Guest Post from Dr. Lillian Lowery, Delaware Secretary of Education:
Almost 10 years ago, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act began requiring states to report disaggregated student test scores. Aggregated results had masked serious deficiencies among many of our country’s most vulnerable students. The law’s great legacy is bringing accountability for states, districts, schools and teachers to the forefront, but it also has its flaws.
Recognizing this, in September, President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered states the chance to apply for flexibility from certain requirements of the law in exchange for aggressive state-led reform. Eleven states applied during the first round in November, and Delaware is among 30 expected to apply in February for the second round.
If our plan is approved, Delaware will get flexibility in the setting of realistic student proficiency targets. In other words, schools would not be required to meet NCLB’s requirement that 100 percent of students achieve proficiency by 2013-14 or be subject to sanctions, such as school improvement, corrective action and restructuring. Schools also would gain more flexibility with some funding, such as dollars designated for choice and supplemental education services. The purpose is to allow districts and schools the opportunity to adopt and implement meaningful improvements to benefit their students.
This is a welcome opportunity. President Obama and Secretary Duncan understand the need to move away from the unrealistic and unfair goals of a finite annual target in a finite period of time for all students.
To gain approval, states must address four major reform areas in their applications: college- and career-ready expectations for all students; differentiated recognition, accountability and support for schools based on their performance; supporting effective instruction and leadership; and reducing duplication and unnecessary burden. Thanks to the state’s top-ranked federal Race to the Top plan, Delaware already has initiatives in place to meet the first, third and fourth principles. But the second principle will require major change, namely a new system for school recognition, accountability and support.
Delaware’s proposal targets the state’s achievement gaps, aiming to reduce by half the number of non-proficient students in 11 subgroups by 2017, using the 2011 data to establish the starting points.
Gone would be the old, and confusing, way of ranking schools with the labels of “superior,” “commendable,” and “academic watch” and status designation, such as “under improvement.” Instead, Delaware would switch to a new system — developed by Delawareans using guidance delineated by the U.S. Department of Education — that places schools in classifications ranging from Reward and Recognition (for the top performing schools) to Focus and Partnership Zone (for the lowest performing schools). In addition, there will be a support system for all schools regardless of their possible classification.
Reward and Recognition schools would be eligible for financial awards by revising the current award programs. Focus and Partnership Zone schools would receive the most intense state support and interventions, ensuring these buildings have the assistance they need to meet student needs. Delaware already has some of this work underway, thanks to our Race to the Top-funded Partnership Zone schools, which are undergoing aggressive reforms with the support of the state’s School Turnaround Unit.
The state’s full draft plan is available online for public review here. While this opportunity for change is exciting, I know it also can be confusing. Although flawed, the old system at least is recognizable to educators, parents and other community members. So many new rules, names and school classifications can be overwhelming even to those well versed in education matters.
That’s why I hope you will join us at one of three community meetings this month so we can explain this proposal in more detail. The evening meetings – one per county – aim to ensure all questions are answered and feedback considered before we submit our state’s plan to federal officials in February. I look forward to seeing you there.