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Dr. Lillian M. Lowery, Delaware’s Secretary of Education, credits her commitment to education to her 10th grade English teacher, Ms. Holloway. Were the beloved teacher to be evaluated today, she might not measure up to Lowery’s standards for teacher effectiveness. Just the same, the teacher made an impact on Lowery and, as a spokesperson for one of only two states to win in the first round of the Race to the Top competition in March 2010, Lowery is dedicated to teacher-leader effectiveness, policy and collaboration as drivers of sustainable education reform in Delaware.

The Hechinger Report’s Sarah Butrymowicz and Susan Sawyers spoke with Dr. Lowery earlier this month at the Hechinger Institute’s McGraw Seminar for Reporters New to the Education Beat.

A transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity, follows.

How will Race to the Top funding change education in Delaware?

Lillian Lowery
Dr. Lillian Lowery

Lowery: We will be able to build a structure – the foundation for school reform that will be sustained over time. We do not want to start something that is really, really good and not have the buy-in to successfully continue it.

What are some of these reforms?

Lowery: One of the things is tying teacher-leader effectiveness to student growth. We have all of the teachers sitting in the room with us, helping us define which indicators of success are fair. And this will give us the information that we need for our students to demonstrate growth, and it also brings us around a common vocabulary, common language, common vision and mission that will really refine what this Race to the Top opportunity really means.

What lessons can other states learn from your experience?

Lowery: Collaboration. It does not mean that we agree on everything every day. But, we are really pleased that we keep everyone at the table, we can look at each other eye-to-eye, talk about the why and the how. If we disagree, we understand why the decision was made and we can plan forward in a way that will keep all the stakeholders informed about the initiatives, and why we have to do what we have to do.

I think that collaboration is huge. It’s not necessarily a synonym for everybody holds hands and sings “Kumbaya.” It’s thoughtful people sitting down and doing thoughtful work.

What are some of the biggest challenges in terms of collaboration?

Lowery: For our state to be able to collaborate far better than others, we are a small state, we can get to each other quickly. I believe that the communication piece – when we won in March – we were getting ready for our state assessment, and it was the end of the school year, communications and getting out to the masses, getting to all of our teachers to understand what this does and what it means to them and how they are going to be integral in it. A huge piece that we are working on now is our internal and external communications so we can make sure that people understand what this is and how they can participate.

Speaking of teacher effectiveness, was there a teacher that had an impact on your decision to become a teacher?

Lowery: Until I got to 10th grade, I was going to become an attorney.

My 10th grade English teacher, Ms. Holloway, was the most phenomenal person. Given the five areas where you have to look at classroom environment, instruction, preparation and planning, professional responsibility: She probably didn’t get As on preparation and planning. But, we would have a homework assignment to read the first act of Hamlet and we would walk in the classroom and there she was … All dressed in character, it was the most amazing thing.

It was that year with that teacher that I decided I wanted to become a high school English teacher.

Lillian Lowery

[Lowery taught middle and high school English for 13 years  in school districts in Virginia and North Carolina. Prior to her appointment as Delaware’s Secretary of Education, she served as Superintendent of the Christina School District in Wilmington-Newark, Delaware. Before her tenure as superintendent, she was an assistant superintendent for Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Virginia, and an area administrator for Fort Wayne Community Schools in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Her administrative experiences include positions as a high school principal, minority student achievement monitor and assistant principal with Fairfax County Public Schools.]

As a Round One Race to the Top winner, do you think Race to the Top is the way to have reform in education in America?

Lowery: Every state is going to do it differently because politics are local, but it has started a national conversation, a statewide conversation – and even if people don’t agree with all of it, this is energizing to have a public national conversation around education reform.

Given the economy, and budget cuts in education, is this the time to reform education?

Lowery: I don’t believe we have a choice. Our children are depending on us. We’ve got to reform education. In the State of Delaware alone, one-third of our students are attending schools that are persistently low-achieving. It doesn’t mean that they all are. We can’t put this on hold. Absolutely, this is the right time [for reform].

What should reform look like?

Lowery: In an ideal world, people are sitting at tables with those folks who matter – the teacher is the most critical piece of all of this, they are the ones in the classroom every day. Strong leaders [are necessary] to give them the support that they need, to make sure the resources are there and they move all the white noise out of the way. Local boards, state boards, legislators – everyone has to understand that Rome did not fall in a night, but it fell.

If the USA doesn’t do something very quickly about our system of public education where at least four-fifths of our children are being educated, we are going to be doomed for mediocrity that will impact us in a negative way as a nation. This is about our country because our most precious resources are those students. If we don’t fix this and give them the skills that they need, we are dooming our nation to years and years of heartbreak.

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