Realizing the Vision
Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff will retire in January, but there are a few more things she’d like to accomplish before she goes.
Valerie Woodruff says the time is right for Vision 2015.
“One of the reasons is that, if you build the momentum
and you show that you really are intent on building a
better system, it would be very hard for the next governor
or the next secretary to say, “Oh no, I don’t think so.”
Photograph by Christian Kaye
Valerie Woodruff will retire in January after serving more than eight years as Delaware’s Secretary of Education.
Woodruff has spent her entire career as an educator. Since she earned her master’s at the
As secretary, Woodruff steered the department through implementation of accountability reform and the federal No Child Left Behind system. As her career winds down, she’s pushing yet another reform—Vision 2015.
Woodruff chose the Sarah Pyle Academy Bistro (the school’s stylish version of a cafeteria) for her lunch interview with Delaware Today.
DT: Give us your assessment of public education in Delaware. What grade should we receive?
VW: I’m not a great believer in giving A to F grades, but I think that at this time, we are doing a better job for more children than we’ve ever done. That’s not to say that we’re doing the best job or that we are doing all that we can. We have been in a very serious process of continuous improvement. Particularly since we began the standards-based reform in the ’90s, which is when I went to the department.
When I first came to the department, I was in charge of all the federal programs, Title I, vocational education and special ed. And then eventually I was in charge of all the curriculum. Then when Governor Carper asked me to step up to this, I said I would because I believe in what we’re trying to do. I think sometimes we’ve gotten a little off-kilter, but I think we’ve also been able to make some adjustments that have made the system better, more fair, more logical for kids in our schools.
I find it interesting sometimes when I realize that I’ve been at the department since 1992. And I never dreamed I would work at the department and I never thought I’d stay that long and never thought I’d be secretary.
People have characterized me, and I think they’re right, I’ve been a change agent wherever I’ve been. I’ve always tried to see, how can I make a difference? And a lot of times then I got involved and then people say, “OK Val, we want you to do this.” I came to the department at the beginning of standards-based reform because I really believed that it was the way we needed to go. We needed to set standards. We needed to put supports in place for teachers and kids because we had been not as focused as we needed to be. I really believed that it was an important initiative for the state to take on.
Then I got involved in the implementation of it. How do we make it fair? How do we make it smart? And then No Child Left Behind came along and to some extent it has been good. And the implementation of that has been an enormous task. Not only for us, but for our districts.
DT: Anyone in your seat is obviously going to receive a fair amount of criticism…
VW: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
DT: How do you view the criticism of DOE and the DSTP during your tenure? For example, DSTP math scores improve, so critics point to low scores in social studies…
VW: Social studies is getting a little better. The focus has been on mostly reading and writing and math. And with NCLB, it really became reading and writing and math. There have been many, many resources put in those areas. And we’ve put a lot of resources in science because we started with a National Science Foundation grant and then we built over time.
In social studies, there has never been that big focus. And there’s never been the ability or the will or resources. We do what we can, but I don’t have a lot of discretionary money where I can say, “Oh, I’m going to put a million over here.” It just isn’t there to do.
I think folks in the state, educators and others who fought the reform and fought accountability earlier, realize now that it’s a reality. It’s not going away. And they have learned to roll with the punches, get in gear and move forward. I think NCLB is something that, again because of the way it’s done, has been problematic and difficult, but it has also helped us push the focus on all kids. It’s also helped us focus on how to qualify teachers and so forth.
So the criticisms of the reform, that’s one thing. But the other piece then, there are those who think I don’t push hard enough. That I don’t come out and say, “Well, the schools ought to be doing this and this and this.” I am not a believer in beating up on people. I think that you get more by encouraging and supporting than you do by getting in a bully pulpit and making statements that are counterproductive. What you do when you go after people is they get angry. They get their backs up. They get defensive. And then you say, Now I want to help you? That doesn’t work at all.
There are those who have been critical because they don’t think I’ve been pushy enough. Well, they don’t know me. Because I think you can be pushy, if you will, but you do it in a way that is more encouraging and saying come on, you need to get these things done. My style is not to stand up and rant. That is just not a good thing.
DT: What is the biggest weakness in the public school system in your view?
VW: Again, I’d rather go to strengths.
DT: I’ll rephrase. What could stand to be improved? There must be priorities that you’re looking at.
VW: I would love for us to find ways to engage kids in their learning so that they see the purpose for being in school. The fact that we have so many of our kids at the middle level who are already tuning out. Then when we have so many kids at the high school level saying, “This isn’t for me.” We really need to find ways to help kids understand the value of education.
I was just reading a report from Public Agenda. It’s a study they did in Kansas and Missouri about the attitudes of parents and kids about taking math and science. The title of it is “But Not for Me.” Kids were saying that math and science is irrelevant. And I’m thinking to myself, Oh my god.
We have to help our kids and our families see the relevance of the course that they’re taking. And that’s not to mean that everything that you study is going to have a direct line to something you do every day. But we have to help our young people see that the education they are receiving is to prepare them for a future. It’s not just to get through it. It’s to prepare. It’s the springboard. And that’s worrisome to me. We’ve got to keep more kids in school. We’ve got to graduate kids who are ready to go into higher ed.—whether it’s four-year, two-year, technical training or the workforce—be productive.
It’s not just content knowledge. It’s not just can you read, write and compute. It’s also can you work with people? Do you know how to behave? Do you know how to dress? Those kinds of soft skills that employers talk about.
That’s probably my greatest concern right now. We have got to do a better job in keeping kids in school. But not just keeping them in to get them through, but to really help them see that their schooling really, really is important.
DT: Is Vision 2015 going to do that?
VW: I think Vision 2015 can do it. But I think it also takes the Reaching Higher for Student Success work that we’ve been doing through a grant we recently received from the Gates Foundation. I think that’s gone a long way toward some of these things.
But in order to make schools more relevant and more effective, we need to provide a curriculum that’s exciting. We also need to help our teachers think about different ways. And our teachers really work hard. They want kids to succeed. But we have an obligation, I think, to provide them the resources and the support they need in order to make it work. It’s not one thing, it’s a combination of many things that need to be done.
The other piece is we have to be thinking about how we can really address the needs of the variety of children we have in our schools a little better.
We have a large influx of English language learners in this state. We need to provide better resources for them. If you want to talk about a weakness in the system… We need to recruit teachers who are bilingual and who can address the needs, particularly of our Hispanic population.
We need to be thinking about how we encourage young people who are our best and brightest to be teachers. I’ve been a teacher for 40 years. I’ve never regretted doing what I do. I should be and people like me should be saying to kids, “You’re a really smart kid. You know what, you ought to be a teacher.” And I’m happy to tell you that I have former students who are.
DT: Why wouldn’t the state undertake something like Vision 2015 on its own?
VW: Let me give you a little history. Early on in our reform, the business community was pretty involved. They were a real catalyst for some of the change that needed to be done.
A couple years ago, several of us got together and talked. I reached out to the state chamber, Jim Wolfe, Skip Schoenhals, people like that. They were interested in getting more involved. And what ended up happening is we have this one-day meeting with them and educators and DSEA and all the usual education groupies and other people from business. We started talking about what could be. And lo and behold out of that one-day meeting came this work on so what could it be. And out of that came Vision 2015.
In my mind, it’s a coalition of people who are really focused on what we need to do to get to the next best level in our reform and to really put our heads together and do what needs to be done to make our system the best.
DT: So the state, on its own, wouldn’t be capable of doing that? It has to be a partnership with business?
VW: I think when you build that coalition of support you’re more likely to be successful than if you’re out there by yourself trying to do it. The more people on board, the more people invested, the more people who care, the more people are talking about it, the more likely it is to gain traction. And that’s what I’m interested in.
And this isn’t about who gets credit. This is about making sure that we are working together and that our focus is on the best public school system that we can build.
DT: But it doesn’t hurt that you’ll be getting money from outside sources.
VW: The Business Roundtable has been generous. In my current fiscal year budget, there are things that are aligned with Vision 2015 that are funded. As I’m preparing for my FY ’09 budget, I’m thinking about what are the things that I need to ask for, given the limited resources that I know are available that will continue the effort and that will continue to support what we’re trying to do with Vision 2015.
Meanwhile, we have been very successful over the last couple years and we have a wonderful grant and we’ve done a lot of work with the Wallace Foundation on school leadership. While some of the Wallace funding—we just got a million and a half in June— is helping us fund the first cohort of training for our Vision network.
On the high school front, we were about to get the NGA-Gates Foundation grant, which is helping push the issues that I’m worried about in high school. But that also is about Vision 2015. See where I’m going?
DT: So, it’s kicking into gear very quickly?
VW: Well, not as quickly as some people would like. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. And if you’re more thoughtful, you end up getting more than if you jump in too fast and then you kind of get the cart before the horse. We have enough of that going on in the world.
Again, there are pieces of it that are going to go faster than others. We have the first cohort of Vision Network schools starting next week. I’m going to go and spend a little time with them and offer support. It’s an exciting opportunity.
DT: So we do have taxpayer money going toward Vision 2015?
VW: Going toward the initiatives that are aligned with it, yes. It’s not Vision 2015, per se. There’s not a line item that says this is for Vision 2015. But there is funding, for example, for early childhood that is very much a tenet of Vision 2015.
DT: As of now, what has the state legislature committed to Vision 2015?
VW: They did pass a resolution in support of Vision 2015. I can’t remember the number of the resolution.
DT: Is that where we need to be at this point?
VW: Well, the fact that they did that, although some may say that’s easy and it’s symbolic, sometimes symbolism goes a long way, you know?
DT: But it’d be nice to have some money come along with the symbolism, right?
VW: Correct. But their support of the work is great. The other piece of that is, before I met with you, I was meeting with representatives of the Boston Consulting Group who are doing this cost efficiency study. Because the governor signed an executive order setting up this LEAD (Leadership for Education Achievement in Delaware) committee and one of the tasks is to do a cost efficiency study like how much money we have and how are we spending it and could we be more efficient, could we be smarter? If we did certain things that would save, then we would have more money to invest. That kind of stuff.
The other thing the LEAD committee will be doing is looking at should we be thinking about a different way of funding our schools. Is the way we do it now the right way or is there a smarter way? And then we’re also working on what the business community would call a dashboard and I call a headline page. What are the most important indicators that need to be published annually about what’s important in schools? We have school report cards now that are mandated by state and federal law, but there are probably some major indicators that would be important to be the front page.
When we do this cost efficiency study and we look at the way we do funding, at some point somebody is going to have to act, and that’s probably going to be the legislature.
Not to say that what we’re doing now is wrong and bad but, is there a better way? Is there a smarter way? And if there is I think we have an obligation to explore it.
DT: So you get standards-based reform off the ground and you continue to hone the DSTP and accountability. Now here comes Vision 2015. Is this good timing?
VW: I think the timing for this is right because we are going to have a renewed effort. We can’t afford to coast. And we cannot rely on No Child Left Behind to get us where we need to be at all. It’s had some positive effect and I’m perfectly willing to concede that, but Vision 2015 is at the right time for us to say, “OK, we’ve done OK. We can do better. And how do we build that coalition to support what needs to be done in order to be better?” That’s a good thing.
DT: I was reading the Vision 2015 website and it points out weaknesses in the current system. I assume that’s to help demonstrate the need for further reform. Being that you’re involved in both, doesn’t that put you in a weird spot?
VW: No. You have to confront reality. The facts are what the facts are. So we can either wring out hands about it, be defensive about it or do something about it. I tend to be a let’s do something about it kind of person.
DT: Are some of the schools already using some of the techniques or approaches of Vision 2015?
VW: In the whole conversation about Vision 2015 there came a realization that there were already a lot of things going on and a lot of things that, if they weren’t happening, they were being planned. So it was like, OK, let’s build on what is underway and let’s think about how we take the good stuff to the next level and how do we do some new things that will enhance and improve and really drive a better system. I think that’s the key there.
DT: Does Vision 2015 threaten everything that’s been done with standards-based reform? Could the DSTP be replaced?
VW: You will always have assessment. It may be called something different, but there will be an assessment.
DT: But the DSTP as we know it may be tweaked, right?
VW: Absolutely and it should. We went out last winter for an RFP that we ended up not being able to do because we didn’t have the money to do it that would have changed the DSTP. I’m a believer that it’s served us well. It’s a good test, but the time has come for us to think about how we could do better.
Now whatever is developed in the future will not be any more popular than what we have now. Even though people will embrace it and say, “Oh, this is better, blah, blah, blah.” When people are being held accountable by an assessment tool, they’re not going to like it. That’s my opinion. And I could be wrong. If I’m wrong, I’ll admit it to you in five years.
DT: Rodel has put $3 million or so into Vision 2015, the Roundtable has contributed a few million. That gets things moving. What will it take to make Vision 2015 happen?
VW: It’s not always money. I spent yesterday with people from the Ontario school system. One of the people made the comment that you have to have the will and the skill to make things happen, to get better. And I think sometimes it isn’t about money, it’s about will. That’s not to say that money isn’t a good thing. But I think part of what Vision 2015 can do is also build the will both within the education system and within the community for us to continue down this road to be the best, to not let ourselves coast, to not be complacent because that’s a dangerous place to be.
DT: Can Vision 2015 get to where it needs to be without a state commitment, funding-wise?
VW: Probably not. But I don’t know that we need to. Again, there’s money, but there’s also will. And I think one of the reasons is that I’ve been very supportive of this cost efficiency study is to make sure we are using our dollars as wisely as possible. A lot of districts will say, well, if we had more flexibility, we could do better, blah, blah, blah. Well let’s figure that out.
I think there are going to be some new monies that are going to be needed. For example, one of the things we are doing right now is we are working on a plan for a virtual school. That’s going to require some money. And the state’s going to have to step up to that. If not this year, then if we really want it, they’re going to have to step up and put some dollars into it. Because it can’t happen on shoestring and be quality. And I don’t want to do it if it’s not quality.
DT: So Rodel and The Roundtable can’t float it alone?
VW: No, they can’t. And shouldn’t.
DT: Could the next governor come along and not like Vision 2015 and put the kibosh on it?
VW: They could.
DT: There are some very influential people behind Vision, but the next governor could still affect things. How do you see that playing out?
VW: One of the reasons I think the timing is right for Vision 2015 is that if you build the momentum and you show that you really are intent on building a better system, it would be very hard for the next governor or the next secretary to say, “Oh no, I don’t think so.” Now they may find a different way to support it or whatever, but I think that when you are looking at what is good for young people and what is good for the state. And while all the things that are in Vision 2015 may not come to pass exactly the way it’s laid out right now, certainly no one can argue with the idea that we ought to do it or that we ought to improve it.
DT: Not to dwell on negatives, but what are the potential pitfalls right now? What else could stop it?
VW: I think if the people who were part of building the vision begin to splinter off, that could be harmful because we don’t always all agree. But what we’ve been able to do is to agree on certain tenets and be willing to figure out how to make those things real in a way that is, although different people may be uncomfortable, you know, suffer some discomfort in certain ways. A little discomfort is not a bad thing.
The thing that’s most important to me is that the people who invested such time and energy—and believe me there has been a lot of time and thought put into this—hang together. Because it’s an opportunity that can’t be missed. It’s about kids. It’s not even about these kids. It’s about kids who are in elementary school.
We were sitting in a meeting and I was thinking about the time frame—2015—and we need to get there by then. And I thought 2015 isn’t soon enough. My granddaughter will graduate in 2015. I want it now. We can’t wait and have it all come at Vision 2015. We’ve got to build and strengthen now.
DT: What if the new governor wants to go a different way? What do you see as your role in Vision 2015?
VW: I’m retiring in January 2009.
DT: So you’re going to see it through to that point and then go enjoy life?
VW: Yup. Not be running to 42 meetings in a day. It’s the time in my life to do it. I’m at retirement age. I’m 63. I’ll be 65 in April of ’09. I’m committed to this reform. There’s been so much that we’ve been able to accomplish. I look back and see the things we accomplished and I’m very proud of it, but there are two or three things that I still want to get laid out before I leave.
DT: So when Governor Minner goes, you go.
DT: Heck, then you have nothing to worry about.
VW: Personally, I don’t. If people want to take shots at me, they’ve been doing it all these years. Let them keep at it. I don’t care. I mean I do care, it does affect you, but, like I told my students when I taught, “Look, the thing I want you to believe when you leave my classroom is that I was fair, that I respected you and that you learned something. That’s it. And if you like me, good."