Students' success shows reforms are on course
By MICHAEL N. CASTLE and THOMAS R. CARPER
Reforming Delaware's schools and raising student achievement have been compared to turning an aircraft carrier. Both take patience and persistence.
With the release of federal education reports recently, it's clear that Delaware public schools are moving in the right direction. According to the 2002 National Assessment of Education Progress, which monitors how well students are performing, Delaware fourth- and eighth-graders have reading and writing scores higher than the national average and their counterparts in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
In a remarkable turnaround, Delaware's fourth- and eighth- graders achieved the most substantial gains in average reading test scores of any state's students since the test was last administered in 1998.
This comes on the heels of other good news earlier this year, when the Delaware Department of Education reported that 80 percent of sixth-graders and 90 percent of fourth-graders now meet or exceed the state's rigorous science standards, considered among the toughest in the country.
But while we celebrate, we shouldn't rest on our laurels. We must continue to renew our commitment and reaffirm our faith in the promise of every student in the state.
While we've reduced the achievement gap across racial and class lines, African-American and Hispanic students continue to lag behind their white counterparts. Moreover, even though our elementary and middle schools are getting better, high schools still have plenty of room for improvement. With nearly 1,300 Delaware ninth- graders currently enrolled in summer school because they fall well below Delaware standards in reading, math or both, there's more to be done.
Still, as we watch test scores rising each year, there is reason to hope that, before long, student achievement in our high schools may reflect what we've already witnessed in elementary and middle schools.
Who deserves the credit for the recent improvement in public schools? A lot of folks, starting with the students themselves who are meeting these academic challenges. Next, thousands of dedicated teachers, counselors and administrators should take a well-deserved bow. Finally, let's salute parents who take seriously their responsibility to be their children's first teachers and then partner with education professionals to get the job done.
Standards have been raised for Delaware students over the past decade, and just about everyone is working harder and smarter to meet new expectations. School boards at both the state and local district level, along with the Delaware Department of Education, deserve applause too.
The Delaware Legislature also provided new funds for a variety of programs, such as extra learning time for kids, smaller class sizes in the early grades, a four-year Head Start guarantee for low-income children and new technology for classrooms.
Meanwhile, the introduction of competition and market forces through public school choice and charter schools has helped school districts focus on what works. Thousands of Delawareans have taken up the cause of mentoring in public schools each year, while companies, service organizations and faith-based institutions have adopted schools and provides help in extraordinary ways.
At the federal level, Delaware's congressional delegation has supported significant increases in funding over the past two years for programs that have a proven track record in raising student achievement. The federal government is now spending far more money for elementary and secondary education than at any other time in American history.
In 2001 Congress passed President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, an ambitious and bipartisan initiative to close the achievement gap. As a primary component of that legislation, states are required to develop effective accountability systems that include high standards of achievement. Delaware was the 10th state to receive federal approval for its accountability plan, which should keep our schools moving forward.
As encouraging as the results of the past year have been, the worst mistake we could make now would be to let up. The 49 other states will not be slowing down. They realize that the states whose quality of life and standard of living will improve are those where students learn to read and write well, do math, understand science, think creatively, and use technology effectively.
Delaware public schools and students are on the move. Let's not celebrate our good fortune by taking the rest of the summer off.
Sure, parents should take their kids to the beach and the pool, on vacation and to the movies. But we should also encourage children to read some good books this summer, write about what they've read, and find time to keep their math skills from getting rusty.
They may complain a bit about it now, but they might thank you after Labor Day when it's time to hit the books again in earnest. After all, it's our duty to keep this aircraft carrier on the right course.
Democrat Thomas R. Carper is Delaware's junior U.S. Senator. Republican Michael N. Castle represents Delaware in the U.S. House of Representatives.