Instead of forcing districts with schools in the bottom 5 percent of academic performance to replace their staffs or extend their school days, a blueprint released earlier this month allows districts to determine their own reform plans.
“It provides more flexibility and more responsibility,” Donna Johnson, director of the Delaware State Board of Education, said of the plan. “It didn’t limit them to a very narrow set of options in terms of the path they took to pursue turnaround.”
But Atnre Alleyne, founding executive director of DelawareCAN, the state’s branch of the reform-oriented advocacy group 50CAN, worries that the new plan will weaken school accountability.
“My initial thoughts were, Is this transformational? Or is this status quo?” Alleyne said of the draft plan. “This looks like rinse and repeat.”
Much of the accountability portion of Delaware’s implementation plan meets ESSA’s minimum requirements. The state Education Department will determine whether a school is low-performing, is struggling or belongs in a yet-to-be-named “other” category for schools that are performing better.
Under ESSA, low-performing and struggling schools have up to four years to improve. For low-performing schools that don’t, the state will choose a new improvement strategy, according to Delaware’s plan.
But how the department will handle schools that continue to fail is an open question.
“What happens when the four-year turnaround attempt doesn’t work? What’s next? That’s where we are all struggling now,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that we have a good answer for that, and I’m not sure who does.”
The debate over the right approach to turnaround is complicated by the mixed results and strained politics that resulted from Delaware’s previous attempts to improve struggling schools.
In 2014, state education leaders tried to force low-performing schools in the Red Clay district to make aggressive changes, including forcing staff to reapply for their jobs. But they faced political pushback from teachers and unions, who argued that they were being wrongly blamed for the effects of poverty and crime.
In the end, the department backpedaled on some of its demands.
“We recognize this is important. What we develop now will likely last many years,” Johnson said. “We believe we need to push forward and push through some difficult decisions.”