Rebuilding The Model

By: William D. Budinger Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Opinion

Our Children Deserve It and Our Future Demands It

Rebuilding the Model When I was a student in the 1940s and ‘50s, America’s public education system was the model for the world. With my Chicago area high school diploma, I felt well-prepared to enter the University of Notre Dame and, later, to join the workforce and start my own business.

In today’s global marketplace, our young people might not feel so ready to take on the world. U.S. students consistently score below their peers from other countries on international tests. As a group they rank below even the average for developed countries on the most recent PISA exam, which measures science competencies for today’s world. In other words, most developed countries now do a better job educating their children than we do.

The more we worked on it, the more we came to appreciate that states actually are the ideal venues for real, sustainable reform.

That’s why a decade ago when we sold Rodel Inc., the manufacturing company I founded, my family and I committed to a new and equally enterprising challenge: to help America’s education system retool itself so that we prepare our children for the new challenges of the 21st century. We do this primarily through the work of the Rodel Foundations of Delaware and Arizona.

We established the Rodel Foundation of Delaware with a bold mission: to help our home state create one of the finest public school systems in the nation by 2012. Thanks largely to its well-educated workforce; Delaware traditionally has been regarded as a good place for business. We wanted to keep it that way.

To accomplish its mission and carry on the work of its first CEO, Stephanie Fitzgerald, the Foundation hired Dr. Paul Herdman in 2004. Paul had studied the more promising reform efforts around the nation and concluded that most had failed because they lacked broad, state-wide support.

This actually resulted in our first innovation: state-level education reform. Until then, most education reform efforts were driven by federal initiatives, such as today’s No Child Left Behind Act, or took place in local districts or local schools. There was no successful state-wide initiative. Delaware offered some built-in advantages: it is small, with just 120,000 students in nineteen districts; it has a favorable policy environment, including support for early childhood education standards and charter schools; it has better funding than many states; and, perhaps most important, when a tough job needs doing, Delaware has a long tradition of bipartisan collaboration.

States hold the policy reins on a number of vital issues, including distributing state funds, setting the bar for student performance, and determining who teaches in our classrooms and leads our schools.

To define Delaware’s challenge, the foundation commissioned a comprehensive analysis of the state’s existing public education system. Published in July 2005, Opportunity Knocks revealed that while Delaware ranked eighth among U.S. states in per-student spending, its overall performance was mediocre at best. Only 64 percent of our high school students graduated in four years, compared to much higher rates in our neighboring states. And the achievement gaps between our white and minority students were wide and growing.

By design, that report did not offer recommendations for improvement. That second step resulted appropriately from an historic year-long statewide collaborative process that included the voices of hundreds of citizens, led by a Steering Committee whose 28 members included top-level representatives from the business community, state government, higher education, teachers union, local school districts, community based organizations, and others.

They kicked off their work in November 2005 with the same audacious goals that have characterized everything we’ve done. In the words of Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee chair, Marvin N. “Skip” Schoenhals,

“We decided then that we were going to tackle the really hard issues, and get to the bottom of how our system could be transformed. If we didn’t want to make that commitment, we would put down our coffee cups and go home.”

They elevated their sights from the best schools in the nation to the best in the world by 2015 and engaged The Boston Consulting Group to help craft a research-based plan aligned to international best practices.

Introduced at a pair of public events 11 months later, the Vision 2015 plan was immediately hailed as a breakthrough. With detailed recommendations in six key areas, it gave us a coherent roadmap for systemic statewide change. And though the process was sometimes bumpy, at the end all 28 stakeholders stood together behind the plan - an outcome that was vital to our ability to move forward.

Since then several exciting things have happened to bring us closer to realizing Vision 2015:

In June 2007, then-Governor Ruth Ann Minner established the Leadership for Educational Achievement in Delaware (LEAD) Committee, which produced major studies on achieving up to $158 million in cost efficiencies within the current state education budget, and how our 59-year-old state education funding system could be fundamentally redesigned.

By pointing out realistic opportunities to save millions by spending smarter, the LEAD Committee has laid the groundwork for change. Now we had to convince legislators to enact the efficiencies and redirect the savings to Vision 2015 priorities.

Also in 2007, we launched the Vision Network of districts and schools that serve as demonstration sites for Vision 2015 recommendations. Participating educators receive professional development in data-driven instruction and school leadership. This training serves as the foundation for a new culture driven by performance and innovation. Supported by a public-private partnership, the Network now includes 21 public schools serving 14,000 students statewide – more than 10% of all Delaware students.

Seeded by a $4 million investment from the Rodel Foundation, Vision 2015 has leveraged more than $6 million in additional private support to help implement Vision 2015 recommendations, including the cost efficiency study, early childhood education standards, the Vision Network, online learning, and other initiatives that drive student achievement. In this economy where public funding is scarce, the Delaware Business Roundtable has been a critical and invaluable partner and leader.

In addition to seeding good ideas and helping government find the money to implement change, Rodel and the Delaware Business Roundtable are helping to build a movement of citizens - parents, business and community leaders, and lay supporters - who are impatient and who believe that Delaware can do better for its children. The launch of Education Voters of Delaware this winter will play a vital role in building that public will.

We’ve come a long way and, as I said at the beginning, most of our journey was through uncharted territory. But, when you think about it that is exactly the thing that has made America great – innovation and the courage to try new ideas.

America’s – and Delaware’s – education also has a long journey to make. When it was designed more than a century ago, America was a nation of farmers (thus the summer “vacation” so kids could work in the fields). Then we industrialized and redesigned our system so our children would know how to work in and run factories. In the 21st century, our children will need to know how to think, to innovate, and to create new solutions for problems and opportunities we cannot even imagine.

Just as so much in our lives today might have passed for science fiction just a couple of decades ago, there’s no way we can predict what the world will be like for our children. All we can do is help them prepare, with the thinking skills, creativity and confidence to handle whatever comes next.

It will take hard work and some sacrifice. As we say in our Vision 2015 publications, “Our children deserve it. And our future demands it.”

William D. Budinger is an inventor who holds more than three dozen patents. He is the founder of Rodel Inc., and founding director of The Rodel Foundation.