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Publisher’s View: Delaware cannot delay on education reform

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I wrote a 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 released by the Rodel Foundation shortly before I wrote the column described Booker T. as one of five “equity bright spots … schools that demonstrate higher levels of English/language arts or math proficiency than their peers relative to overall school low-income population and perform above the state average.”

I thought about Principal Brown when I saw the dismal results in both math and reading from Delaware fourth and eighth graders on the “Nation’s Report Card” issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Delaware fourth graders experienced the largest drop in math scores in the whole country and our eighth graders had the nation’s second largest drop.

To be fair, U.S. students in most states and across almost all demographic groups saw startling setbacks in both math and reading, according to the NAEP, which has been testing fourth and eighth graders every two years dating back to the early 1990s.

But here’s the rub: Delaware now ranks in the bottom five states in both reading and math scores. Only 18% of Delaware eighth graders demonstrated math proficiency and only 24% of Delaware eighth graders demonstrated reading proficiency. 

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

Principal Brown left Booker T. after a few years but his leadership no doubt continues to benefit the district as his students prepare to enter college. I think he would be horrified by these results, as should all of us.

So, what’s next?

We have the new Wilmington Learning Collaborative formed by the Christina, Brandywine, and Red Clay school boards. Gov. John Carney praised the agreement but could have used his statement to directly address the scores beyond just saying, “This is just the start of our work together to ensure we are empowering educators, school leaders, families, and communities, with a laser focus on doing right by children in Wilmington … Now the hard work begins.”

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

We need a specific plan.

I’d like to see the business community and its leaders more vocal about the importance of our public schools in bringing more businesses to Delaware and keeping existing businesses here. A lot of effort is being put into workforce development today and that effort is much tougher 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 underachieving students.

I’d like to see the Delaware Department of Education be far more transparent about its use of $600 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to address COVID-related impacts and what it’s going to do with the rest.

Dale Kevin Brown set a culture of high expectations, and we need to revisit his successes. Principal Brown extended the school day by paying teachers to work an extra two hours four days a week; used data to assess which assignments were confusing students; had small-group tutoring that day for those students; paid to have more social workers in schools and invested in teachers by using a portion of the $250,000 in Race to the Top grant money for training and development.

We did pass important early literacy and reading legislation last year. Delaware is working to address teacher shortages, with Delaware State University focusing particularly 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 recent results.

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 state-supported high-dosage tutoring programs and educational enrichment activities; and fast solutions to the significant learning loss our children have experienced.

It is a precipice that we need to understand and act on without delay.

Rob Martinelli is the president and CEO of Today Media, the parent company of Delaware Business Times. Contact him at rmartinelli@todaymediainc.com.

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1 Comment

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    Karen Gritton November 18, 2022

    Mr. Martinelli:
    This is spot on! I am concerned with the lack of transparency and also the focus on non-academic learning in the classrooms. Let’s simplify the class day and spend more time on the subjects that can help our children succeed. I would also like to see a blitz of ad campaigns into the community about the importance of parents to their children’s education. Help your children with their homework, spend time listening to them and helping them deal with stress, reduce screen time and increase face-to-face time. This cannot happen with a singular focus on schools, teachers and administrators (I think you mentioned that) – parents must step up!

    Thank you; I have enjoyed your opinion pieces for quite some time.

    Karen Gritton


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