CRI Focus Areas

Why we should care about Priority Schools


*Editors note: This is Ron Russos debut article as the Senior Fellow of the Center for Education Excellence.   The establishment of six priority schools to turn around Delaware’s lowest performing schools has provided the education bureaucracy with an opportunity to implement a systemic change for the entire public school system.  If the new methods of operation prove effective for these targeted schools, then the new methodology should be adopted throughout the system. I am referring to how the schools operate and not their specific curriculum, procedures, etc.  Those areas are to be determined by the individual school. While the Red Clay and Christina School Districts will soon be discussing alternative agreements with the Delaware Department of Education, a look at the DOE’s original Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) provides insights to the proposed changes. Some of the provisions bear a resemblance to the “Charter School Act of 1995”that also was intended to foster systemic change.   Under its statement of principles the MOU says, “Persistently low performing schools need autonomy to identify and build programs and capacity that address their specific needs.  Decisions regarding curriculum, instructional practices, schedule, and length of day should be made at the school as part of a comprehensive improvement plan.  In exchange for that autonomy, school leaders are accountable for substantially improving school performance.”  The original 1995 DOE draft of charter school regulations prepared by Mike Ferguson, State Superintendent of Public Schools, said such things as, “Reliance on bureaucratic decisions would be a thing of the past” and “Teachers…can minimize the bureaucracies that perhaps once stifled their creativity” and “…empower local communities to try new, unique solutions to problems that are facing their own schools”.  The concept of local control is not new.  The reality will be. In his April presentation sponsored by the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, “What Delaware can learn from the Rest of the World”, Andreas Scheleicher, a member of Rodel’s International Advisory Group and a director of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), used graphs to show the positive effect of local, front-line autonomy.  When this school autonomy includes distributive leadership that involves teachers in the decision making process student performance is increased.  Together they work to create a culture of high expectations.  Many of the expected changes in the priority schools are covered in Scheleicher’s April presentation, “How Delaware compares with the rest of the world” which you can read at This new authority includes hiring and dismissing all staff, arranging the school calendar and school schedule, designing curriculum aligned to Delaware standards, and employing instructional practices and methodology. The schools will have autonomy from any district requirements not mandated by state or federal law.   Finances are also locally administered.  Additional funds are available and according to the MOU each priority school has the “right to develop and implement its own school budget and expenditure plan.”  How the funds are used is critical. The key issue is not so much the total amount of funding as it is how the funds are allocated. The CATO Institute cites the fact that student performance has remained stagnant over the last 40 years while per pupil funding has tripled. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 52% of public education expenditures are spent on instruction. The Heritage Foundation recommends systemic education reforms that improve resource allocation and encourages effective school leadership.   The critical role played by the school leader is universally recognized.  According to the MOU “without quality leaders, schools will not improve”.  The principal’s compensation “should be no less than $160,000”.  The selection process will be a rigorous one. Any candidate selected by a district will require the approval of the state. For teachers the school will devise a “salary scale and criteria for additional compensation.” If this priority school effort is successful in raising student performance would it not be reasonable to use it as a model for all public schools?  Perhaps we should consider more autonomy and school-wide bonus programs across the board.   At the Vision Coalition Conference on October 29, 2014 Governor Markell commented on the fact that within districts teachers with seniority can choice into a school when a vacancy occurs. He pointed out that not a single teacher in the priority schools had made that selection into the school. The Governor told the audience that if no agreement was reached with the Red Clay and Christina School Districts he had only three options. He could close the schools, convert them to charter schools, or turn them over to a school management company. It would be a difficult decision but it was one he was ready to make. The success of the priority schools will provide a benefit for all Delawareans. As the operational lessons learned are dispersed among all schools and the education of our students is significantly increased the economic climate will improve. New businesses will be attracted; property values will go up, crime rates will go down, etc. This “priority school” endeavor is not just for the City of Wilmington anymore.   Ron R. Russo, Senior Fellow


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