Education’s Systemic Change Requires Parents and Community Involvement

Posted on 04-09-2023

By Ron Russo, Founding President, Charter School of Wilmington & Former Principal, St. Mark’s High School

Everyone who lives or works in Delaware is affected by the state’s public school system.  Currently, our public schools adversely impact the state’s economy by making it difficult to attract and retain businesses, increasing taxes, lowering property values, etc.  It causes some people to move across the state line resulting in an annual loss of an estimated one billion dollars in taxes and local purchases of goods and services. 

In 1995 a business consortium, led by the large business, identified the problem as the existing school system of school boards and bureaucracies.  You can be a great race car driver but if you are given a tricycle to drive you won’t be setting any new speed records!  Vehicles and systems matter.  A new way of thinking about the learning experience was needed to enhance performance.  “Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” so said Albert Einstein.  The Consortium proposed Charter Schools. The State concurred and adopted a law to provide for Charter Schools.  Introducing Delaware’s Charter:

The purpose of charter schools is to “…improve public education said, “The objective of charter schools is to replace rules-based governance with performance-based accountability, thereby stimulating the creativity and commitment of teachers, parents, and citizens.”  State Superintendent Ferguson stated, “Charter Schools would empower local communities to try new, unique solutions to problems facing their own schools…”

The components of the learning experience have been separated and their specific functions described.  Teaching is a profession but education is a business whose purpose is to support teaching.  Parents are the customers who hold schools accountable.

Charters were never intended to replace the traditional schools. But were intended to model an independent operating system that all public schools could eventually adopt.  Ferguson, who was the co-author of the Charter Law, never wanted many charter schools.  He said that would create excessive, wasteful, and inefficient building capacity.  However, “Charters proliferated in a way never intended or anticipated.” Delaware Today Magazine, August, 2015.

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By Ron Russo, Founding President, Charter School of Wilmington & Former Principal, St. Mark’s High School’

The first charter school successfully employed an independent operating system eventually being ranked among America’s 100 best public schools by U.S. News and World Report.  It had the state’s highest paid teachers using a school-wide performance bonus program and had accumulated an operating surplus in excess of $3 million after the first 14 years.  All applicants were accepted the first three years but applications then exceeded capacity requiring the use of acceptance preferences demonstrating an interest in the math and science focus of the school.

Dr. Gary Miron of the Western Michigan Evaluation Center was hired by the state to conduct a three-year study of Delaware’s charter schools.  He reported, “…the Charter School of Wilmington students were outperforming their counterparts at similarly matched traditional public schools in both reading and math.”  

Systemic change implementation will require preparation.  Principals may not teach a single student but they are responsible for educating all of them.  Current and aspiring principals will need professional development to manage their new and broader responsibilities.  Local colleges and universities could help by offering an MBA degree in Education Administration.  Legislation will be needed to shift decision-making authority, the essence of administration, to personnel in the individual buildings enabling schools to be customized rather than standardized.

The Hoover Institution and Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way”, identified parents as the single most influential factor in a student’s academic performance.  It was crucial that parents show an interest in education.  This could be done simply by frequently asking the student questions about school.  What did you do today?  What’s coming up?  The responses (if any) aren’t significant!  It’s the inquiries that do the job.

Any credible education program must contain a parental component.  Parents must be participants in the learning process even if that participation is just showing an interest.  However, it may be necessary to teach some parents about the value of a good education to the successful future of their kids.  Parents will no longer have to wait for board meetings to voice their concerns.  They can bring them directly to the principal who will have the decision-making authority to address them.

Systemic change can lead to other modifications.  If school boards and bureaucracies are limited to oversight responsibilities, do we need 19 school districts?  Should school choice be expanded?  Should funding formulas be reviewed and poverty considered as a special need?   As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress, without change, is impossible.”

Essentially everything can be summed up in a single sentence….  Additional information can be found at a TED X TALK, “ted x Wilmington education is a business”.

Ron Russo,

Founding President, Charter School of Wilmington

Former Principal, St. Mark’s High School