Doyle: How to prevent Delaware schools from failing further


Kathy Doyle taught secondary social studies in Delaware for 30 years, taught a graduate course for teachers at the University of Delaware for five years and was a longtime mentor of student teachers.

When U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote his decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, he stated that public education was “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” If recent headlines are any indication, Delaware is failing miserably.

“Delaware ranks 45th in Education.” “Milford School Board to Consider Limiting Discussion of Controversial/Sensitive Issues in the Classroom.” “Capital School District Could Go Remote” (for two days due to teacher absenteeism and a substitute teacher shortage). “Behavioral Issues Affecting Instruction.” These problems are all connected.

I began teaching in 1985. My class sizes ranged from 16-25 students. Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees provided me the knowledge to teach social studies, write curriculum and manage a classroom (though there is no substitute for experience when it comes to learning how to manage a classroom). During the first half of my career, the state paid for two college classes per year for teacher professional development. I used the opportunity to earn certification in special education.

My first 25 years in the classroom were exciting and exhausting. Over time, I grew effective at inspiring students to dig deeply into learning. My last few years were demoralizing and difficult, in large part due to the hyperfocus on state tests.

Test scores and absenteeism recently earned Delaware the rank of 45. While we should look at what top-ranked states are doing, it is important to understand that scores in Delaware have no impact on either student grades or promotion — and students know this. Scores are used primarily to evaluate teachers, rank schools and place students in remedial classes. Toward the end of my career, students who struggled with state tests were pulled from band, chorus, art and foreign languages. While scores did not increase, disengagement and disruption did.

A teacher from Milford recently shared with me that she would not be teaching about the 70th anniversary of Delaware’s role in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case because she was afraid the new school board would say it is too controversial. Teaching about Delaware’s extraordinary role in the outcome of one of the most impactful Supreme Court cases to date might have been controversial in 1954.

History is full of controversy. This is not a new or “woke” concept. Obviously, what we teach and how we teach it must be developmentally appropriate. For example, first graders can continue to learn about George Washington’s cherry tree (even though the story isn’t true). By high school, students can be trusted to consider that Washington was both a great patriot and a slave owner. History helps students understand how people reflect the times in which they live — and how individuals and movements come along to challenge such cultural norms. Learning about the good, bad and ugly in our history does not make us hate our history or ourselves. It helps us appreciate the freedom we have to improve our communities and inspires us to do so.

So much of the joy I experienced as a teacher was related to the autonomy I had to create lessons that were relevant to my students. Each summer, I pored over resources, blocked out the calendar and determined how much time to devote to each unit of study. Since it was impossible to “cover” all of history in nine months, I had to make choices. If it was an election year, I included a unit on elections. As I got to know my students, I revised my plans. And sometimes, something so big happened (such as 9/11), I stopped what I was doing for a day or two to allow questions, grief and a return to normalcy.

Toward the end of my career, my class sizes had increased to as many as 32 students per class (multiplied by six classes per day). These classes consistently included non-English-speaking children and children with special needs. Earlier in my career, such classes had two teachers in the same classroom. Over time, teachers who were certified in their subject matter and special education were counted as two teachers and given large classes with little assistance.

In addition to unmanageable class sizes, schools implemented the state’s “recommended curriculum,” upon which the state tests were based. We had scripts and timelines to follow — regardless of whether the students were “getting it.” Disruptive behavior and absenteeism increased. I no longer had the autonomy to do what I knew was best for my students. My passion for teaching waned, as my mental and physical health suffered.

When schools become places where only test scores matter, and school boards limit honest, meaningful learning opportunities, neither students nor teachers want to come to school. If Delaware is to attract and retain good teachers, reduce disruptive behaviors in the classroom and improve student learning, the state must stop placing test scores over student learning, reduce class sizes, provide meaningful and individualized professional development for teachers, and allow teachers the autonomy to do the job that they have been trained to do.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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