A few weeks ago I sounded the alarm about the need for Delaware’s incoming Governor John Carney to stand with students and avoid the “old boys club” in his pick for Secretary of Education. As 2016 drew to a close, Carney selected substance over status quo and nominated Indian River School District (IRSD) Superintendent Dr. Susan Bunting as his Secretary of Education.
Dr. Bunting possesses a wealth of experience (she started at IRSD as a teacher in 1977 and has been a school and district leader) and has great relationships (she is highly-regarded by her staff, peers, and by policymakers across the state). But as I have argued before, without a track record of results, experience and relationships are like a Twinkie without the filling — they might make adults happy but will disappoint a whole lot of kids.
Fortunately, as a 2012 National Superintendent of the Year finalist, Dr. Bunting has results in spades. So here are four reasons why I think a Secretary Susan Bunting will mean progress for Delaware’s kids:
- She has a track record of getting results (especially with traditionally underserved students).
Dr. Bunting has been Superintendent of one of Delaware’s largest and most diverse school districts for eleven years and can point to substantial evidence of impact. Her district has the highest percentage of English Learner students and among the lowest local tax rates to provide funding to help address the challenges and needs of those students. Yet, many of the results she can boast are with traditionally underserved demographic groups: 44 percent of students in the district identify as black or Hispanic/Latino, 42 percent are considered low-income, and 14 percent are English Learners. IRSD has eight National Blue Ribbon School awards, five National Distinguished Title I Schools, and one school was recently highlighted in an SREB report as a model “high-performing, high-need school” (half of the school’s students were from non-English-speaking homes, and 80 percent received free or reduced-fee lunch in 2015).In an education system where the belief that certain kids just cannot learn is pervasive, it will be refreshing to have someone at the helm whose track record belies this harmful narrative.
- She maintains high standards and will position Delaware to be a national model of success.
Over the past several years, Delaware has received national attention for its efforts to increase access to college, its quality and use of education data, its teacher preparation reform efforts, career pathways programs, teacher observation and feedback, and other efforts. Under Dr. Bunting’s leadership, IRSD was regularly a model school district and it is likely she will work to continue building an education system that is a national model of success.In a recent interview, Dr. Bunting noted:“We set a high bar. Our motto is ‘a model of excellence’. And we try to get there.”And they regularly do get there. In 2015, IRSD was highlighted in a national report by Karin Chenoweth of the Education Trust as one of “two unlikely districts whose students beat the odds” and demonstrate “what district leaders can do to leverage achievement.” As Delaware adopted more rigorous, college and career-ready state standards, Dr. Bunting’s district was ahead of the curve and was featured in videos as a “Common Core success story.” IRSD has also been regarded as a model for evaluating and coaching teachers, the use of professional learning communities, and for efforts to ensure equitable access to excellent teachers.
- She embraces accountability for student learning and improvement.
Dr. Bunting is intense about accountability for student success and continuous improvement. While too many desire to shirk responsibility in the education system, she holds herself, along with her district and school leaders, accountable to an ambitious balanced scorecard. This is in addition to the state’s official accountability system.She has been known to randomly check 20% of all teacher evaluations to ensure school leaders were holding a high standard for teaching and student learning. As an expert facilitator of professional growth, Dr. Bunting skillfully balances the need for meaningful accountability and the need for opportunities to learn and improve. In doing so, she delegitimizes the false dichotomy of “accountability versus support.”While IRSD’s percentage of students with high-needs has increased rapidly and her district lacks the ideal set of resources, she promotes a “no-excuses” approach to serving students in the district.When asked recently about her philosophy she said:
“I truly have a philosophy of no exceptions and no excuses. I will not take an excuse of ‘those children’ or ‘kids can’t do it.’ It is our opportunity to find how to make every student successful. That is our job. Every child can maximize his or her potential if we facilitate that success. There are no exceptions; not for gender, not for race, not for ethnicity, not for any of the things on the list. We have a job. We have an opportunity to make every child be the best they can be.”
- She innovates and collaborates to create opportunities for students
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a few IRSD schools with Dr. Bunting and her commitment to innovation and quality was immediately apparent. I sat in on a student advisory council that she engaged meaningfully to better tailor district policies to students’ needs. I visited a few Spanish immersion classes where Kindergarten students were receiving half-day instruction in Spanish. I visited a program for “Accelerating Pre-Literate English Language Learners” that later received a Superstars in Education award.Several educators in her district have been recognized for their innovation with STEM instruction.Through a partnership with Teach For America-Delaware, IRSD has been able to attract diverse candidates from as far as Texas to the district to fill critical needs and have an additional pipeline of high-quality teachers.
Indian River is also part of a BRINC consortium of Delaware districts that are leveraging personalized learning and technology in their schools to better meet students’ needs.
Dr. Bunting has the right set of competencies and experiences to build upon the progress Delaware has made while not being satisfied until the system is excellent for all students.
But I have no illusions that she will be able to advance a bold agenda and drive the state toward a widely-supported vision for the future of Delaware’s education system without the advocacy and engagement of concerned Delawareans. She will need both partnership and push. I know many of us are ready to provide it.