Coalition has a vision, but we’ll have to see nuts and bolts

July 1, 2014

The good news: Delaware’s educational system has come a long way.

The bad news: It still has a long way to go.

The good news: A group of educational and business leaders have formed Vision Coalition of Delaware, which will be presenting a plan early next year to improve the state’s educational system.

The bad news: They still have a long way to go.

That last part is my impression after attending a “community conversation” last Wednesday at Sussex County Council chambers in Georgetown.

About 20 people attended, including several retired educators; Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown; her opponent, Democrat Paulette Rappa; Sussex County Council members Joan Deaver and Vance Phillips; and Charlotte King, president of the League of Women Voters of Delaware.

Coalition member Kurt Landgraf, a former president of the Educational Testing Service and, before that, a president of DuPont, outlined where we have made progress and where we fall short.

On the plus side:

• Delaware ranks among top states in rate of improvement of student achievement scores.

• More Delaware students are going to college.

• Delaware’s dropout rate is at a 30-year low.

But the weaknesses are striking:

• Only about a third of eighth- grade Delaware students are proficient in reading and math.

• The ethnic achievement gap is huge. In fourth-grade math, 57 percent of white students are rated proficient, compared to 27 percent of Hispanic students and 21 percent of black students.

• While many students move on to college, only 55 percent finish within six years. Given the high cost of college education, this reflects an enormous waste of money.

To help resolve these problems, the Vision Coalition, Landgraf said, plans to present “three or four things” to the state Legislature by January 2015.

That, of course, is a worthy goal. But, after attending Wednesday’s meeting and reading the coalition’s draft document, I was impressed with the complexity of the problems we face.

Let’s start in the classroom. Not surprisingly, everybody acknowledges the need for effective teachers.

Larry Koch, a former assistant superintendent in Maine who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said studies show that “a quality teacher can make a 15 percent difference” in student achievement.

But how do you find them? Attract them to the profession? Keep them?

Landgraf, who has lived abroad, talked about countries where teachers are venerated.

“There are countries where being a teacher is a much more prestigious job than being a physician,” he said, mentioning Finland and Singapore. “The very best, the very brightest become teachers.”

But let’s face it, how is that possible in this country? This is America. For a job to be prestigious it has to pay a lot of money.

This year Delaware legislators - reflecting their constituents’ wishes - refused to vote for higher gas taxes to pay for needed road projects. I can’t imagine them voting big raises for teachers.

As Landgraf noted in his opening remarks, Delaware is facing tight budgets. And could be for years to come. Delaware’s slot machine parlors, a former cash cow, now come to the state for help.

With resources limited, Landgraf said, “You have to do better with the money you’ve got.” But I didn’t get any idea about how that would work.

Then there’s the flip side of finding good teachers: Getting rid of the bad ones. Admittedly, I attended Cape Henlopen back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, but I suspect the situation remains the same. Some teachers are terrific; some are OK; some are burned out.

Koch spoke of his experience as assistant superintendent trying to remove bad teachers. Because of tenure, he said, “it’s a massive, massive job.”

He asked Landgraf how many Delaware teachers have been fired for being ineffective. Landgraf said he didn’t have the exact figures, but agreed the number was minuscule.

Landgraf acknowledged the problem of removing ineffective teachers, saying, “I agree with you 100,000 percent.”

But again, this would likely come back to money too. Teachers giving up tenure would expect something in return. That’s a very brief look at one aspect of one problem. There are many more. Equally difficult questions include how to get parents engaged and how to make school funding more equitable.

I support the efforts of the Vision Coalition of Delaware. They have good people working on the plan, including Susan Bunting, superintendent of Indian River School District. They are volunteers who deserve much credit for tackling intractable problems.

On Wednesday, Landgraf said the coalition needs “buy-in” from the public for its efforts to succeed. The current draft doesn’t provide me with enough information to do that. Hopefully, we’ll have a better idea by Oct. 29, when the coalition will announce its next draft to the public.

For more information, search online for “ED25 by Mindmixer.” That will take you to the coalition’s website, where comments are encouraged.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.