Delaware’s Plan for Student Success: An Interview with Paul Herdman

Few states have had as exciting a journey for public education as Delaware. Fueled by multi-million dollar grants, a committed coalition of public and private stakeholders, and a consistent focus on a few key areas, Delaware has witnessed improvements on critical indicators such as graduation rates and children receiving high-quality preschool. We at Education First had the privilege of chronicling the First State’s progress over the past five years in a recent report, “Inside the Schoolhouse: Untold Stories of Delaware’s Education Progress.

To reflect on the past and what the future holds for Delaware public schools, we sat down with Paul Herdman, President and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, a nonprofit philanthropic organization focused exclusively on supporting Delaware public education improvements. The Foundation helped form the Vision Coalition, a public-private partnership with leaders from across the state who are helping drive the next generation of improvements to Delaware public schools. The Coalition helped create Vision 2015 and its successor plan, Student Success 2025, which lays out a set of goals and strategies to build world-class public schools in the state.

Herdman talks about the road ahead and what shape it will take for Delaware, including under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The following is an edited transcript:

Delaware has had a tremendous journey in terms of education improvements in the past 5-6 years. Reflecting back on how far the state has come, what are the bright spots that stand out for you? What made the journey possible?

Finally, another highlight that folks don’t point to as much is the state’s catalytic investment in new ideas. For example, the state created its own innovation fund with dollars from Race to the Top and put $600,000 into four districts that were interested in moving forward on personalization and next-generation learning. Those districts have not only embraced that, they are now paying for those innovations. There are now nine (of 19) districts—more than half the students in the state are working on personalization at some level.

The state accomplished 75 percent of the policy recommendations in Vision 2015. What were highlights of those accomplishments? What were the most challenging policy recommendations to take on?

Having a working coalition of public and private players—the state secretary of education, the head of our union, some district superintendents, charter school folks and business leaders—we had a dozen members of our leadership team who really drove this Vision Coalition and have driven it since 2005. It enabled us to create a safe space for people to talk to each other and disagree without being disagreeable and understand that various groups have constituencies that they’re all managing.

There were six broad areas that were in Vision 2015, starting with early learning and ending with fair and flexible funding. We did better than we thought we would in several areas. On early learning we moved more aggressively than we thought possible, and the Coalition called for the creation of internationally benchmarked standards before Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards were created. The state also moved on a range of policies to improve teacher preparation and evaluation—none of which are perfect, but created a framework against which we can improve.

Several of the big ideas proposed didn’t go as planned. Turning around low-performing schools was a challenge for the state. There were some successes, but the mechanics and politics of that were just very tough. And the other big challenge was changing our funding system. If you look at the six broad buckets of things that we had initially said we wanted to get done, that’s the one that moved the least. We’ve got a system that was developed in the 1940s before black and brown kids were even allowed to be integrated into schools, let alone students who didn’t speak English or who had special needs. There have been efforts to try to layer on to this antiquated system, but we believe that the funding needs to be fundamentally modernized if we truly care about equity and excellence.

The Vision Coalition talked to people in the community while developing Student Success 2025, and held “coalition coffees” after the release to continue to engage stakeholders. What are you learning from those conversations?

Before drafting Student Success 2025, we talked to more than 4,000 Delawareans—including over a thousand students. Not surprisingly, we heard that people in the community want more than just better academics and improved test scores. They talked about a richer experience for students that included communication skills, collaboration with their peers and gaining attributes like critical thinking, empathy, and creativity. Academics should still be at the core, but that broader set of skills ultimately became the North Star that guided this report. If that collective vision is our North Star over the next 10 years, we said, how do we map backwards to priorities that are going to get us there?

We also couched those local conversations in an international and national context. We developed an international advisory group and spoke to leading national thinkers. They pushed us to anchor all our policies in the North Star, they encouraged us to get our young people engaged in meaningful work experiences while still in high school, and they challenged increase alignment in Delaware’s education system.

Vision Coalition’s Student Success 2025 – The North Star:

Student Success 2025 has some overlap with Vision 2015 in terms of areas of focus. But there’s a new emphasis on personalized learning, system governance, and postsecondary success. Why those areas?

We still needed to double down on improving the craft of teaching, fixing our funding system and deepening our work with early learning, but there were some areas that we didn’t have any conception of back in 2005, like personalization. The notion of not just integrating technology in classrooms, but meeting young people where they are and more fully utilizing all assets in the community to educate folks—after-school education opportunities, out-of-school-time opportunities, on-the-job training—to customize the education experience. That was a big new central area of focus.

The other was on postsecondary. In 2005 we waved a flag at college access, but our recommendations largely focused on K-12. In Student Success 2025, we go much deeper on creating a seamless connection between the K-12 experience and life after high school. We assert that some level of education beyond high school will become increasingly important, whether it’s a one-year certification or four years or more of education. We also recommend that we need to do a much better job of engaging young people as early as middle school around career options and pathways.

Finally, as stated above, in terms of governance, a through line in the report is that we need to do a much better job of making sure all the pieces of the system are aligned and ultimately serve students. To that end, we have a lot of work to do to build the non-cognitive measures and curricula inherent in our North Star.

Vision Coalition’s Student Success 2025 – Six Core Areas:

How easy or hard has it been to hold the Coalition together over the past 5-6 years in the face of legislative or stakeholder pushback on certain elements of the state’s reform agenda?

It’s not easy. We’ve had transitions in several key positions—three union presidents, four secretaries of education, two chairs, etc. They have no obligation to come to any of the meetings; we are not appointed by the state, and the Vision Coalition is not a formal organization. We are a coalition of the willing. That said, we’ve generally had very good participation, and folks have continued to come even when things have gotten rough in terms of not being on the same page. This is a unique space in which these leaders have an ability to talk to people face to face and explain where they are on complex issues.

As we move toward Student Success 2025, rather than spending most of our time on issues of the day, we look forward. We try to always re-ground our conversations on the student because our dialogue can often drift into minutiae, edu-wonk stuff that most people don’t really care about. In other words, when we start to drift, someone says, “OK, is this really going to help the next generation of young people?”

Three months after Student Success 2025 came out, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law. What are the challenges and opportunities for Delaware schools under the law?

Let me start with an opportunity. We have a range of educators working statewide on what it will mean to move to a competency-based system, and ESSA has the potential to accelerate that work.

Another opportunity is that we have a social-emotional learning working group that is putting forward some recommendations. We’re also looking broadly as a state at our assessments and building towards competency-based. The wraparound services, specifically the set-asides for low-performing schools, create opportunities for states or districts to come up with some creative and holistic solutions.

However, in terms of challenges. ESSA calls for a lot of community engagement and collaboration. The challenge for us is we spent the 18 months prior doing a lot of that work, and came up with a set of things before ESSA was released. The hope is that some of those great ideas, like our system of assessments and accountability, and how we’ve planted a seed about thinking more holistically about measuring student success, stick.

Another challenge is that like the president, this governor (Delaware Governor Jack Markell) is in his last year of office, and it’s unclear whether this secretary (current Delaware Secretary of Education Steven Godowsky) will continue. So without the federal backstop in this transition period, there is some concern that there is going to be some rollback of efforts that were potentially helpful. In some ways, part of what we’re working to do is ensure those foundational building blocks get stronger and that the windows of opportunity for new ideas are open.

How should the state be planning for its ESSA work (engaging stakeholders, policy design, etc.)? What are the top 2-3 things to keep in mind?

There’s a lot of good work that surfaced with Student Success 2025 that should be mined as part of the process. I would start there. One, I think it’s got to be owned by a broader group other than the Department of Education to be successful. If it’s just the Department hosting briefings or town halls, I don’t think the attendance will be that strong, especially in the last six months of this administration. But if the engagement is done in partnership with parent organizations, local community groups, even nonprofits and state leaders other than the Department, there’s a chance you’ll get broader engagement.

Two, is timing. Something like 30 other states are going to be going through an ESSA engagement process in the midst of a raucous presidential campaign and a gubernatorial transition. Trying to engage and get people bought into a new era of work in the midst of an election cycle, when national and state reins will likely change hands, will make robust engagement tricky in the fall.

Finally, tell us one thing about Delaware that no one outside of Delaware knows.

In addition to being one of the world’s foremost corporate capitals, and the legal home to nearly one million businesses, including more than half of all U.S. publicly traded companies and around 60 percent of Fortune 500 firms, we are a microcosm of the US. Children of color represent more than half of the students served by local public schools. Historically, we were a slave state and an abolition state, and that legacy impacts our students today. But if we can figure out how to make it work in Delaware, those lessons could be transferred to other states. We have all the players across the political spectrum that larger states have, just on a smaller stage.

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