School District students' performance has shown
marked improvement during the past five years, but
superintendent Bruce Harter said there still is a
considerable ways to go before he and district
residents should be satisfied.
"We'll never get to the point
where 100% [of the students] meet the [state] standards, but
we can get a lot closer than we are now," he told Delaforum.
"I'm pleased with the progress we've made. I'm looking
forward to accelerating the rate at which improvement
In a detailed and candid
presentation at a recent school board meeting and during a
subsequent interview with Delaforum, Harter attempted to cut
through the maze of published data on both the state and
federal levels to to come up with a straight answers to the
questions: Are we improving? If so, how much?
In summary, the answers are
yes and "not as much as we would like."
On the plus side:
Overall performance, as
measured by what Harter calls "the Brandywine School Index,
our Dow Jones of learning," went up by between 21 and 37
'points' in third, fifth, eighth and 10th grade scores on
Delaware State Testing Program scores. The district index is
the sum of the average scores in reading, mathematics and
writing, the three subject areas that the state tests.
The greatest rate of
achievement was among high school students. Starting from a
35-'point' lower base in 2001, they came in about 18 'points'
lower this year.
The achievement gap between
African-American and Hispanic students and white and Asian
students was narrowed from 109 'points' to 86 'points' during the same period. Both
groups showed improvement, with the gap narrowed the
greatest among third-graders.
The gap between
special-education students and 'typical' ones also narrowed
by a considerable degree with third-graders also accounting
for the most narrowing. Special-education students are
measured against the same standards, Harter pointed out.
On the down side:
fifth-graders lagged well behind that of the other grades.
Brandywine's rate of
improvement lagged behind other top-performing districts in
the state with comparative ranking having slipped in each of
the four grades. Those comparisons were among the five
leading districts, which were not the same for each grade.
"I'm quite pleased with the
honesty and maturity" which Harter's presentation at the
board meeting demonstrated, board president Craig Gilbert
Board member Nancy Doorey
praised Harter for "having the courage to bring it all out."
Few, if any, school superintendents would be willing to talk
so openly in public, she said.
Brandywine board meetings of
late have been sparsely attended and those who do come out
mostly have a direct connection with schools or a specific
item on the agenda. The district, however, has scheduled an
open-to-the-public 'state of our schools' presentation on
"I feel we need to tell the
public the truth. ... While we're improving, we're not
improving as rapidly as we would like. We want the public to
understand the level of challenge," Harter said.
His presentation to the board served as a prelude to developing a basis for a community
taskforce next to recommend a strategic plan for the years
beyond 2007. The plan also would serve to frame the
provisions of a tax referendum expected in the spring of
In the interview with
Delaforum Harter said the Delaware State Testing Program has
reached a point where valid comparative data is available to
measure both progress and accountability. While student
learning is measured against state standards, results in
meeting those standards is a guide for professional
development, he said.
In that regard, he said an
effort is underway to determine why Brandywine fifth-graders
are apparently lagging. "We're not exactly sure. Is our
staff teaching to the state standards? Are they using
instructional strategies that are proven effective?," he
The Delaware standards, he
said, are "not the toughest [in the nation], but are more
rigorous than many other states'." What is more significant
is that, unlike tests traditionally used in the past to
measure how much course content a student has grasped,
current testing is skill-oriented and measures
That has not sat well among
some segments of the public and politicians as some results
of the federal No Child Left Behind Act have emerged.
Harter's view is that "overall, it's a good law."
"It sets targets for yearly
progress," he said. "One of the better things about [it] is
that it forces us to look at [specific] groups of our
To be judged as meeting
progress goals a school must do so not only for its student
body as a whole but also for whites, blacks, Asian,
Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, English language
learners and special education students.
To meet the
adequate-year-progress goals for the 2005-06 academic year
62% of students in each category must meet state standards
in reading and 41% in mathematics. The high school
graduation rate goal is 78%. Those percentages will be
increased for each of the next several years.
All of Brandywine's
kindergarten-through-third-grade schools met the targets
during the 2005-05 year and were rated 'superior'. Harlan
Intermediate was rated 'commendable'.
What is not measured in the
widely reported statistics but is showing up in Brandywine,
Harter said, is an increase in the proportion of students
taking higher-level courses. Moreover, as that goes up, the
number of discipline problems goes down. During the past
year, "94% of our students were not involved in any serious
disciplinary incident," he said.
While the intent is to
improve performance relative to other school districts and
to private schools, Harter said there should not be
overconcern about 'slippage' in that regard.
"What we're doing is
comparing ourselves with the districts which have shown the
most improvement. ... We think that, when [state education]
reform started in the late 1990s, Brandywine was focused on
a lot of other things," he said. "Only in the past four
years have we become focused on such things as professional
development and closing the achievement gap." Harter became
superintendent in July, 2001.
"We're a very good school
district. With at a point where we have the right staff, the
right set of goals and the right degree of community support
to be an even better school district," he said.