Delaware Looks to Raise the Education Bar

Delaware Governor Jack Markell is making a move for education reform.

Student raising her hand
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Three years ago, Delaware adopted the Common Core State Standards designed to boost student college and career readiness. Now Gov. Jack Markell, a former co-chair of the national Common Core Standards initiative, is preparing to sign a new state bill that aims to raise the bar for teachers in the First State, too.

Markell, a second-term Democrat who chairs the National Governors Association, recently spoke with U.S. News about how Delaware is working to improve education and workforce development, especially in the STEM fields, and why this issue matters for students, officials and parents across the country. Excerpts:

What's going on in your state in terms of education reform?

There are several pieces. First is the idea of raising expectations and raising standards. Another piece: data-driven instruction. Every teacher in our state now spends 90 minutes a week sitting down with five peers to just drill into what the data is telling them about student performance. There's research that says the most effective economic development that a state could make is in early childhood education. We're increasing over a five-year period from 20 to 80 the percentage of high-need kids who are enrolled in preschool. That's a game changer.

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Where does Delaware stand with implementing the Common Core standards?

There are pockets where it's going really well, and then there are pockets where it's not. And, not surprisingly, whether it's going well or not generally comes down to the leadership of the school or the district. The implementation is always the hardest part, and so that's what we're finding.

How are you addressing teacher prep?

Legislation that we just introduced raises the bar for entering the profession in terms of high admission requirements, high requirements for program completion, a minimum GPA. Essentially, just like a new lawyer would have to take a bar exam, something similar for teachers. Two out of five of our teachers leave within the first four years. We're looking to develop a new career ladder where these teachers can stay in the classroom but make more money because they'll also be training other teachers.

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How about the other end of the pipeline: the workforce? What is Delaware doing in terms of job creation?

When we think about all these educational improvement initiatives, we really think about: How does it connect to what the workforce is looking for? This is really the holy grail these days for governors: making sure there is this incredibly symbiotic relationship in terms of what we're teaching in school, and what it is that the workforce is looking for today and tomorrow. When it comes to STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], the connection with local employers is probably the place where you'd have the best opportunity to fail or to succeed.

What about nationally? What is your sense of effective programs?

North Carolina, for example, has a very nice program. You see the school districts and the community colleges working very closely with employers to make sure that the curricular materials are aligned with what they need. We do this a lot in Delaware as well, but the ones that I have been most impressed by are those where you have real employers engaged in a substantive way helping make sure that kids are … getting the appropriate academic grounding combined with the practical hands-on experience. I think for a lot of us this is the issue of the day, that there's got to be a purposeful connection between what we're teaching and the skills that are valued in the marketplace. I think we all have an obligation to say we've got to work together. Parents have got to get it.