1:36 p.m., April 5, 2010----Delaware is one of two states selected to receive the first shares of the Obama administration's $4 billion fund for education known as the Race to the Top, federal officials announced last week. The state will receive $100 million over the next four years to support reform and innovation in Delaware's public and charter schools.
The University of Delaware has played a key role in shaping the state's successful application and will benefit from the implementation of the proposed programs.
Q: What is the purpose of the Race to the Top?
A: The Race to the Top program is probably the largest influx of federal money that public schools have ever seen. However, the way that this money can be used is highly prescribed by the federal government. They have a particular vision for how they would like to see school reform happen, and so a lot of the Race to the Top is about leverage to get the kinds of reforms they want. And the success of states in applying for these funds has a lot to do with how well they can align themselves with these federal goals.
Q: What are the goals of the program that Delaware has been able to align itself with?
A: There are four assurances that every proposal has to address. One is the development of longitudinal data systems that allow you to track student achievement throughout the state and that can be tied to teachers and schools. This is an area where Delaware actually is ahead of the curve, and the University has been a key player in that. Each student in Delaware has a unique student identifier, a number that allows you to track that student from preschool through higher education in all four higher education institutions.
The second assurance is improving teacher quality. This assurance is focused on teacher preparation, getting the best-prepared teachers in the highest needs schools and compensating teachers based on performance. An important link between the longitudinal data system and teacher quality is that teacher compensation will be based in part on growth in student achievement. Furthermore, they propose to evaluate teacher education programs based on how well their graduates perform on Delaware's teacher assessment system. There are enormous technical challenges in actually creating an evaluation system that can do this. After all, neither children nor teachers are randomly assigned to schools. But if we are successful in creating this assessment system, our application proposes that these results could actually trump national accreditation.
The third is standards and assessment. Here the federal government wants states receiving these funds to buy into common national standards. So adopting the common standards and developing an assessment system that is aligned to these standards is also a key feature of the Race to the Top.
And then the final one is a plan for turning around the lowest performing schools. Here they are recommending some fairly radical changes in low-performing schools, which in many cases means closing them or radically changing the staffing.
Q: So what were the keys to Delaware's success in being selected for the first round of funding?
A: I think the biggest one was that we had the support of all of the teacher unions and every single district and every single charter school. Basically, everybody signed on, and that kind of 100 percent compliance was critically important. The fact that you can get all 19 superintendents in the same room on a regular basis is pretty unusual. But even though we're small, we're also very diverse. We have urban, rural, suburban, and immigrant populations -- we have everything you see across the country, just on a smaller scale.
Q: You've touched on this a little bit already, but how did the University of Delaware contribute to Delaware's successful application?
A: I've mentioned that we have played an important role in the development of this longitudinal data system, so that's one thing. And even though early childhood education is not directly funded by Race to the Top, if you have a strong early childhood system in the state, which we do, that provides real strength to your proposal. The Delaware Institute for Excellence in Early Childhood provides an infrastructure for early childhood throughout the state that serves high-needs communities.
And we have also played an important role in Vision 2015 -- the fact that the business community and the University were on board with these reforms was helpful. We've also had alternative routes to certification programs here at the University for many years -- these were required by the grant, so we didn't have to do anything new in order to meet that requirement.
We have also been a leader in terms of innovation in teacher education, so our teacher education and professional development programs are an asset to the state. We have provided professional development for Delaware teachers and educational leaders for many years. Our work in creating a statewide system for improving school leadership was a key factor. And we have a number of centers throughout the College of Education and Public Policy that have built strong reputations based on their decades of work in schools and communities throughout the region.
Q: So there's this huge influx of money coming into the state. Will the University benefit from that in any way?
A: We will directly benefit in terms of some of the programs we've been wanting to get off the ground that are directly funded by the grant. For example, a science and math residency program that we're initiating. This is a master's level program for preparing teachers in science and math. So people who already have strong content knowledge in these areas -- bachelor's or other degrees in science, engineering, or math fields -- would come into this program and be placed with a mentor teacher from the very beginning. So there's a strong field component to their preparation with academic coursework wrapped around it. It's also an opportunity for some career changers, and what we're really looking for in this program are teachers who will stay in Delaware.
We have a number of centers that provide a variety of technical expertise to the schools in the form of program evaluation or professional development. Race to the Top funding should provide new opportunities not only for supporting this work but also for bringing it to a statewide scale.
But the other thing is that if the reform is actually successful, the University will benefit from a stronger K-12 system. While there are some specific projects that we have in mind that will get support, the bigger picture here is that if we improve the K-12 system, we will also improve the University of Delaware because we will improve the preparation of Delaware residents. Education should be conceptualized as a thoroughly integrated system that begins in preschool and continues through graduate school. A weak link in the system affects all the other parts. So what's good for the state overall will ultimately be good for the University.
Q: At the end of four years, how will the state demonstrate or measure its success?
A: It will be measured primarily in terms of raising student achievement, particularly those in the lowest performing schools. Exactly how that is going to be measured is going to depend a lot on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This is essentially the same as No Child Left Behind, although they're no longer calling it that because they are looking at some major changes in that bill. One of the most important of those is that success will be measured more by a portfolio of indicators rather than a single indicator. That was one of the mistakes of No Child Left Behind -- success was determined by one standardized test score a year.
Q: So one of the major roles we'll continue to play is the data collection and analysis. Can you explain why it's so important to have this data?
A: One of the really positive aspects of this particular administration -- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his colleagues in Washington -- is that they tend to be very driven to make decisions that are influenced by the best evidence that we have, and they want to see others making decisions the same way. We'll actually be putting coaches in the schools to teach educators how to use data wisely -- to use a wide variety of different kinds of data and to make decisions based on that data in order to improve the schools. But of course you have to have good numbers to start with. For example, if you're going to make high-stakes decisions about teacher reward or termination, then you'd better have good data. You're not going to get school improvement if you're making decisions based on lousy data -- it's that simple.
Our educational leadership faculty are very committed to focusing their efforts around evidence-based decision-making. I believe you'll find that our work in leadership resonates well with the Race to the Top program. This kind of preparation is also important for teachers.
Q: So this brings me to a question about low-performing schools in Delaware. What are the plans for dealing with those under Race to the Top?
A: Of all the four assurances, this piece is on the shakiest ground. We don't really have a strong research base from which to make these decisions, so a lot of this is going to be very experimental. This part of the Race to the Top application was outsourced almost entirely to an organization called Mass Insight out of Boston. But one of the things that I hope we will do in Delaware is to be really clear about what we mean by a turnaround school and that we pay attention, not only to turning them around, but making the changes sustainable over the long term -- there must be incentives for sustaining that change once you've accomplished it. UD students in our urban education concentration are placed in schools that are likely to be designated for turnaround, so they may be very involved in the process.
Q: This leads into my next question, which is about community and family involvement in the process. Won't families want to have a say in what happens to their local schools?
A: Although this grant program focuses most of its funding on K-12 schools, there is an increasing recognition in Washington and elsewhere that schools alone cannot educate our nation's youth. For those schools that are designated for turnaround, there is a requirement in Race to the Top for reaching out into the communities and involving them in efforts to improve the schooling of their young people. I also expect that the forthcoming Early Learning Challenge Grants will have a major focus on families and communities, so stay tuned.
Q: What do you think being first in this program means for Delaware in terms of our stature in the nation?
A: Well, everybody's watching Delaware. I mean it's a really big deal. I'm getting emails from all over the country. Granted there will be other states to follow along behind, but it puts us out front. We've become a role model for the nation.
Q: Are there programs we will implement here that can be scaled up for larger states?
A: Oh, absolutely. And it also provides us with a real opportunity to work locally on problems of national significance. I also expect that, by having this in place, a lot of other federal opportunities will become available to us because they're tied to the same reforms that Race to the Top requires. So we have a head start with those. I also expect that a lot of the available research funding, especially from the Institute of Education Sciences, is going to be focused on the implementation of Race to the Top initiatives, so it puts us out front in terms of those opportunities as well. So it's great to be first. It's a little scary to be first, too, because now you have to deliver. Expectations have just skyrocketed. But it's great for the state, and it's great for the University.
Article by Beth Chajes