Delaware’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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.”