During a roundtable discussion with school administrators, union leaders and legislators Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said officials are taking the right steps to improve public schools in the First State.


During a roundtable discussion with school administrators, union leaders and legislators Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said officials are taking the right steps to improve public schools in the First State.

The meeting, which took place in a packed conference room in the Carvel State Building in Wilmington, came just two years after Delaware was awarded $119 million in federal funding as part of the national Race to the Top competition. Delaware was one of two states selected for funding in the first round of the competition, which was a large piece of President Barack Obama’s plan to reform the public school system.

Duncan told education officials Friday that more needs to be done to improve graduation rates in Delaware and to get students college- and career-ready.

“You lose about 3,500 young people each year,” he said. “What jobs are out there for a high school dropout? There’s nothing out there. We all have to work together to bring dropout rates down.”

Gov. Jack Markell, who was seated on the panel next to Duncan and Delaware’s Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery, said the state is committed to graduating more students. The state’s reform plan is centered on four key initiatives: developing rigorous standards and assessments, coming up with a sophisticated data system, hiring and training effective teachers and supporting Delaware’s lowest-performing schools.

“We have a lot of work we still need to do,” Markell said.

Duncan noted that the Race to the Top funds were not a gift, but an investment. He praised the state for its collaborative effort and dedication to its reform efforts.

“After working as a team over the last few years, I honestly feel better about that investment today than I did then,” Duncan said.

Duncan didn’t deny the challenges that lie ahead in the coming year. He told stakeholders they will need to continue to work together if they are to succeed.

“If we are at each other’s throats, that’s not going to get it done,” Duncan said. “If we are sitting around singing ‘Kumbaya’ though, that’s not going to get it done either.”

The next step for the state’s education reform is the teacher evaluation system known as the Delaware Performance Appraisal System. The full launch of the new system was pushed back a year after educators raised concern with a key component of the evaluation that would hold teachers accountable for students’ standardized test scores, even if they don’t teach the subject being tested.

The state received an extension from the U.S. Department of Education to postpone implementation of the entire system until all of the measures were finalized. Markell said Friday the new system is scheduled to launch in its entirety in September.

“It’s going to be a system that everyone was involved in creating,” Duncan said.

Duncan was also questioned about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education and how school districts can recruit top-notch science and math teachers.

“It would be great if we could incentivize math and science instructors, but there are barriers in place at the federal, state and district level,” said Brandywine School District Superintendent Mark Holodick.

Duncan responded, saying he would like to have conversations about that topic at the federal level.

“We’ve had a shortage of math and science teachers in this country for decades,” he said. “Not everyone agrees with me, but I think we need to pay math and science teachers more money.” 

Frederica Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association, said as a science instructor, she feels that science and social studies have not gotten the attention they deserve over the past several years, as testing has been focused on reading and math. She reminded Duncan of the importance those subjects play in the education system.

Duncan praised Jenner for her work and the collaboration between her organization and the state.

Duncan said he believes Delaware has the leadership needed to drive progress both in the state and at the national level.

“The outcome here is student achievement,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”