It’s midsummer in Delaware and like the rest of the country, school is out. Except, for those who work and live in the world of public education school is never out. We are bathing in the first ever Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS) score release from the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) and anxiously awaiting the accountability rankings based on these scores. Specifically, we await the labels for our schools either as successes or failures (coming this month!). With these rankings come action….and for those schools labeled as failures the action is one that merely begins with the freshly affixed Scarlet Letter. I’m not yet sure where it ends but I want to endeavor to tell a story of how your tax dollars are being used to “fix” our “failing” schools.
In 2010, the state of Delaware created a Partnership Zone in state regulation and transferred force of law to bring 4 different interventions into Delaware’s public schools that are defined as persistently low achieving. The Secretary of Education has unilateral authority for the selection of such schools. The interventions are: transformation, turnaround, restart, and closure. Each has a prescriptive formula found here in section 7.6.2 of Delaware Title 14 Regulation 103 and requires intense planning and maneuvering of people to execute. What I am interested in writing about today is how do these models work to fix schools?
I have done extensive research and have yielded the following evidence: nothing. Not one shred of peer reviewed social science or practice in these four models has been shown to work…. Cue the crickets! When I push for answers, I am often confronted with some platitude about the “fierce urgency of now” (Obama 2008) and how we just can’t do nothing. I remain dumbfounded by this cavalier response of those whose job it is to care for our children as students to suggest that doing something with no proof of efficacy is an acceptable alternative to a nihilistic approach.
I am not supporting a “do nothing” strategy whatsoever, rather one of providing interventions that do work: smaller class sizes, more resources in the classrooms, and proven instructional methods…like Montessori for example. Why do I receive this pushback to such questions and suggestions? Well, as usual it’s about the money.
Delaware won $119 million dollar competitive grant on the basis of data from a decade of DSTP scores. Those scores showed that Delaware was movingforward, closing achievement gaps between white and African American students, and by association has great teachers and leaders moving us forward. The USDOE gave us the money so we could continue this work after sending a five person team, fully stocked with a Governor and a banker (must be because the banking industry has done so well by the average American the last 3 years) So check out how the DDOE issues our DCAS scores: they LITERALLY MOVED THE BAR!
The state will release school accountability ratings in late August, which may be affected by another change – an AMO reset. Annual Measurable Objective (AMO) refers to the percentage of students who must be proficient in reading and mathematics on state standardized tests each year as required under federal No Child Left Behind regulations. Schools must meet the AMO for all enrolled students in grades 3 to 8 and 10, as well as each specified subgroup of students (including major race-ethnic groups, students with disabilities, English language learners). Under the 2001 law, all students must demonstrate proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014.
A ‘reset’ changes the interim AMO “steps” or target percentages schools must meet. Delaware Department of Education — with the support of the state’s districts and charter schools and at the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Education — applied for a reset of the target percentages for reading and mathematics for the current year as well as for 2012 and 2013. Eight other states already have been granted similar resets due to changes in their state assessment or other policy changes.
Why does this matter? It mattered when the USDOE handed us the money to fix the problem schools in our state, but with moving bars and the discussion changing from grade level achievement to gains during the year how can we hold our elected officials and appointed cabinet members accountable? Moving from 75% to 90% proficiency is a 20% gain…. Moving from 60% to 75% is a 25% gain….so the same 15% proficiency increase yields 2 different gain percentages. It is better to start lower if you want to gain explosively. Know any politicians who might think this is a great plan? I do. Look, we are already beating the reset numbers. Miraculous! Thanks Jack.
So I implore you: get to your local school board meeting. Challenge us, ask tough questions, go to the Delaware online checkbook and ask questions about why consultants like K12 and Edison Learning, Innovative Schools, Mass Insight, Mass 2020, Buck, etc. etc. are eating up YOUR money and what specifically are you getting for your money. In many cases you will very likely not enjoy the answers. The Christina School Board now records our meetings for easy access in the event someone can’t come in person: ask your board why they don’t do this (Red Clay also records). The point is that Delaware is foisting unproven reforms to fix our schools, continues to undervalue our great teachers and hyperventilate about the underwhelming few bad ones, and they are doing it because we the people are not armed with the facts about what they are doing to our schools or why they insist on doing it. It is not OK, to say “we must act” and then do so in a capricious manner only serving to make the adults in the system feel good about doing “something”. This effort must not be about assuaging the egos of the administrators and politicians in Dover and the paying of millions of dollars to consultants. It must be about the achievement of our students. Our students deserve better than the smoke, mirrors and false promises we are giving them right now.
John M. Young is the former President of the Christina School District Board of Education and current CSD board member.