must understand and act upon immediately.

Rob Martinelli is President and CEO of Today Media, the parent company of the Delaware Business Times.

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