Cape Gazette
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Keep open mind on educational success

By Eric Buckson | Jan 21, 2014

Delaware residents have been told that our educational system is broken. Government officials and the media point to low test scores and disappointing world rankings as proof. Gov. Jack Markell has referenced China as a model for improving education in Delaware. His praise comes from data that suggests that China is superior to the U.S. when it comes to scores produced by PISA, a test given to 15-year-olds worldwide. If we are going to use China as an educational model, it is important to understand how their system works.

In China, students are routinely tested as they advance in school. When students fail to keep up, they are redirected or dropped from testing. China limits their test pool by selecting the province of Shanghai and not the entire country for PISA testing. This selective system produces a pool of talented test takers who score extremely well. If Delaware’s goal is to lead the world in test taking, we should select the town of Greenville as the test pool and Archmere Academy as its test takers. If you think this is unfair, and I do, then why is it okay for China?

Education Secretary Mark Murphy was critical of Delaware teachers citing SAT (college entrance exam) scores that indicate only one in five Delaware students graduate high school college ready. It is important to understand how college readiness is determined if we are going to use it to push for teacher accountability. In 2011, the Department of Education decided it was a good idea to pay for all Delaware high school juniors to take the SAT to determine college readiness. This million dollar taxpayer expense ignores the fact that not everyone wants or should go to college and having all students take a three-hour exam that has no impact on their classroom grade is not an accurate reflection of teacher performance in Delaware.

My point is data has to be fairly interpreted if it is going to be helpful. No country provides every child with a chance to succeed like the United States. This fact will always make us vulnerable to comparisons with other countries. If Delaware wants to lead the way in education we have to change the system, not just the classroom. Start by opening up charter schools in each district for our highest performing students to attend and enable teachers to maximize their abilities. This will create competition but it is this factor that makes our competitors superior to us in rankings.

Delaware vocational schools have to get back to the mission of trades and certifications, not testing and rankings. Why should an auto tech student take French, pass organic chemistry and graduate with 30 credits in order to be a certified mechanic? Our global competitors understand this. If you want verification, ask a foreign exchange student about the difference in university and vocational training.

Delaware needs to add more community-based schools with children who want to be there rather than take them away. This concept maximizes the relationship between the teacher, student and parent. Put a struggling learner in a small class with an excellent teacher and add parental involvement, and you have a recipe for improvement. It is difficult to understand how closing a community school and sending students back to a larger campus is more effective than staying there and making it work. Achievement gaps are not closed through osmosis or proximity but through hard work and parental involvement. This may sound tough, but it is exactly what are competitors in Asia are doing.

Finally, the goal of having all students enroll in college is novel but misguided. We have to stop asking students if they are going to college and start asking students why they are going to college. Current job markets demonstrate that perfecting a skill in a specific area is a key factor in gaining meaningful employment. Many times that skill can be developed through one and two year certifications. The reality is that a bachelor’s degree providing no clear path capable of paying off student debt is a poor investment. India leads the world in producing engineers because they understand that degrees have to match jobs and the engineering/health care fields are dominating the growth sector for employment. I am not advocating for less choices in colleges and universities. I am saying that going to college is not as important as what you are going to college for.

Over the next 12 years, all four of my children will graduate from Delaware’s public school system. I am confident that as long as teachers, school leaders and parents are allowed to work with decision makers, my children will have the tools they need to be successful in life. In the interim, Delaware residents must keep an open mind to what it means to be successful in education.

Eric Buckson
Camden
parent, teacher and Levy Court commissioner

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