tellthetruthDelaware’s State Board of Education recently made a high-profile decision that has the potential to shape the future of schools in Wilmington. While this decision has garnered significant attention and discussion (and rightly so), there are many decisions made each year that impact students’ learning and their experiences in the education system. Who is making these decisions and to what extent are they basing them on evidence?

Should a given school principal’s contract be renewed? Which teachers should be assigned to which students? Should the state change its school funding formula? Which approach to classroom management will be most effective in a given classroom?

Such decisions take place at all levels – from the classroom to legislative hall – and vary in terms of their potential for impact. But evidence (qualitative and quantitative) and facts (instead of conjecture, anecdotes, bias,  and political convenience) should be a major factor in all education system decision-making.

Now, there will certainly be times when the data and credible information needed to make important decisions will not be available. Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

“Because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

However, there is substantially more information now about what works in education than ever before. And the data needed to inform educational decisions in Delaware are much more abundant than in times past. Often these data are tucked away in lengthy public reports or hard-to-navigate government websites. Thus, for most members of the public, educators, and policymakers this evidence and data are largely an “unknown known.”

So below I am highlighting a few facts about Delaware’s education system that are likely “unknown knowns” for most people:

  1. New teachers are more likely to be assigned students who are struggling academically: We have evidence in Delaware that our students who are struggling the most academically are generally assigned the most inexperienced teachers. Delaware’s 2015 Educator Equity Plan also found that low-income and minority students generally have less access to excellent educators. Meanwhile, national and Delaware-specific research tell us that students can experience up to a year more of learning in some educators’ classrooms than others. This means that decisions districts and school leaders make about who to hire and who to place with which sets of students are among the most important decisions they make. But ask an insider and you’ll find out that these decisions are often not made based on evidence of what works best for students. When teachers were asked in 2013, half felt they weren’t “assigned classes that maximize their likelihood of success with students.”
  2. Graduates from Delaware universities have the highest average debt in the nation.
    According to the Institute for College Access & Success, graduates from Delaware higher education institutions had the highest average debt in the nation ($33,808) in 2014 (note: only UD and DSU are included in this study). But while decision makers in Delaware spend time debating things like parents’ ability to opt out of state assessments, this data point gets relatively little play in policy conversations. Rather, it should be a rallying cry for policymakers, higher education leaders, and district leaders to create opportunities for college access and affordability. School counselors and school leaders should acknowledge this data point in their work by advising students strategically. For example, counselors should steer academically talented low-income students toward colleges that meet full financial need and that do well advancing college opportunity for these students. There’s also more opportunity to raise awareness about the potential for free community college in Delaware through the state’s SEED and Inspire programs.
  3. The State of Delaware spends among the highest in the nation on its public education system.
    I took an uber this week and asked my driver for his opinion about the Delaware public education system and how it could improve. He had two kids in public schools and one in a private school and suggested that Delaware needs to invest more in its public education system. This is a common perception (potentially driven by a number of resource allocation decisions that happen at district and school levels) but Delaware consistently ranks in the top ten nationally for its per pupil spending (around $13,833). This is not to suggest that all schools are appropriately resourced or that there is not a need to update the state’s 70-year-old funding formula. But there is a lot of money in the system –the state spends over a billion dollars (1.4 billion in the 2017 proposed budget) annually on the public school system (mostly on personnel). The system is largely state-funded (unlike most states) and Delaware’s spending directly on teaching is among the top nationally. Delaware also has the fourth highest average principal salary in the nation. And these figures do not include the federal money (e.g. Title I, Title II, etc.) districts receive each year or the $119 million invested improving the system over the last five years through Race to the Top (RTTT). There is just very little knowledge about the amount of money spent within the system, how it is used, and how the money translates to better outcomes for students. And there are some in the system suggesting there’s a need to decrease accountability! 

These are just a few examples of the types of information parents, students, educators, and policymakers should be aware of as they make decisions. I’ll highlight others in future blog posts in an effort to move many of these “unknown knowns” to “known knowns.”

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12 thoughts on “3 Facts about Education in Delaware that Most Don’t Know

  1. Sharing a comment I received via Facebook on this… “Thanks Atnreakn for continuing to push the conversation. I would argue that the debt data is misleading for two reasons though: 1) it includes a significant amount of out of state students given it is only reporting UD and DSU both of which have substantial students from the border states and doesn’t differentiate the debt ratio based on that and 2) it doesn’t include Del Tech and Wilm U is there but doesn’t have debt data reported. With our small population those missing data points and differentiations influence the picture greatly. I agree with the overall point of college debt being too high for students. I just challenge whether Delaware really has the highest debt ratio given the limited data set they use to determine this.”

  2. And my response to this comment: “I knew about this limitation but think it still merits consideration for a few reasons. The first is that having high student debt for out-of-state students also becomes a DE problem considering we want many of them to continue to live and work here. A good example is the state’s desire to keep ed prep candidates working in DE schools. Imagine our low starting salaries combined with 30K+ in debt. Also, we’re definitely hurt by the small sample size (DSU is among the highest in the nation and pulls up the average) but including more Delaware colleges likely wouldn’t improve this figure. If you look at the college scorecard data it looks like colleges like Wesley and Goldey-Beacom also have high student debt. Thanks for the feedback/pushback on this! Do you know what these figures look like for just in-state students??”

  3. Atnreakn, I have no doubt Delaware spends more on education than most states and that our teachers face the highest amount of debt. I will not dispute that. But asking why is huge to the conversation. I don’t think it is a coincidence we have one of, if not the, biggest “corporate education reform” Governors in the country. As the feds and outside companies, based on data from high-stakes testing and “reports” showing the needs of students (many written by some of the same companies who produce these tests), pushed hard on states to “improve”, in walked Jack Markell as Governor. He has consistently pushed those same agendas and policies to the detriment of all teachers and students. We are spending more because we continue to believe the very biased false narratives from those who are writing them and making a ton of money off them. As a result, we’ve had a larger need in Delaware for more administrators to oversee all this fluff placed on schools by the feds and the state. With no end in sight, and the state not willing to cough up more money unless it is to further the agendas from Education Inc., our districts are bearing the brunt of this.

    Conversations like WEIC would most likely never occur if events like the rise of charter schools, the Neighborhood Schools Act, No Child Left Behind, The American Diploma Project, Common Core, and Race To The Top. Here we are, twenty years later, and what have high-stakes tests shown us? They are socio-economic tests. If there is so much conversation about opting out of a system that has been proven time and time again to be an utter failure, there is a very good reason for that. It means the “data” isn’t all it is cracked up to be.

    Meanwhile, we don’t fund basic special education for K-3 and we expect RTI to make up for it. But we want to boost pre-schools and skip that big hurdle for anywhere from 15-20% of the kids in our schools. As those kids don’t get the services they legally and rightfully deserve, they act out. Parents get upset, switch schools. Some schools won’t take those pesky “behavior problems” (which are most likely the manifestation of disabilities that, under federal law, schools are required to identify through Child Find, not 1-2 year RTI stall tactics). So we see more choice, more crowded classrooms, and less true student success. While this is going on, we have some schools in this 21st Century world we live in who use “enrollment preferences” as justification for what amounts to discrimination and racism. Let’s not cloud over what is really going on here with more false narratives. Our children deserve better than this.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Kevin! Let me first state the aspects of your comment I agree with…. We should definitely do better to fund special ed for K-3 and build upon work underway in early childhood. I also agree about the need to address enrollment preferences that limit opportunities for deserving students. I’ve read a lot of your writing and I appreciate the push on “asking why.” But I just think when you “ask why” you seek answers that fit a certain narrative about “corporate education reform.” Go back and look at spending (state and district) pre-RTTT and you’ll see that this is not a new thing. I have no issue with spending on education if we’re investing in the right things and seeing progress. I can’t agree with you, however, that the data aren’t useful and that the need to improve is a false narrative. I work with kids all the time who are brilliant but aren’t receiving high-quality education in their schools. We’ve sent these students to some of the nation’s best colleges and the colleges finally tell them the truth about what they know and are able to do. I’ve been that student as well as I was top of my class K-8 only to lag behind my peers when I attended high school in Ghana. At the system-level, I also worked with the test data that you claim is useless to be able to identify equity gaps within and across schools. This is the stuff that matters to me and many in my community.

  5. Kevin isn’t the only one calling it useless. I can’t count the number of teachers that lament the lack of diagnostic and/or real time, actionable intelligence from state sanctioned testing. To some of them its just plainly unnecessary and even deleterious torture. I can think of multiple ways to identify equity gaps, starting with respecting educators in ways that do not insult their intelligence (not you) by creating evaluation systems that use the unproven tenets of VAM in the CONTROLLING Component V of the highly suspect DPAS-IIR. Then, ask them about the equity gaps in their schools. Then, deploy resources to meet those needs. (cue the dysfunction funding mechanism discussion here…because that’s real!)

    The deployment of human resources by districts being inequitable is the result of the education policy creating hostile workplaces far more than an evil, made up cabal of equity hating administrators. We threaten teachers with crappy reviews and career outcomes for their decision to take on our toughest workplaces. Predictably, they leave (because humans don’t like being disrespected, regardless of culture or ethnicity), and then we seek answers in test scores and big data? It’s insane really, when you think about it. Perhaps if we invested in school climate with the monies being spent on consultants and testing consortia, we could make a meaningful impact in our most challenged schools. I ask, would that be desirable if it really happened, but could only be measured by teacher retention, dropout rate reduction, parental satisfaction, increased graduation rates,and college acceptances?

    My answer to that is YES.

    1. Thanks for your comment, John. I’m sure you know this but there are different assessments for different purposes. There are assessments (aligned to the state assessment) educators can use during the school year to get the actionable intelligence needed to shape instruction and their work with students. The state assessment gives summative information that can provide different types of information as it is a consistent assessment used statewide. I’ve used that information at the state-level (for example) to identify that Brandywine High was doing well getting kids that entered their school in the bottom quartile of the state in 8th grade into college after high school. Given that we used a consistent measure, we were also able to see kids with similar performance at Mt. Pleasant (who could easily get ignored) were getting into college at substantially lower rates. There are many factors that could be affecting these stats. But the data can help us ask the right questions, share information, and address equity gaps (not just in the highest poverty schools you think I’m referring to). You mentioned that you can think of multiple ways to identify such equity gaps. Can you give me more specifics about how you would arrive at a similar finding without a common assessment?

      I support your call to invest in school climate and working conditions. But your claim that inequitable deployment of human resources (side note: I find it funny that you use this term instead of educators or personnel, given your distaste for the term “human capital” :-)) is a result of new education reform policies seems narrow and ahistorical. We’ve had issues with equitable access to the best educators for a long time. So you might want to consider some of the other forces at play that lead to that reality.

  6. Reblogged this on Exceptional Delaware and commented:
    Let me start by saying that Atnre cares about students. With that being said, I agree with some of the facts he presents that many may not know. What I do not agree with is what comes from these “known knowns.” As well, by stating “But while decision makers in Delaware spend time debating things like parents’ ability to opt out of state assessments, this data point gets relatively little play in policy conversations”, I feel the author misses the point about why opt out is such a huge discussion. Parents are ignored in much of the policy decisions. Those who make these decisions almost (in my opinion) see parents as meddling and interfering non-stakeholders who are annoying. They fail to realize, time and time again, that parents are and should be the cornerstone to education policy. Yes, many parents do participate in decisions. They are also parents who belong to organizations and groups that subscribe to the point of view of the DOE. It is a stacked deck in favor of the corporations who distort the clear picture about what is going on.

    1. Kevin, thanks for reblogging! I understand why opt out is such a huge discussion (predominantly in certain communities). I just think policymakers spend an inordinate amount of time talking about opt out when it affects a small subset of the population. You say that it is an example of parents being ignored. I say it is another example of how the concerns of parents (generally not from low-income and communities of color) get attention while there are much more pressing and significant issues that don’t get addressed. I certainly know of blacks and Latinos who are supporting the opt out movement. But there is a reason there’s such a struggle to get them on board with an issue that started in affluent communities: http://www.politico.com/story/2016/04/opt-out-movement-aims-to-lure-more-african-american-latino-parents-221540

  7. Out of 50 states, Delaware is 45th in population. 22% of its population is black. The next state with any similar population split is Arkansas (15.5%) (ranked 33rd in population) and Mississippi (35.7%)(ranked 32nd in population), But with the exception of Washington DC, Delaware is the only state that is not lily white (afro-American population under 8%) from 50 to 33. Most of those states are under 3% afro-American.

    Considering economies of scale, Delaware then is doing quite well. On the nations’ report card NAEP, Delaware is ranked midway around 25th and Mississippi is 45th and Arkansas is 42nd…

    Size is important because when you have to pay for education, having more money available by having more people paying taxes, and having more children to fill existing structures, means the costs per student are lower… There is no extra cost for teaching each extra child because the fixed costs are already in place. It costs nothing to put another child on a school bus, gas, maintenance, and driver costs stay the same. But that average cost per student drops. Likewise it costs nothing to put another child in a classroom. The facility, personnel, and instructional materials are already paid for. But it does make a difference in the cost per student if those fixed costs are divided by more students in that group.

    The argument that Delaware spends more and gets less falls flat when all evidence is considered.The simple reason we pay more for more students is that we are only 1 million people compared to states five times our size or larger, who deal with as many

    So I would caution anyone promoting the use of data, to also publish all results so all others can peer review it, perhaps filling in gaps the originator has kept from view… intentionally or otherwise.

    For what Delaware has, when all items get factored, we offer one of the finest educations a minority in America can receive…Which should not be a shock to anyone who knows and understands how data works.

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