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A Wholehearted Approach to Learning

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A few years ago, my fellow members of the Vision Coalition and I began reaching out to Delawareans. We wanted to hear what they thought a well-educated young person would need to know and be able to do in the year 2025.

What we heard from more than 4,000 people was not surprising. People told us that better academics and improved test scores are important—being able to read and understand math would still be foundational. But they wanted more than that. What people really wanted was a richer educational experience for their children, one that instilled skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, empathy, and creativity. They wanted young people to be healthy, to be able to respond to a rapidly changing world, and to have an educational experience that was not cookie-cutter, but one that maximized who they are as individuals.

That broad set of skills ultimately became the North Star, the guiding centerpiece to Student Success 2025. The North Star became our goal for the next 10 years, and we began mapping backwards from it to discern the policy changes needed to reach that goal. For example, if we wanted to maximize the potential of every child, that meant we needed a funding system that addressed each student’s educational assets. It meant we needed to train our teachers differently.

This concept of developing the “whole child”—a phrase that’s often cross-referenced with “social emotional learning”—is not a new one. Generations of practitioners have told us that the so-called soft skills mentioned above, along with physical and mental health, nutrition, and exposure to the arts, are all important ingredients in child development. In fact, we’re seeing a rare convergence among leaders in education and business that this broader set of skills, which educators see as essential, are often the same ones that employers say they can’t find in prospective employees.

As personalized learning continues to gain traction throughout Delaware and the nation, we’ll be hearing much more about the “whole child” and social emotional learning. These terms are all intertwined through shared goal of meeting young people where they are. In the coming months, we’ll be working to ground these ideas in real examples in Delaware and nationally. Some of these examples will include new approaches in the classroom and others will help shine a light on assets in the community to educate our young people through a range of approaches, from after-school educational opportunities to on-the-job training.

There are already efforts underway in Delaware that are leading the charge in this emerging field.

But to be clear, when it comes to this topic, we have as many questions as we do answers. For example, how does one measure empathy or creativity? Aren’t some of the most important things in our lives difficult or impossible to measure? And if we can’t measure it, can we teach it?

There are fledgling efforts underway to address these and many other questions, and we hope to bring some of that early research to you as well.

This is a learning curve for all of us. We at Rodel are firm believers in excellence and equity for each of Delaware’s students—and we believe that nurturing them holistically is the basis for not only helping our young people be successful in school, but become good citizens and happy and healthy adults. I invite you to help us push our thinking and to learn along with us.

Joe Makes Me Proud to be a Delawarean, and an American

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While we usually reserve these posts for educational issues, today I wanted to give a shout out to Delaware’s Joe Biden and the full slate of leaders in Delaware that spoke at his welcome home celebration.

On this rainy Friday, I needed to go down to the convention center by the Wilmington train station at two in the afternoon. This is not usual. I don’t take a lot of time out of the office, but I had to go.

In pop-up fashion, there was an event at the Chase Center to welcome home Jill and Joe. I had only heard of it the day before and had to juggle meetings to get down there. My wife called me late morning and said she was going too. We weren’t alone.

Even though I went to UD and I’ve lived here for more than a dozen years, I’m still a transplant. Even so, I am one of the millions who love Joe.

One reason for that love is that Joe genuinely cares about people. I experienced that one summer day in 2015. It was just after tragic death of Beau Biden, one of Joe’s two sons. Joe and the rest of the Biden family were holding a memorial service about a half-mile from my house at St. Anthony’s Church. The family was scheduled to receive mourners for a few hours. Long lines were forming around the building several hours before the church doors opened. The Biden family stayed and received people for at least double the originally allotted time without a break for dinner, and the line never seemed to diminish.

My wife was one of the people that waited in that line. After a couple of hours, she made it to Joe and gave him a hug and was looking to move on when he asked her about her dad, Sid Balick. Sid had given Joe his first job as a lawyer some 40 years prior. She relayed that his health was failing and that he couldn’t have waited in this line. Joe called over a secret service officer and directed him to help my wife get her dad in the church. She went home, got her dad, who wasn’t steady on his feet, and they were expedited in through a side door.

Joe’s eyes lit up when he saw him. He gave Sid a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and said, “you’re still the best lawyer in Delaware.” I watched in amazement that in the depths of his own despair, Joe had the presence of mind, and genuine compassion, to be thinking of others in such a profound way.  Beyond that, as I sat and watched, it seemed that he had a story, a laugh and a real hug for just about every person on that line.

Given that this past Monday we honored Martin Luther King, it seems fitting to quote him in regard to our vice president. King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In a time that would have crushed most of us, Joe stood tall and reached down to comfort someone else.

In his comments today, through some emotional moments of joy and appreciation, the vice president spoke of America’s indomitable spirit and his genuine interest in supporting the new administration. His close was, “When I die, Delaware will be written on my heart.”

So, that’s why all of us had to go down to the train station today. For all the love and respect Joe Biden has shown to others, several thousand of us had to be there for him. Our full U.S. delegation (including Senators Carper and Coons, who had been in D.C. for the morning inauguration and had to go back for some votes that afternoon) was amazing in their tributes as were our new mayor and governor and Joe’s sister, Valerie.  The love in that room was through the roof. The national guard was there to greet the Bidens, as was the UD marching band, some amazing gospel singers and thousands of regular people holding signs and occasionally shouting, “I love you Joe!”

In this time of political polarization, I was proud to be a Delawarean, and proud to be an American.

What Will President-Elect Trump’s Education Agenda Mean for Delaware?

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President-Elect Donald Trump has selected Betsy DeVos as his choice for Secretary of Education. A number of people in the community have asked me for my take on what this will mean for public education in Delaware. Here are some initial thoughts.

Of course, she’s not been confirmed yet and we don’t know what her plans will be, so we’re reading tea leaves at this point. But based on what we know of the federal landscape, Trump’s education platform and DeVos’ track record, here are some possibilities.

What we know. Last December, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed. In this reauthorized federal law, which frames what states can do with federal education funds, the general consensus was that the federal government should give states more latitude to define their own path. Certain base commitments remained in the law, like the requirements to assess how well our young people can read and perform mathematics. In the months that followed, there were tensions around how tight or loose the federal protections should be. The Democrats wanted tighter federal control, the Republicans, looser.

Given that the Republicans now control the White House, the House, and the Senate, ESSA oversight will likely be looser.  That is, the ESSA plans that each state is required to submit this coming April or next September will largely be left to the states to define as long as their plans are in compliance with federal statute.

On the campaign trail, Trump didn’t focus a great deal on education, but he did speak about two prominent positions. One, he did not support the Common Core State Standards. And two, he did support school choice in the form of charter schools and vouchers.

Implications for Delaware’s academic standards will be decided here and not D.C. Since all state academic standards are determined at the state level—meaning the federal government has no jurisdiction over this decision and provides no funding for them—this will not change unless Delaware decides to do so. Delaware adopted the standards seven years ago, and 67 percent of teachers reported embracing them, according to a 2015 Harvard survey. Changing our standards now would require major investments in developing new standards, curriculum, training and assessments, and it could take years to negotiate and rebuild. So, our state policymakers could take this on, but I don’t see the impetus or benefit to doing so.

Let’s take a closer look at school choice. Trump proposed creating a $20 billion fund to support the expansion of charter schools and vouchers. Unless Congress wanted to dedicate new federal dollars to education, those dollars would likely need to be drawn from or completely repurposed from federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) funding, about $25 billion in federal resources that’s allocated to states. These federal funds account for about seven percent of Delaware’s annual expenditures on public education and are designed to support children in our highest need schools.

Trump not only suggested that the U.S. dedicate $20 billion in federal funds for choice, he indicated that he would encourage the states to pony up another $110 billion in public funds to support his choice plan. Given that Delaware’s entire education budget is just north of one billion dollars, that’s a very big ask.

If we look at DeVos’ record, she appears to be a passionate philanthropist and activist. She has no formal education experience, but she was the chair of Michigan’s Republican Party and, as a philanthropist, launched the American Federation of Children, a 501(c)(4) that promotes school choice, particularly in the form of vouchers, or what some call “education savings accounts.”

In her comments at the American Enterprise Institute, she makes the straightforward case that if one has the means to choose to attend a school in an affluent suburb or at an independent school, what right do policymakers have in denying that same option to a parent who lacks the means to make such a choice. She also points out that our current approach to education is like that of the Model T or Kodak film: simply outdated for the demands of the next generation and in need of investments in innovation.

I support the notion of choice and the need for innovation, but the path DeVos has promoted in Michigan is not one I hope she looks to expand in her new role. In Michigan, she appears to have supported the growth of charters with little regard to quality (see Politico for more details). Having worked for a charter school authorizer in Massachusetts, I believe quality far outweighs quantity.

She also supports the establishment of vouchers. Based on what we know so far, this approach raises a lot of questions around performance, equity, accessibility, and accountability. The discussion of vouchers likely warrants a dedicated post (a primer on vouchers from NPR can be found here), but in short, here are some policy questions to consider: What if a voucher only covers a small portion of an independent school tuition, will this approach actually help low income students at scale? If those same parents don’t live near a given school, will transportation be provided, and what if that child has a disability? What about the separation of church and state if public funds go to parochial schools? What about accountability of how those public dollars are impacting student learning given that independent schools don’t have the same public reporting requirements? And finally, if an approach is put forward, will it come with a track record of success?

[Read: On negative effects of vouchers, by Brookings for a more pessimistic view of the data; and for a more positive perspective, read here.]

I agree we need changes, but as DeVos builds her education agenda, my hope is that she doesn’t focus all her passion for innovation on the relatively small sector of charter and independent schools. District schools represent more than 90 percent of the schools in most states and, based on my experience here, if given the opportunity, can be powerful engines for change.

It’s unclear that a national approach to promote vouchers could even be implemented, but from an equity lens, we need to be mindful that a federal effort that disproportionately invests in charters and independent schools at the expense of district schools, would leave the vast majority of our nation’s children at a distinct disadvantage.

Let’s see how DeVos defines her charge.

Until then, I think it’s safe to say that the states are largely going to be left to their own devices when it comes to discerning the design of their systems of public schooling. So, it’s on us.

Delaware and the nation are politically polarized, but unlike virtually every other state in the country, Delaware has something no one else does…a 10-year plan that over 4,000 people contributed to. It’s called Student Success 2025. Over a two-year review period, it earned the approval of leaders from our business community, our districts, our teachers union, our charters, and higher education institutions, among others. It represents a coherent set of well-researched, interdependent policy recommendations—from strong early learning to college and career access—that should serve as a starting point for common ground and concrete progress.

As we move forward with ESSA and the new administrations at all levels, there will continue to be important disagreements. That creative tension is healthy and necessary.  But given the serious fiscal challenges this state faces, if the various groups that advocate for children, including the Rodel Foundation, can’t align on some core big ideas, we will not move forward. If the infighting prevents any kind of alignment, policymakers and the public will look elsewhere to make progress, referenda will get tougher to pass, and our children will pay the price for our bickering.

Delaware has shown that it can be different. That it can be civil and find common ground. My hope in the New Year is that we prove that to ourselves and the nation once again.

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