Markell tells parents, teachers and administrators that Delaware's new Race to the Top plan won't always be easy to implement

In the midst of one of the liveliest campaign seasons in recent memory, Gov. Jack Markell and a team of education policy advisers are crisscrossing the state, not to deliver stump speeches and greet voters, but to help parents, teachers, students and administrators get up to speed on some of the sweeping changes in store for Delaware schools.

Markell was in Felton at Lake Forest North Elementary School Oct. 21 for the fourth of 11 “Conversations About Stronger Schools.” At the forum, he and Secretary of Education Dr. Lillian Lowery detailed the plans that helped Delaware win $119 in federal funds through the Race to the Top program.

Reforms included in the plan cover everything from the new standardized test that replaced the much-maligned Delaware Student Testing Program, to how teachers and schools will be held accountable for what their students learn.

The governor told approximately 40 Lake Forest parents and staff at North Elementary that some parts of the plan are going to be a challenge to implement, but even though there are bound to be some growing pains, he thinks the changes are moving in the right direction.

“The only way we’re going to have a strong economy going forward is to have great schools,” he said. “Some of this is going to be painful; this is a new way of thinking.”

Markell said the most trying shift in his education plan is a move to higher academic standards for students.

The state’s new “Common Core Standards” are based on national and international academic curricula. The governor said Delaware students need to compete for jobs, scholarships and college acceptance in a global marketplace, and what they’re taught in school should reflect that reality.

“When we think about the future, [students] are not just competing with people in Delaware,” he said. “I believe we need to be more honest with our kids.”

Because of the switch to higher standards, the state expects the number of students who score well on the new Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System tests to drop 30 percentage points or more compared to the number who scored well on the last DSTP exams.

Lowery said the lower numbers won’t mean Delaware students know any less, but that they aren’t yet acclimated to the new higher standards.

She likened the situation to a team of young basketball players who’ve grown up shooting hoops on an 8-foot rim, then suddenly find the basket raised to 10 feet. Eventually, they’ll get used to the higher basket, but in the mean time they’ll miss a lot of free throws.

“It just means we’ve raised the bar,” she said.

Lowery also explained big changes to teacher performance ratings slated to come out of the Race to the Top plan.

With the new DCAS tests comes a slew of new data that teachers can use to track their students’ progress, since tests now will be given periodically throughout the school year.

That data, Lowery said, will be the basis for determining how well a teacher is doing. If a teacher’s students don’t make an acceptable measure of progress in a year, that teacher can’t receive the state’s highest performance rating. New teachers also won’t be eligible for tenure until they hit their performance benchmarks for two out of three years.

To meet those goals, Lowery emphasized teachers will have help in the form of dedicated “data coaches” that look at test scores and brainstorm ways to target areas where students are lagging behind.

“The data coaches are going to be individuals who come in and work with teachers, [and ask,] ‘What can we learn from these data? What strategies can we put in place?’” Lowery said.

Teachers who meet the highest standards will be rewarded, Lowery said, with performance bonuses of up to $10,000. Top teachers also will be eligible for pay increases if they agree to take their skills to schools where student performance is low.

After their remarks, Markell and Lowery fielded questions from the audience. Mostly, the parents in the audience wanted to know if the Race to the Top money from the feds means more teachers, more staff and more schools.

Markell stressed that the reforms outlined in Delaware’s Race to the Top plan are institutional in nature, not structural.

Since the federal money goes away in four years, using it to hire new teachers wouldn’t be sustainable. Instead, the goal is to make current teachers and the education system itself more effective overall.

“It’s really a new way of doing business,” he said.

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