Delaware education secretary talks common core, teacher pay, and learning [video]

     Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy (NewsWorks/file)

    Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy (NewsWorks/file)

    Murphy touched on teacher pay, priority schools, and the transition to Common Core in his sitdown with WHYY/Newsworks.

    In his recent State of the State address, Governor Jack Markell referred often to education and its power to transform Delaware’s economy.

    “To thrive in this new era—to seize the opportunities of the future—we must expand our workforce and rethink how we train Delawareans,” Markell said.

    The man responsible for carrying out that vision is Mark Murphy, the governor’s secretary of education. A former teacher, principal, and nonprofit executive, Murphy joined the cabinet in 2012 after his predecessor, Lillian Lowery, took an equivalent post in Maryland. He’s made headlines recently for his decision to shutter two charter schools, spare two more on the brink, and implement a much-debated turnaround plan at six Wilmington schools.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    And that was just the last few months. Next year should bring more policy pushes and, most likely, more policy push back.

    WHYY/Newsworks sat down with Murphy for an on-camera interview to discuss his priorities for 2015.

    Murphy on…his priorities

    Murphy outlined three priorities for the year ahead: rolling out Common Core, boosting staff supports, and improving outcomes at struggling schools.

    Delaware introduces a new state test this year that will be aligned with Common Core standards. That means new, tougher questions—and likely lower test scores.

    “When we look at the work educators are doing this year, their implementation of assessments, of curriculum, and of the way that they teach in alignment with the common core standards is critical for our students,” Murphy said. “Our teachers have been working on this for years. And they will continue to work on it and focus on it this year. It is a very high priority for us.”

    Murphy also wants to change the way Delaware compensates its teachers. Right now, degree status and seniority largely determine pay.

    Then there are Delaware’s struggling schools. In September, the department of education identified six priority schools—all in Wilmington, all serving mostly low-income children, and all plagued by low test scores.

    The state wants to provide extra resources to those schools, but only if local school districts agree to big changes in how those schools are run. “Right now we are focused on ensuring that those schools are on the best possible trajectory to serve their children,” Murphy said.

    Murphy on…priority schools

    Asked whether the state had moved too fast to implement the controversial priority schools initiative, Murphy was unequivocal.

    “We absolutely have not moved too fast,” he said. “At the end of the day our job is to meet the needs of our students and we need to act urgently and with purpose in that environment.”

    Murphy also rebuffed suggestions that the state has pushed priority schools in order to satisfy federal overseers.

    “We make our decisions about what is best in terms of moving this process forward,” Murphy said.

    He admitted that the “work is contained in our ESEA waiver.” That waiver allows the state certain autonomy in how it spends federal money, despite the fact that Delaware—like every other state—has not met its obligations under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

    But Murphy insisted that the federal government was not twisting his arm in any way, and that he supports the priority schools initiative fully. “I don’t think we in Delaware have to ask the question of whether the federal government is forcing us to turn around our lowest performing schools,” Murphy said. “Wouldn’t we as the citizens of this state and the leaders in this space say that we have children who are struggling in these schools and it’s our responsibility–our responsibility here in Delaware–to meet their needs?”

    Murphy on…Common Core

    As Delaware students prepare to take their first state test aligned with Common Core, Murphy said support for the standards remains high.

    “Our teachers tell us over and over and over again that this is the right work,” Murphy said.

    He insisted that the results of the new tests should be viewed in context, even if, as expected, scores plummet.

    “This is not about a drop in test scores,” Murphy said. “This is an academic checkup and it is setting a baseline that is based on college and career readiness standards.”

    Murphy on…Race to the Top

    Five years after it become one of the first two states to win Race to the Top money from the federal government, Delaware has entered the reflection stage.

    “When we assess Race to the Top it is really about saying: What’s the next chapter for Delaware,” Murphy said.

    The state is nowhere near meeting many of the specific goals it outlined in its original Race to the Top application. And with time growing short, it seems unlikely Delaware will hit predetermined targets for student test scores and graduation rates.

    Asked whether Race to the Top didn’t work as well as expected, Murphy deflected.

    “This is not about saying whether Race to the Top was a success or a failure,” he said. This is about saying what is the next chapter for Delaware and how do we continue to serve our children?”

    He said he was glad the state set ambitious goals and that he would not shy away from student achievement benchmarks. But he also insisted that Delaware is on a good, long-term trajectory and that Race to the Top furthered those efforts.

    “We have seen progress. We see it every single day in our schools and we certainly see it year over year,” he said.

    Murphy on…testing

    The U.S. Congress is busy debating whether the federal government should require certain amounts of standardized testing.

    However that debate unfolds, it’s unlikely to change Delaware’s approach. Murphy said the state needs standardized tests to keep tabs on educational progress.

    “They provide us information and they help us to guide our policy decisions and our resource decisions,” Murphy said. “Most importantly they provide an academic check-up for kids, for parents, and for educators. And those people deserve that information about how our educational system is working.”

    Murphy on…charter school accountability

    It’s been a turbulent few months for Delaware charter schools. The state plans to close two charter schools at the end of the school year. Both sued to stay open, and one still has a case pending.Meanwhile, two others schools nearly met the ax, but received conditional reprieves.

    Murphy said the state is committed to increased charter oversight, even with the blow back it generates.

    “We made that commitment years ago,” he said. “What we are doing now is making good on that commitment. We are acting. We are renewing charters or holding them accountable based on their performance with their children.”

    Murphy on…teacher compensation

    “I’m very hopeful in the next few months we will have a proposal to consider as a state.”

    Murphy’s optimism, in this case, applied to teacher pay. The secretary wants to raise starting teacher salaries and install new pay scales so that talented instructors stay in the classroom instead of taking more lucrative jobs as administrators. Such a change would challenge tenure and degree-status as the primary determinants of pay.

    Murphy sits on a legislative task force that is mulling the issue. Asked whether money might be an obstacle to reform, Murphy said he didn’t think dollars and cents were the main hurdle. Instead, he suggested that the task force simply needed time to consider all options.

    “I’m proud to be involved in a state that is willing to have that conversation,” Murphy said. “We’re taking the appropriate amount of time to do the due diligence necessary to address a system that has been in place for decades.”

    Murphy…on learning

    Much of Murphy’s life revolved around the macro—political debates, policy decisions, and the like.

    But the former teacher and parent of two still has strong opinions about what works in the classroom and how to spark a love of learning.

    Of young students, Murphy said, “They have to believe that you get smart through hard work and you get smart through effective effort. You’re not born smart. You get smart. “

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal