America’s Schools Are Getting Their Biggest Overhaul in Living Memory

Friday, March 15, 2013

“This business," says John Demby, the principal (headmaster) of Sussex Tech, a high school in Delaware, “has changed dramatically in a very short period.” This year, like all principals in the state, he is evaluating teachers under a new system for the first time. The state is also adopting a new curriculum for English and maths, the “common core”. That will require changes to the state’s regular computerised tests for students, themselves only three years old. On top of all that, Sussex Tech is launching a scheme to allow students to start accumulating college credits while still in high school. And it is overhauling the vocational training it offers in order to serve local businesses better and to provide students with more useful qualifications.

It is not just Sussex Tech; all Delaware’s schools are undergoing a similar upheaval, thanks to a series of reforms championed by Jack Markell, Delaware’s governor. He has made education reform a centrepiece of his tenure because he sees it as critical to the state’s competitiveness. (It is the states that regulate education in America, although the federal government often tries to bribe them to adopt its pet policies.)

Mr Markell is especially proud of the 100 children at the McIlvaine Early Childhood Centre, a kindergarten in the hamlet of Magnolia, who are being taught exclusively in Mandarin for half of each day. Beneath gaudy paper dragons the five-year-olds adopt poses that mimic the Chinese characters for the numbers one to ten. Barely three months into the school year all of them were able to count to 100 in both English and Chinese, way ahead of curriculum requirements, says the principal.

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