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EDITORIAL: On education, it really does take a village

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Delaware state assessments

Delaware public school state assessments continue to lag after the pandemic, but there won’t be a silver bullet answer to fixing the trend. | DBT GRAPHIC

As I began to dig into Delaware’s 2023 state student assessment results released this month, I had flashbacks of the early days of my career spent on the education beat.

For nearly a decade I attended monthly school board meetings, parsed multi-million-dollar line-item budgets, met with parents concerned about their child’s individualized education plans, and visited innovative programs in classrooms to see learning up close. I got to watch a vocational program make a generational transformation and promising young students return years later as first-year teachers.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

And I spent a lot of time analyzing test scores.

My experience with test scores is that, regardless of their outcomes, they never please everyone. And I’ve seen the current movie playing out here before.

The news that Delaware’s scores were relatively flat from last year’s disappointing results, with 2-percentage point swings on both English and math, was a sign to advocates that learning losses experienced during the COVID pandemic may be reversing. For critics, it was continued reason to worry that our schools are still falling behind.

The unfortunate reality is that it’s too early to tell.

As with much in public education, it can take years to really turn the massive ship. Delaware has 19 different school systems along with numerous charter schools, each with their own budgets, leaders, challenges and priorities. Statewide curriculum changes and classroom initiatives certainly can, and do, have positive impacts on statewide learning but it often takes years to fully implement and for students to absorb their impacts.

Theresa Bennett, director of the state Department of Education (DOE) Office of Assessment, told me that instructional materials attuned to the state’s Common Core curriculum only began to roll out in the year before the pandemic, leaving their true impact undetermined.

And it’s important to note that there are two different assessments given to students each year that come with different priorities and results. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” is taken by students in every state, while the Delaware State Assessments are taken only in the First State.

Last year’s NAEP scores were alarming, as Delaware was in the bottom three for both grade 4 and 8 average declines. The First State wasn’t alone, however, as 30 states in total saw NAEP score declines in 2022 and no state saw an improvement over 2019.

Delaware likewise saw significant declines on the state assessment compared to the pre-pandemic period, but when compared to the state assessment scores from Massachusetts, which is generally considered one of the strongest public education systems in America, they don’t seem as dire.

In 2022, 41% of Delaware students in grades 3 to 8 were proficient in English while 30% were proficient in math compared to 42% in Massachusetts for English and 39% in math. Clearly still room to be made up, but the gaps aren’t as enormous as some might suspect.

Paul Herdman would know this as well as anyone. He worked for two Massachusetts governors on their education plans and reforms, and today leads the Rodel Foundation, a Wilmington-based organization that has studied public education advancement in Delaware for more than two decades.

“Folks that I’ve talked to might say, ‘Hey, there’s been all this investment in the schools, why aren’t we turning this around?’ As a coach, I liken [the impact of COVID] to a scar. When you’re left with a scar, it’s going to take a minute to rehabilitate,” he recently told me.

That rehabilitation is going to take the efforts of the entire community. Teachers or administrators or parents alone won’t be able to prepare our children to learn effectively.

Many students come to school lacking the sleep, nutrition, safety and guidance needed at home, which prevents them from being able to learn and often saps resources. Teachers need the curriculum, training, feedback and time to work to meet their students’ needs – and they need to be fairly compensated for doing so. Administrators need the public’s backing and funding support to operate one of the most complicated systems in our country.

And we shouldn’t discount the extraordinary developmental impact that COVID had on young people, which the U.S. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention has called a mental health crisis. A 2022 CDC survey found that a third of high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. More troubling, half of the teens said they had experienced emotional abuse by an adult in the home in the past year.

It’s no surprise to me then that students are bringing these experiences to the classroom.

“We had teachers coming out of last school year, which was two years after returning to classroom, saying they are still teaching children how to interact with each other; and that is not just kindergarteners, but middle schoolers and high schoolers too,” Shelley Meadowcroft, a spokesperson for the state teachers union, told me.

It’s easy to read a headline about how six in 10 students aren’t reading at grade level and be outraged, but it’s harder to address the various causes of that result. To do so will require everyone in our community to pay attention to our young ones and contribute to the solution.

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